India in a Day was a dream project: Richie Mehta

Richie Mehta and India in a Day were a match made in cinema heaven. Just like star-crossed lovers, it seems the film found the right filmmaker to make it. Produced by Ridley Scott and with Anurag Kashyap as executive producer India’s largest crowdsourced documentary is the story of a single day in India, October 10th 2015.

Born out of a unique partnership between Ridley Scott’s Scott Free UK and Google, a film by Indians and about India today, it invited participants to narrate their stories and did they ever; submitting more than 16,000 videos, containing over 365 hours footage. In an indepth conversation with Filmicafe, Richie Mehta shares on the mammoth task of unravelling the web of footage to paint a compelling portrait of an evolving India, today.

What was the exceptional challenge of taking on a film like this? Why did you agree to do it?

I agreed to do it because it was a dream project for me. It came along and was offered to me by Scott Free films as an initiative they had with Google. Honestly when they told me what they wanted to do, for me it was a dream project. I couldn’t believe that there was actually a job for something like this because I probably would have it for free. I felt like I was training the last few decades for something like this. 

We were put together as a team. It was a whole new world for me because I was working in London. To be thrown into a project that is of this scale and not necessarily even know who you’re going to be working with. Thankfully we all got along but you never know until you get into the trenches. But then what was so special about it, was the process of actually writing the film based on the footage that you are given. I’ve never had anything like it before and probably will never have anything like it again. To know that you have no idea what you are getting into. You don’t know the scale of it, the content of it or anything until you are too far into it to step out. 

You were both witness and participant in directing this film. How special was that?

It was very special. I was in Delhi on Oct 10th last year so I did shoot my day as well and some of the stuff is in the film. As a caveat, I made sure I wasn’t the one who chose that footage. I didn’t want to take away from what other people were submitting. That is the kind of working relationship I had with the editor. She was so good and bought so much to it. I said if you think this relevant then choose it and we’ll shape it together. So there are parts where I feel you know yes these were bits of my day here and there but it’s not necessarily autobiographical that way; it’s observational about stuff I feel strongly about. It was special to go through the process and know that shepherding other people’s footage and yours is in there too. You are just trying to find a common ground for it thematically. Does it fit in one thrust? Is it relevant? It was complicated but it was also very exciting. It was such a pleasure everyday to wake up and have to think about it.

When you have to work with what has been submitted, is that lack of control, liberating or constraining as a filmmaker?

It really is in a way going with the flow. Once we got into it, it took us months to just watch the footage. We ourselves couldn’t watch all of it, we had team of people watching it and then it trickled up to us. We quality checked everything so it was a very elaborate process. After that it became an editing process. There was stuff that I really loved and was attached to you. Then you get into your discussions and mini arguments as to why you want to keep things and cut things so it became the regular process of film making which was truly fascinating. Individually we started to get passionate to get passionate about things that we hadn’t shot but took ownership over because we felt so strongly about. 

Almost 400 hours of submitted footage, that’s quite a monumental editorial job. What was the editing process like, where do you even start? 

We had teams of people watching the footage, rating it on of scale of 1 to 5 from amazing to not that amazing at all. We’d get the 3s, 4s and 5s to look at. I would always go back and look at the 1s and 2s just to make sure that we didn’t lose things. These were by the way clips that were submitted with no order. If somebody submitted 500 clips because they kept pushing start and stop on their phone, those clips were scattered in the database and we couldn’t cross reference who did which clip. So if we liked one clip, we would type in the name of the person who did it and we’d see everything else submitted by them but often times a clip shot by a person would get rated very low because it was just a 2 second clip as a part of 500 others which had no meaning and could have slipped through the cracks. If we were fortunate enough to discover that 1 clip out of that 500 which was really fascinating, we’d go back and check who is the person that shot it and what they were trying to get across through their footage. It would be out of order so we had to put together what we think they were trying to say. In a way it was kind of like detective work.

Was there an overarching idea or theme you kept in mind, when piecing the film together?

We did propose some questions when we did the call out videos to people like, ‘what are your thoughts on evolving India?' How has it changed and how is it moving in a certain direction?’ Some people did talk about their idea of evolution while others just shot their day. That to me is an overriding theme. We didn’t just get footage that said ‘Oh India is moving in a wonderful direction.’ We got footage that questioned the nature of the progress the country is making. I believe that is a really relevant question for everyone to ask anywhere in the world. 

When you asked people in India to film 'what a normal day in India' is like, what were you surprised to find about India today?

I was surprised by many things. I was awed by how beautifully shot and sophisticatedly filmed the footage that came in was, that is a technical aspect. What ideologically surprised me was how much humour there was coming from people and that’s related to the second point which is even more important. We received no footage from what you and I would call the ‘economically wealthy class.’ Not one single piece of footage and that to me is very interesting. On the one end there were people who had something to say and went out of their way to say it as opposed to I suppose people who didn’t have anything to say. I don’t know if it is a question of ‘we are happy with status quo and leave us alone’ or something else; it was really fascinating to me.

 As an Indo Canadian filmmaker what do you feel you brought to the film?

There was a specific reason they asked me to do this based on the previous work I’ve done. I suppose it has something to do with the nature of what I’ve done before. My films have an element of entertainment but they are also about the use of cinematic language to say and do something which has meaning behind it. Looking at it from an outside gaze maybe it had to do with me not necessarily being attached to a certain Indian point of view. Ofcourse my background is Punjabi and all of that but at the same time I am still trying to figure out India, it is a real life project for me. Maybe they recognized that in my work too. This person is spending their entire life trying to figure this place out and that is what this film is also about. 

Anurag Kashyap is the executive producer, Zoya Akhtar, R. Balki and Shekhar Kapur are credited as creative consultants. What did mean to have them support the film? How involved were they?

Anurag has executive produced a ton of projects over the years. He was very respectful of the vision I had as a director, the direction I felt I wanted to go in and was there when we needed him. Then it became about feedback, what do you think? what’s your perspective? Shekhar, Balki and Zoya were more involved in getting the word out in India; doing call out videos and promoting it. Later on if we needed them to look at stuff, they would willingly oblige. Shekhar particularly was very eager. He is all about expressing yourself in any way you feel is pertinent, he is one of my heroes. They are all cinematic stalwarts and to have them watching your work, talking to you about it and engaging in that way was a dream come true but at the same time it was also work; very clinical and methodical.   

How did you determine the narrative flow of the film and the beats you wanted to cover in terms of telling the story of India in a Day?

A lot of that had to do with working with Beverley Mills, the editor. She is a genius. I worked with her to figure out how we are going to unfold this, what are trying to say. I wrote pages and pages of stuff based on the footage we had seen and shared with her what I felt was relevant and interesting. We would have these long talks, and then she would go off and come back with what about this and what about that? 99.9 percent of the time she was right if not nailing it. It was a real back and forth with her. It was an extremely fulfilling experience.

We live in a generation of video diarists. How has filmmaking changed in this age of connectedness and technology?

People are so savvy and familiar now with cinematic language. They may not know how to write or edit something to make it more potent because editing and writing aren’t things that have necessarily evolved that much over the filmmaking spectrum in the last 100 years. In terms of telling a narrative story those are skills you have to sit down, hone and really work on. As technology has changed and people are practising shooting stuff all over the place, they have become so informed about how to read and interpret the visual storytelling style that our game as filmmakers has to be upped a great deal especially stuff involving issues. 

Here you have people who just speak to the camera and address issues in such an eloquent, genuine and honest way far more potently than most filmmakers do these days. To me that is a bit of a call to action. If people can do this by themselves and we still want to continue in the communication business and make it our livelihoods, we have to make it extremely sophisticated and potent.

To the unacquainted, how would you describe life in a day in India today?

(Laughs) The best answer I can give to that is within the film itself. One of things we have talked about in the film is we can’t distill it down to one phrase or statement especially verbally. It is so complicated, it is so varied; tragic and funny. I know it sounds like a pitch for a movie but it kind of is. I can’t actually sum it up. I can make the correlation that what is happening in the film is what is happening in humanity. India is one of the only countries in the world that has gone to Mars, which is a huge achievement technologically and yet you have places that are a thousand years in the past. So you have that juxtaposition in one country which is reflective of the juxtaposition of humanity. It shows how far we’ve come and how far we still have to come.