Interview with Director of Patang - Prashant Bhargava

How did you cast and work with the kids in the film?
During my visits to Ahmedabad over the years to research the movie, I had befriended several kids—played with them, flew kites with them, got to know their families. Each year, I was certain I had found our lead child actor. But when I returned the next year, they had grown and changed.

A few months prior to the shoot, our casting department selected sixty children. Eventually, we conducted a workshop with twelve children. We played theater games to build trust, discipline and freedom in front of the camera. Many of the children had seen adversity in their past, yet their smiles and laughter were pure. We chose Hamid as our lead child actor, because he was so effortless in front of the camera; he had an uncanny
wisdom and persistence in his expression.

During the shoot, we never shared the script with the kids. I would just give them physical tasks. For instance, I would direct Hamid to catch ten cut kites as they fell from the skies above. He’d run through traffic, revel as he caught one, fight with rickshaw drivers as he darted in front of them.

The kids never acted; they were always themselves. Their work shines in the film and sets the bar for the performances by the established actors. Working with the kids was amongst the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences of my life. I learned so much from them as a human being and director.

Discuss your approach to shooting PATANG and the film’s cinematography.
During the three years of research, we accumulated over 100 hours of research footage. We would sit for hours with a camera in hand on a corner, in a shop, in a home or on a rooftop. Beautiful stories would unfold as we silently observed. We slowly let go of our preconceptions. By the third year, we were orchestrating locals to naturally enact scenes of the film. The visual language originated from this immersion and observation.

I was fortunate to collaborate with Shanker Raman (Harud, Peepli Live), our director of photography. He took a leap of faith, embracing the uncertainty inherent in the process. He has a peaceful aura about him on the shoot more akin to a documentary cinematographer. I communicated with him as I would with an actor, providing emotional objectives rather than framing.

We did whatever we could to help the actors to forget about the presence of the cameras. We shot in natural light for the daytime scenes, during early morning or late afternoon. For interior and nighttime scenes, Shanker designed lighting setups that allowed the actors to move freely.

Both Shanker and I were shooting with small HD cameras, so we could do long takes upward of forty minutes. Many times we found ourselves pushing one another out of the way. As time progressed we developed our own rhythm with the actors. Shanker focused on the overall coverage of the drama, and I would capture small moments and experiment freely. We had an unspoken sense of when the magic would occur.

Discuss your process working with composer Mario Grigorov of the Oscar-nominated film Precious to create the film’s score.
Mario Grigorov (Precious, Taxi to the Dark Side) was a blessing, a joy to work with; his palate is incredibly diverse. My vision was to create a theme-driven score that tied together the fate of all the characters. We began in a novel way. We sat together for a week and composed the entire score together on the piano. We developed a theme and melodies that highlighted the journey of the kite and the troubled past of the family. Mario led musicians in improvisations based on these melodies—little of the piano remained in the final score. Mario's work brought depth and clarity to the narrative.

We then collaborated with legendary vocalist Shubha Mudgal for the final two pieces of the score. After we discussed the emotional journey of each scene with her, she sang atop Mario’s melodies remotely from India. Her voice is delightful and soulful, guiding the destinies of the characters.

Discuss the process behind editing PATANG.
Scenes were not rehearsed; they were improvised largely with non-actors and shot hand-held in long takes, without the conventional over-the-shoulder or master shots. As a result, the edit was a two-year process of distilling and constructing a scripted narrative from 200 hours of documentary-like footage. Just watching the footage took over a month. We would have more than a hundred minutes of footage for each minute of screen time. It was a joy in retrospect but very difficult being in a room by myself.

I began by constructing those scenes with major plot points and then proceeded to the transitional scenes. I would make small discoveries, pulling a shot from here, splicing it with a magic moment there, and then returning to the overall structure. Eventually the edit captured the narrative of the original script.

During the last two months of the process, I worked with the talented editor Joe Klotz (Precious, Rabbit Hole, Junebug) to cut down the two-and-a-half-hour rough cut. We’d go back and forth, revising the larger structure, pacing scenes, preserving the environment and the voice of the film.

The editing was challenging, but it was the part of the process where I grew most as a director.

Which filmmakers have inspired you?
My inspirations... the poetry and depth of the work of Satyajit Ray, Terrence Malick and Lynne Ramsay. The visual flair of Wong Kar-Wai. The naturalistic dramas of Mike Leigh and the Dardenne brothers. I love the work of Jia Zhangke. I could go on forever.

What was the response of the community in which you filmed PATANG when they saw the finished film?
Returning to Ahmedabad to share the film with our cast and crew and the community was a magical experience. I felt honored and humbled when people from Ahmedabad embraced the film as their own story.

Audience members remarked how the film gave their lives and city an identity and a voice and captured the living heritage of their home.

The passion we sought to communicate with the film filled the air as we screened it and then celebrated the kite festival together. So many lives have been affected during the journey of making this film. I hold the memories and the friendships very dear. Sheer family and love.

What are the challenges of making the kind of cinema you would like to make?
We broke every possible rule in making this film. We created a subtle, understated family drama. We shot in a foreign language for the international market. We shot using hand-held cameras with no storyboards, doing improvised takes with largely non-actors.

The crew had to take a leap of faith. We chose to work within the community and preserve the simple and natural beauty found within Ahmedabad's old city. So often during the process, we were told that what we were trying to do was crazy. And it was. Yet somehow we managed to persevere and make it happen.

Sangam was at Sundance in 2004. Why did Patang take six years to make?
I sought to make a film about family, the power of celebration and Ahmedabad. I had to observe, feel and live the story. Research and writing took three years. I discovered the story by collecting 100 hours of research footage - interviewing residents of the old city or members of my family, sitting in kite shops for hours, experiencing the kite festival. I felt the cut of the manja on my own hands.

It is a delicate and time-consuming process, especially for someone like myself who grew up on the south side of Chicago. Securing financial support to do the film our way took time. We sought funding from private individuals who believed in my prior work and the message of the film. The trade-off of working independently versus working with a production studio is a trade-off of time and limited resources versus answering to many. We chose to take the long route.

Tell us about your earliest and most powerful experiences of India and what stayed with you.
My father was a consultant for the health care industry , my mother founded Apna Ghar, a battered women's shelter in America. We would visit India every year or two. For the first 18 years of my life, the India I knew was through the eyes and experiences of my relatives.

I recall the richness and love of my grandmother's cooking, boat rides in Allahabad to Sangam, riding on a horse with my cousin at his wedding, my grandfather's all-night card playing parties, and the joy in my uncles' eyes as they flew kites.

Both Sangam and Patang seem linked through a yearning for India's spirituality, an appreciation of the small joys of life. What were your motivations for making both films?
The two works are certainly linked. Sangam is about yearning. The genesis was a real life encounter I had with a Bihari immigrant on a New York subway at 3 in the morning. We both reveled and found solace in our memories of food, film and my mother's hometown of Allahabad.

And yet, when he revealed his need for connection, I could not bear the responsibility. The episode lingered with me. The metaphor of Sangam crept in over time - two souls, like the two rivers - the Yamuna and the Ganga, meet.

Patang focuses on the impact of immediate joy. Kite flying is meditation in its purest form.

Though your film is set in contemporary Ahmedabad, why does it make no reference to the horrific communal riots of 2002?
The perception of progressives outside of Ahmedabad is that the riots solely define the identity of Ahmedabad. It is a disturbing legacy, which everyone is aware of. However, life goes on. People laugh, go to work and fall in love.

Not all stories in New York need to be focused on the events of 9/11, stories in Egypt on the political uprising, or stories in Mumbai on the Taj bombing. "If you think we hold on to our past with sadness, you are wrong. We hold on to our happiness, little-little happiness." This line from the film is representative of the spirit of Ahmedabad.

Your film emphasizes ambience over a clear-cut resolution. Would Indian distributors find this challenging?
Over two days of celebration, healing occurs, but neat, grand resolutions do not happen. Distributors need to see Patang as an opportunity – it defies the current expectations of Indian cinema – choreographed dance sequences, gritty underworld dramas, slumdogs and millionaires.