PAGE 05: Whispers and Barks

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By Suyash Kamat

India’s sole representative at Cannes Film Festival in 2020 was a 21-minute short. CatDog (2019) was made by the students of Film & Television Institute of India. Despite repeated clashes with the administration, the students of FTII have time and again proven their artistic mettle at the highest level. Winner of the top prize in the Cinéfondation section at Cannes, their new film is about the dreamy and innocent world of two siblings, whose curious and inquisitive mischief unfurl simmering undercurrents. The Peacock caught up with these young film-makers after their screening in the IFFI Indian Panorama. 

“I was looking at a civilizational idea of what it means to not be bound by societal relationships and family,” said Ashmita Guha Neogi, who wrote and directed the film. Probing into society’s rigid framework towards sex, her film explores themes most shy away from as a matter of discussion, let alone make it the subject matter of movies. She said, “There is always a conflict between the natural and the societal. Centrally, that is where the film came from. I felt that the period of puberty is far more potent and volatile to explore the idea of incest, as opposed to doing it as adults. These are experiences a lot of us have had, and probably have suppressed.”

Starring Rachna Godbole and Prem Dharmadhikari as the young siblings, CatDog manages to draw out startling performances from these kids. Their subtle, measured approaches and intimate chemistry are accentuated mostly by just gestures, which makes one wonder about their process, especially given their age. Ashmita said, “I was lucky with Rachna who is 19 years old; much older than she is in the film. Being a psychology student she was inherently excited about this. So I was able to have these conversations with her.” 

For Dharmadhikari however, who is much younger, the team’s approach had to be more action oriented, often devising games to arrive at the desired emotions. More often than not, the form of a film, aside from the pre-meditated idea, evolves from finding innovative solutions to problems that arise while shooting. As David Fincher puts it, “You don’t know what directing is until the sun is setting, you’ve got to get five shots, and you’re only going to get two.’

For cinematographer Prateek Pamecha, sound designer Kushal Nerurkar, and Production Designer Neeraj Singh, the challenge was to visually and aurally interpret these philosophical inquiries into tangible imagery which can evoke similar moods and curiosities within an audience. They achieved this through subtle and textured tones which manage to paint a nostalgic atmosphere of a time gone by, while still retaining the immediacy of the violence on display.

 For a film whose sense of space, milieu and time is vague and undefined, the imagined space must then be able to work within its own contexts of creation. Ashmita said, “We had to find a space that had character but not specificity.” For this, the team referenced photographs of spaces from Kerala to the Konkan, and also referenced Ashmita’s own sketches which mostly had spaces with high ceilings. “We had to go house hunting from door to door through every space that remotely met our expectations because we weren’t allowed to shoot beyond 200km radius of campus” explained Prateek.

For Kushal, the film was mostly created in post-production, in finding the right kind of tonality. Much like the suspension of realism in the images, sound takes similar liberties, often becoming a political undertone for the skewed gender realities of the two siblings. Most of the aural drama happens off screen, constantly conflicting or complimenting the visual drama. “We had a lot of dogs barking off-screen. So we’d go out and keep recording their barks, at times carrying food to make them bark, to get the sound we were looking for” said Kushal. This reminded me of how Robert Bresson once made his sound recordist record the sound of the exact bus he heard on a particular day outside his room for a scene, which turned out to be a substitute bus running that day instead of the regular. Drama indeed exists in the details. 

Despite most festivals going virtual this year, CatDog had a few physical screenings at Cannes. One memory remains as a glowing testament to the beauty of shared viewing. Ashmita recollected, “There was an old French lady who walked up to us. She held up a screening schedule and asked which film was ours. When we pointed out, she recoiled. She said she had tears in her eyes, butterflies in her stomach and her heart had stopped pumping. That was really special. Going to a different country and still finding a connection, really shook me. It was extremely special.”

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