In the Marathi short film Kalsubai, a visual dialogue between past and present evokes the legend of goddess Kalsu
Legend has it that there was once a young tribal girl named Kalsu who walked to the very top of the mountain and lived there for as long as anyone can remember. What became of her remains a mystery but the locals soon began to worship her as a goddess.
In Kalsubai, a bucolic rural scape flits past in square aspect ratio: scenes of a lone cow grazing in a lush meadow, a thin stream of water trickling down the shiny surface of a mountain slope and an anachronistic thatched hut inside which modern contraptions like television sets and electric bulbs alone represent the passing of time. With only a voiceover that acts as narrator and guide, a haunting sensation of being suspended in time overcomes the viewer as the story of the goddess Kalsu reveals itself against the backdrop of the majestic Kalsubai mountain, named after this folk legend.
The experimental Marathi short film Kalsubai, which recently received the Grand Prize in the International Online Competition Section of the International Short Film Festival (ISFF) Oberhausen tells the story of the Mahadeo Koli tribe residing in the Bari village at the foot of Kalsubai and the folk tale of its deity, Kalsu. Legend has it that there was once a young tribal girl named Kalsu who walked to the very top of the mountain and lived there for as long as anyone can remember. What became of Kalsu remains a mystery but the locals soon began to worship her as a goddess.
As part of his academic non-fiction project at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, when director Yudhajit Basu visited Bhandardara in 2017 – the nearest major village near Bari – with his fellow batchmates, he chanced upon this folk story recounted by an old man at a tea stall “one late afternoon” and was fascinated by the tale of the tribal girl. He says, “I began to do a little bit of research and for me the legend is a story of a young tribal girl fighting against the patriarchal male dominated machinery.”
Basu, who had arrived in the village to ideate for a 20-minute film quickly chose the goddess Kalsu as his subject joining together different strands of a narrative that “varies from region to region.”
Folktales, he suggests, “can be reread with a contemporary mind or attitude to unearth certain nuanced political undertones that are weaved inside a simple almost fantastical story.”
During his research, what struck the director most was the intimacy that the women of the village felt towards the goddess. A common theme running through all the multiple tales was that despite their variations, Kalsu, for the village women continues to be “like their daughter.”
At 5,400 ft, the Kalsubai mountain itself looms stately and magnificent, the highest peak of the Sahyadri mountain ranges in Maharashtra. Basu’s short film centres as much on this towering hill and the village surrounding it as on Kalsu, since it is with these scenic rural images that he creates powerful visuals to breathe life into the film based on a folklore that has trickled down through the ages.
“The story of Kalsu for me lies within the nooks and corners of the village,” he elaborates, “Besides, today we are so used to seeing wide screen format films that suddenly when one chances upon a vast landscape or a small patch of grass with the shadow of a windmill over it, I think it helps to defamiliarise the familiar everyday look of an otherwise mundane visual.”
An early interest in cinema prompted Basu, after a brief attempt at engineering, to enroll himself in 2013 as a student of mass communication and videography at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai. His work as a filmmaker began here with his first short film, the Nepali work, Khoji. A year later, this was followed by a collaborative work, another Nepali short titled Quiro, with co-writer and co-director, Prithvijoy Ganguly. Basu dabbles with writing too and has co-produced and co-written a Marathi feature film with his friend, Gourab Mullick, the editor of Kalsubai.
He is not inherently an experimental filmmaker, Basu admits, but for Kalsubai in particular, he notes, “I thought this form of telling the story of Kalsubai like a photo essay might be suitable as I was interested in creating a certain contrast in the images, a kind of a visual dialogue between the past and the present.”
And despite weaving a narrative that is so personal to the Mahadeo Koli community, Basu’s film attempts to perceive the story as an outsider listening in. “I wanted to stay honest to my gaze as an outsider to their world,” he remarks, “and not try to feign the insider’s point of view.”
To that effect, Marathi actor Jyoti Subhash’s voiceover which tells Kalsu’s story in its slow, grave tones renders a near hypnotic quality evoking an atmosphere that retains the “reflective nature” of an outsider’s gaze even as the visuals featuring the Mahadeo Koli women give the impression of being rooted in the mountain.
Talking about this process of making non-fiction cinema, Basu says, “At times I couldn’t help but feeling disgusted with the whole idea of probing into their [the Mahadeo Koli tribe’s] life and filming.”
“Sometimes I feel I’d perhaps love to make a longer film on the subject someday with a different approach. But for this short film, I had consciously tried to maintain a distance from the subject, I took a lot of interviews of the villagers but kept none.”
He explains that the limited time frame available to finish the film posed as yet another challenge to him as director, as did coming up with a structure for the large number of visuals his team had captured.
“Then my editor suggested ‘let us begin the film at dawn and end it at dusk,’ the images unfolded over one whole day in the village of Bari. It is a pretty conventional form but I think that worked finally. So, I learnt that one needs to listen to the editors. Often they know better.”
All of last year, Basu has been working through the pandemic with Ganguly on his first Bengali feature, tentatively titled Phoyara. The story, set against the “disruptive times of the pandemic,” is currently in its second draft. It captures through the eyes of a girl in her twenties the strange reappearance of her brother, a former student activist in a small Colliery town in Bengal, whose death is shrouded in mystery.
Now, with Kalsubai receiving the first prize at ISFF Oberhausen, Basu concedes that although awards can be subjective, this win has been especially encouraging. “It is a ray of hope for me in these terrible times that we are living. Besides many of my favourite filmmakers had begun their career from Oberhausen. It had always stood tall for independent cinema. In that way I cannot think of a better start for me as a filmmaker.”
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