Buddha.mov director Kabir Mehta talks of treading the fine line of docu-fiction, and his experimental take on voyeurism
Kabir Mehta talks about how he gradually lets his viewers explore the hybrid nature of docu-fiction through Buddha.mov, a film about an aspiring reality TV star.
Kabir Mehta's critically acclaimed film Buddha.Mov starts like a wet dream of every film festival. There is silence only to be emboldened by mild ambient sounds; there is dim lighting; and there is a solitary protagonist going about his daily chores as the camera documents his movements with a keen yet unobtrusive gaze.
Buddha.Mov revolves around Buddhadev Mangaldas, a 30-year-old cricketer from Goa, who authorises unrestricted access into the most private parts of his life in exchange of a film offer. Right in the opening moments of the film, the camera documents intimate moments, including multiple sex scenes, though from a distance. The gaze never comes off as exploitative but remains keenly invested in every moment of Buddha's life.
Twenty minutes into the film, the genre oscillates between documentary and fiction. On paper, Buddha rash driving a luxury sports car in the narrow lanes of Goa and making out with a girl in full sight at a fort would seem like stuff that reality TV is made of. But the narrative technique does not feel designed like an MTV show. It merely observes Buddha, even during the less happening parts of his day. For instance, the manner in which Buddha is captured fielding on a cricket ground does not conform to the genre of a sports biopic or even a sports documentary. It is not a ringside view of his achievements but a spectator's account of how monotonous a cricket match is for a live audience.
The monotony is indicative of Buddha's state of mind as well, since his lack of involvement on the cricket field clearly suggests that he harbours a completely different ambition. Is it to be a part of reality TV, as suggested by the 24x7 presence of a lurking camera in his vicinity? Yes, he seems to be fully aware of its presence. The shaky and loud movements of the camera also make it quite clear that the man behind the scenes wants his presence registered. Right when one can assume through the clunky camera movement that the cinematographer is an amateur, Kabir shows his cards.
As the camera records a gardener watering the plants and then relishing a well-deserved meal at the end of the day, Buddha's voice echoes, "Yes... film festivals love this stuff." Moments later, Kabir establishes that he was showing to the audience what they 'wanted' to watch, and not necessarily what was 'actually happening'. This way, Buddha.Mov could have entered into the zone of mockumentary, but Kabir insists that was not the case since him and his distant cousin Buddha were never on the same page, except on the fact that both wanted to make a movie.
"He agreed to be a part of my film because he had a different film in his mind. He thought it's an MTV-like documentary. And in my mind, it was an experimental film on identity. I was quite strict initially when I got in but he was quite adamant on the film he wanted it to be. Then it was about allowing this tension to emerge and to make this exist in the film. The idea was for the audience to question whether the people I'm watching know I'm watching them or do they not know, whether I should be watching it (their intimate moments) or I should not be watching it," says Kabir, on the sidelines of the recent screening of Buddha.Mov at the MAMI Year Round Programme. While the film first premiered in India at the Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival last year, it was recently screened in Mumbai as part of the organisation's initiative to screen films for its members throughout the year.
What started as an experimental film on sports evolved into a tug-of-war for ownership of the narrative. This tussle between Buddha's perception of a reality TV star and Kabir's determination to not let his craft get diluted by glamour is evident at various points of the narrative. Though Kabir never breaks the fourth wall as he did in his short film Sadhu In Bombay, he allows the conflict between manufactured reality and investigative gaze seep into every corner of his film. "I felt like I could push the idea of experimenting with form. Whenever I used to shoot something, I always got that one extra bit from him. That made me come back and shoot more. So in a way, the editing was dictating the shooting," says Kabir.
This approach lent itself to the hybrid genre of Buddha.Mov. Kabir maintains that it is some experimental form of docu-fiction but not a cinéma vérité or the fly-on-the-wall variety. "In fact, it is a comment on the very idea of documentation. I've seen so many documentaries and realised the extent to which they're staged. They're all full of fabricated lies. The director often manipulates a person to say something they want to be said on camera. I wanted my film to flow organically, see where it leads to, but at the same time comment on larger issues like identity and voyeurism."
Throughout the film, Kabir uses social media screen popups as a visual tool to sketch a track of manufactured or perceived reality that runs parallel to real time. For instance, when Buddha is seen distracted on the cricket field, the screen displays an inset of someone (Buddha in all probability, given his vanity) browsing through his social media. This parallel narrative is a depiction of Buddha's state of mind, which is entirely devoted to how he can position himself better to the world, who is going to watch him both in the film and on Instagram. There is a sequence when Kabir zooms into the eyes of Buddha when he is on the verge of falling asleep, and Buddha struggles to stay awake, probably to spend more time in the cosy comforts of Instagram.
"My idea behind that scene (zooming into a sleepy Buddha's eyes) was to go as close as I could into his head. But his struggling eyes ensured that I never actually get into his head. That is when the screen gets pixilated due to intense zooming. The entire idea of this film, of documenting something, of putting up a facade, is reduced to a pixel. But isn't that what everything has been reduced to now? Numbers! Ever since we have gone digital (as opposed to film or analogue), everything we record is saved in the form of binary codes made of 1 and 0. At the end of the film, when I don't get things my way, I end up deleting Buddha.Mov from my laptop as shown in the final shot of the film. But guess what? Once you've exhibited it, the film still stays, in some dark corner of the internet."
The point that Kabir says he tried to make through Buddha was that the internet, particularly social media, has become a meme. Meme here does not refer to funny visual imagery you can tag your friends on. But it implies the literal meaning under the umbrella of Memetics (the study of information and culture based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution): "An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means." Given the rapidly developing communication technology, every person can be a reality star now. The decentralisation of media has allowed every person to pose as a reality star through their social media accounts. "Everyone's genetically gifted in something. But desire trumps that, which is what the millennial generation is all about. Adrenaline rushes through sex, cars and social media make hyper masculinity transcend into something toxic. And by projecting them on social media, you're caving into societal demands. Twenty years ago, societal demands were those of your parents. Now they are of other people from your own generation," says Kabir.
Desire may have gotten the better of Kabir as well since many discerning audience members, including those at the MAMI screening, viewed the film through an ethical lens. Since Buddha.Mov treads on the fine line between documentary and fiction, there was lack of clarity on whether Kabir had the consent of the two women who were captured having sex with Buddha. Since many felt the film titled more towards the documentary format, there were concerns about intrusion into the private spaces of women, who were presumably unaware of the camera's presence, unlike Buddha. But Kabir refuses to answer the question in order to maintain the very moral ambiguity the tried to sustain throughout the film.
"Ethics rank very high in my priorities as a filmmaker. If you ask me whether I'd be okay with putting out something without the person's consent, my answer would obviously be no. But it's a compliment to achieve something so cinematically convincing that you suspend your belief and even your logic that I will be publicly exhibiting this in a cinema hall and risk going to jail. And also, taking away the agency of a woman. Say if I don't have the permission to shoot any of this and I'm willing to risk this for a film then I must be a schizophrenic sociopath. Or yes, I do have everyone's permission and I might be trying to make a point that everyone has some elements of exhibitionism, whether a man or a woman. Or it could be something completely else: maybe they're all actors! The question stems from the fact that the viewer is watching it through the traditional strict lens of what a documentary is and presuming that everything that they are being shown is real. But for one moment, if you suspend that and understand the hybrid nature of docu-fiction, you'll arrive at what the answer is," says Kabir.
The changing ownership of the narrative in Buddha.Mov, thus, does not limit itself to form. It transcends the structure and tugs at everything from existentialism and ethics, according to Kabir. "Why do I poke at those morally ambiguous threads? Because it's a highly pessimistic film on not only life but cinema itself. At the end, Buddha becomes allegorical and I become allegorical. Maybe I'm being ambitious but that's what I'm trying to achieve here. Intimacy is fine if it's exhibited on Instagram but it's not okay if it's shown in a film?," says Kabir, probably under the weight of censorship and the fact that his film may not see a theatrical release in India.
The persistent pessimist in Kabir does give in to the bright side of social media eventually, on reminding him of something he put out there a month ago. He invited his Twitter followers to send him a mail and get free screener links of the film in return. "I got an overwhelming response. I plan to do this periodically and would love to show it to everyone," says Kabir, with no trace of pessimism (or probably a little resignation?) in his voice.
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