National Awards 2019: Supriyo Sen on his docu, Swimming Through The Darkness, winning Best Film on Sports
Swimming Through The Darkness had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival 2018.
When the winners of the 66th National Awards for 2018 were announced ten days ago, Kolkata-based documentary filmmaker Supriyo Sen was both pleased and puzzled. He was naturally delighted that he had bagged his fourth National Award for the non-fiction film Swimming Through The Darkness, but equally surprised that it was slotted as ‘Best Film on Sports’.
The citation from the jury read: “For thoughtfully portraying the challenges and life-quest of its visually impaired swimmer, as he indefatigably pursues his sport, his dreams and desires, through impeding darkness.”
Sen says that while he’s grateful for the Award, he feels its categorisation limits the impact of the one hour 16 minute-long film about the visually impaired Kanai Lal’s ambition to participate in the world’s longest swimming competition, rather than be forced to earning a living through begging or singing. Kanti overcomes all odds to complete in the 81 km race in the Ganges River.
Speaking to Firstpost on the phone from Kolkata, Sen says, Swimming Through The Darkness, which had a world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival 2018, is “much more and beyond a sports film. It is a human story that delves into the life of a swimmer but also has elements such as bravery, hardship, love, passion and other aspects of life.”
Sen learned of Kanai Chakraborty from a newspaper article and spent four years recording Kanai’s life. This included shooting the competition as well. “We shot the race with three cameras for about 18 hours. We captured his swim in the river during the monsoon and we followed him from the riverbank. It came out very well but when I edited the footage, I found it was becoming only about swimming, and honestly, long distance swimming is not the most interesting sport to show on film.”
Sen didn’t look at Kanai’s visual impairment as the fulcrum of his story, but was more interested in capturing his personal abilities, human qualities, his unfiltered behaviour and his struggles. The director decided to wait and watch, all the while recording Kanai’s life. “Gradually interesting things started happening. With this kind of character-driven film, you need to see the development. In real life, interesting things happen, but not in the way they happen in a movie,” says Sen has won close to 40 international awards, including in Berlin, Karlovy Vary, IFFI (Goa) and Bilbao. In 2009, his short film Wagah won the Berlin Today Award at a parallel initiative held during the Berlin International Film Festival.
“The way you edit and build the narrative is what sets documentaries apart. Intuition tells you that you might have a good story, but it’s also a blind alley. That is the most challenging aspect. I don’t believe in manipulation and dramatisation. Whatever happens in the film is real,” he says.
Sometimes this has led to the hard decision of abandoning a project. “As an independent filmmaker, I find an idea, shoot it and develop it. Only after that do I pitch it and get finance. It has happened that I have started work on something only to realise after six months or a year that it is not happening.”
The veteran documentary filmmaker has previously won National Awards for The Nest (2000), Way Back Home (2003) and Hope Dies Last in War (2007). He rues the lack of distribution platforms for non-fiction films. “This is definitely a crisis. I am in the 25th year of my career and by now we thought things would change. However, it hasn’t happened. There is no platform for screening documentaries, so the audience for the genre has not been developed. Even the OTT players are obsessed with fiction,” he says.
Ironically, he doesn’t feel a National Award gives a fillip either. It serves as a symbol that earns respect within the family and society but does not result in much professionally. “Because our work is not visible, it cannot be compared to the status fiction filmmakers enjoy in society,” he says, adding, “Documentary is perhaps the most neglected art form in our country, but I love to tell stories of marginal people and document marginal issues. My five films on the Partition of India are important stories of India’s history, politics and people.”
For the past six years, he has been following the ups and downs of a slum band in Kolkata. “Like Swimming Through the Darkness, Waste Band will also be inspiring and positive,” Sen says.
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