Prantik Basu on Bela, his meditative documentary that juxtaposes the Chhau art form with life in a Bengal village

Shot over two years, Bela is the third work born of Basu’s collaboration with the inhabitants of the eponymous village in West Bengal.

Srikanth Srinivasan May 06, 2021 09:51:08 IST
Prantik Basu on Bela, his meditative documentary that juxtaposes the Chhau art form with life in a Bengal village

Prantik Basu. Photo © Adrien Roche via Berlin International Film Festival

Prantik Basu’s Bela, which premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyon this April and is headed to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in June, is an hour-long documentary about everyday life in the titular village in West Bengal.

Shot over two years, Bela is the third work born of Basu’s collaboration with the inhabitants of the village. The film, however, conceals the filmmaker’s familiarity with the region and its people. Reserved and self-subtracting, Basu’s digital camera surveys the spaces of the hamlet with a ruminative, bovine gaze. These measured gestures are fitting, for Bela seeks to register the leisurely rhythm of life and work in the village. To this end, the filmmaker assembles footage amassed over several months into a cyclic diurnal-nocturnal pattern, with each “day” unfolding roughly over a quarter hour.

The men of the village are, for the most part, occupied with Chhau performances, a costumed dance form of gyrating, thumping male bodies that blends classical and folk idioms. The women, on the other hand, seem mostly engaged in highly physical, productive work, harvesting crops, gathering firewood or crushing rice. But just as we briefly glimpse men making their living at a timber depot, the women decorate the threshold of their homes with beautiful rice rangolis whose simplicity counterpoints the baroque costumes and movements of the Chhau shows.

Prantik Basu on Bela his meditative documentary that juxtaposes the Chhau art form with life in a Bengal village

Still from Bela. Image courtesy IFFR 2021

These contrasts and continuities in the gendered division of labour are offered for our consideration without a guiding commentary. Compared to Basu’s previous short films, Sakhisona (2017) and Rang Mahal (2019), which are fuelled by Santhali cosmology and myths, Bela is a stripped-down work, presenting no discursive framework to supplement what we see. There is no voiceover, musical score or interviews with its subjects, making the film at once more airy, more austere and more elusive than its predecessors.

In that sense, Bela has more in common with the formalist rural symphony that is Basu’s Hawa Mahal (2015). The filmmaker shoots with an eye for plastic composition: asymmetry, offsetting elements in the foreground, impressionistic effects obtained through frame dropping. His camera would often drift away from a scene to end on a light source or the participants’ feet. Recurring images in his work — electric wires, women carrying wood, twilight skies, rain and thunder, deforestation — become charged with specific meaning, but Basu’s touch remains light, not unlike the women’s rangolis.

We conversed with the filmmaker on his new work.

Could you tell us something about your personal and academic background? How did you come to filmmaking?

I grew up in a joint family of eight people, in the suburbs of Calcutta [sic]. Films are something that I have always been drawn to. I loved telling stories as a child and would always visualise the short stories and poems from my school curriculum and imagine them as films in my head. While doing my BA in English, I wrote the script for a short film and directed it with the help of a few friends back in 2007. That same year, I gave the entrance exam for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and got into its Direction department.

Prantik Basu on Bela his meditative documentary that juxtaposes the Chhau art form with life in a Bengal village

Still from Bela. Image courtesy IFFR 2021

How did Bela come about?

After my graduation, I was called back to FTII to direct a film as a guest filmmaker. During the making of Sakhisona, I met the wonderful performing artists, dancers and musicians of the Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Nritya Dal. They performed and composed songs for the film. I remained in touch with them and, upon the completion of Sakhisona, visited their village Bela to share with them the final film. I stayed on for a few weeks, without any plans for another film. Over time, I developed great friendship and camaraderie with them, shooting showreels for their dance group and travelling with them to their dance competitions. And at some point, the seed of a new film germinated.

Your previous short films (Sakhisona, Rang Mahal) made imaginative use of Santhali folklore. In comparison, Bela registers as a more sober, fly-on-the-wall documentary. How did you decide on the film's form?

Unlike my previous films, the formal structure for Bela developed during the process. I started with the dance group, and was mostly interested in tracing the transformation of the dancers from the people they were to the gender-bending roles they played. Since the Chhau dance is mostly practiced by men, I meandered to observe the women and their activities in and around the village. The juxtaposition in itself was telling a story, so adding a voiceover would have made it didactic. We see when we are told to look, but on our own, we observe. So I limited my intervention to the least, and aimed for a cinema verité approach in Bela.

Could you tell us a little about the Chhau performances?

Like all other dance forms, Chhau involves tremendous discipline, coordination and practise. Etymologically, it is derived from the word Chhaya, meaning shadow, image, or mask. It is said that every other boy in Purulia (where Bela is located) is a Chhau dancer, and that they learn the techniques of somersaulting underwater as they learn how to swim in the ponds at a young age. The songs that accompany Chhau dance are called Jhumur, and they follow the dohar (couplet) form. These are entwined with the landscape of Rarh Bengal and its flora and fauna. For example, the repeated meter of Jhumur songs derive inspiration from the echoes that occur while calling out in this undulating terrain, and that the subtle turn of the neck and torso in the Chhau dance is an imitation of the movements of a peacock. These nuances are usually overlooked by the viewer who is often lost is the grandeur of the performance.

Prantik Basu on Bela his meditative documentary that juxtaposes the Chhau art form with life in a Bengal village

Still from Bela. Image courtesy IFFR 2021

There is a sense, towards the end of Bela, that this way of life is under threat of disappearance. Even the Chhau performances seem destined for a town crowd.

Their way of life is under a constant transformation, much like everything around us, maybe a little slower, but isn’t that inevitable? This change is probably much less in the region where I shot Rang Mahal; there is a certain welcome resistance too, in the form of the Pathalgadi Movement, for instance. But the community in Bela is at the threshold. Many of the Chhau dancers move to cities across the country and contribute to the migrant workforce. When the team had come to Pune for a performance at the FTII, two workers from a nearby construction site heard the sounds of the dhol, dhamsa and shahnai, and immediately rushed to the campus where they were performing. It turned out that they were from their neighbouring village. The joy of their reunion in a place so far away from home was a sight to behold.

In the film, we see men mostly engaged in the Chhau performances while women are largely responsible for productive labour, both at home and in the village. How did you see the relation between men and women in the village?

It was quite compartmentalised, in terms of gender roles. While the men dress up as women for their performance, and the women display immense physical strength in their daily activities, the lines otherwise are rather rigid. So the argument of Chhau dance being masculine for its physical rigour fails to hold true after a point. Of late, few female Chhau dance groups have formed. But the attitude towards them is very similar to the ones towards the women’s sports teams in our country.

Did you script or storyboard before the shoot? What was the process?

I was making notes every day after shooting, more like production notes and data logging. I shot for a few months, on and off for over two years and had accumulated an enormous amount of rush footage. So I made index cards of the sequences and did a few rounds of paper edits first. I did storyboard for my earlier films, but since I shot the last two myself, I somewhat knew the kind of frames I wanted. Also, both Rang Mahal and Bela are nonfiction films, so there is only so much one could pre-plan in terms of framing. Most of them were chance and intuitive responses to the scenes unfolding in front of the camera. Sadly, some of the best moments occur when the camera is off. Turn it on, and they are gone.

In a number of shots, your roving camera ends on a light source, almost as if offering a cue to the viewer that the shot is about to end. What is your fascination with light?

That’s interesting, I never thought of it like that. In most cases, it was an instinctive response, as I was mostly working with available/natural light. The night rehearsal sequence is one that I can recall. The entire activity took place around a single light source, a 100-watt tungsten bulb. Earlier, it was a longer sequence, where the bulb was set up, the insects hovering around, and then gradually the people gather. While the dancers practiced in circular motions, their blurred movements appeared like celestial bodies orbiting around the Sun.

Did you show the film to the people of Bela?

They have seen parts of the film, but I am yet to share the final film with them. Hopefully that will happen soon.

Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B

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