The Outlier: National Award winner Gurvinder Singh would rather be farming than making films
Chauthi Koot is the first Punjabi film ever to be selected at Cannes. Its director, Gurvinder Singh, has two National Awards to his credit. Yet, he enjoys farming more than making films. And he casts lift operators and cake sellers rather than established actors
A week before its pan-India release, the producers of Chauthi Koot are screening the film for distributors. When it ends, Anand Gandhi — director, Ship of Theseus (2012), and since, producer and flag-bearer for ‘thinking’ cinema — breaks into thunderous applause. He stares at the dozen odd faces in the theatre, continues clapping, then drawls “wwooow”. Perhaps he’s amazed by the film. Perhaps he’s wondering if no one else is.
Gandhi has a penchant for drama. He later drops by, strategically mid-interview, to congratulate Gurvinder Singh. He says they must pump up the noise. Soon after, he tweets: “The best film of the year…” Rahul Bose reacts. Next week, there’s orchestrated news about Sonam Kapoor loving the film. Orchestrated noise.
Singh is the antithesis of Gandhi. He fits the old-fashioned idea of the reclusive, creative man. He reacts shyly to Gandhi’s praise. He’s not on Twitter. And he doesn’t get why he needs to show the film to ‘influencers’. Given a choice, he wouldn’t be here at all.
He’d rather be at his house in Bir, Himachal Pradesh, growing vegetables. “There are more important things than making films. I grow vegetables. That’s what I enjoy the most…more than making films, I think,” he smiles.
Odd, you might think. But nothing about Singh fits the mould of the director. He makes films in Punjabi, on Punjab, and picks up National Awards for every effort (two on two, so far). His latest is the first Punjabi film ever to be part of the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes.
Yet, he’s never lived in Punjab. “I’m an engaged outsider,” he says. His understanding comes from extensive travel through the state, through academic history and literature. Yet, he has a cult following. He says kids from Punjab, aspiring to act or make films, land up at his doorstep in Bir. Even as we chat, a young sardar, an IIT graduate, waits outside. He, too, wants to work with Singh.
Singh is partly responsible for fuelling such dreams. He doesn’t cast regular actors: neither mainstream, nor indie. While screening his first film, Anhe Ghore da Daan (2011), in Delhi, Tejpal Singh, a cake-shop owner, had said hello, and mentioned he’d dreamt of acting. While casting for Chauthi Koot, Gurvinder called him up and offered a part. For another character, he cast a lift operator he met at a multiplex.
Surely, it helps keep budgets tight. But it also makes sense for his everyman style of cinema.
In Chauthi Koot, he takes a measured look back at the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. But he offers no broad perspective, or political commentary.
Singh was 10 in 1984, living in Delhi. He recalls the fear and confusion of being locked inside the house, and the awareness of mobs outside. In the film, he explores a parallel setting: a farmer’s family in Punjab, living in fear and apprehension, caught between Khalistani rebels and the police. It’s slow. Such situations often are. The sameness of troubled every-days, the faraway ripples of a massive wave.
You absorb Singh’s films slowly, not with thunderous applause.
Chauthi Koot is out in theatres nationwide on August 5
Originally published at www.hindustantimes.com on August 4, 2016.