It's such an invigorating experience when two or more forms of art come together to tell memorable stories. Two documentaries at the recent MIAAC Film Festival 2010 left such an indelible impact on me that I just had to dedicate a post to them. The first is called Leaving Home by Jaideep Varma and is a film that reveres (and deservedly so) India's first and probably greatest music band, Indian Ocean. The second is Beloved Witness by Dwaipayan Banerjee, a short form documentary about the life and work of the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Both films exude a genuine passion for their subjects, which makes them engrossing and moving experiences.
Indian Ocean has been a band that has, unfortunately, gone underrated for the longest time. Varma's film, Leaving Home, serves as an all-encompassing introduction to the musicians, the formation, their musical influences and their evolution, highlighting their best music along the way. Each of the four band members – Susmit Sen, Asheem Chakravarty, Rahul Ram and Amit Kilam - is so endearing and intriguing to watch and make for very lovable characters. For the ardent followers of Indian Ocean, the band’s chemistry and the moments with Asheem are especially heartbreaking knowing of his sudden demise in December 2009. The film was shot and edited before this tragedy but its release now makes you notice every moment of foreshadowing in the interviews and interactions, making the viewing experience even more emotional.
Varma structures the film into chapters, each one titled after an Indian Ocean song, telling a relevant part of their story and ending each time with a performance of that song in their famous house-turned-studio in Karol Bagh, New Delhi. These include old favorites like Maa Rewa, Kandisa, Jhini and their biggest hit to date Bandeh from the soundtrack of the film Black Friday. Contextualized with the stories around each song, the performances in the film become all the more potent knowing the band’s unwavering spirit to address humanity and spirituality through their music.
Leaving Home, unfortunately, struggles in the technical department. The editing is at times choppy and the sound quality and mixing is jarring during the transitions. While I thoroughly appreciate Varma’s efforts in making India’s first musical documentary, an incredibly low-budget ode to a legendary band, the transitions between the chapters seem abrupt, frequently snapping you out of the mood that was so carefully established each time. But griping about technical flaws aside, Varma’s Leaving Home is a must-see film for any lover of music. I can’t remember the last time I had goose bumps watching a live recording of a band performing and just being their brilliant, colorful selves.
I chanced upon Banerjee's Beloved Witness at MIAAC 2010, unaware of it until a friend suggested we watch it. And I was so glad I did. It's an incredibly sincere short film about the late poet Agha Shahid Ali. Beloved Witness is a portrait of a poet who dedicated his life to expressing the hopes and desires of the Kashmiri people and introducing the ghazal to America. Explaining his reasons for making a film about this subject, Banerjee said, “The film really came out a deep love for Shahid's poetry. After speaking to some of his friends, I knew his was a story worth telling. It is amazing how that his death, his influence and pertinence seems to just grow every year; his friends have kept alive his legacy in such wonderful ways and that is something I explore in the film.”
In the film, Banerjee builds Shahid’s life through the personal accounts of friends and family and footage of him giving other interviews and recordings. These are woven together fluidly with readings of some of Shahid’s most poignant work. This twenty-minute short is packed with original interviews, archival material, family photos, and some striking location footage to accompany the poetry readings. The most fascinating aspect of the film is the way Shahid is depicted without him being physically present during the making of this film. His charming presence is constant and, just like the personable force of Indian Ocean, the subject here too makes the film what it is.
Speaking about the future of this film, Banerjee hopes to expand the film further. “There are things I want to explore,” he says, “for example, his political imagination, his transcultural legacy in the work of others, his condition of exile and so on. These are possible avenues for the film to explore.” The film was screened as a work-in-progress and if it already had such an impact, I can only imagine what the longer, completed version will achieve.