Cinematographer-filmmaker Savita Singh on her National Award-winning directorial debut Sonsi being inspired by stories from her childhood, and the skewed gender roles in the film industry.
It was French novelist Marcel Proust’s deep dive into childhood and its memories that compelled cinematographer Savita Singh, 40, to go on a quest across the subconscious mind. The gist of Proust’s thought – that the memory of his childhood was purer than his childhood – stuck with Singh and she was led to Sonsi (Shadow Bird, 2021), her short film that won her the National Award for Best Cinematography last week and is also India’s entry to the Oscars (Shorts section).
The film, which is Singh’s directorial debut, trails Nadi (Arohi Radhakrishnan), an eight-year-old, who, for the duration of the film, is in a dream state — a rabbit hole between the conscious and the subconscious — wherein she looks forward to meeting Sonsi – her shadow bird. There is also the timekeeper of the village, “who has a clock fitted inside his heart”. The village wakes up only when he arrives. One day, Ghadi baabu aka the timekeeper does not turn up and Nadi’s shadow bird goes missing. Upset and confused, she decides to follow a trail of clues into the woods.
“When you want to tell stories, one often looks back into one’s own past to try and find personal images. This is when you are dealing with the memory and nostalgia of childhood. This prism of looking at childhood in many ways has been my prism, where you recollect something with a lot of romanticism, and spectacles of nostalgia,” says Singh, who has woken up with dreams all her life. “That is how a lot of my ideas come to me early morning, when you are asleep and awake at the same time and something from your real time enters your dreams and things start to mix,” says Singh, who adds that her short film that transcends the concept of time and space comes from a very personal territory. “A lot of it is about the way you are and what you like in terms of literature, poetry and the people you admire. I have always liked that kind of an abstract form where you play with time and space, where memories intermingle. For me, it was finding that voice somewhere, the way one writes poetry but through images, characters, spaces and time,” says Singh about the film that keeps going into concentric circles, “like wheels of a clock”. “The structure of the film is spiral. In my little complex mind, this was the design,” says Singh, who was clear about the way she was going to make the film and not worried about the audience or if they’ll be able to understand the story. “This was my first film so I wanted to make it with a sense of purity and without any external worries. I knew that there is a small audience for every kind of cinema,” says Singh, who’d originally created two separate fantastical stories — one of Nadi and the other about Ghadi Babu. Somewhere, the two met. “The idea is to take the audience into their own version of nostalgia and childhood,” says Singh, who got Rasika Duggal to be the narrator of the film.
The title of the film comes from famed Hindi litterateur Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi (A Window Lived in A Wall), which won the Sahitya Akademi Award for the best Hindi work in 1999. One sees a number of windows in the film, also a tribute to Shukla. “I wanted a name for the bird which needed to imply ‘The Golden One’, something that was not hugely metaphorical or anything dense but something that was phonetic,” says Singh.
Singh shot the film around Pune – stretches of forest land, where she used to shoot back in the day while studying at FTII and knew the landscape well. But fixing the final location was the most intensive bit in the film, besides finding the young protagonist, Nadi. “Since this is a dream, I wanted to create a very timeless time. There is no human imprint you will see in the film except two-three characters. You won’t notice a single electricity pole or anything which is indicative of a certain time. Nothing dramatic is happening at any point. So I wanted subtle expressions. Children are great actors, but it’s hard to find someone who will emote well,” she says. The film has been produced by actor Vikas Singh.
Singh is from a farmer family in Hisar and has lived all over the country due to her father’s work in the banking sector. Which is also why Singh feels she does not have any attachment to any particular place but to the cultures and people. She grew up on everything that Doordarshan threw at her in the 80s besides a humongous amount of books. “It may sound a little pretentious to say this now, but the truth is I liked parallel cinema more even as a child. I was in awe of movies by Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen and would walk away if there was anything typically commercial. I just had this liking for a particular space, rhythm and storytelling,” says Singh, who was always interested in how real the film world was and how the story was being told.
Singh was studying mass communication when she decided to join FTII. Cinematography wasn’t on the radar until Singh figured that the best way for her to express herself in a sharper and clearer manner was through the camera. “I realised I had a way with the camera. I could put it at the right place and say what I wanted to say. I was still not ready to tell stories. I was hungry to read more, know more,” says Singh.
As part of her thesis, she shot Kramasha (To be Continued), a film directed by experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta that merged folk tales with dreams and won Singh her first National Award for Cinematography. This was followed by her cinematography stint for Ram Gupal Verma’s Phoonk (2008), Jalpari — The Desert Mermaid and Hawaizaada (2015) apart from a number of ad projects.
Singh founded Indian Women Cinematographers Collective in 2015 along with Fowzia Fathima, Deepti Gupta and Priya Seth, which started a conversation about gender issues and mainstream cinema’s hostility towards them. The founders felt that female cinematographers faced many more issues compared to their male counterparts. “I won’t say it’s not an obstruction but I was also luckier because I got opportunities. But yes, I may have lost some due to gender. But that is changing drastically. But then that’s me speaking after spending many years here. For someone new, the problems may be similar such as not even being factored in, or being chosen for films from women’s perpective,” says Singh.
Singh wants to continue doing cinematography and is working on a number of projects. She just finished Raja Menon’s upcoming series for Amazon Prime and Umesh Kulkarni’s three-part docu series titled Indian Predators. She’s also made another short film titled Shehtoot, based on a real-life Covid story. “I aim at striking a balance between both my jobs,” says Singh.
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