“It’s in these grey murky waters that I want my films to live,” says young filmmaker Kabir Mehta. We’re discussing his first feature film Buddha.mov which made its world premiere at the 2017 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival and is set to play in India at the upcoming MAMI film festival. Perhaps the best way to describe Mehta’s style would be as documentary-fiction – where the difference between fact and fiction/staged material is hard to point out. We see this both in Buddha.mov as well as his previous film Sadhu in Bombay. Although, Mehta himself finds the need to mark distinctions between the two unnecessary. “There is something very exciting and real about messing up documentary with fiction,” he says.
Buddha.mov, as the name may suggest, finds its protagonist in a young Goan cricketer, Buddhadev Mangaldas. It’s not just his home that we get unrestricted access to in this biographical documentary film, so to speak, but every aspect of his life – right from his sexual escapades with uncut scenes of fornication (which, honestly, did catch us a bit off-guard) – and how he maintains/juggles all of them – his careful creation of perfect social media pages and public image, and everyday interactions on every level. Mangaldas, here, becomes as much of a creator of the film as much as he is its subject. What we get at the end is sort of an oddly intriguing hybrid of fantasy and reality as the making of the film itself becomes a subject of what we watch – a work in progress that turns into something else altogether at the end.
You’re a voyeur, at very close quarters, of Mangaldas’s world. We catch Mangaldas at a transition period in his life through the film, and his openness throughout is commendable as the picture we paint of him while watching the film isn’t always in the purest of lights. Having said that, a lot of his behaviour is relatable and understandable – whether in ourselves or someone we know, perhaps symptomatic of the age we live in of carefully curated public images on social media and the relatively new, growing and ever-changing world of dating and hook-ups in India, a country where sexual repression has been the status quo.
Mehta talks to us about the film, its inception and reception over a couple of questions. We get a better understanding of Mangaldas, Mehta’s own experiments with filmmaking and Buddha.mov’s travels to festivals around the world.
Buddha.mov is playing at the MAMI Film Festival at PVR Icon on October 27 and November 1 – don’t forget to book your tickets.
Homegrown: How did you start on this project? What was it about Buddhadev, in particular, that made you want to pick up the camera?
Kabir Mehta: “I am fascinated by this question of identity and I feel that is the essence of my film. I was surprised by the degree of access Buddha allowed the filmmaker of even the most intimate aspects of his life. He had no qualms forsaking privacy for the benefit of the larger narrative that he wished to project of himself. In a way, for him, this film was to become just another Instagram post.
I was struck by his honesty and uninhibited personality. The exhibitionist in him got to me!”
HG: Through the course of the film both of you talk about how the narrative changes and shifts – by the end of it it’s becoming something else than what you set out to create. What did you have in mind when you first started filming and how did that change, what made it change?
KM: “This is really interesting. When we started filming, Buddha was extremely excited to be in a film. To him, this was going to be an MTV-style documentary about the high-octane life of a sports star.
His knowledge of the visual medium often caught me by surprise – he seemed to know how to use it for maximum effect. This is when I would have to think to myself, is this really happening or is he putting it on for me? It seemed to throw the very notion of the film’s authorship up for contention. As filmmakers, we assume our role as the author very easily. But now a new layer of tension seemed to emerge – the film that was in Buddha’s mind versus the one that was in mine. For me, this was a tad mystifying, but it is what made it all the more fun.”
HG: Your films tow the line between fact/documentary and fiction – where do we draw the line when we watch the film?
KM: To be honest, I find this discussion concerning the line between documentary and fiction is rather passé. In my mind, these divisions are intricately braided, and this reflects in both my works- BUDDHA.mov and Sadhu In Bombay (my previous film) - almost instinctively. There is something very exciting and real about messing up documentary with fiction.”
HG: What kind of reception has the film received so far?
KM: “It’s been quite polarising, to say the least. I remember two audience members getting into a heated argument over the film - both of them shouting at the top of their voices from opposite sides of the cinema - during a post-screening Q&A with me. It made me feel redundant but I secretly enjoyed the strong reaction!
I love that people are confronted with a moral dilemma when they watch the film – is this real? Is this staged? Do the people on camera know? Do they not? It’s in these grey murky waters that I want my films to live. Morality, I remember someone saying, makes for false cinema.”
HG: Do you feel you set out to capture what you wanted to by the end of this journey?
KM: “I shot the film for close to a year and a half and was putting it together as I went along. My curiosities in themes like masculinity, identity and technology provided a mould for the film. But like I said earlier my approach was fluid and the process itself shaped the film we see now. Ultimately, however, the guiding motif was always the emotional arc of Buddha’s life. I was lucky to catch him in a transitional phase.”
HG: If you had to summarise what your film is about into one sentence, what would it be
KM: “Sophisticated kitsch.”
HG: What projects are you currently working on that we can look forward to?
KM: “I’m currently in development on my next feature which is much more of a traditional narrative. It’s a pulpy comedy, set in Gurgaon, laced with virtual reality, cam-sex and sleazy ashrams.”
HG: How do you feel about your screening coming up at MAMI? Are you worried at all at how the film would be received in India?
KM: “There is no way this film could make it to an audience through the traditional theatrical system due to strict censorship rules so I’m quite excited to get an Indian premiere at MAMI. But what I am more curious about is how the film would be perceived, given that it doesn’t follow the tropes of even an arthouse Indian film. I’d like to believe there is an audience for it. Its reception at Film Bazaar, where it won an award two years ago, has left me with a hopeful feeling.
Although this morning I saw a comment on our film’s Facebook page by some bloke brandishing a sword with a religious objection to our title - he wants us to change it. Wait till he sees the film!”
Buddha.mov is playing at the MAMI Film Festival at PVR Icon on October 27 and November 1 – book your tickets!
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