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Mystic Mother: A Pujo at Brahmaputra

Journey with us to the banks of the roaring Brahmaputra river, as we glimpse the untamed sights and sounds of the chaotic, colourful celebrations of the festival of Navaratri, and explore the traditions and customs of Durga Puja, in the city of Guwahati. In this edition of TheVibe Curates, we follow Prakash Vaidhyanathan in his travels through Assam, as he captures the joy and festivities through the lens of his camera.

Hailing from the city of Cochin in Southwestern Kerala, Prakash knew from an early age that his passion for film was one he must follow through to the end. With this dream in mind, and with his life packed into suitcases, Prakash moved to Mumbai in the year 2010. He began assisting with cameras, splitting his time between honing his craft through the medium of books and hands-on experience. A few years into this practice, Prakash realized that if he truly wanted to be the man that made the films he has always envisioned, he would have to do more than this.

What followed was a decade spent dividing his time between camera assistant and assistant director jobs, and staying as close to the camera as he possibly could. Securing a job assisting a highly reputed director, Prakash was finally on the right track. When asked about his early days in the industry, Prakash cites a book entitled Running the Show, authored by Liz Gill, a highly reputed first AD in Hollywood productions, having worked with the likes of Martin Scorsese, as his biggest source of insight into assembling and sequentialising resources for production.

We got talking with Prakash himself, as he elaborated on his experience and what it means to be a filmmaker in the 21st century.

What drew you to filmmaking?

My sister got married when I was very young and still in school, probably while I was a teenager. Being my older sister, I got a lot of her hand-me-downs, like her scooter, and her old bedroom, and amongst those things was a video rental card, which allowed me to walk into a store and rent out films and footage from their library. There’s not very much to do in Cochin, at the time, there was only one café in all of Cochin. Going to the cinema was never a big part of my family’s culture- we had never been to the cinema as a family. I had always wanted to explore foreign cinema, and the video rental house that I now had a membership with was very well stocked, even keeping up with new releases from around the world. With my sister’s rental card in hand, I began renting out, and watching as many films as I possibly could- at least three a day.

Adaptation, a film by Spike Jonze, starring Nicholas Cage was one of the first ones I saw that connected with me. It features the story of a screenwriter-turned-director in the process of adapting a script, with Cage playing a double role of the director and his twin brother, where the character of the twin is one that is successful in various fields without applying himself to any subject in a way that matters. It’s a brilliant film and moved me. It’s also an especially off-beat film, much like many others that I would have never encountered if it wasn’t for my sister’s video rental card. I even befriended the shopkeeper at the store, and he would give me recommendations on what films to watch.

What inspired you to shoot the Durga Puja in Assam? Why did you pick this topic? Are you particularly religious?

I didn’t know about Assam being such a massive stage for Durga Puja, I had been in the area working on another project at the time. It was just something that was happening in the backdrop to me at the time. The Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati is a very important religious place of worship. There’s also a fascinating story to it- Kamakhya is one of the many names given to Shakti, the bride of Shiva. According to the legends, the temple is the site where the goddess Kamakhya’s reproductive aspects were scattered after Shiva danced with the corpse of his bride. It’s a place regarded for its feminine energies. During Durga Pooja, it is swarming with people who have undertaken religious pilgrimages. I am fascinated by traditions of this nature, they reflect who we are a society. The way we tell stories, the way that Hinduism regards its female goddesses, that’s what I wanted to explore.

I am an atheist, but I feel a sense of responsibility as a filmmaker, to portray society in its purest form. When I was studying cinema, I had this professor who came down from the States. He travelled around the country, and when we got to interact with him, he told us that we were luckier than we knew, because we had the opportunity to document our times. Things change, and as an artist of any kind, you have the unique opportunity to provide a window into a certain period, into the people that belong there, and into their minds. That window will not come around ever again. As a documentary filmmaker, I think that’s the core of what we do. We pursue the truth. There is an investigative nature to art, and I think of Mystic Mother as an investigative project as well.

What was your experience like, shooting in the midst of all of the celebrations? Could you tell me a little bit about the various locations you visited during filming?

We shot mostly in Guwahati, in the city. The city itself is divided into two parts by the Brahmaputra river, which flows smack through the middle of the city. The culture of Guwahati is very fascinating, it’s one of the cities that recently went through a huge population explosion, within the last 60-odd years. Many reasons contributed to this, one of which is that the region is enjoying a time of prosperity due to their commerce and agricultural sectors. Another factor is the inflow of immigrants from neighbouring regions the likes of Bangladesh. With a population comprising of so many different people, the culture of the city grows and moves at a quicker pace. One would imagine that Durga Puja is limited to areas like Bangladesh, but you will find that this is not true and that all regions share a common thread of cultural activities.

Shooting amongst the actual procession was chaotic. You have no control over anything. Every moment unfolding around you is special, but it’s a matter of pointing your camera in the right direction at the right moment.

For those who are unaware, can you tell us about Durga Puja? What does it entail?

Kumari Puja, or Durga Puja occurs on the day of Navami, and is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. It is the last day of battle between goddess Durga and demon Mahishasura. On this day of Maha Navami, the goddess Durga is worshipped as Mahisasuramardhini – which translates to “the slayer of the buffalo demon” or Mahishasura. The whole festival takes place over for 10 days.

Unlike other Hindu religious festivals in India, wherein a vegetarian diet and ideals of celibacy and abstinence from vices are promoted, the celebrations for Durga Puja are more lenient- one can partake of meat and alcohol, and celebrate in whatever way they see fit. Assam as a whole has a large culture of meat consumption, it’s a big part of their cultural identity.

How do the customs of Durga Puja, and Navratri in Assam differ from those in Kolkata, or anywhere else in the nation?

Well, not many people are aware of this, but Kamakhya is the focal point of the celebrations all around the nation. The centralized concept of Durga Puja was born of the rituals and practices that take place there, with other forms of the festivities following suit. In this way, the celebrations at Kamakhya have had a massive influence on the way the day is celebrated in other parts of the nation.

The practices differ vastly- the thing is, the regions are so different, with people that differ in terms of culture and belief, which reflects in their attire, in the way the idols are dressed, and so on. For example, the folk chanting of Oja Pali is only heard in the Guwahati Durga Pujas, and is unlike the other mantras and chants heard during the festivities in other parts of the nation. There are many small tribes in the Northeast of the Hindu belief, and those tribal rituals, traditions, and customs have also been incorporated into the festivities in the region as a whole. An example of this is the bali, or the sacrificing of the animal in the name of the goddess, which is practised in other parts of the nation as well, but began in a certain sense in Guwahati.

There are a lot of similarities too, and a lot of cross-cultural influence that is very evident. The practice of Bhog, or of giving out Prasad in a communal feast that is entirely free of cost, is pretty much the same across the board, as is the timeline of the festivities and days of worship. The way the idols are displayed upon massive Pandals, those are pretty similar too, having been erected by the locals of the areas.

Tell us a little bit about the title of the film, why is the piece entitled Mystic Mother?

Well, the goddess Durga/Kali can be described as a mystic. She comes and goes every year, like a traveller. Every depiction of her form is larger than life, with elements of supernatural power and energy evident in every iteration. Even though the practices and rituals involved in her worship have sprouted from mainstream Hinduism, they are so vastly different from the norm, almost bordering on the occult.

I contemplated many titles- I was left with ‘Bloodlust’ and ‘Mystic Mother’ as my final two options. I felt like ‘Bloodlust’ gave away too much of the ending, and also alienated some of the viewers of the film. Even though the goddess’s very existence is a celebration of violence in some form, I thought ‘Bloodlust’ might be viewed as my opinion on certain practices, which wasn’t exactly true.

What was it like filming the sacrifice of the animal for the film? Could you tell us a little bit about that shot in particular?

That particular shot was very tense. The rest of the shoot went by very smoothly, everyone was very cooperative, but they didn’t want us to film the sacrifice itself. If you notice, in the film, I never showed the actual slicing- it was only ever implied. I think the reason behind this is that they were just fearful of being misrepresented- people have different beliefs and interests when it comes to such things. There are temples in the South where animal sacrifice has been an important historical element that is still considered the norm, but over the years many others have put a stop to such practices. However, it is still practised at Kamakhya.

Do you have any stories from your time spent filming? Did you have any interesting interactions with the locals of the region?

Quite a few. I encountered ex-ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) members. My film doesn’t address the politics of the area, but there was a recent student revolution that took place in Assam, in the late 1970s. Most people in Assam are quite politically aware, and student politics is a powerful tool amongst citizens. People are angered at having been ignored by the central government, they are taxpaying citizens of the country, and have not been given their dues. I learned that the resources allocated for Assam are minimal, to say the least, and for that reason, the citizens believe that the central government has been exploitative of the region. This was the cause of the rebellion.

I shot by the Brahmaputra river, in most of the villages surrounding it. The river plays a huge part in the lives of the locals. It’s so much vaster than people realize. As I mentioned earlier, part of the reason for this current era of prosperity is the river itself, which enriches the soil with its nutrients, making it capable to sustain this rapid growth in population.

What is the one message or thought you would like to convey to your audience through the means of this film? As a filmmaker and director, what does the film mean to you?

My desire to make the film didn’t come from my love for the Hindu religion. I have a sense of belonging with my nation, a sense of brotherhood with all of its citizens. I embrace the culture of India, whatever it may stand for. As a filmmaker of today, there is a huge sense of responsibility within me to pursue the truth, and showcase our times and traditions for what they are. My film doesn’t pass judgements; it doesn’t say whether a thing is right or wrong, that’s for the audience to decide. When I have shared my film with people in the past, I have been met by a multitude of different opinions. Some people feel that it supports and embraces the culture of the place, while some look at it negatively, they look at my film and say, “Okay, this is the truth, now, what can be done about it?”

The film speaks for itself, in that way I feel like I have created something of value. The idea is to trigger a thought in the audience’s heads. If one was to take away the religious aspect of sacrifice, it’s very easy to accept that Assam is a nation with a culture of meat-lovers. However, the moment you display it in such a manner, to witness a life being lost, that is almost too painful to endure. My film has a beginning, a middle and an end. In my mind, the film is the story of the life of a person- you are born, there is a huge celebration, which is representative of life, and before you know it, it comes to an end. It’s a reminder that life is a fleeting moment, and that we all share something, and if in that time, we can move away from our differences and learn to coexist with all the different people and cultures around us, and embrace those differences- if we can do that, things would change for the better. That was the message I intended to relay with my film.

There is a debate amongst documentary filmmakers, about how much fiction one is allowed to incorporate into a film. Part of my film is staged- I had asked those young girls to don their Mehkla Chadars, which are the local traditional costumes for the celebrations, to get an authentic shot of them in the midst of it all- the costumes define the culture of the region, and the way the kids are dressed, the colour of their clothes are very specific to Guwahati. Now, the debate is as to the nature of a documentary film- what is a documentary? Is it non-interference? Or does the filmmaker have the liberty to twist facts, and affect their environment? I believe that conversation is irrelevant. I don’t see a distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is a vehicle of truth, and if you think about it, the moment you place a camera in the middle of a scene, you are distorting the reality of the situation. I never knew what this film was meant to be until it was in pieces on my edit table, which is when it took form.  To that extent, it is very much an investigative documentary piece, while also painting a picture of something that I witnessed, that I have tried to showcase in a manner that is undiluted and free of my personal biases and convictions. It’s a huge responsibility and a sheer joy to be able to document our times.

Watch Mystic Mother here!

All the images used in this article are courtesy of Prakash Vaidhyanathan

 

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