Woke

The Tiniest Invisible Piece of Shit

The Covid-19 lockdown has been a time of great misery and introspection. We got in a conversation with Indian filmmaker Pan Nalin, the name behind such international cult hits such as Samsara, The Valley of Flowers, Faith Connections and Angry Indian Goddesses on his latest short-film meditation titled “The Tiniest Invisible Piece of Shit!” and what message it may have for a world struck with the effects of a raging pandemic. Nalin’s film like his others, which have always been thought-provoking, is no different this time and comes as a result of real-life examinations and organic circumstances.

The Genesis

“It has been a difficult time for all of us. By March, we were facing a complete lockdown here in France. The initial three weeks were a very sad and depressing time, and the team was caught discussing the impact of the new normal,” explains Pan Nalin, often cited as amongst one of the most influential world-cinema directors from the country.

Only till the end of last year, he was busy with his crew in filming the ‘Last Film Show’, a semi-autobiographical tale set in 2010, about a countryside kid who becomes obsessed with cinema. Like the protagonist who endeavours to move heaven and earth, Pan Nalin too has faced many moments of truth along his journey as a filmmaker. But this time it was different.

Stuck in Paris, having shot about 95% of the film in Kathiawar, Gujarat, his post-production team had been flown in from India, New Zealand, Italy and Britain. Earlier, the shooting had been called off due to heavy rains, floods and shoot permissions from the Indian Railways. But all this was before the Covid-19 situation had grown serious, faced with a lockdown, the artistes all had to respond quickly and in time. “It was a very stressful first three weeks. We were all concerned about our financial situations, about how we were going to travel to different parts of the world. We had started selling stuff in order to pay back people, weren’t sure when the monies would be released,” Nalin explains.  “The team had decided to stay in touch and help those whom we could as we parted ways.”

“We were constantly tuned to the news. Some of the people who worked with us in our film were very poor people. About 8-10 people who worked on the film wanted to get back home. Two to Nepal, a few wanted to reach home to Bihar. Two of the child actors were just like family to us having appeared in the film. One was a cobbler from a small street in Porbandar in Gujarat whose whole dhanda now stands shut down, and the second was the child of a building constructor earning daily wages in Ahmedabad. Both of these children were very special to us on the team, and when the lockdown was first announced, we knew that they would be the most directly affected by this from our immediate circle,” reveals the filmmaker.

He says, “As we were all watching the headlines from our parts of the world, and caught up on Zoom calls, we wondered how we could be making an impact to contribute better. One of the first things I said to Pavan, our editor, was to why not just start looking at what the world was saying, instead of focusing on what we wanted to say. Was there a way for us to document all that people were saying around us — in person, on social media, on the news, was there a way to constantly track this?”

The Meditations

“Thus we started sharing the news from all around us. I’d share a link on how one guy had taken a drone shot of hundreds of parked planes at an airport during the shutdown of the world. Meanwhile, someone forwarded a clip of deers roaming the streets in Dehradun. Everyone started sharing. And suddenly, we realised a couple of things were happening around us. One was that people were dying because of the pandemic everywhere. Second, nature was taking back control. A 27-year-old friend in Krakow, Poland told me he could witness the Tatra mountains for the first time in his life. He had been staying there forever. The same thing had started happening in India. The Himalayan line was visible from so many towns across the horizon in places as far-flung as Bhatinda,” discloses Nalin.

 

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“We knew we were meditating on this interesting material. And then came a very shocking incident, one of my Italian friends who is a screenwriter, lost people who were close to her — her uncle, aunt, all afflicted by the coronavirus. She shared how tragically she wasn’t even allowed to visit their funeral. She could only witness it on Whatsapp. This was a strict time in Italy, and nobody was allowed to go out. On a previous occasion, I too had met them in Italy,” he shares in dismay.

“A similar thing had happened within my family. My brother’s younger daughter who is 14 was stuck in Gujarat and it took them 78 days to be reunited together in Mumbai. Even when the family had met, the doctor had strictly advised them not to hug each other. He recounts how his brother narrated, ‘If you love her, don’t hug her.’ These were things I’d never heard in my lifetime. That if you love someone then don’t hug them, stay far away from them. The world was being disrupted in a way never before,” he remarks.

All these incidents were naturally gravitating the filmmaker and his select crew to meditate on all that they were experiencing individually and collectively. “When we decided to document all of how we were feeling via a short meditation, we discussed the tone this storytelling would take. We didn’t want to be preachy. The world was coming apart. Secondly, it was easy for people to come back and remind us of our privilege. Who are we the ones to judge? How could one narrative encompass everything? So this is how the ideas started to flow,” Nalin states.

The Team

“The final script was a culmination of a lot of banter back and forth between my co-writers Ann Marie Di Mambro in the UK, Selene Favuzzi in southern Italy, Amrit Maghera in LA and me here in Paris. I had decided to work with talents whom I’d already worked with before because we shared a rapport and knew each other well enough to understand our intent. Luckily, Amrit who is a singer too had a fantastic sound booth for recording in her house in Los Angeles, and was able to perform several versions of voiceovers, and edit the text. The editing was happening remotely with Pavan Bhat in Bangalore. Thus, we started working and putting down sketches together, and getting excited about the way the short film was shaping.”

 

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“The content came at us from people in real-life. I’d heard so many people tell me how they were stuck in Paris, but don’t find it romantic anymore. Much of what you see in the short film is people’s lines verbatim. We were just the vehicles, mediators of a crowdsourced narrative. As an artist, one tries to take what the collective trauma of people around him is and process it in one’s way. One thing, however, was certain, that humanity had collectively decided that it could achieve much together,” Nalin elucidates.

Being Woke

We still can do much with rightful action. “If we can shut down the entire world’s airport system, if you could clean the air over Delhi, maybe we can all be agents of change. Maybe we were being lied to by the politicians about clean air. Why does this seem like a lost cause, when we could cut down pollution levels in just 72 hours?” he asks.

“We realised that the only reason everybody was acting in unison was that the coronavirus was impacting everyone indiscriminately, whether the bigwigs in Iran or the Prime-minister Boris Johnson in the UK. The rich, the big politicians, the powerful people, celebrities —  nobody was spared. When we talk of climate change, for example, people seem disconnected. How does Delhi struggling for fresh air impact someone on a clean beach in California? I felt willingly, or unwillingly the way humans came together, to sanitise the planet, wear masks, to control our movement could be indicative of the steps we need to mirror to protect life here on earth,” he explains.

“The result is evident. The hardest-hit epicentres of the Pandemic — Germany, Italy, Spain and France — have controlled the situation with extended days of lockdown, followed now by systematic relaxation. The most number of cases were in Italy and they were able to turn the curve in flat 110 days. All this because of the collective decisions made by politicians, industries and people themselves. It was like the tiniest piece of shit was teaching us something. Maybe after the lockdown, we would no longer be in doubt on who is the master and who the guest. For us, the metaphor was the same — to sanitise the world as we do ourselves during a pandemic. These discussions within the team became the genesis of the film.

The Tiniest Invisible Piece of Shit

The virus seen as an agent of change on the film has been described as ‘the tiniest invisible piece of shit,’ and the curious moniker had us guessing. So we asked the director as to why he named it so.

“I’d seen an interview of a woman in Spain who had lost 4 members of her family, including the youngest aged 29 to the coronavirus. She was crying in Spanish and the subtitled translation read ‘this tiniest invisible piece of shit has ruined my family. I don’t even know what the fuck it looks like. It has taken everything from me.” This description stayed with me. As we started writing the script, we realised that it had cynical humour to it. Another interview we’d read from a doctor at John Hopkins University explained that about 100 million viruses could fit on to a pin head. The name thus came to stay,” he reveals.

This virus has shut the world down, and the short film makes some pertinent observations. Although the film speaks for itself, it has found resonance amongst many, including such stalwarts such as James V Hart, the celebrated writer behind Dracula, Contact and Frankenstein. Earlier, Ashutosh Gowarikar had also tweeted about the short and its discourse. “The most touching comment we received was from people who believed that the film lent a voice to all that they were feeling. The film was a vehicle to express themselves. The motivation was never to make money.”

Fissures in Societies

But the world has much to learn as we keep apart to stay connected. As we parted ways, we couldn’t stop ourselves from picking the brains of the veteran director and his take on the raging protests the world over in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As a celebrated global filmmaker who has opened to packed theatres in Toronto, Zurich and elsewhere, what was his take on racism in world cinema? Did he ever experience it?

“Cinema and arts deal with the so-called educated and cultured people. The racism thus manifests in an extremely subtle way. It absolutely does exist. It’s not about the country, more than the racism, there exists a certain level of classism as well. American films are preferred globally, there is a reason why 92% of the world market is dominated by them. You cannot deny the preference.”

He divulges, “Movies like Parasite made in South Korea wouldn’t find mainstream traction were they not recognised in the US. Don’t forget that Parasite is not at all the best South-Korean film made in the last year. Many could have qualified for the Oscars, including the ones made by the same director. It took almost 30-40 years to make Black Panther, and another 29 years to make a Wonder Woman with a woman in the lead. So it’s never been easy.”

“The biggest Indian films are not exportable. The global audiences may not relate to it. So when Indian filmmakers go making films, they are typecasted as indie filmmakers or arthouse filmmakers. Commerce is an integral part of cinema. When you go raise funds, you sometimes realise that you are somehow not getting funds because you may be an Indian. Some funds are openly reserved for certain nationalities. We don’t have such a system in India, although we did earlier with NFDC. But in India, the politicians can change the rules and give millions of rupees to a Brit director to make Gandhi. This doesn’t happen in other countries. Nobody is doling out money because you are a good Indian director by bending the rules of their stated funds. The subtle racism can be felt at every level —  at film festivals, with distributors, during fundraising — one needs to get into the details to notice,” he shares from experience.

“What I find strange is when I see people holding placards for #BlackLivesMatter while being completely antipathetic to the situation closer home. I haven’t seen many filmmakers talking about the poor migrants stranded here or the journalists such as Gauri Lankesh being shot, or the lynching of Sadhus in Maharashtra,” he wonders.

“What is the value of life in India? What is the value of life in Africa? It’s all judged by economic power, political power. But we must all make a conscious change in such a narrative,” the filmmaker concludes.

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