Telling stories about ‘the rest’

The team behind Baaki Pictures talks to us about documentary filmmaking.

9 min read

Baaki Pictures is a documentary filmmaking outfit determined to create a space for all narratives, especially those not seen in the mainstream.

Baaki means ‘the rest’ or ‘the leftover’ in Tamil, Malayalam, and Hindi.

In their own words:

“Our idea of an ideal film space is one where the narratives of everyone are heard in the mainstream. We have been entertained by formulaic, commercial films, where the hero saves the day. What we envision is a space for the baaki as well.”

Baaki Pictures recently released their first documentary, Nam Devaru Aathara [Our Gods Are Like That]. It is a short anthology of four incidents that happen over a span of two days around Bangalore. These incidents make us inquire into the way superstition, faith, and spirituality compromise human dignity. It has been played at Kolkata People’s Film Festival, Jaipur International Film Festival. It won Best Documentary at Kalaburagi International Film Festival, and runner up at New Delhi International Film Festival.

The team is currently working on Suttham [Clean], a feature length Tamil documentary on the waste workers of Chennai. Work is in progress, following a successful crowdfunding campaign.

The crew

An artist, a cinematographer, and a musician come together to tell stories, to change the perception that documentary films are boring, tedious, badly produced.

Premkrishna Akkattu has a design and art background. He works on storyboarding, and he enjoys building things. He takes charge of the camera, contributes to editing, and any other jobs that may come up.

Sraiyanti Haricharan specializes in cinematography. She also works on editing, colouring, and direction.

Badhri Narayanan Seshadhri takes care of the music. He works on a variety of projects, including Motta Maadi Music, a concept for a concert where audiences perform along with the musicians.

We had a few questions for the team. Read on to find out what Prem and Sraiyanti had to say.

Poster of Nam Devaru Aathara [Our Gods Are Like That]
How did you decide on the subject of Nam Devaru Aathara? What kind of research did this involve?

Sraiyanti: I was approached by Bharath Gyan Vigyan Samithi [People’s Science Movement] to make a short documentary on superstition. I was fresh out of film school and had little experience in the practical side of filmmaking. We just started out, and for two days, we went around the city of Bangalore. We chanced upon four incidents, all of which were fundamentally tied to religion, and which put to question the self respect and freedom of people. We wanted to demonstrate how commonplace this is. We put all of it together as an anthology.

Can you tell us a little about the process of shooting this film? How did the people you filmed react to your crew? How did you engage with them?

Sraiyanti: We were a crew of five when we set out to shoot this. I was the only one with a film background then. I hadn’t yet met Prem and Badhri. People were happy to share stories over tea. For the more sensitive stories, such as the one about segregation during menstruation, we were mostly speaking to young women who were not older than 20. We decided that one of the (female) Kannada speakers in the crew and I would handle it. Kids spoke easily and candidly, as they often do. Some adults, like the Godman in Mallavalli was only all too happy to speak to the camera.

What were some of the more memorable reactions to Nam Devaru Aathara? Was anyone moved enough to introspect the role of religion in their lives?

Sraiyanti: I was only able to attend one screening in person, at Kolkata People’s Film Festival. I remember this festival had a great lineup of independent films. I wanted to emphasize to the audience that although the film unfolds in rural and semi urban areas, these incidents happen in cities too, like the city of Chennai, where I’m from. One member of the audience was quite shocked that such things happen in South India.

I hope the film encouraged people to introspect. A lady from the audience came to me and said that she’d recommended the film to her friend. She thought he’d have really liked it, as he was an atheist. I found that quite interesting.

The film, in my mind, isn’t meant to be a speaking for atheism.

I don’t think religion is wrong, just the way it is utilised sometimes. Communal hatred has become a tool for politics today. And people’s behaviour is being manipulated through their unquestionable belief in rituals. We are seeing a return to religious fundamentalism. If someone can take away another person’s dignity on the basis of religion, violence and murder for that same cause aren’t many steps away. Gowri Lankesh, Narendra Dabholkar and Govindrao Pansare were murdered for saying this. This was part of the reason for the film coming out.

One of the clips from the movie that you shared on Instagram clearly portrayed how Hindu religion and caste are one and the same. While filming this portion, did you encounter people who rejected this oppressive system? How were they able to carry on when community life is so centered on casteist religious practices?

Sraiyanti: I don’t think caste and Hinduism are one and the same. I think the caste system once incorporated into Hinduism, became an unremovable part of it. It is an old battle. When someone born into Hinduism rejects caste, there are always casualties.

There were people we filmed who rejected the idea of it. Thayyama rejected the idea that she was untouchable. She entered a temple she was forbidden to enter. Thayamma and Padmamma fought for their right to pray in the community temple. In doing so, they rejected caste. When we went to their village, tensions were high, and police were on standby. That is the price they paid for rejecting caste.

Prem and I worked on a film titled India’s Forbidden Love. It was about Shankar, the husband of Kausalya, who was killed for marrying out of caste.

People carry on, by winning long, hard battles. They don’t see victory very often.

Sraiyanti and Prem in Bihar, on the set of a feature length documentary on Jainism, with a C300 mkii

Nam Devaru Aathara opens with this verse:

How can I feel right
about a god who eats up lacquer and melts,
who wilts when he sees fire?
How can I feel right
about gods you sell in your need
and gods you bury for fear of thieves?
– Basavanna (12th Century), From Verse 558, translated by A.K. Ramanujan

In your mind, who is the audience for your movies? We would think the people in your movies are not the ones watching it. Would you say this is a fair assumption?

Prem: In a general sense, people who aren’t used to watching documentaries are our audience. We want to tell stories in ways that will change the perception of documentaries in India. Anyone who thinks a documentary is a boring film with a voiceover and a bit of information is our audience. A documentary isn’t just a source of information, it can also make a person feel empathy. And that is something we feel is really important in today’s world.

Sraiyanti: When we started out making documentaries, I had the perspective that the people in our films couldn’t be the audience. But I’ve since changed my mind. Suttham, the film we are working on, is going to be a film that gives everyone in the waste picking community a real story to relate to. Relatable stories give strength. They have the ability to make you feel like you are not alone in this huge world. We have heroes who do that for people watching Tamil cinema. Why not have real people do it too? At the same time, we hope Suttham will also reach the person who is completely disconnected from the reality of someone who works in waste. Maybe it will help bridge the gap a little.

Prem using a tripod for a makeshift follow shot during the filming of the project that led to Suttham, Chennai

We are currently living through a pandemic. Sanitation workers are expected to continue working without protective equipment, as they have always been forced to. Once you are able to restart production work, do you think you will alter the narrative of Suttham to reflect current events?

Prem: Yes, we will alter Suttham on the basis of this pandemic. When working in a documentary, you do have to adapt and alter your storyline in accordance to what happens in real life. This is a huge life altering event for us all. So it will, in all likeliness, reflect in the film too.

What options do you think you have for funding, apart from crowdfunding? What are your biggest challenges when making these films?

Prem: The challenge is always the budget, because there isn’t a market for this yet.

There is no one rushing to fund documentaries in India. But it is changing slowly. We are applying for international funds for Suttham. There are a few producers in India who have also expressed interest in the film.

Do you have anything to say to someone interested in pursuing documentary filmmaking? Is there something you wish you knew when you were starting out?

Prem: To be open to everything. Don’t go with preconceived notions. Even if things aren’t going according to what you researched, be ready to adapt to that situation. At the end of the day, your ideology shouldn’t come in the way of learning something new from somebody. We’re telling the stories of the people we film, not the versions that we want them to be.

Sraiyanti: Clarity is important. There is nothing worse than a confused storyteller. I’d also say it is most important that we place the characters before ourselves. Their comfort and safety matters more than anything else. Sensitivity in dealing with issues is important too.

This question is for Prem. When you say “Even if things aren’t going according to what you researched, be ready to adapt to that situation,” can you give us an example of when such a thing happened, and how you responded to it?

Prem: A short time before we began Baaki Pictures, Sraiyanti and I used to take on a lot of independent work. Between the two of us, we managed direction, sound, camera, post production.

One time, we were asked to shoot a film about a woman in North India who had been repeatedly and brutally raped, and attacked with acid multiple times over the course of 10 years, by the same perpetrators. The person who had commissioned the project asked us to contact an NGO, who would be our “fixer” on the ground. Neither of us knew much about the place we had to film in. It was a state known for high crime rates, and there was the risk of facing pressure from the perpetrators, who were known to have attacked her time and again in public spaces.

We relied entirely on an NGO as the fixer who would guide us. The information from the commissioner made it seem like the NGO had done immense good work and were trustworthy people. However, upon going there, we found that the NGO was merely looking for publicity. We learnt that the people involved in committing the atrocities included law officials, doctors, even other NGOs. We found ourselves on our own for five days. We managed to make a short film, we tried to be true to her despite struggling with the place and language. She was a genuine, lovely person, who wanted her story told, in spite of everything. She hoped that at least this attempt may get her some justice. Unfortunately, this film was never released. We remain friends with her to this day.

Prem inside a showcase while filming a documentary on Jainism (in post production), Ahmedabad
Prem inside a showcase while filming a documentary on Jainism (in post production), Ahmedabad

If we had relied solely on the word of the fixer, we wouldn’t have known the truth of what happened to this person. Documentary filmmakers when crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries may find themselves stuck in situations like this. It is important to not panic. We have to solve the problem and go forward with the story.

Similarly with Suttham. We had done months of research about the dumpyard. But upon going to the location, we were initially met with so much mistrust, as it was the ‘playing ground’ for a lot of journalists and filmmakers before us.

Situations that arise out there are a pole apart from what we read about.

Is there a specific documentary or documentary filmmaker you think of as inspiration for your own journey?

Sraiyanti: Yes, Franklin Dow. He was the cinematographer of a short documentary I saw four years ago, called We Are Fire. It changed for me the idea of how a documentary should look. He made everything look so beautiful.

Prem and Sraiyanti: We like Orlando Von Einsiedel, director of Virunga and White Helmets. Sadhana Subramaniam is someone we’ve worked with who really inspired us, both on a personal as well as professional level. We feel we’ve learnt so much from her.

Where can we watch Nam Devaru Aathara? Is there a link you can share? Have you considered OTT platforms like Netflix to reach a wider audience?

Sraiyanti: Nam Devaru Aathara is still doing the rounds of festivals and private screenings. We are not considering OTT platforms because the film was made on an extremely small budget, and not of the production quality we would like. But we will definitely consider OTT platforms for future projects. The goal after all is to get more people to watch these films.

What are your plans for future projects? Do you have any ideas in mind?

Prem: As of now, Suttham is our priority. It’s a feature length film. But we have ideas for short films both in fiction and documentary genres.

Sraiyanti with Director Sadhana Subramaniam while filming the climax portion of Al Jazeera Witness ‘India’s Forbidden Love’, Udumalpet

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