Film Courage: Where did you grow up?
Saumyananda Sahi: I grew up in a village called Siluvepura, which is 35 kilometers north of Bangalore in South India. Till I was eleven years old I studied in Sita School, which was just a few hundred meters from our home. As a result there was very little reason for me to step out of the village, and I rarely visited the city till I was about 9, when I started learning to play the classical guitar and had to go to a music school once a week for lessons. My four siblings are separated from me by 7 years and above, so by the time I was five years old they had all left Sita School for their higher studies in a Krishnamurthy boarding school called Valley School. So for much of the childhood I can remember, I was the only child at home.
We did not have television, and the newspapers didn’t reach us either. Much of my day was spent outdoors. If you have seen my film, ‘Small Things, Big Things,’ you will have a pretty clear idea of what my childhood was like in school. The days were always packed, and by 8:00 PM it would be bedtime.
Although we were living in a remote area, I grew up meeting a lot of different people who used to come either as volunteers in the school, or to meet my father who is a painter and for many years used to run a small residency called Inscape. People came from all over the country and often also from abroad, so there were always many stories. My father also used to travel a lot, giving workshops or for commissioned art projects, and he would come back with his own stories too.
The outside world was very far away, but at the same time it would always visit us at home without our having to go anywhere.
Film Courage: How would you describe yourself as a child?
Saumyananda There is strip from Calvin & Hobbes which always makes me laugh, in which Calvin accuses people who feel nostalgic about their childhood of forgetting what it was actually like to be a child.
Looking back to describe myself as a five or six year old, I feel aware of my tendency to look for the good things or pick out details to give a background against which the things I value now might be highlighted. In fact, one of the things I remember hating the most as a child was being patronized for being a child. I used to keep a diary, and remember writing to my future adult-self not to judge me, not to trivialize what I might have felt!
I interacted with adults perhaps more than other children might, and I was always in a hurry to grow up. Having four older siblings who were far away in boarding school or in college while I was still at home often made me feel left out. There were things they could do that I couldn’t, and because they were closer together in terms of age I was jealous of the company they had in each other.
But at the same time, as my siblings frequently point out, being the last has its advantages as well. Perhaps after being parents already for 15 years before I came along, my parents had found that good parenting isn’t always active parenting. I remember having a lot of freedom to be on my own and I reveled in it. As a child I also remember falling sick very often, and that meant I had to spend many hours in bed. But it was only when I left home that I became familiar to how being alone is so often associated with being bored. I do not remember being bored as a child there was so much to do!
I always had some project to keep myself busy collecting rocks, collecting different shaped alcohol bottles from my elder brothers parties, collecting bones. Once, convinced I would grow up to be a paleontologist, I went to the extent of digging up one of our pets which we had buried in the garden and re-assembled the entire skeleton. At another time I tried to design my own type-font, and when I started learning music, I tried to invent my own notation system. Me and my brother Roshan even set up a band to play some of my compositions. We called ourselves the Junglies. Later I started taking photographs, which became a real obsession.
I started reading when I was quite young, and books opened up entire worlds. Books were how I traveled sitting right at home. I read all sorts of books and because my parents love reading as well, we had a wonderful library. Many books contained secrets of the adult world and as a child I was very interested in adults, and wanted to know as much as I could to become one.
When I was 11, my brother Kiran came for the summer holidays with a TV and a VHS player. He was studying in the National Institute of Design at the time, and had become an avid film enthusiast. So he started renting out VHS cassettes from Bangalore to watch and that is how I started watching films, too. I still remember the first adult film that I saw, it was ‘Wild Strawberries,’ by Ingmar Bergman. That same week I also saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker.’ After not being exposed to anything more than a few episodes of Postman Pat and Lion King with years passing between each this was something else, and the thrill kept me awake at night!
I decided straight off that this was what I wanted to do. No one took me seriously, as previously with equal conviction I had wanted to become a paleontologist, a guitar player, a rock climber. it was a long list. But somehow filmmaking stuck. I only touched a video camera years later, when I was sixteen. But by then I had written so many scripts and imagined so many films that I felt I was well on my way. I never had any doubts filmmaking it was going to be. Almost twenty years later, filmmaking it still is.
Film Courage: Did you go to film school?
Saumyananda: In late 2009 I joined the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune as a cinematography student. But it was not only a film school that I had enrolled myself into; it was an extended family. Besides being the place where I watched the classics on celluloid and exposed my first images on film at 24 frames a second, FTII was the place where I met my wife, Tanushree, and where I met many of my closest friends, with whom I have been collaborating ever since.
While growing up I devoured the autobiographies of Luis Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa I saved up pocket money to buy and read the wonderful Faber and Faber series of interviews with the great directors. The more I read and saw, the more I became convinced that art was not something to study academically. When I met Christopher Doyle in 2004, he told me not to even think of going to film school. And for a long time I didn’t. Instead I went to the Berlin Talent Campus in 2005, while I was still in school doing my A Levels.
After school I took a year off. I started borrowing cameras and making small videos. I used to take favors from a few filmmakers I knew in Bangalore, to allow me to use their editing systems at night. I thought I would jump-start straight into the profession, but it didn’t quite work out that way.
I didn’t have money to make films. I went to Bombay and got a job to assist Bharat Bala on a martial-arts feature he was supposed to make, but the project got canned. I went back home and spent a few months writing my first feature script, but quickly realized it was beyond my means to even think of making it. Instead I wrote a shorter and less ambitious script, and managed to get together some equipment and a small crew. But we ran out of money on the second day of shoot, and the plan fell through. My parents suggested I should go to college, and so at the last minute I applied to St. Stephens College to study philosophy, and got through.
After I finished my course three years later, I started working in the Delhi Art Gallery under Pramod K.G. where my job was to catalog and archive around 80,000 negatives taken by Nemai Ghosh, most of which were production stills from various films directed by Satyajit Ray. As a result I was paid to watch all of Ray’s films, and handle those negatives to identify as many details depicted in them as possible which was very exciting detective work. But after six months of being holed up in a basement from 10 to 5, my enthusiasm began to wear thin. I wanted to make films myself.
Again I tried to find a way into the profession directly. I had met Wim Wenders in Berlin for a workshop, and knew that he sometimes worked with complete freshers. So I wrote to him asking for a job doing anything. There was no reply.
I applied to the Film and Television Institute of India when I was losing hope in my chances of finding any other route into filmmaking. It was too difficult, and too expensive. And if this was to be my profession, I needed to earn from it and live by it. So I decided to study a technical skill, so that even if I did not direct my own films at least I could still work within the medium and earn my livelihood from it. My first choice was to study sound design, but to my disappointment I found that F.T.I.I. required a science background to be even eligible to apply. So instead I applied for cinematography, and got through.
F.T.I.I. changed my life, as it has done for almost everyone I know who has passed through it. It was a remarkable space, where people from as diverse backgrounds as you can imagine suddenly found themselves together and free. There were people from small towns I had never heard of, people from big cities who had already worked in the film industry for years, people who came from agricultural families and had never touched a camera before, people who already had children of their own and had decided to change profession and become students again. I was one of them, one among many. And the culture of the institute was extremely effective in breaking down any preconceived ideas we might have had, and it flattened our egos.
Everyone had a filmmaker in them, we were all the same and all different. We had to start there from scratch. The place demanded humility.
One of the strange things about F.T.I.I is that it is a hybrid of an extremely bureaucratic government institution as well as a liberal, wild, political, nonconformist and individual-centric creative legacy. The people we looked up to were more often than not our fellow students and alumni rather than the salaried teachers with secure pensions. Going to class was not sacrosanct. Making films was. We were in film school, but learning was always elsewhere.
So is going to film school important in the first place? If it lets you make films, then yes!
Film school gave me access to equipment I could never otherwise afford, and it gave me the opportunity to make my own mistakes without worrying about their consequences. It gave me an excuse to be leisurely with my time, without anybody judging me for it. It gave me space to disagree, which perhaps would have been more difficult if I was working professionally under someone in the industry. All these factors helped me grow.
But most importantly, what film school has given me is exposure to people like me and different from me and forced me to work with all of them. It has made me feel part of a community. It has stressed that relationships are the basis for art, not only the result of it.
Perhaps you don’t necessarily need to go to film school to get this exposure. Just like you don’t necessarily need to go to school to master a language and tell a good joke, or be a good friend. But schools are there to facilitate experiences within a microcosm and a short period of time, which can make those experiences far more intensive (if not necessarily extensive) than picking up things along the way as they happen in everyday life. Schools can give a kind of clarity, a focus much like a lens brings together scattered light into an image just by the structure of its glass elements.
Film Courage: In addition to studying film, you minored in Philosophy. How has this shaped your filmmaking?
Saumyananda: Philosophy is perhaps more about asking questions than answering them. It is a rigor and method of thinking an attempt to address what we don’t know about the world and ourselves. It can be applied to anything, and is about everything.
I cannot say exactly how studying philosophy has shaped my filmmaking any more than I can say how it has shaped my life. But no doubt it has.
One thing I can say is that philosophy has made me self-conscious of language and how so often we assume more than we understand when we express ourselves. I was very influenced by the Jain philosophy of the Syaad Vaada which is a system of logic that includes maybe as a valid truth-value. I was also very influenced by Wittgenstein’s Investigations and his idea that the meaning of words is in their use, not in some essential and external fact.
Philosophy made me see the same things with different lenses. Most importantly it made me experience what the Greeks call aporia the severe discomfort and restlessness of becoming aware of the limits of my knowledge.
I guess it is precisely this aporia in one shape or another that germinates and permeates every film I make.
Film Courage: Favorite philosopher quote?
Saumyananda: ‘The purpose of philosophy is to let the fly out of the fly-bottle.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein
Film Courage: What makes you happy?
Saumyananda: I am happiest when I am most engaged. And I am most engaged when I am with the people I love, making a film.
Film Courage: What inspired the idea for SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS?
Saumyananda: The same year that I joined F.T.I.I., in 2009, the government of India passed the Right to Education Act (RTI), which stipulated (among other things) that all schools in India that did not conform to the government approved curriculum and norms would become illegal. This meant that Sita School, where I had studied as a child and to which my mother had dedicated almost four decades of her life, was in danger of being shut down as it practiced a very different pedagogy.
It so happened that a few months later we also came to know that the government had given out a tender to a company called Hewitt and Associates to make a financial assessment of F.T.I.I. and come up with a scheme for its transference into a private-public partnership which would mean that the fees would increase and the subsidies be removed, making the film school unaffordable to a large section of Indian society. The entire student body went on protest against what we saw as the government’s systematic disinvestment from education, and we eventually did manage to curb the threat for the time being. Instead of Hewitt and Associates a committee of filmmakers (called the Nair committee) were appointed to chart out a plan for the future of the Institute.
During this time the topic of education was very much under discussion, and so was our own course structure in F.T.I.I. which was more and more becoming a real frustration for me. The teaching in F.T.I.I. was extremely classical, and was clearly differentiated into the various specializations. For example, as a camera student my teachers would actively discourage any interest I had in sound, editing or even worse, direction. As I felt that filmmaking was an organic synthesis of the different streams, I thought I should be learning more in film school than merely how to compose a beautiful shot and expose a healthy negative.
So what inspired me to make Small Things, Big Things was many-fold it was a response to a growing trend of standardization in education; it was an attempt to preserve a part of my past I valued greatly; it was an effort to understand what my mother had given so much of her life to and why; and it was a search for what it really means to have an education.
Film Courage: Do you remember a teacher who had the greatest impact on you? Can you tell us why and a few details on how they impacted your life/learning?
Saumyananda: When I was studying philosophy in Delhi, I had three teachers who became friends and with whom I have stayed in touch ever since. All three were remarkable people in their own right, but I would like to speak here about one of them in particular.
The incident that defines Mr. Nanda for me most is the time I asked him to read a script I had written, and give me his opinion. The script was a meager 20 pages, but he said he didn’t have the time to read so much and asked me instead to write a one-paragraph synopsis, and show it to him the next morning. I was hurt by the abrupt dismissal, but nevertheless spent the evening writing out a synopsis, which I showed him the next morning over a cup of tea. He read the first line, and began to nit-pick over the words I had used. He said it didn’t make sense. I got angry that he hadn’t read the whole synopsis before giving his comments, but nevertheless failed to defend myself regarding those few words he had issue with. Before we could finish our discussion the bell rang, and he told me to re-write it and show it to him the next day. Which I did, but the discussion that ensued from the second draft did not go much better than the first. And so it went on. I wrote and re-wrote the same paragraph so many times I can’t even remember.
Eventually I shot the film and edited it, but I still had not finished writing the synopsis. In fact I never did, at least not to Mr. Nanda’s satisfaction.
Later I realized that Mr. Nanda, who did not have time to read the 20 page script, had in fact spent hours and hours discussing those six or seven lines with me, over many months! By the end of it I started anticipating his criticisms even before he had the opportunity to voice them. Maybe he never taught me anything except that I needed more clarity, that I could say things more simply, that everything I did could be a little better.
Film Courage: How did you present the idea to film at the school with a small crew? What was the school board’s reaction?
Saumyananda: My mother had come to Pune, where I was studying at F.T.I.I., as there was going to be a meeting between a group of alternative educationalists in a nearby town called Phaltan. They were going to discuss what stand they would each take in relation to the Right to Education Act.
I spent a morning with my mother, and as we were having breakfast in a hotel she told me that the school might have to shut down the next year. The news came as a shock, and I asked her if I could make a film on the school while it was still open. She didn’t say no. That was in 2010.
Months passed and what with my classes in the Institute and then the protest against F.T.I.I. being handed over to a private-public partnership, there was too much going on to think of starting a feature documentary. It was only in February 2011 that I managed to actually go back to the school, get some basic equipment and start shooting. I did not really know what I was doing and with no sound recordist most of what I shot couldn’t be used. But the process had started.
Sita School is practically also my home it is where my parents live, it is where three of my siblings often teach, and where all my nieces and nephews study. So me going back to film there was neither a surprise nor a matter of discussion for anyone. It just started, and I was back in the same classrooms after a gap of some fifteen odd years. This time not with a notebook and pencil, but with a camera.
Film Courage: How long have you been planning the film?
Saumyananda: I filmed for one week in February 2011, and then realized that I needed money and a crew to make the film. I couldn’t do it alone. The closure of the school was postponed and so I thought I would wait till I had the adequate means before I started shooting the film in earnest.
For the next fifteen months I tried to raise some money, but although a producer from Mumbai promised to fund the film, he didn’t seem to be in any hurry to part with a single Rupee. In fact he kept me waiting till the very end of the filming, always promising that the money would be credited to my account shortly, maybe the next week but it never did.
In June 2012, I gave up waiting. The new term was beginning, and there was no saying how many more terms there would be. So I borrowed money from my mother, got my crew together, and began filming. For the next six months Tanushree, my (to be) wife, and myself used to work as technicians on other films to earn enough money to continue with Small Things, Big Things. Christopher Burchell, the sound recordist, also put his own money in the film and gave his camera for the entire shoot free of charge. But it was still a real struggle. Finally we got a co-producer in December 2012, and from there things got a little easier.
I never felt the need to plan how to shoot Small Things, Big Things in terms of its structure or content. It was where I had grown up, it was my home. And I was always confident that the school itself would dictate what the film should be, just by virtue of what would happen there while we filmed.
The only thing I was clear about was that I had to become a student again in that school, and that I had to film in such a way that the audience would be placed beside the children as their peers. The film had to be an experience of being in Sita School, not a rationalization or defense of it. I wanted the audience to decide for themselves if they would have wanted to study there, or send their own children to a school like it.
Over the entire duration of the filming I was always in touch with my mother regarding what was being taught in the school, and who was doing what. Accordingly I would plan each schedule of the shoot. As I was a student myself in F.T.I.I. at the time, it was a little difficult to balance my own classes and the filming but one way and another it all worked out, and fortunately there weren’t too many clashes.
But that would be to underestimate him, as we all did. Mr. Nanda was the kind of teacher who would not prepare for his classes and instead give us a subject, and ask us to present it to him. He would be the student, and listen to the class, and then ask questions to clarify what we had said, just to make sure he had understood correctly. And by the end of it we would be so confused that we had to go back and re-read everything, and prepare our lectures again.
Everyone thought he was lazy, that this was a convenient way to get paid a salary without doing much work. We were frustrated that he never taught us anything! But I have never come across another person who listened like Mr. Nanda did, and who somehow always asked just that one question that I couldn’t quite explain, that I didn’t anticipate, that I had overlooked.
As a result, all the subjects I covered with him are crystal clear in my memory. They would have to be: I worked for every bit of it! But it took time to realize that it was not only my hard work that made the difference. It was equally Mr. Nanda’s little provocative remarks each and every day to look and look again.
It is true: less very often is more.
Film Courage: How many people did you share the movie idea for SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS before you began filming?
Saumyananda: I shared the idea of the film with around twenty or thirty people, approximately – mostly friends, and of course family. I did approach a few producers, and showed rushes to some filmmakers in Mumbai including Sayeed Mirza, who was very encouraging.
But I only pitched the film when we had almost finished the shooting, in Docedge 2013.
Film Courage: How did you calculate what the budget was going to be?
Saumyananda: The main consideration for the budget in the beginning was how many hard drives we needed to store the footage, the bus fares for the crew to reach location for each schedule, and the per day rentals for the sound equipment. Thankfully I had the camera equipment for free, and as it was home, food and stay were taken care of. None of us took any remuneration for the work. Rather we were spending our remunerations from other projects here.
Later, once we got a co-producer, things began to change a little, and as we had some money we could plan better. We budgeted almost half of the money for the sound design, and I think that made a real difference.
Film Courage: If you could have cut back on one expense for your documentary SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS and put more money into another part of making the film, where would you make the switch?
Saumyananda: There is virtually nowhere I could have cut down on any expense anywhere. We made the film with less than a shoestring budget.
But if I had money, there are many places I would have spent it. Primarily, I would have paid my crew better. After being a technician myself on so many films, I know full well what it means to survive on this medium alone what it means to pay rent, to pay electricity bills, to have enough money to afford a good meal and drink at night. Producers always try to cut down on professional fees, even when they continue to pay enormous rentals for the equipment and hotel accommodation. But it is people who make films, not machines.
Film Courage: How did the students react to the camera the first time it was present? How did they eventually accept the camera? Are children self-conscious when the camera is on? More so than adults?
Saumyananda: I have a trick: I always cover my head with a black cloth when I am filming documentaries, so people don’t see my face. My expressions as I react to what is in front of me are all hidden when I smile, frown, or yawn. They only see the lens.
I have another trick: I can wait and sit still.
Small Things, Big Things was filmed over a period of more than two years. The children were excited by the camera, but that lasted maybe a week at most. Their excitement about the microphone and its casing of fur lasted longer.
What worked, I think, is that no one knew exactly what I was looking for so no one really performed for the camera. When a child started acting for the camera I wouldn’t shoot, or sometimes I would shoot for so long that he/she would get tired of me.
The children saw me filming for hours and hours and they must have thought I was wasting my time, as what was going on in front of me was nothing very special. And sometimes when something BIG was happening I didn’t bother to film.
Another thing that worked is that I always sat with them; the camera was always at their height. When they moved, I moved with them. I was with them through all their classes. I watched them learn to write. And most importantly, when they did something really naughty, I didn’t tell anyone and get them into trouble. And I was very careful to keep the same crew for the entire shoot, so that there would be a continuity of the same faces and that we would all get to know each other really well. We worked to form that relationship, and build trust.
One of the moments I remember vividly is when I was filming a girl sketching something in the garden, and I went and sat next to her to see what she had drawn. But I didn’t know that the girl was at that moment feeling very anxious that her picture wasn’t coming out right. So when I went and sat next to her I think she felt embarrassed, she did not want anyone to see what she had drawn till she had got it right and she certainly didn’t want her unfinished picture filmed. Without knowing I had crossed an invisible line, I had made her self-conscious and in some sense I guess that was a breach of trust. In any case, it took me weeks and weeks to be able to film that girl again without her becoming self-conscious. I had to do a lot, and give a lot of distance, to slowly rebuild her trust.
But there were other times when I was amazed myself at how the children had accepted the camera as just another person in the room. During one of the lessons leading up to the Fake News scene, the teacher (Santosh) asked a child to say something directly into the camera. The child was utterly confused ‘What camera?’ and then when he remembered there was a camera in the room, it still took him a few seconds to locate where I was, sitting right next to him! In that way, I think the children were much less self-conscious than any of the adults.
But basically I think the children quickly dismissed us as not worth their attention when we were filming, as we were simply not much fun.
Film Courage: Which scene was most emotional for you to film in SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS?
Saumyananda: One of the scenes that is particularly dear to me in ‘Small Things, Big Things’ is the scene where the children discuss and write down their memories of loved ones who have passed away.
Even while filming I was utterly taken aback by the frankness and simplicity of how the discussion unfolded. I had never imagined that a topic like death could be the subject of a class in school, discussed with children between the ages of 10 and 12. Yet it is something that is so much a part of our lives.
The scene culminates in the Festival of the Dead, which is celebrated by the whole village, and with the teacher (Sarojini) sharing her own very personal story of her father’s death.
Suddenly in this scene I really felt that the teacher was part of the class she was sharing her vulnerabilities with the children just as courageously as the children had shared their vulnerabilities with her. The distinction between teacher and student blurred, and it just became about people. Small people, big people it didn’t matter any more.
It is the scene where the classroom becomes life.
Film Courage: How did you approach this film differently than your prior documentary Ningal Aranaye Kando?
Saumyananda: ‘Ningal Aranaye Kando’ was directed by Sunanda Bhat, and I was working as a cinematographer. So to begin with, my involvement was very different.
But at the same time, this was the first film in which Tanushree, Chris and myself worked together and it is exactly the same technical team that worked on ‘Small Things, Big Things.’
So while shooting ‘Ningal Aranaye Kando’ we became comfortable working together, and devised various methods that we have adopted and built on ever since. These include how we work with available light, and how we anticipate each other’s movements and decisions without having to speak.
To shoot a film like ‘Small Things, Big Things’ it was imperative that the crew never drew attention to itself, and for that the three of us had to be in perfect sync. Having already shot for one year together in Wayanad, this became much easier.
Film Courage: You wore many hats on the production for SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS as Writer, Director, Producer and Cinematographer. How stressful was it to balance all of this while interacting with the students, planning shots, etc.? What was the biggest challenge of doing so many tasks?
Saumyananda: Strangely it was easier to be director as well as cinematographer, as here I did not have to try and emulate someone else’s sensibilities, and could respond instinctively as a cameraman, just as myself.
In a documentary you have to often make instant choices, take huge risks in how you shoot a scene, as everything only happens once and as a cameraman you either have to be a director, or act on behalf of one as best you possibly can.
So while filming documentaries, whatever I might be credited for doing, it finally amounts to the same thing to be absolutely in the present, to be absolutely receptive to what is happening, and to imagine what is in front of the lens as a film to make the film come true.
The biggest challenge for me was not the making of the film at all that part I know, and enjoy thoroughly. Rather it was the matters of money and production that were the most stressful for me the budgeting, the drawing up of contracts, the filling up of submission forms for festivals, the meeting of deadlines.
I often wished that someone else could take care of the practicalities of production and distribution, as I am just no good when it comes to these things. I am sure I have made the film suffer because of it, as I have not promoted it as much as I should or could.
Film Courage: How many people on your crew?
Saumyananda: During the filming there were just three of us: myself, the director and cinematographer, Tanushree Das who was the gaffer and later also the editor, and Christopher Burchell who recorded the sound.
Later we were joined by Manoj M. Goswami who did the sound design, and P.M. Satheesh who did the final mix. Once Prspctvs Productions stepped in to co-finance the film, Raam Reddy also joined the crew as a line-producer for what was left of the shoot and post-production.
Film Courage: How long did it take to finish it?
Saumyananda: Besides the one-week shoot in February 2011, the major portions of the film were shot between June 2012 and April 2013. We locked the edit by September 2013, and finished the sound design and colour corrections by May 2014. So from beginning to end it took almost three years.
Film Courage: What was the most astute or precocious statement from one of the students at Sita school which had you thinking?
Saumyananda: You have to learn everything when you are small, when you grow up what can you do? Like with a plant, you can still bend it, but if it grows into a tree can you bend it then?
This was Salvin whispering to Dominic while they were eating their morning snack. His voice was so hushed that I didn’t even hear what he said when we were filming I only found the clip later, while we were editing.
Film Courage: Can you briefly describe the appeal you think your film will have for audiences?
Saumyananda: When I pitched the film in Docedge 2013, many of the tutors and producers on the panel urged me to make the film more about my mother, and how the school might have to shut down because of the Right to Education Act. They felt this would bring out the conflict, and make the film more personal and at the same time relevant to a wider audience. That it would become a more compelling story.
Maybe they were right. But that was not the film I wanted to make.
During the same pitch, one person stood up in the audience and said that the conflict of the film was not so much the crisis the school was facing, but how the audience responded to what they saw happening in the classroom. Because most people have not gone to a school like this, they will ask themselves how different this is from the way I was taught at school! Would I have preferred to study like this? Would I send my children to a school like this?
This gave me a lot of clarity when I eventually edited the final film. The appeal of the film, I hope, is that it urges the viewer to see the world again as a child which is not only much closer to the ground, but also has different priorities and concerns. When we talk about education, we often forget what it is actually like to be a child. And the appeal of Sita School and its pedagogy I think is that it listens to childhood and gives it a safe space to grow.
Film Courage: What do you want people to take away from watching SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS?
Saumyananda: A very close friend watched Small Things, Big Things just a few months before becoming a father when he was really quite tense, and unsure if he was ready to take responsibility for a little human being. He wrote to me later and said that the film had helped him feel better prepared for parenthood. It was the most moving compliment I have ever received.
Each person will invariably take away something different from a film. But what I hope is that ‘Small Things, Big Things’ helps its audience to take away some memories of themselves as children.
Film Courage: What is the one mistake most filmmakers make, regardless of experience?
Saumyananda: I do not have the experience or intention to make any generalizations on filmmaking or filmmakers, as I am still trying to understand the mistakes I make myself.
But speaking of myself, I think my biggest mistakes have been my hasty corrections. Mistakes are often how we learn, and often how we arrive at the unexpected. Mistakes lead us on new paths. They keep what we do intuitive and alive.
I have always been struck by what Abbas Kiriostami said in one of his interviews that all his films are finally only footnotes to the mistakes he has made.
Film Courage: Who scored your documentary SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS?
Saumyananda: Small Things, Big Things does not really have a music score and whatever music has been used was recorded in sync, on location.
Wintergatan composed the music that comes over the end credits.
Film Courage: SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS is artistically shot and is rich with color, any particular scene which you are most proud of?
Saumyananda: To film ‘Small Things, Big Things’ I tried my very best to un-learn as much as possible of what I was being taught in F.T.I.I. I wanted first and foremost to rid myself of the obsession for beautiful images. The camera had to become a child, without drawing attention to itself.
I like the shot of the children jumping during their morning exercises, where I jumped with the camera as well. It is a moment in the film where you really feel like you are a part of what is going on.
Film Courage: What camera(s) did you use? Lens package? Sound equipment?
Saumyananda: The entire film was shot on a Canon 60 D, with one lens an f2.8 16-35 zoom. For sound we used a Sennheiser MKH 416 mic, recorded with a Zoom H4N. We did not use lavalier microphones. But we did spend a lot of time in the post-production doing foley, to enhance all the little sounds and details.
Film Courage: Where is SMALL THINGS BIG THINGS currently available to watch?
Saumyananda: ‘Small Things, Big Things’ is at present available on several on-line platforms:
Film Courage: Are you also submitting it to festivals?
Saumyananda: Small Things, Big Things was screened in several film festivals in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In 2015 it was screened as part of the official selection in Hot Docs, Toronto.
Film Festivals play a very important role in raising awareness about a film, as they are accepted and prestigious platforms where the press as well as the filmmaking community choose what films to put in the spotlight. However, the impact of festivals tends to be rather short-term, and the audience is most often watching so many films every day that it all becomes a bit of a blur.
Also, especially with documentaries, many film festivals tend to give priority to works that deal with strong social issues, or are character driven.
A film like ‘Small Things, Big Things’ tends to not work so well in the festival circuit as it falls in neither of those categories. As the panel in Docedge pointed out, it doesn’t have enough conflict!
However, I think more than festivals, it is important to see what happens to the film afterwards. The real test is if the film can find an audience independently, and sustain interest over time.
Sita School has been functioning quietly in a village in South India for almost four decades. In its own small way, I hope this film will continue in the same vein. With concerns over educational policies becoming more and more pertinent and pressing, I think the voice of Sita School needs to be heard as well as shared.
Film Courage: Where do the best creative ideas come to you?
Saumyananda: When I am talking to people. When I am traveling.
Film Courage: You were the youngest participant in the Talent Campus India (2004), can you tell us how old you were, a few details and what it was like to participate?
Saumyananda: When I went to Delhi to participate in the Talent Campus India (2004), I was 17 years old and in high school. It was the first time I traveled out of Bangalore on such a long journey alone, and I was very nervous. I don’t think I have ever been so excited in my life.
I attended workshops with Christopher Doyle, Mohsen and Samira Makhbalbaf, Emily Young Bina Paul to mention a few. I wrote down notes copiously. I watched many films.
Six months later I was selected to attend the Berlin Talent Campus, and before I knew it I was on a plane and found myself in a cold country where it was snowing. Again I was alone in a new place, and far too young and broke to make the most of it.
I nevertheless did manage to go to all the parties including one hosted by Prada and Ridley Scott, where I bumped into Christopher Doyle again! And the workshops were fantastic. The most memorable was the master class with Wim Wenders.
Sitting on the plane back to Bangalore, I realized that now it was back to school, back to being home, back to exams. But in a way I don’t think I ever did go back. Something in me had left for good.
Film Courage: How much opportunity is available for independent filmmakers in Bangalore or Mumbai? What are the positive aspects and hindrances?
Saumyananda: Making independent documentary films anywhere in the world is pretty difficult, because documentaries are more challenging to distribute than fiction films and so are on the whole more reluctantly funded.
In India the only platform that produces independent documentaries is Films Division and PSBT, both of which are run by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, Government of India. But being funded by either means working within the government parameters which affects what subjects you choose, your treatment, and how much time you have to finish the project with not very much money.
Otherwise you have television companies and NGOs but both these options tend to impose their own needs and concerns on your film even more than the government institutions. The last option is grants from film festivals abroad but these are both highly competitive, and also more likely after at least a part or most of your film is already shot.
So the independent documentary filmmaker in India certainly doesn’t have things easy.
But on the positive side, with digital technology it is increasingly possible as well as affordable for individuals to shoot with a very small crew with their own money, and edit their films on computers and laptops at home. This is how we started ‘Small Things, Big Things.’ It allowed me complete freedom as a director, and also meant I could safeguard the material against misuse as I kept all the rights.
Film Courage: What principles have guided your life?
Saumyananda: I am rather skeptical of systems, of axioms, of fixed principles. Life is far too fluid to be straightjacketed into theories. I like to think that our lives are often grasped best in their contradictions.
But somewhere at the heart of it all, there has to be a concern for the other, for what is outside of ourselves. In Indian Philosophes the way out is often the way in. I believe that.
Film Courage: How do you know when a film is finished?
Saumyananda: Films tell you when they are finished. They are finished when they are a whole world in themselves, and can speak without you. When you can’t see yourself there anymore, but see something entirely organic and new.
Film Courage: What’s next for you creatively?
Saumyananda: At present I am just completing the final post-production of my second documentary feature as a director, which is called ‘Remembering Kurdi.’ The film is set in Goa, and is about a village that has been submerged for the past 35 years by a dam, but which surfaces once a year in the summer. During this time, the people of the village all return to the ruins of their ancestral homes to celebrate, perform rituals and remember. Through their stories, the film tries to explore the link between memory and our sense of belonging to the land.
As a cinematographer, my first fiction feature ‘The Strange Case of Shiva,’ directed by Arun Karthick will be screened this year as part of the Rotterdam Film Festival. I have also just completed filming my second fiction feature, directed by Anamika Huksar which is in the post-production phase. My third fiction feature as a cinematographer is scheduled to begin later this month.
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