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Tribeca: Tell us a little about The Kite.
Prashant Bhargava: Patang (The Kite) is a narrative family drama that takes place during India’s largest kite festival, Uttarayan. It follows six characters, who, like the kites above, duel, and dip and soar. It’s thematically a film about how celebration heals.
Tribeca: So you got into filmmaking through graffiti?
Prashant Bhargava: Growing up in Chicago, I was into graffiti and I would break-dance and rap and that aspect of hip hop at that time. What I see now is very different, but it was a culture in itself, and the way that I connected with my own roots. I was a computer science guy, as well as doing that graffiti, and they both came together, and when I finished college I started doing design work and then moved into motion design and commercials.
I’ve done a lot of HBO shows, like The Wire, but my interest in graffiti has leant itself to my work in film in thinking about how to put two shots together, that rhythm and what the motivation is to put two cuts together or two colors—that all came from graffiti. I also took pride in it, and it fulfilled my need to connect with something cultural and spiritual.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Do you have ancestors in Ahmedabad? Or when did you first discover Uttarayan?
Prashant Bhargava: I had memories of my uncles and my dad flying kites when I was a kid, and it was just a really special thing to see everybody looking up at the sky; it was as if all their thoughts and doubts were forgotten—like meditation in its simplest form. So I had this idea of basing a film around the kite-flying, and I talked to my cousin and he said you absolutely must go to Ahmedabad. When I went there, I just fell in love. It was really spectacular how the whole city came out to fly kites.
So I went there for the first time in 2005, and went back for 3 years of research. And following that I started production on the film, but the initial research was a really important time for me. We shot 100 hours of research footage—it’s a big city, but it’s divided into a new city and an old city. And the old city really works in a different way. It runs on a sense of faith. So it just took a lot of time for a guy from Chicago to go there and really get to know everyone.
Prashant Bhargava: Yes, and it’s kind of a tall order, because it’s a town that’s been affected by religious violence in the past between Hindu and Muslims, and it’s gone through a lot of natural disaster. But the spirit of the people, unlike the larger cities here and in India, is that they trust you first. So if you‘re able to be very open with who you are, then just having a history of being there for as many years as I was made them feel I was telling their story and that it was their film. So they were able to embrace it and champion it.
Tribeca: Do you speak the native language?
Prashant Bhargava: I speak Hindi, they speak Gujarati, but everyone understands Hindi and is welcome to speak it there.
Prashant Bhargava: Sangam was really about that nostalgia. Sangam was a short film about two people who each longed for what the other one had in terms of one of them being from New York and the other a recent immigrant from India. I think that in this film, it was less about nostalgia and more about an immediate joy and how faith translates into the everyday. In The Kite, it was less about reaching back and more about moving forward.
Tribeca: You sustain the natural, unvarnished feel of your research footage in the film. Were you working from a script? What’s interesting to me is that while I was watching the film the scenes with dialogue read like a play. It seemed a lot of thought had gone into those conversations.
Prashant Bhargava: During the research period, it was a lot of observation, and when you observe, stories start to unfold. It was a lot of just sitting in a kite shop for a number of hours, sitting on a corner, and this whole beautiful thing unfolds in front of you. So a lot of the technique for the way that we approached the filmmaking emerged from that research period. We really wanted to preserve that environment when we started our filming process. So it was entirely a scripted film. A lot of the drama was based on the hours of research, and also a lot of the situations in terms of the joy and the struggles of my own family. So a scene would be scripted, but I only had 3 actors and 90% were non-actors, and you never give those non-actors the lines, especially the children. We did a 2-month workshop with the children building trust and discipline exercises, playing theater games, that sort of thing. We wanted to get them very comfortable with expressing themselves, trusting us and trusting the camera. Also, a lot of the non-actors knew me from the time that I had spent there, so a big part of it was just building a lot of trust with them.
When we were filming, the art was breaking the script down into objectives and adjustments, such as “seduce someone lovingly” or something like that, and unlike some schools of acting like Method, where you’re trying to raise someone to the highest stakes and recreate a sense memory of being there, everything that occurred in the film was actually really being experienced by the people. We had 2 lead actors that really approached it as a role, but everyone else played themselves. So for instance, when Bobby kisses Priya, it was his first kiss in real life, onscreen.
Prashant Bhargava: He had studied acting at Gujarat University, a local university, but it was the first time he was in a film. Another example is when we were shooting the scenes in the electronic shop: they were actually conducting business while we were filming. Seema Biswas, who played Sudha, the mother, and is a really renowned actress in India [Bandit Queen, Water] knew where she was coming from in terms of her character history and what her objectives were, but when we filmed the day of the kite flying we would do 4-hour takes where she would just be in character along with Jayesh, the father, played by a non-actor, Mukkund Shukla, who was surrounded by his group of friends who had been celebrating this festival together for 30 years.
We would just film whenever, and then when the time felt right, we would bring in the boom guy and start to do a scene. So it was a lot of very long takes improvised based on the script, but it was really interesting to have written something, let go of it and still end up with everything I set out to achieve.
Tribeca: Did you ever explain the overarching narrative of The Kite to the non-actors?
So I was really trying through everything, camera work, the size of the crew etc., to keep the environment as it was normally, in order to allow people to just be themselves.
Tribeca: It’s rare that filmmakers are able to work in this time-consuming manner. How did you get the funding for this film?
Prashant Bhargava: I mean, if we went through an American independent route or an Indian independent route or Hollywood or Bollywood, it wouldn’t have worked out, because you’re doing a 2-hour or 4-hour take without any guaranteed result, so any producer would go crazy. It was definitely a typical shoot in terms of the fact that the crew was from Mumbai, all independent and largely from India. But the way we filmed was just unheard of in terms of how you approach a film.
As a far as funding, it was just from private individuals, anywhere from $5-50,000 [apiece], and that allowed us to have freedom without anyone saying, “You’ve got to get it done now, you’ve got to do it this way.” Just going back to the research, it was really interesting because the first year I just explored. The second year, I knew I wanted to do something about a group of young guys or a wedding singer, so then I would just spend time with those groups. And the third year, through presenting who I was and giving openly in terms of my own background with stories and that sort of thing, I was able to put a camera very close to somebody, and they would just be themselves and I would start to write the scenes. What’s really cool is that I had no storyboards, so I just took all these clips from spending hours in a kite shop, for instance, and that became the storyboard.
Tribeca: I gather you would whisper objectives in the actors’ ears during scenes and film and act yourself at the same time. What was that like?
Prashant Bhargava: I was shooting, and my DP was shooting, and in order to be in a shot but be invisible, you get into a flow, whether you’re on a rooftop or everybody’s celebrating. Like any documentary filmmaker, you get into a place where you’re invisible, and that feeling was very much like being an actor. In communicating with my DP and my crew, I was using language you would normally use with actors. It wasn’t about, “frame it from here,” or, “let’s go over there”; it was more like dancing.
In terms of giving emotional objectives, I did that with both the actors and non-actors, but I couldn’t do that with the kids because they wouldn’t grasp that most of the time. One aspect of the kite festival is that when a kite gets cut, it just floats to the ground and all the kids rush for it on the street. So if you tell one of these kids to collect ten kites, then they’ll run through traffic, rickshaw drivers will get behind them and get angry, so with the physical objective you get a whole scene. Now the elegance of taking your scenes and getting them to those physical objectives is interesting. A lot of the work for me was in breaking down my script into these objectives.
Tribeca: What was the editing process like with all that footage?
Prashant Bhargava: We shot 200 hours of footage, so I spent about 2 years editing on my own. I would begin by trying to do the major scenes that were dramatic turning points and then go to the secondary ones, and it was really exhilarating in those moments where I made those film-altering discoveries. But it was a challenging process to sustain that interest over such a long period of time and discover the story out of all of this footage. I found that the eventual story was 90% the original script.
We also shot all handheld, and it was a lot of camera movement, and I based that on there being so much richness in the environment—if you had a wide shot, there would be so much distraction from the surroundings. So you’re always searching for your frame, and that’s what I meant by saying that the people filming become actors. But that also resulted in footage that’s really hard to cut. You don’t have normal cutaways or over-the-shoulders, so when I hear Walter Murch say he did everything in the blink of an eye, I feel that every scene in The Kite had some degree of magic that had to be pulled off to make it work.
Prashant Bhargava: Yes. I had a 2-and-a-half hour cut after that 2-year period, and I went to Joe and he is just an amazing editor. He has really great energy, and we were able to connect well. So he spent 3 weeks or so on his own cutting down the piece, and then we spent 3 weeks collaborating. It was rather amazing because we saw his first version and he had cut out half an hour and we didn’t miss anything. It was a nice change from being locked up in the editing room on my own.
Tribeca: Were there any filmmakers that particularly inspired you while working on this project?
Prashant Bhargava: I like the work of Terrence Malick, Jia Zhangke, Wong Kar-wai, Lynne Ramsay, Mike Leigh and the Dardenne brothers. Very naturalistic directors who take simple themes and can not only present them in an aesthetic way, but can work with actors in a very unconventional way.
Prashant Bhargava: I recall one scene where Chakku the wedding singer (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is sitting with Hamid (Hamid Shaikh), the boy who works in the kite shop, and Chakku is telling Hamid the problems that he has had with his family in the past. I was just having Hamid, a non-actor, listen and find out what Chakku’s problems were, and that was all the direction I had given him. But at one point Chakku was telling him how a particular relative of his is always thinking about profit, and Hamid answered, “Yeah, but he’s going to have a loss someday,” and Chakku answered him, “No, he never loses.” The kid replied, “He will.” It’s just so interesting to think about where kids come up with these lines. So it was a lot of those moments where you‘re just hanging on and meandering and wondering what’s going to happen, and sometimes the non-actors surprise you. I think those are the moments that I hold dear.
Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making The Kite?
Prashant Bhargava: Every phase of the filmmaking process was us breaking every rule that we could think of, not consciously, but it just ended up happening in terms of how I conducted my research and how I wrote the script. That was invaluable for me and will allow me to return to convention in my next films and be able to let go. I learned a great deal about the rhythm of making a film and what it takes to start and finish, and then within each of these aspects of craft, I learned the grace of it all.
Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from The Kite?
Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Prashant Bhargava: Just make a film. When I started 15 years ago, you couldn’t so easily do so, and now, here we are recording this interview on a Flip camera. Everything is available to you, and I think that’s a great luxury. Also if you’re in this field, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy and obsessive. Whatever you think is going to take one year is going to take five, so just stick with it.
Tribeca: What are your hopes for The Kite at Tribeca?
Prashant Bhargava: We’re just really excited. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for 15 years, so it’s our hometown. We are premiering the film here, and it’s part of the World Narrative competition, so you always think maybe something will happen... But overall, we’re just thrilled to be here. There are a lot of great films and the Festival has such a rich legacy in the past 10 years, so it’s just an honor and we’re excited.
Prashant Bhargava: Robert De Niro!
Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
Prashant Bhargava: The Wire.
Tribeca: What makes The Kite a Tribeca must-see?
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