Screening of ‘Six Strands’ and Chat with Chaitanya Tamhane | Ep. 2 of Echoes
What follows is a short excerpt from Episode 2 of Echoes | Organised by the Selim Hill Collective and Dorje Teas.
Rajah Banerjee – Here’s the trick about Chaitanya – If you remove the Tanya, you are remaining only with Chai.
Anant Gupta – What brought you to Darjeeling and what drew you to its tea and this story and this idea. How did you get here given the background that you come from?
Chaitanya Tamhane– The starting point of all my films has always been some kind of fascination, curiosity and the idea of wonder. I remember I was watching a documentary and I just thought the process of tea – tasting to be very interesting where they sip and spit and then have something again in a kind of lab. I found this process very, very interesting. You also do things out of naivety sometimes so I just picked up my bags with a friend and I landed up in Darjeeling. Then a whole pandora’s box opened up with all kinds of fascinating, incredible stories not only from Darjeeling, but the world of tea. For example monkeys trained to pick and pluck tea, tea rolled on the laps of virgins. Those kind of stories were my starting point. It was a kind of romance about something. Slowly as you go deeper and deeper, the romance gets sucked out of it and you start seeing things for what they really are. Then you have to fall back in love again. It was an impulse of wanting to explore the world of tea, specially the silver needle tea which is the world’s most expensive tea which is produced under mysterious circumstances. That is how I landed up in darjeeling and then after many months of research, a script slowly evolved and pieces kind of fell together.
Chaitanya Tamhane – I started out with the idea of making something like a grandmother’s tale at night. However it turned out very different. It is based in a cretain kind of realism, more in the zone of magical realism. I did not want to make it a propaganda or an educationist moral message.
Anant Gupta– What kind of experiences have stayed with you about Darjeeling and the making of this film?
Chaitanya Tamhane – The making of Six Strands was the most difficult experience and process that I have ever encountered in any of my endeavours. I was very green. I was making a film for the first time. It was a very small crew of seven or eight people and I made a lot of mistakes and they really hurt. It was a torturous process for me specially the shooting. This was not because of the people or lack of co-operation. It was my own dynamics with the team/crew that I was working with.
The most fun process is when you are researching, prepping for the film, looking at locations, when you are just talking to people. I spoke to a lot of people there. Of course it would not have been possible without the support of Mr. Rajah Banerjee who opened his doors and gates to whatever we wanted to do on the essay and all the people were so helpful and co-operative and such a joy to interact with. it is hard to encapsulate all of that in the film. What you end up learning and taking away is way beyond what is in the film. We also got to taste a variety of different teas as well and see that whole process as well. I could continue talking for hours because it was the most harrowing and therefore most revelatory lesson for me.
I have very fond memories of Darjeeling and the people. I would love to visit Darjeeling again.
Anant Gupta – There is an entire take on the Tea Industry and what you see as a film-maker wrong with it. You began with a fascination witht he tasting process and ended up talking about the industry in certain ways.
In many ways that is what the Collective is also about reflecting on what’s wrong with this industry and changing that.
Chaitanya Tamhane – For me the interesting process is going from the specific to the universal. There are many elements in the story that are specific to the tea industry, but the essence of it is applicable to so many industries and endevours. I also wanted to explore the idea of this romantic capitalist. The idea of someone who is deeply passionate, fighting loneliness and boredom (which are things that come with the profession – You hear about so many lonely tea estate owners). Yet how they can be so practical and shrewd. In this case of a fantastic tale, how they can become an oppressor. I see that all the time. People are deeply passionate and romantic about their own family and interest, but when it comes to how they treat their workers and employees, or when it becomes a larger social responsibility, they can be very very insular and selfish and almost cold-hearted. The film was made in a very playful sense. I was playing with elements of fantasy and magical realism to explore this political sub-text and social subjects of rebellion and what happens to them.
While researching, I found out that Labour Laws are stuck in pre-colonial times and they have not been updated and the wages have not been updated and there hasn’t been enough change on that front. This does not discount the quality of tea or the work that is put in by the tea estate.
Even when we were shooting, there was a lot of political unrest. In fact the protest scenes that you see in the film are real protests. We did not stage them. We just captured it because it was ongoing at that time.
Chaitanya Tamhane – The cheese cherry pineapple that the protagonist eats was my favourite food as a child whenever I would go to restaurants.
Anant Gupta – How did you find the funds for this movie?
Chaitanya Tamhane – It was quite a low budget film. It was made with very limited resources. When I spoke about how I made a lot of mistakes. There was this one big mistake I made and maybe I can use this platform to apologise to my father because this film was funded entirely by my father. We could not afford a film school. So my deal with my father was to let me make one short film. He would fund that would be my film school.
The mistake was that I was too embarrassed to admit that it was funded by my father and I did not credit him in the film. He does not have a single credit in the film. From then on I have been very careful about creating family members and loved ones. Sometimes you take them for granted. I am very sorry Dad if you are watching this which I am sure you are.
Professor Romita Ray – You brought the magic of the hills as also the seriousness of the industry. What made you choose a female tea planter as your chief protagonist? The second question is about Rajah Banerjee’s spirit in this film because you showed the moonlight tradition of plucking tea which is so particular to Makaibari’s magic. If you could give us some sense of the ground of soaking in this energy of the landscape and the extra-ordinary Rajah Banerjee himself.
Chaitanya Tamhane – I don’t remember why I chose a female protagonist bit I totally stand by that choice. It makes it so much more interesting and layered, nuanced in a different way.
Of course Rajah Banerjee’s spirit looms large over the entire film but Rajah is such a fascinating character. He is such an interesting character. Of course, he is not a direct inspiration for the character of the lady.
There is an interaction between reality and fiction because it is hard to tell which part of it is reality and which part of it is fiction. The place is real, the tea estate and workers are real. the protest is real. But then the character is fictitious.
I found Rajah to be very, very mysterious and colourful. I have seen documentaries on him. I remember him in his outfit – The officers’s khaki outfit riding on a horse and tasting tea.
Although the film is critical of certain things but at the same time I can’t discount the fact that it was made possible because of his co-operation and support.
Speaking of mistakes – I was so worried back then about what Rajah would make of the film, whether he would approve of it or not, I did not have the guts to show it to him. it is not something that i am proud of but I was not sure back then whether he would approve of it.
Anant Gupta – Do you think storytellers in general and film makers in particular have some kind of a duty or obligation to go out of where they are and the world they are familiar with to tell different stories about differnt people. Do you think that is something one should expect or desire from a story teller?
Chaitanya Tamhane – There is no one way of telling stories. Every human being is an island in themselves, you could just go within and come up with innumerable stories. The only obligation that an artist has is to tell the truth. However, there are different kinds of truths. Truth is not necessarily reality. There could be truth in beauty, ugliness, nothingness, in rocks, nature, stone, human behaviour, human life, human condition.