Reel Art: Interview with Usha Dewani-Das, 2015 CMS VATAVARAN film entry nominee

Water is one subject that is local, and touches each one’s life differently but significantly. Usha Dewani-Das shares how she brings her art into her films.
 Usha Dewani-Das,doing what she loves best: Reel Art (Source: India Water Portal)
Usha Dewani-Das,doing what she loves best: Reel Art (Source: India Water Portal)

The 8th CMS VATAVARAN Environment and Wildlife Film Festival and Forum received a total of 178 film entries from 27 countries in 8 varied categories. In the category 'Water for life', 2 of the 8 films finally nominated are those of our very own team member Usha Dewani-Das. A diverse and eclectic film maker, Usha, an accomplished artist, uses her camera to capture stories from across the country in an unhurried, almost poetic pace. With topics as varied as climate change and life along a 'beel', her films aim to transport the audience to places they want to see, and people they want to meet.

We were thrilled to get an excuse to get her to share her thoughts on what makes her movies not just simple communication tools but stories about real people, real problems and possibly real solutions. Here, is what a ususally reticent Usha has to say!

You have a background in Mass Communications and now work as a consultant with India Water Portal. How did this interest in water develop?

I always wanted to use creative media in development. My initial training was in painting and then subsequent exposure to photography and filmmaking during my Masters degree gave me an opportunity to blend creativity with development. As I started working, the issues of environment--particularly water--interested and inspired me the most. More so because water is one subject that is local and touches each one’s life differently but significantly.

What prompted you to choose film making as your medium of work?

Film making gives me the opportunity to evoke emotions. That is the most important response I want from anyone who watches my work, no matter what the issue. Emotion, I feel, drives action.

Workshops on comics that you undertake treat comics as a means of communication. What is behind this innovative idea?

This is an innovation of World Comics India, New Delhi. Grassroots Comics is an alternate medium that gives a platform to anyone who wants to voice a concern. It doesn’t matter if one knows how to write or draw,Grassroots Comics transcends all such parameters. Drawing is not important, the issue is!

I am also a trainer and have done workshops with various urban and rural communities in many parts of the country on a myriad of issues. It is a powerful medium and it brings local voices to the fore. How one can use it is limited only by their imagination.

Women protagonists are more visible in your documentaries. Is that coincidence or is there something more to it?

Women always play a significant role in all social settings. Their efforts and contribution may not be apparently visible, but they are important catalysts in the change process. Especially when it comes to natural resource management, women are keepers of important traditional wisdom and ardently protect these resources whenever the need arises. As a woman, I feel almost compelled to bring out these hidden characters that make such things happen. 

You also seem to use your camera more as an artist’s brush, a lot of fluidity is visible in each frame. What, in your opinion, is a quality that helps your work stand out?

Thank you, I do not know if my work stands out. All I try to do is be sensitive and feel what the issue or that particular story evokes in me. I take time to absorb that feeling, and also try to elicit that same sentiment through visuals in my film. 

Your stories range across various topics--water scarcity, climate change, people, rivers to name a few. How do you decide on an idea that translates into a documentary?

It is difficult to answer this. I do not decide what the story is or should be before I actually meet people and see things for myself. In fact I don't think there is any process that I follow before I decide on a particular perspective and treatment for the story. I guess it’s more instinctive than anything else.

A quarter of the films nominated in the category ‘Water for Life’ for the 8th CMS Vatavaran festival are yours! How do you feel about that?

I just got lucky I feel! And the jury was kind.

Your two films ‘My Disappearing Land’ and ‘Locals Become Geohydrologists in Rapar’ are on marginalised communities whose lives and livelihoods are affected by water. What was the common point of intersection for both these stories of diverse geographical entities?

Water touches everything and everyone--that is the most exciting thing for me. As for the two films, the stories are set in distinctively opposite geographical contexts, yet there is something that connects the two--the struggle with too much or too little water. And in between these two, their lives flow.

In one of your documentaries, you and Nilutpal Das are co directors. Tell us more about this new collaboration. 

Nilutpal and I have worked together on a couple of videos. He has a great sensibility when it comes to handling sensitive subjects. Also, I think it is important to understand each other's strengths and the willingness to make up for the other’s weaknesses as much as possible, and this comes naturally when we work together. While shooting in Rapar, Nilutpal had a tough time with the language. However, I understood quite a bit owing to my Sindhi origin. So while I would try to interpret interviews, he would go on with his camera to extreme difficult locations for extra shots. (Laughs) We are married now, but this partnership began even before that. 

Favourite quote: "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving" -- Albert Einstein

How do you think your stories impact people who watch them and also those whose lives you bring to celluloid?

Impact is tough to measure and even tougher to explain. I think the fact that a few people watch a video and feel a certain emotion about an issue is achievement enough. This gets people talking and opening their hearts to it. Action may follow.  

Is there any incident or interesting titbit that made an emotional connect with you during the filming of these two documentaries? Would you like to share it with our readers?

I remember one clearly. I have retained this bit in the film on Majuli. This person had been adrift for over 12 years owing to repeated events of erosion by the Brahmaputra River. When I met him, he was at the brink of his land but expressed a desire to be shot rather than be evicted (following an order) from his makeshift home on an embankment. It is at times like this that one truly feels helpless.

What are the three things that you enjoy the most while making your films? 

Travelling, meeting interesting people and learning something new everyday. 

What are the limitations you face as a director?

Sometimes one gets caught up in the actual onground situation, and is at a loss about whether to act or simply report. Occasionally, one feels completely helpless as to how much is one really able to help someone, or provide  practical means of relief.

What is the change that you seek or hope to see, through your films?

Change is a dynamic process and I feel that if my films inspire or touch even one person, I will feel grateful and happy.

Favourite place: Every place is a new experience

If you had a 'wish film' to make on a subject or person that interests you the most, what would that be?

I live in Guwahati and cover the Northeast region. It’s a dream place to be in. If given a chance, I would like to make a film that documents ancient historical and traditional marvels of water management across the region. There are so many tribes, so many communities and a wealth of wisdom out here that can inspire people everywhere. 

The 8th CMS VATAVARAN is scheduled from October 9-13, 2015 at New Delhi

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