MAMI Interview: ‘Prakasan’ director Bash Mohammed

by Rutwij Nakhwa

‘Prakasan’ is an Indo-French co-production and the second film by Indian filmmaker Bash Mohammed (‘Lukka Chuppi’) from Kerala, who now lives in Dubai. The film  follows Prakasan who lives in the carefree, luscious hills of a Kerala village. As the shining city beckons, he embarks on a journey of a lifetime — to discover a new reality but also to rediscover what he has left behind.

In ‘Prakasan’ there is an obvious contrast from the theme and treatment of your debut film ‘Lukka Chuppi’ which was an urban-set story of six friends who meet after long and reminisce. How did you arrive at the subject matter for ‘Prakasan’ and what directed your approach towards the same?

‘Lukka Chuppi’ was my first feature and it was more like a learning ground for me. Friends reuniting is not a novel theme per se, but I tried to bring a different texture to it by setting the whole of the movie practically in one house where they meet. Rather closed environments bring out human emotions more vividly; there are no distractions. The film was about six people, while on different ways, sharing commonalities – they are more into banter, into lost love and a terrific nostalgia for college days. I would say, it is a very outward looking film, where people are trying to be what others expect them to be rather than be honest to the core.

‘Prakasan’, by contrast, is very inward looking. The physical canvas is larger. It is about people – including Prakasan – content with what they have. They don’t have a point to prove or to live up to other people’s expectations. After ‘Lukka Chuppi’, I went back in earnest to my work in Dubai, where I run an interior design consultancy. I had to catch up on lost time as I don’t have the luxury of being a full-time filmmaker. As an interior design, I work in confined spaces. Perhaps, there was a subliminal interest in me to do a film that was not geographically constrained. But more than that, possibly the result of being in a city like Dubai, there was always this fond wistful urge to connect with nature. You ask almost any Keralite in the Gulf today and they will say they all want to return home and do farming.

Quite coincidentally, I met Sreekumar, a health worker, a friend of Dinesh Prabhakar (the film’s lead actor). His primary job was to educate sex workers. A typical day would be to meet them and distribute condoms. It is not an easy job. It takes a while before you can break the ice. Both Dinesh and I felt there was the spark of a film in that. But translating his story wasn’t enough. We needed a strong peg. And that is when we struck on the core – of going back to the roots. After all, every human story is about two primordial needs – food and sex. Both can be corrupted, the saddest corruption in sex being the moral pomposity and pretention. Thus, was born Prakasan, rooted in nature, living in its bounty, and another chapter in his life, exposed to sex in all its mechanical gratification.

What is the significance of the village of Chamakudi being fictional? There is an almost mystical quality to how you have shot the same; drone shots of the lush green forest land and silky black textures of the night landscape. Is Prakasan’s village and life the ideal state of being for man or is it a nostalgic reverie into times that were?

Chamakudi could be anywhere; I didn’t want to think or approach the film as a ‘Malayalam’ film. Chamakudi could be in Kerala, Tamil Nadu or in Assam or Arunachal Pradesh. The bottom line was to present a village where time stands still, where people continue to take and give back to nature without plunder. Do such villages exist? Definitely, yes. Our research team had in fact travelled through a number of forest settlements in Kerala before drawing on some commonalities to create Chamakudi.

To me, Prakasan’s village is where we all came from: I remember my childhood in Kerala with all the sort of pursuits that today’s generation cannot even fathom. But I wouldn’t call it an ideal state of man. After all, we change. But there was always that one nagging feeling in me: When we talk of settlements in ‘remote’ places, we still go by words such as ‘tribal,’ ‘hills folk,’ and ‘undeveloped.’ But what is the measure of development? And whose development are we talking about? A road might make life easier, but it need not necessary bring ‘development’ to the people because they lose something in the whole process. I have seen it in Kerala, in villages that could only be reached walking 13-14 hours that can be reached in three or four hours now. Do I see ‘progress’ there? I am not sure.

Are all your actors trained or did you use non-actors as well. How did the former adapt to the tribal mannerisms and dialect? What was the process for this?

We had both trained and fresh talent. In fact, people like Prakasan’s uncle joined us from the location. He is a local resident, so are many others. Adapting to the dialect was easy more so because we didn’t really focus on elaborate dialogues. In fact, we improvised on the dialogues a lot on ground, giving actors the freedom to express the ‘thought’ than repeat lines. That gave the characters a lot of spontaneity. Shooting in these locations weren’t easy either: We had to wrap up by 6 PM because of Maoist threats, had the forces watching over, and always being on a rush against time.

Is Prakasan in all his simplicity and childlike innocence a unique character, or is he emblematic of the ways and lives of village-folk in general?

A village is no exception to a city when it comes to having the most complex of characters and the most conniving too. After all, we are talking of human beings. That said, I must add there is more genuine warmth and love in villages – and our whole team would vouch for that, especially for all the love we got from the local communities.

Prakasan’s innocence and simplicity is the way the character is shaped; he is not the country bumpkin. He is smart, he has basic education, he dreams big. And he is not stupid or foolish. In fact, one of the clear briefs we had was not to stereotype Prakasan as we typically see.

Some may perceive Prakasan’s tribal lifestyle as pampered and the familial set up unmistakably patriarchal, even in a village untouched by modernity. What is your take on this?

I would disagree; the patriarchal order – perhaps represented by the head-man – is coincidental. Women are strong forces in Prakasan’s life. His mother, sister and fiancée are all strong-willed characters. They adore him and play along with his dream. In fact, the collapse of the she-force is what you see in Prakasan’s journey to the city. Isn’t that where patriarchy rules – where men objectify women – and put a price on her? And when there are strong-willed women – such as the social activist you see in the film – are they really being honest to themselves and the society? Aren’t they often too knee-jerk? There is always a she and he-perspective and I believe we have tried to see it both ways with Prakasan.

As for the local people coming across as being pampered, I leave that to nature. Nature has a way of pampering people with its abundance, and trust me, we have seen it in our journeys, while scouting for location.

Unable to adjust or even comprehend the fragmented, alienated life in the city, Prakasan choses to go back to his isolated, idyllic village. Meanwhile, as we rush headlong towards development, villages, like that of Prakasan’s, face imminent destruction. Do you think there is a mid-ground where both these ways and views of the world could meet and co-exist?

There has to be a mid-ground: It no doubt takes us to the environment-versus-development debate, and my response to that always has been: “Whose development are you talking about?” How do you measure progress? If it is all about gadgets and roads and power, why then are you going after organic and raw foods? To live a healthy life? If so, shouldn’t you be living closest to nature? Shouldn’t you be respecting nature so much so that you won’t even break a twig without thinking twice? On the other spectrum are the people who we say are not ‘part of modernity.’ What if they don’t want our modernity? Yet again, there is the humane element: There is so much poverty and disease and lack of education or primary healthcare in these villages. Not every village is a Chamakudi. We need to address these challenges too but it calls for great responsibility not quick governmental fixtures.

How does the idea of the irreplaceable home epitomised by Prakasan, translate in today’s context, when in our globalised world, home is not a fixed place or idea but something constantly in flux?

Isn’t that a notion that we have sort of mutated for our convenience? I come from Kerala, I have a home in Dubai. My daughter and son have grown up there. We could say we are all in that state of flux – not really knowing where we belong. So we reconcile to the fact that where we feel most comfortable that is home. But is that homes also what you stand for? I would not say that we all find peace only when we go back to where we grew up or to places that we call ancestral homes. The whole idea with Prakasan’s journey is that you find harmony when you realise the worth of what you have and treasure it rather than go on a wild-goose chase not even knowing what you want.

Bash, like Prakasan you have left behind your home, Kerala, and are now based in Dubai. Has this personal journey in any way influenced the story of the film, which you have penned?

Definitely; Prakasan is very close to the life journey that every expatriate (overseas Indian) makes. We make choices: Sometimes they play out right, sometimes they don’t. Even when the journey is rough, most choose to slog it out. During our brainstorming, this was a recurrent theme: of how Prakasan’s journey is something that everyone, anywhere, who has ever had to migrate – like the thousands who flock to Dubai or to Mumbai from India’s villages — or the thousands who flee as refugees — can identify with. It is not easy at all for most to do what Prakasan does. That is why I say Prakasan is a courageous man. He goes by his mind. He goes by what his heart says. He is a winner.

Prakasan is screening at this year’s Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star in the Discovering India section curated by Uma da Cunha on the 17th and 18th October.

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