Thursday, 27 November 2008

Reframe DVD I pub. Lowave Paris I 27 November 2008

N. Rajyalakshmi, Chief Reporter of Ideal Times, Bangalore, interviews the director Pushpamala N.

NR: Ms. Pushpamala, the title of your film National Pudding and Indigenous Salad is rather unusual. What does it mean?

PN: (laughs) The film is based on family cookbooks dating from the 1950s and ‘60’s, the period soon after Indian Independence. Rashtriy Kheer (National Pudding) and Desiy Kheer (Indigenous Salad) are two Independence Day recipes using the colours of the Indian flag, which my mother had cut out from a magazine. I found them very amusing as a title for the film, which is about the modern Indian family as ideal citizens. And India, with its various communities and ethnic groups could be both described as a “pudding” or as a “salad” – melting into one dish, or coming together as separate ingredients!

NR: Madam, why recipe books? 

PN: I’ve been interested in using women’s material and women’s narratives. I happened to find these old and tattered cookbooks of my mother and mother-in-law, both of whom died more than two decades ago. It was very moving to read through them, they were like a diary, a document of their lives. I wanted to use this very personal material to say something larger about the period, and about the new nation. 

NR: But the characters in the film write on a blackboard, not in notebooks…

PN: The blackboard is a pedagogical device. I use bits of the original text in the film, but if I had made the characters write in notebooks, it would be too literal and illustrative. The blackboard becomes emblematic, and the space becomes a classroom, the classroom of the nation! In fact the father and son’s notes are literally class notes, while all three use lists, constantly ordering their worlds.

NR: And why is it a silent film? 

PN: I love early silent film! It’s a kind of “primitive” form and I wanted to see the 1950’s as a “primitive” period in modern Indian history, in the sense of a beginning - with a kind of freshness and naivety. I wanted the look of an old technical training film, somewhat distressed. And of course, the text could then come in as inter-titles.

NR: How did you put together a script from these cookbooks?

PN: There were several books from my mother-in-law, which had started off as the Colonel father’s used military notebooks, in which the entire family started writing things. She is at first pregnant with the son, who then grows up and also starts writing in the books! It was the history of a military family over ten years. Each character came across as a type, but the same time, there is a certain tenderness and pathos. The mother uses the notebook as a diary when she is pregnant, addressed to her army husband who is posted far away. I read the books closely and picked out the most interesting bits from the huge amount of material, which was in several languages, and put the text, image and music together as a montage. 

NR: Is the film supposed to be funny?

PN: It’s both funny and serious, Ms. Rajyalakshmi! The film has a lot of text, and nothing much happens, so the cartoon form makes things entertaining. Each character is sharply defined by a distinct walk, costume and music score. I tried to make a complex work formally from what was really very simple material with the pace, the editing and the unexpected juxtapositions. 

NR: Tell me about your role as the mother?

PN: For the first time, I played a real character from my own family, my mother-in-law, who I had never met!  Then I was trying to get the walk of a heavily pregnant woman, and the funny thing is, wherever I went, I always saw a pregnant woman. I would stop at once and observe her walk. I tried to borrow a readymade “stomach” from a costume company, which was hilarious - it was a sack filled with sawdust, and completely shapeless. Finally I used a pillow, which my friend who played the Colonel confirmed looked very realistic.

NR: Madam, this is your first video. Why did you start making films?

PN: I’ve been writing down video ideas for years; sounds on the left page and images on the right. When the time was right, it all came together. It’s a continuation of my interest in narrative: starting with sculpture, going on to performance photography, and now also to video films!

NR: How did you go about the shoot?

PN: The Colonel is an old friend from an army family who is a management Professor and had shifted to Singapore. I had to wait till Christmas till he came back for a holiday. I had organized the costumes, blackboard and props, but the most difficult was finding a ten year- old boy to play the son, and when I tracked one down, I couldn’t get through to his father, till two days before the shoot. We had a late night meeting to explain the whole thing to the boy; they went off the next day and bought the school uniform and shoes. A filmmaker friend organized the cinematographer free for a day, after he finished her shoot – it was my first film and I decided to have a static camera, and create a tableau. I was up till 2 o’clock the night before cooking for the unit and making the notebooks. The shoot was very simple: the film was really shaped on the editing table.

NR: Congratulations, Ms. Pushpamala. What next?

PN: There’s some fantastic material in those cookbooks, which belongs to me, which I don’t want to waste! So I am looking at making another recipe film, but it’s so complicated that it will take time to get things together…

Pushpamala N