Bharat Bala on Pehlwan: The idea is not to start a fight, but stop it
Famed documentary director Bharat Bala talks about filming 1,000 stories from India, and why he chose to train his lens on Mumbai's wrestlers for his latest
Filmmaker Bharat Bala has a knack of finding stories wherever he goes. It's no surprise, then, that he has chosen to take on the challenging task of creating 1,000 films that capture the untold stories of India. Each short film, produced under the Virtual Bharat banner, will be under 10 minutes. "There are so many compelling human stories that can easily slip between the cracks if we don't preserve them," says Bala, best remembered for shooting AR Rahman's 1997 hit music album, Vande Mataram.
His latest film comes from Mumbai's akhadas. Pehlwan follows the life of a wrestler, fighting against the odds to keep the ancient sport alive. That the story also draws attention to the plight of migrant workers is purely coincidental. "The Coronavirus pandemic hadn't invaded our lives when we shot the film. It was never written with the idea of celebrating the migrant worker," says Bala, whose aim was to capture the raw human experience and, in the process, explore the indomitable spirit of the wrestlers. "The people featured in the film aren't actors. Each of them has left his home to pursue a dream. They have day jobs, but have dedicated themselves to a life of intense discipline. It takes years to become a pehlwan." He says the dedication is visible in small acts such as the way they treat the soil. "They put milk and ghee and churn the mitti so that they can immerse themselves in it," he explains. In the film, he also explores the relationship between the master and student. "What I found most thought-provoking was that the strength of the pehlwan lies not in fighting, but stopping a fight. The idea is to build might so that if you're attacked, you're able to save not just yourself, but others too."
To elevate the experience, he has roped in musical rap group from Dharavi, Dopeadelicz. The members also featured in Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy.
Till date, 70 films have been shot under the banner, and research is on for 300 more. The first film, Thaalam introduced the culture of Chundan Vallam or snake boat racing, from Kerala. Kolhapuri Chappals, tells the story of how the craftsmen of a Maharashtra town produced a masterpiece for King Bijala that could survive 1,000 years. "I've tried to package each film with a compelling narrative and state-of-the-art production value for a great viewer-experience."
Through Virtual Bharat, he hopes to create a virtual museum of Indian stories. "The one quality that I look [for in a story] is its timelessness. It should resonate with the viewer even 10 years from now."
Where: Virtual Bharat channel on YouTube
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