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‘No iconic images left’

Updated on: 28 February,2021 07:15 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

Sohrab Hura’s The Coast explores the Dassera festival in Kulasekarapattinam, Tamil Nadu.

‘No iconic images left’

Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeIt is perhaps befitting that in a year that has been out of whack due to COVID-19, India’s films selected at the 71st Berlin Film Festival are not the usual Bengali or Marathi arthouse films, or even the occasional Bollywood film, but two experimental films. They are Delhi photographer-filmmaker Sohrab Hura’s The Coast, a 17-minute short, and Naeem Mohaiemen’s feature Jole Dobe Na (For Those Who Do Not Drown, a Japan-Sweden-India co-production, 64 minutes). London-born Mohaiemen, of Bangladeshi origin, works between New York and Dhaka. Both films will play in the Forum Expanded, the experimental section exploring the intersection between cinema and the other arts.

Sohrab Hura’s The Coast explores the Dassera festival in Kulasekarapattinam, Tamil Nadu. Pilgrims immerse themselves in the sea at night—men in briefs, women fully dressed in sarees; also men in saris. This is intercut with religious rituals of frenzied violence—for instance, a man smashes a coconut open on his own head and drinks the water. It’s mostly slow-motion, trance-like, and so is the music. “I’m from Delhi, so the seaside is a holiday escape…But in fact, the coast is a fluid, shifting point. Land is solid, stable; but with sea currents, you struggle to stand. That’s how I feel in the world today,” says Hura. He should know: his Bengali mother came from Dhaka, his Punjabi father, from Lahore. “I’m the insider/outsider; I’m always on soft, muddy ground,” he adds.

Hura is a much-feted photographer, filmmaker and writer, and full member of Magnum Photos. His work includes several worldwide exhibitions, photography books and films/videos. These include Bittersweet, Sweet Life—Life is Elsewhere/Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!!, and The Lost Head & The Bird. Bittersweet won the Principal Award at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, and The Lost Head & The Bird also won the NRW Award and Special Jury Mention there.

“There are no iconic images left today, only viral images,” Hura observes astutely. “Viral images, like a forest fire, burn everything, but it also extinguishes fast…Images are so manipulated and circulate faster today. Consider those lynching videos. Somebody said Mohammed Akhlaque had meat in his house. The meat rumour became beef, and he was killed in Dadri. Yet, an FIR was lodged against him and his family, even though the forensic report said it was mutton.”

The idea for The Coast began long ago: “I sensed a shift to a more aggressive political landscape, and had an awareness of the power behind the camera. Social media influences the way I photograph,” Hura says. “We react to images as if they are the truth. But, it’s all about power; what is the story, and who is telling the story. The viewer is also part of it: causing its circulation, or even being a bystander.” And reality can be far more absurd than fiction, he adds, sharing a headline, “Headless woman gets a job in Goa”.

“I took to photography at age 17 as therapy, as my mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. So I escaped from home. My early work is surreal—my way of escaping reality,” Hura reflects. “My book Life is Elsewhere was meant to be a journal…But I felt more photographer than son,” he admits, adding, “Doing the photography and film became an excuse to say something I didn’t have the courage to, otherwise.” There is also A Proposition for Departure, a work in which he tries to “extract sound from the image”.

About being a full member of Magnum Photos, he says he is embarrassed when people bring it up, and acknowledges “there is also a lot of richness outside it.”

Naeem Mohaiemen’s film Jole Dobe Na will screen in Delhi from March 3-10 (Experimenter, Bikaner House) and in Kolkata on March 19 (Experimenter, Ballygunge Place). Sohrab Hura had two shows at the Experimenter—Sweet Life in 2017, and Spill (November 2020-January 2021) at Ballygunge Place, Kolkata.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at

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