When Varanasi began becoming an obsession beyond the purview of his journalistic assignments, V S Sanoj started toying with the idea of shooting a movie in the holy city of Uttar Pradesh. It was one of those curious artistic pursuits where the location got fixed first and a story had to dovetail into it.
Once he was through with covering the 2017 assembly elections in the country’s most populous state, the Lucknow-based correspondent launched an eager search for a writer who can help him do the Varanasi-centric flick. He found one during that monsoon when rains had set in north India, washing the famed ghats by the Ganga.
A year’s effort thence led to the making of Burning. Today, on November 14, the short film is screening at a prestigious event in an eastern city located by the same river regionally called the Hooghly. The 17-minute work figures at the ongoing Kolkata International Film Festival. Burning has also made it to upcoming International Film Festival of India in Goa, where it will be shown in the Indian Panorama section on November 24.
Impressive feats, but these are perhaps beside the point. For, Burning has its highlight in a unique fact: it’s a Hindi movie made by a core team of Malayalis. With just one key scene that portrays an intense rally of conversation between two young women, the chief characters end up slipping into an even more poignant situation than when they met only 12 minutes ago.
Subtly supplementing their travails dappled with occasional streaks of cheer, the film has its visuals often strung in a way where Varanasi itself seems to respond to their talk. The two souls are from two contrasting socioeconomic strata but faced with a similar tragedy. And the holy town itself comes across as a character of sorts up. This happens till the climax, which is defined by a blink-and-miss moment soon after the parting of the two women who had lost their little sons.
If Sanoj is a native of a village in Thrissur district, so is the script-writer Jinoy Jose P, also a journalist. Into their mid-30s, they both passed from University of Calicut (department of journalism) in the early 2000s. So did Manesh Madhavan, the cinematographer for Burning. Well-known musician Bijibal has set the background score, while most in the production crew are from Kerala too.
Yet, the ethos around the movie is quintessentially Hindustani. Pan-Indian, when zoomed out, but unmistakably essaying the ways in which patriarchy and religion decisively interfere in the lives of the country’s ordinary people. Death is integral to the story, yet funeral pyres synonymous with Varanasi are near-absent in Burning (despite the title name).
“That was deliberate. Scenes of burning bodies in Varanasi are rather overused and clichéd, right?” says Sanoj. No formal student of filmmaking, he is a journalist since 2004, having worked in Kolkata and Kohima besides Kochi and Kozhikode in his home-state. “After all, the Hindi belt is full of customs that might appear weird for Hindus themselves from other parts of the country. To sermonize marriages of frogs for copious rainfall, to wed a girl to a tree to preempt her perceived widowhood…”
Sanoj, a native of semi-hilly Thalappilly taluk’s Velur who has been working in the UP plains since 2014, had visited Varanasi “at least eight times” before embarking on the movie. “All of that as a newsman. To do stories on the weavers, on that village (Jayapur) adopted by (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi, to cover poll rallies...”
As a south Indian, it struck Sanoj that the reaction to deaths is far mellowed upcountry. “Here at the ghats, people don’t wail and scream when the body is taken to the pyre. Gloom does prevail, but the funeral is primarily sombre,” he adds. “I also found it strange that Varanasi, for all the piety, is generally dirty. It’s an accepted coexistence, peaceful as ever.”
The actors in Burning are Pune-based writer-model Ketaki Narayan and national award-winning director Rukshana Tabassum, besides theatre-person Abhinay Shukla (who appears just at the start).
Jinoy says the story had its seed from a news report he had read during the 2004 tsunami. “Originally, the movie was conceived to span some 40 minutes, but we went on to trim it to size,” he reveals about Burning. Even so, the film revels in Varanasi vignettes such as tilak-sporting priests conducting post-death rituals, children wrestling, flying kites, the washermen, pigeons spread up into the sky, adults bring up potful of water and bicycles moving along narrow alleyways, besides, of course the country boats down the river.
Sanoj says the initial plan was to shoot the movie in the winter mist, but the schedule eventually got charted for this March by when it was spring. “The acting part was shot in three days,” he adds. “Two more days were spent filming sights that could supplement the main one.”
The dialogues, says Jinoy who has earlier worked in Delhi for a decade, were penned in Hindi and later vetted by journalist Kaveri Nandan as the script consultant for the movie that has English subtitles. “Well, we did let the actresses improvise on certain sentences,” adds Jinoy, who hails from near Irinjalakuda.
The post-production work on Burning, produced by Gulf-based Malayali Ajayya Kumar under Saravamangala Arts Initiatives, was done in Kochi. “We were lucky to find a producer who knows the value of art and takes special care to materialise an offbeat movie idea,” says Jinoy.
Kerala state award-winning Manesh is an alumnus of FTII Pune, as is Praveen Mangalath who has edited the movie. Arun Ramavarma, associated with blockbusters like Drishyam, has done the sound-mixing, while Arijit Mitra from West Bengal is the sound designer. Folk singer and actor Resmi Satheesh has done the casting. Kiran Keshav is the production designer.