(Note- This post is a follow up to the earlier post from Tenzing Sonam where he had highlighted upon Tenzing and his partner Ritu’s background in films and their long journey to this point.)
Hari was 16 when we first met him. We had just moved near his village not far from Dharamshala, and were building our home. Hari and his two elder brothers used to carry river stones to our construction site to make some money on the side. After he completed high school, Hari became a taxi driver. And every year, Hari’s father, Suju Ram, brought his oxen to plough the small piece of land that we were trying to farm. Over the years, we developed a close relationship with the family.
Hari was always a special character: frank, outspoken, funny, full of quips and smart-aleck comments, with a unique, homegrown perspective on life. His outgoing personality and smattering of English endeared him to the many foreigners who lived in the area and he soon became one of the most popular taxi drivers around. His interactions and conversations with these foreigners, mostly from the West or the Far East, broadened his thinking and he became aware of issues like women’s rights and caste.
Hari’s wedding was arranged two years before the marriage actually took place. Although he was initially against the marriage on the grounds that his bride-to-be looked too short (he saw her for literally a few seconds with her face covered), he resigned himself to his fate when he realized that he would be upsetting his father if he refused. He invited us to his wedding long before it happened and we were looking forward to attending as his guests.
Then, a few months before the wedding, Hari told us that he had managed to get hold of his fiancée Suman’s mobile number. In fact, Suman’s village had only recently received mobile connection. Hari said that they were talking to each other several times a day and that they had even got to like each other. This development sparked our interest in making a film about his story. We recognized that it could provide an unusual insight into how traditional cultures were coping with the inroads of modernization, a subject that we have been interested in for a long time.
We asked Hari how he would feel if we were to film him in the weeks leading up to his marriage and he was immediately excited by the idea. Being Hari, he had no hesitation about letting us film his conversations with Suman or letting us in on his deepest worries and fears. At one point, he boasted to Suman that he was going to have two film crews filming the wedding: one, the local village video team who he would be paying for, and the other, a professional team, i.e. us, that he was getting for free!
We decided to start shooting on spec. We had no funding in place but we had our camera and, in any case, the thought of bringing in a crew seemed wrong for this film; it would alter the intimate relationship that we shared with Hari. I had done some of the filming on our last documentary, The Sun Behind the Clouds, and felt confident enough to do the camerawork. We really had no idea how the film would turn out, or even if there would be a film in the first place. But as we followed Hari around, it became clear that we were, in fact, in a very unique position as documentary filmmakers, that this was a rare opportunity to capture a slice-of-life as it was unfolding, with a character who was completely un-selfconscious and open. We decided to focus totally on the film for the next year.
Our idea was to capture everything that Hari did and said, and at the same time, place it within the larger context of his family and community. We decided early on that we would not attempt to meet Suman before Hari did. His mounting anxiety as the day of the wedding drew closer spilled over to us as well and we were as apprehensive about finally seeing Suman as he was. We knew that the wedding would be a climax of sorts but beyond that, we had no idea how things would turn out. Hari and his family welcomed us into their lives without any expectation or hesitation; they trusted us completely and treated us as part of the family. As filmmakers, this was indeed, a rare privilege.
Once we had got the major part of filming done, we decided to look for funding. We put together a short pilot and sent out applications to various international funding bodies. As any filmmaker knows, this is a hugely competitive field, attracting applications from around the world. A very important funding organisation is US-based ITVS, which has an international initiative that provides funding to independent filmmakers who are not US citizens or residents of the US. Between 1-2% of applicants each year receive funding from them, which gives an idea of how competitive the process is. We had applied to ITVS for our last film, The Sun Behind the Clouds, and made it to the final round before failing to get the funding. That had been a huge blow to us and we were prepared for the worst with When Hari Got Married. But we were lucky second-time and ITVS International’s participation paved the way for further funding. We were able to secure additional funds from the IDFA Fund (The Netherlands) and The Norwegian South Film Fund.
We edited the film over a period of eight months, during which we also continued to film Hari and Suman. I took on the editing duties. Although I started out editing most of our early films, for years we had worked with editors. One good reason for working with an editor is to get a fresh perspective on a subject that the filmmaker might be too invested in. However, in this case, we felt that our proximity to our subject and our personal involvement would be an advantage rather than a handicap. It was a good way to work on a film that we felt so close to and we thoroughly enjoyed the editing process. When we had a final rough cut ready, we showed it to Hari. After watching the film, he exclaimed that everything in the film was exactly as it had happened. We reminded him that we had taken some liberties in the way certain scenes were edited and in the strict sequence of events but he was convinced that the film showed it as it was! That is the power of the visual image – to rearrange and even alter memory – and it is chastening to think of the great responsibility that goes with wielding that power.
Finally, the film was ready. In October 2012, we had its world premiere at Films From the South in Oslo, Norway’s largest film festival. During the edit, we would often be in stitches at some of Hari’s funny pronouncements but would this translate to an international audience? We needn’t have worried. The audiences at Oslo loved the film. The three scheduled screenings were sold out and a fourth was added. In Amsterdam, at IDFA, we had a similarly enthusiastic response and the same was true at Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea. Hari’s story seemed to have universal resonance and that was deeply satisfying to us. We held the India premiere of the film in November 2012 at the Dharamshala International Film Festival. Hari and Suman were among the packed audience. The crowd laughed and yelled throughout the film and gave Hari and Suman a standing ovation at the end. An audience member asked them whether their children would have arranged marriages, and, much to the delight of the audience, they firmly replied that they would be free to choose their partners!
Besides a successful festival run, a shorter version of the film has been broadcast nationally in the US on the PBS channel as part of its Global Voices series. It has also been broadcast in France and Germany on ARTE.
We never thought that a theatrical release for When Hari Got Married would be possible in India. Unlike in many foreign countries, there are no arthouse cinemas in India, and these are usually the most likely venues for documentaries and small indie films. Besides which, releasing a documentary theatrically at the best of times is a difficult undertaking. Without a substantial budget for publicity and promotion – and most indie filmmakers barely have enough to make their film – competing for attention with the new Bollywood and Hollywood releases would be a daunting task. So when Shiladitya Bora who runs PVR Director’s Rare expressed an interest in viewing the film and then suggested showing it as part of the series, we had to think long and hard. A handful of documentaries had already been released as part of this initiative to mixed reviews and response. We would have to incur expenses to make the digital cinema projection files and also to print posters and other publicity material. We had no money for mounting a widespread PR campaign so we would have to expend a lot of our own time and energy trying to push the film. Would it be worth it?
In the end, we decided to take the gamble. There is definitely a sense that a new wave of independent Indian cinema is boldly emerging and that audiences are ready for alternative films. It seemed to us that the PVR Director’s Rare series represented a tiny crack in opening up the market for documentaries to reach out to wider audiences. And it felt imperative that we should take the opportunity and do the best we could.
At the time of writing this, just one day before the release, PVR has given us our show timings. To our total shock and dismay, we do not have a South Delhi venue, despite this being one of our most important locations. Of course, in the end, it seems that commercial imperatives cancel out any professed goodwill about supporting indie cinema, and this again demonstrates how far we still have to go to cultivate a culture of alternative cinema in India.
We have requested PVR to consider showing the film in South Delhi some time in the coming weeks so that audiences in the capital can have a chance to watch the film. We’ll keep you updated.
30th August-5th September (one week)
PVR Phoenix Mills, Mumbai: 9.00 pm
PVR Juhu, Mumbai: 3.30 pm
PVR MGF Mall, Gurgaon: 3. 20 pm
PVR Phoenix Marketcity, Bangalore: 7.30 pm
And here is the theatrical trailer of the film-
– Tenzing Sonam