This summer Gurvinder Singh moved to Bir in Himachal Pradesh from Pune where he has lived for several years. Born and brought up in Delhi, he’s had just about enough of cities and has now moved to a small, lovely house on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. His new home might not have an internet connection but there is a stunning sky populated in the day with paragliders and hills in the distance that scrub one’s heart clean.
Singh’s films too have that effect. His first feature film Anhey Ghoray Da Daan (Alms for A Blind Horse) and his second Chauthi Koot (Fourth Direction), just back from the Cannes film festival, are both stunning in their clarity, simplicity and visual imagination. The calm exterior of his face and his limpid, light eyes hide an imagination not quite comfortable with the ideas of calmness and a settled life. “I’m always ready to give up,” he says.
A few years ago, he almost did. Tired of the boot-licking needed to make films and the difficulties of raising money without compromising one’s vision, Singh was about to quit. He made a phone call to his mentor Mani Kaul, to whom he thought he owed an explanation before he gave up. “I told him: I think I know good cinema. I think I have it in me to make a good film. But I can’t do this. I’m giving up.” Kaul, characteristically cryptic, just said: “Knowledge and practice are the two wings of a bird.” Singh knew he was going to make a film.
Singh went on to make Anhey Ghoray Da Daan based on the lower caste writer Gurdial Singh’s eponymous novel. An account of the difficult lives of the rural peasantry (represented by a father who is about to lose his house which the landlord has sold to an industrialist) and the urban working class (represented by a son who is a rickshaw puller in the city) in Punjab, the film steered clear of the clichéd language of agitprop or documentary film-making.
Singh wanted to be a painter (and though, in many ways, he is one; the cinematic frame being his canvas) but his father, though he himself studied at the Delhi School of Art, would not let him do art. His father worked in advertising. For him, then, his son also had to be more practical, to enter a field with financial security. So, Singh enrolled in NIFT and from the first day itself, he knew it was not for him. He spent the first year roaming the city, walking through Old Delhi, sitting at the Delhi Zoo. He sat in parks and read books. He informed his parents by the end of the year that he would discontinue, this was not for him. He then decided to do a degree in Mass Communication and got into Pune University for it. He loved the Pune University campus, was fascinated by the city and though, once again, he hated the course, he decided to stay on in Pune. He mainly hung out with friends watching old and foreign films in the Film Archives in Pune.
There was intuitive kinship towards cinema. After his degree, Singh joined FTII and focused on direction. He wanted to do camera work but at that point camera was taught technically and lifelessly. It was thought that if you did camera you should only know the physics of how film in a camera worked rather than how to shoot something imaginatively.