Imaginative risk is at the heart of Singh’s film-making. Working with non- actors, stage actors and nobodies, building a team which included the extremely talented cinematographer Satya Raj Nagpaul and creating images that stay with the viewer long after the credits have rolled; Anhey took the film world by surprise, winning several national and international awards. What is most remarkable about the film is its quiet, but far from quietist, political language. Not obviously political, Singh’s intuitive style focuses more on what he calls “the feelings in the composition of a certain shot”.
This is not an idea that contradicts the idea of a rigorous engagement with film form or indeed with politics. Singh is very careful about the temporality of a shot or a sequence. “Today’s films have a sense of the spatial but are very bad on the temporal; on the question of duration. There’s no thought going into it,” he says. But form is wedded to the idea of what a shot captures in terms of the way one positions the camera or handles light.
Singh speaks of his productive differences with Satya, his cinematographer, or the DOP (Director of Photography), as film lingo will have it. “Satya, like most DOPs, believes in the perfect shot. Everything has to be layered and positioned in the right manner. Whereas I do not believe there is a perfect shot ever. Or that we should even aspire for one. Most DOPs think that the camera is the eye of God whereas space is just space and it takes on meaning in how we look at it or film it.” The idea echoes that of Mani Kaul on space in his interviews with Udayan Vajpeyi, collected in the book Uncloven Space which has been lovingly translated into English from Hindi by Singh. “If what I eventually saw of what I’ve shot did not surprise me, it would be meaningless,” he says.
Singh’s filmic sensibility is triggered by the literary. Both films are based on literary texts — the first a novel by Gurdial Singh and the second on two short stories by Waryam Singh Sandhu – and were written into scripts by Singh. Once again, the essences of the texts are distilled into his filmic vision. His style gives his films’ politics a particular texture that is hard to define. The Europeans are calling him a ‘new socialist’ but he’s not too bothered by nomenclature. His films have a politics but it is articulated in an intuitive, affective register.
His choice of non-actors is often based just on how he reads their faces. Singh is remarkably open to human faces and once he feels he has a face that gets at some essence of the character, he casts the person if he or she agrees. While he does not rehearse or do workshops or work out biographies of the actors, like a true blue Stanislavskian would, there is nonetheless a Stanislavskian recognition of emotional and intuitive, almost psychoanalytic charges that impel his actors and his images.
His new film, Chauthi Koot, is an even more remarkable achievement than Anhey as it takes one of the most obviously turbulent moments in recent Sikh history (the moment of Operation Blue Star and the Sikh militancy) and subjects it to a treatment that does not allow any scope for the sensational or the voyeuristic. Nor does it fall for the cliché of showing the lives of ordinary, ‘innocent’ people caught in the crossfire between the militants and the Indian armed forces. Indeed, Singh’s subjects are shown in the complicity that fear and cowardice produce.
Singh does not let you forget that film is a medium, “I never let my audience forget that they are watching a film and that this is artificial,” he says. Yet, he manages to create an identification in the audience. This identification is not the classic one of immersing oneself into a character or a scene (indeed none of Singh’s characters allow you to immerse yourself in them at all — they are all culpable, violent, complicit or silent) but, of alerting a sensory affiliation in the audience which is also an affective affiliation, done through a certain quality of light, of sound, of musical note that bathes both the scene and the viewer; a sensory immersion. In doing this, Gurvinder Singh restores to film its mysterious transformative quality.