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Khoji

About this film

Set in the lower Himalayas, Yudhajit Basu’s short film Khoji is an ominous piece that uses the violent history of its people as a background in order to explore (and explain, perhaps) the people’s struggle today. And yet, this history is visually absent from the screen. In carefully framed long-takes, Basu lets the images speak as well as the dialogue in which parents consider sending their daughter to the city because it is no longer safe where they live. Or a dialogue in which a brother, almost surprised, asks his sister whether she wasn’t aware of what was happening in the neighbourhood. Something is happening; it hovers over Basu’s film, over every frame. The director suggests rather than tells, using still and quiet imagery that show resemblances to some of the big names in Slow Cinema.

Nadin Mai (tao films)

Interview with the Director
Yudhajit, I know from previous conversations with you that you seem to be fascinated by the Himalayas. Khoji is set in the lower Himalayas. Where does this fascination come from?

On the onset, I must acknowledge the fact that you’ve correctly used the word ‘fascination’. It’s true that the Himalayas only fascinate me. The landscapes, the faces of the people attract me and it'd be wrong to deny that it’s still somewhat of a touristic attraction as we, being people of the plaines, are only ‘outsiders’ amongst the native inhabitants of this belt which ironically is still a part of our state ‘West Bengal’ in India. Anyway, India is a truly multiethnic country, one can’t help this. There are so many varying cultures, traditions, ethnicities, multiple identities. Basically, both I and my co-director Prithvijoy chanced upon a travelogue by a Bengali writer Mr. Parimal Bhattacharya about Darjeeling, a memoir of his years of teaching experience in a college there. That was the starting point. We then began travelling to various parts of this belt, met a lot of people, talked with them and this heavy engagement gradually changed our perception regarding a lot of things including the Morcha Revolution that happened some years back in there, and we felt like we needed to do a film about these people in their own language. So in a way, more than the landscape, the people were our real motivation.

Right at the beginning of your film, you make reference to 1986 and a certain movement, which, as it turns out, led to the slow disappearance of native people in that particular region. Can you tell us a little bit more about this, and why you use this as a starting point for your film?

The history of the Gorkha movement is very old. It’s a demand for a separate state to be governed by their own people and also to defend their own distinctive identity. The first movement took place in 1986 and since then the protests have flared up and died again every few years. Since the British colonial rule, and even after the transfer of power, the successive governments haven’t paid much attention to the hills. The state government, being chiefly centred in Kolkata and the neighbouring plain lands, has never taken the hills seriously and the plain-landers have always looked down on their ethnic “others”. Khoji was shot in 2015 and within just two years another Gorkha movement has started again. Now, however, the politics have changed and this movement is quite different in nature than that of 1986.

You have chosen a contemplative style for your film and you are careful with revealing important twists in the film by not giving them away too early. Am I right in thinking that the way of life in the Himalayas dictated the film’s aesthetics?

I personally believe in a kind of cinema that is close to our life experiences. Our experiences root from our spaces and our daily interactions with them. So naturally spaces, landscapes, dictate a certain temporality which creates pacing. In these small Himalayan hamlets, each day is more or less a repetition of the day before with minute differences. It is as if time stands still there, people lead a very slow life, they live in harmony with nature. The mist, the rain and the sunshine dictate their daily routine as they are not yet completely consumed by technology. So we felt we need to catch the natural rhythm of this area, these people. That’s why we used long takes. We wanted to give the viewer the feeling of ‘waiting’, the sense of time passing by. This in a way seemed a more realistic way of representation.

Did you live with the family you were filming? I can imagine that you spent quite some time with them.

Oh yes, we had spent a good deal of time with them. They are not actors. They were probably facing a film camera for the first time in their lives. They became our friends and even today we are regularly in touch with them. Shooting with them was real fun and interestingly they were pretty free and spontaneous. We’ve worked with them in our next film as well.

There is a moment in the film when you destroy the famous fourth wall. One character looks straight into the camera, straight at us. It’s an uncomfortable feeling you create there.

Yeah, that happens in the second shot of the exposition scene where the man talks about the situation of the curfew etc. Well, breaking the fourth wall was not something done to generate any particular feeling in the viewer. We somehow felt in that close up that we need certain unease, an uncomfortable feeling. Asking the character to face the camera straight seemed a way to do it. These decisions are very organic and instinctive. And to be frank we don’t really care about grammar. We don’t believe in all these rules. It’s only that people have become used to watching films made in that way. It’s all very Hollywood school, which again is nothing but a school, not grammar.

The themes of your film are hidden in brief remarks, rather than lengthy conversations. There is the abrupt sentence “Girls are no longer safe here”, for instance. You leave the viewer in the dark about what it really is that is happening. There is this sense of danger, but it’s hidden or disguised.

We believe that controlled ambiguity often helps a film to be profound and closer to life. In life we don’t know a lot of things. We live only our experiences while many things happen around us, often involving us as well which we don’t get to know. So in a way our life is also like a film frame, many things keep happening beyond that as if some grand design is governing everything. However, we catch glimpses, we get hints. We try to apprehend and try to make something out of it. There are these ambiguities, uncertainties, suddenness, and confusions during such political upheavals. In the midst of this bustle, the people get to know only a fragment of many things. They get confused. But one thing they become sure of is an impending danger, some dark evil forces. That’s why we chose to keep many things unanswered, sometimes only suggestive. The brief remark about girls being unsafe can suggest a lot of things; rape, trafficking, murders, betrayal etc. The two kids really didn’t know what was happening around (they are only kids, they shouldn't be knowing) but the boy being a little older than the girl could sense some things. They chose not to talk much. We felt brief remarks can suggest a lot as the story of all revolutions and these confusing times is the same. But, apart from the entire socio-political context, Khoji is a take on the timeless human condition. Sometimes we just helplessly succumb to some overpowering forces. Still, the desperate quest for identity makes us all the more human.

“The day the last salamander dies, we will lose these hills and forests forever.” This warning by an elderly man at a fireplace carries the whole weight of the story. Can you tell us about the connection between the disappearance of salamanders and the disappearance of native people in the Himalayas?

Himalayan Salamanders are said to be the rarest amphibians. Once thought to be extinct, almost miraculously, they were found at Jorepokhari (a place in Darjeeling) in 1964. So these Salamanders are something unique to the hill identity. But with the rapid developmental constructions, tea plantation, and excessive tourism promotion initiatives, these oldest inhabitants gradually started becoming extinct. It appears as if a certain amnesia prevails, the history of these indigenous people is erased. So, you see, it’s almost on a symbolical level that the disappearance of the Salamanders corresponds to the loss of identity of the native people, which came under potential threats during the upheavals. The title “Khoji” itself means “a search” and, you see, this quest motif is recurrent. The children get lost in the forest; they are looking for a temple, the old man’s desperate urge to search the lost salamanders. It’s an ongoing search, an internal psychological journey to self-discovery.

Congratulations on having been accepted at the Film and Television Institute of India. This is a big step in your young career. What are your plans for the future?

Thank you very much and thank you for watching Khoji. Let’s see. I had always wanted to freely adapt a Chekov. I am writing a studio drama that can be a 10 min short film based on some of my childhood memories and a few short stories by Chekov. I might do it as my dialogue film in FTII. Anyway for the coming few years I won’t be in the Himalayas and that’s a pity.

Thank you for this interview.