Coming out of a screening of US-based filmmaker Pankaj Purohit’s documentary Belly Of The Tantra at Mumbai’s National Centre For The Performing Arts, many looked disturbed. Some were so overwhelmed that they said they needed some time to gather their thoughts. This was the first time that uncut version of the film, which is based on the flesh-eating Aghori swamis and was banned by the Censor Board, was screened in the country. “I am glad that you got to see my work in it’s purest form,” says Purohit. “The screening went great with almost 200 to 300 people being turned back which is a good sign that people wanted to see the film.” The filmmaker talks to THE WEEK about his plans for release, the influence of Aghori swamis on his life and his upcoming projects.
The film was banned by the Censor Board but it has met with such a positive response at all its screenings.
Yes (laughs). I am glad that it has created a lot of buzz and we are looking at more screenings in the city and elsewhere in the country. This has been the case of every path breaking film. For instance, when the iconic film Jaws was made, no producer or distributor wanted to pick it up. But when the film was screened, they found that a lot of people were turned back as the halls were full. This led them to getting a release. We are also trying for a release and we are in talks, but these screenings are important because the uncut version of the film is being shown here. Once it is released, it will be a watered down version.
What is your attitude towards censorship?
India is a very hypocritical society and I don’t respect this aspect of our society. The International Film Festival of India of Goa wanted to screen my film, but they wanted the film to be cleaned out of everything which was what I thought of as its soul. There are many instances of frontal nudity and cruelty to animals in the film which they wanted to erase. So I told them, please go ahead with it, but take out my name from the credits and write ‘Directed by the Censor Board’.
It is absurd and ridiculous that they are seeking cuts in a documentary. We are showing the truth and we are showing things as they are in our society. How can they ask us to blur them or cut them because they don’t want it to be shown or discussed? We thus had to wait for 2 years to get at least a version that I approve of to find its way to the audience. The film is about tantra and tantra is about flesh. If they are giving it an adult certificate, it doesn’t make sense to further make cuts. It means they are regulating what the adult in India should watch, which is absurd.
But the film had a good run abroad…
Yes. The film has been received quite well in England and other parts of Europe. It was screened at the Cine Rebis Underground Film Festival at the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, London, which screens only risque art. It was also screened at Maus Habitos in Portugal and the famous Berlinale (the International Film Festival). Thanks to this, we have created a lot of buzz in Europe.
So where did the idea of this documentary come from?
I was born in Madhya Pradesh and that is were this film is coming from. I grew up amid a lot of religion and spirituality in a really orthodox Brahmin family. I spent some time from 19 to 24 in Varanasi where I studied Indian Classical music, and that is where I first met these Aghori swamis. At 24, I went to the US and studied direction from UCLA. I stuck around for 8 years there even after my education to upgrade myself as an artist. I did a lot of tutoring like with Gregory Allen Howard who is the writer of Will Smith-starrer Ali. But then I realised that my stories are in India. My films were bringing me back to India.
I started Onward Entertainment with Jeremy Weaver whom I met on set in Hollywood. We started making films and our short film got selected to the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. That gave us the courage that we can in fact make films. So we wrote a film The Rope In The Darkness. We approached Irffan Khan and Manoj Bajpayee and Manoj expressed interest in acting in it. But the film didn’t take off because we couldn’t find producers and distributors. People felt the film was too edgy and weird.
We were told that Bollywood is all floss. A lot of people ask me why I didn’t give up hope and I tell them that great stories were not written by people who drink water, but blood. Jeremy lost hope and went back, but I stayed put and was determined to make a film. So Belly Of The Tantra was in fact a precursor to The Rope In The Darkness. It was like research for the movie.
How did you go about shooting the film?
We just set out around India to look for these swamis. We went to Kolkata, Assam, MP, Ujjain… I travelled the length and breadth of India. The fact that I had hung out with Babujis and smoked chillums in Varanasi and I knew what exactly would affect them and how to befriend them helped me a lot while filming. If you watch the movie, you will see that there is a lot of direction in the film. We have prodded them in some directions to say and react in certain ways.
The film was shot gonzo-style with spy cameras. What are your thoughts about the ethics behind this?
While we shot, the swamis were thinking we were clicking pictures of them. A lot of people ask me the same question about the ethics of such filming. But I am not an honest man, I wonder who is! But I am an honest artist and I am not here to be Raja Harishchandra. We shot for at least 10 to 12 months with them and there were many instances when we had to compromise with our own principles and ideas for the sake of the film. Once when we were with them, they even made us drink a concoction of urine and liquor from a fresh human skull. We lived in that area where it stank of burning bodies. We have vomited due to that stench. We also got really dirty. I hadn’t shaved my beard in three months. So it wasn’t easy for us, too, but we did it for the sake of art.
When you are so involved with your subjects, how easy or difficult is it to step back and maintain objectivity?
It is very easy to get affected when you are in such a situation. But I have managed to find a fulcrum in my mind. Now I can filter whatever is happening around me and be inside it and outside it at the same time. I have trained my mind in a certain way. The first thing you should do is stop being judgemental. I was respectful of their rituals which is why I could showcase it the way I did in the film.
How has the whole filming process of Belly Of The Tantra affected you at a personal level?
It has affected me hugely, it has changed me completely. The 10-12 months with them has made me very understanding of human behaviour. It has made me forgiving of things and events. I have grown and matured. And I have come to understand that there can be varied interpretations about the same thing. I have really gone beyond my reality and touched the extremities. This film has brought me back home.
Out next production is Sudden Cry, which is more slightly disturbing that Tantra (laughs). It is about sex trafficking and we will follow the same production and release pattern of releasing it overseas first and then garnering some support, creating some buzz and bringing it to India. We are also taking up The Rope In The Darkness again and Slumdog Millionaire fame Ankur Vikal and Shauna McDonald of The Descent fame will be starring in it.