Interview: Documentary filmmaker Spandan Banerjee

As Indians, we all have an uncanny relationship with the English language. Although some of us may diss it and argue about the importance of preserving our rich linguistic tradition, it is undeniable that the language, which is accepted as one of the two official languages of the country, plays a huge role in our lives. Spandan Banerjee’s documentary English India explores the relationship Indians share with the language and its importance in our lives as a means of both social and economic mobility. Having screened as one of the nine Indian documentaries in the 2015 HotDocs Film Festival’s Made In India section, the documentary is the first in a planned three-part series. As the festival winds up today, Long Live Cinema speaks to Spandan Banerjee who shares with us his experience of making the film.

Filmmaker Spandan Banerjee

How did the idea of making English India come about?
Growing up in India one cannot negate the position of power the knowledge of English imparts. Formal education meant little without the ability of conversation in fluent confident English, an ability, which is an unsaid necessity for a decent and respectable livelihood. English is the wall that subtly separates the successful and the struggling in most of the country. As a filmmaker this particular subject has always been of immense interest to me in terms of both its cinematic and narrative possibilities. It is a subject, which we all talk about and is at once personal yet something which needs to be documented and archived. The story of English as the language of power, aspiration and necessity is a story that is complex and reflects the reality of postcolonial India. I do not think in English. I think in my mother tongue. Most of us in India are bilingual or trilingual, so language is a very important part of our identities. Also my own experience of growing up where education was the most important thing, especially English, even while we were reading and writing Bengali and were fascinated by Bengali literature. But everything was incomplete without the mastering of English language or literature. This is a dichotomy I have always wondered about and I found myself going back to this subject when I realised I wanted to find a visual or cinematic mode of representing language and its journey.

How long did the research for the documentary take and how did you go about doing it?
English India is a story, which has been in development since 2008. Actually it was during the time I had finished my film music documentary BEWARE DOGS (IFFR Rotterdam 2008) when we started research and work on English India.
Essentially the idea was conceived by me and my researcher/ screenwriter Rupleena Bose, who is also an English Professor with a gamut of experiences and stories related to English as the language of aspiration. As the journey from idea to narrative started and the research continued, we realized that with the stories and characters that we have, English India has to be more than one film. Only then could we do justice to the subject. In the larger canvas of the film and the story, which will unfold over three parts, the story of English and its politics in India, politics which are changing even as we speak.
Actually the first shoot was years ago in 2010 in Ramjas College in New Delhi. I haven’t used that section here, as the education system and learning will be the story of the next part (when it is made). I start the story here with Calcutta and my school. The cinematic canvas is large and there are many more characters to meet. The story of English requires a large canvas and this is first part that is more like an introduction.

Tour guides in India are usually the ones who speak in an English of their own kind. What was the motivation of telling the story through them?
The tour guide, Imran being the person who voices the thought of how English is a necessity yet it is something that he was curious about as if it were an alien object is very interesting. His story had to be told.
The linear story strand is the journey and conflicts surrounding English and the language we speak or aspire to speak in. English India is a film about people who use the language for their immediate livelihood, yet they are intimidated by the language. It is a film not about a particular community but about disparate characters bound by a language in a country of many many languages, tongues, dialect and so on. It is about us and our language that binds and separates us in this stunning multilingual nation.
The story will continue, the next two parts will get into language schools, individual stories of struggle, hope, neglect, discrimination, change and the contemporary debates over one language and so on.

What were the challenges you faced while telling this story?
I wanted to create a journey, a unique way of looking inside and a cinematic style to tell a story about language, a very challenging subject itself for the visual medium! I also wanted to find a visual or cinematic mode of representing language and its journey. My DOP is Mrinal Desai and the idea and the way to see it was something we had been talking about every now and then, while shooting my earlier films BEWARE DOGS and YOU DON’T BELONG. I like a subject, which no one has explored visually. The challenge is to make the film in 3 parts and telling a story that informs all our realities, a narrative which is intertwined going back and forth in history and present .

Did you have any references to fall back upon for the film? If not, which filmmakers are you inspired by?
The references that I fall back on in making my films, is the country I live in. The stories that India has to offer every day, fascinates me as a filmmaker. In filmmaking I like to find my own way of visualizing and narrating a subject or story both in fiction and documentary. If you see You Don’t Belong or To Let, I am playing around trying to find my own language. As a film viewer, I love Woody Allen and the stories of the city he brings out. And of course Kubrik, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Louis Malle. Of course there are many others!

What does the HotDocs selection mean for English India?
Hot Docs is a very prestigious documentary festival and it is wonderful that this film will be premiering here, representing the diversity of India. Hot Docs Screening tickets were sold out and that was lovely to know. Funding and financing of independent films is always an issue and an enormous struggle, I am hoping to meet possible distributors and partners.

What do you plan for English India from here? Any screenings in India, will you try for a release?
Hopefully there will be screenings in India after this. As funding and financing is a long process I will take that step as it comes. I am also currently setting up and looking for collaborators for my next feature film ‘Golden Triangle’, a fiction thriller we developed while researching this film.

What is your take on the distribution systems available for documentaries in India?
Anyway there is no particular distribution system available for documentary films in India. They are usually funded to be shown on television, if at all. Over the last few years a few documentaries have been bravely put into the mainstream distribution system in India. This is a very good start though I think a lot more needs to be done to get the documentary audience to the theatres. Indian documentaries have a fantastic tradition and history. Look at the stalwarts of documentary like Arun Khopkar, Anand Patwardhan, Deepa Dhanraj, Ranjan Palit. They have been making such important films for decades. I think, the audience needs to be prepared to take that effort and watch documentaries and that’s where distribution is supposed to play a key role. I think it is also about mindset which needs to change. Distribution and exhibition spaces are supposed get people to theatres to watch docus. There has to be an alternative model and people have to helm of this change. People, who genuinely care about different kind of stories whatever be the form fiction or non-fiction. Everything can’t depend on the filmmaker who is anyway giving his/ her blood and sweat to find a way to make to tell stories his/ her own way. The online distribution for documentaries for my earlier films You Don’t Belong and Beware Dogs is with Magic Lantern Movies and Underscore who again have been dedicatedly doing this for years now.

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