In Conversation With Sovan Tarafder: 8th Day of the Week
Seeing is believing. The rather innocuous remark is thrown at times to judge the certainty of fact or even of relative truth. What it actually shows is that seeing is not just associated with believing but also with our very being. Eyes for the ‘normal’ of us are ‘doors of perception’ - the image of the world around us, the sense of its existence, and our inherent vision, stem from the images we gather. But what of those who don’t have the faculty of eyesight? What of those whose methods of perceiving the lived reality are distinctly different from our own?
In Sovan Tarafder’s new documentary, 8th Day of the Week, the independent filmmaker takes us inside the theatre group “Anyadesh”. All the members of the theatre group are either completely or partially blind. The documentary bagged a special Jury Award at the South Asian Short Film Festival (2021) and will be shown at the 27th Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) 2022. Over the last 25 years, Tarafder, the journalist-academician-writer-filmmaker, has donned many hats. He started his career as a journalist while completing his PhD from Jadavpur University. His professional stints as a journalist in ABP and TOI group respectively lasted for over 20 years. Tarafder’s debut feature, 'Selfie' was screened at KIFF in 2014. Before his latest film’s screening at KIFF 2022, we sat with the filmmaker to discuss his latest documentary, his experience of working with the thespians and much more.
Parnab Bhattacharya: Could you tell us about your association with Blind Opera / Anyadesh and the thespians?
Sovan Tarafder: My personal association with Blind Opera dates back to the late 1990s. I live in Baranagar, the northern fringe of the city of Kolkata, where Shubhashis Gangopadhyay, the director of the group, happened to reside at that time. I saw the blind performers first at his place in Baranagar. It didn’t take us long to forge a camaraderie that has stood the test of time.
Parnab Bhattacharya: How did the idea of 8th Day of the Week come about?
Sovan Tarafder: The gestation period was rather long. I always wanted to do something on them, but due to my professional stint in ABP and then The Times of India group, time constraint was huge. Also, I didn’t want my documentary to be another also-ran kind of a thing. For more than a decade, I stayed in touch with them and kept on interacting, be it just chatting, watching their performances, writing feature articles on them or scripting radio show on their modes of approaching Tagore. This show was anchored by none other than the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee. All these years, apparently barren, had one significant impact. Gradually they brought us closer and a mutual trust came into being. Also, I got adequate time to structure my thoughts.
Parnab Bhattacharya: Can you tell us a little about the shooting process? How did you approach them?
Sovan Tarafder: The shoot was done in phases, spanning over five years (2016-2020), largely due to financial issues. Since I had to fund the project myself, the shoot often ran into rough weather. However, the most challenging part in the entire shooting process was to get those blind performers acquainted with camera. They do have an incredible sense of the space of proscenium (or even non-proscenium) stage, but being caught on a moving camera was something alien to them. We had informal workshops, chatted for hours, stayed together for a few days during the first and most substantial part of shooting in 2016. I had to learn how to take them through a hand-holding process without holding the hands literally. I must mention here that Shubhashis Gangopadhyay kept on supplying invaluable insights all these years. The film wouldn’t have taken such a shape without those inputs.
Parnab Bhattacharya: How long did it take you to finish the film, from shooting to editing? How much time did you spend with them?
Sovan Tarafder: The shooting time was mentioned above. Then it was a 100-hour edit (again spanning over a few months due to some extraneous reasons). Colourist took two weeks roughly. Then came another hugely challenging (and intriguing) phase. Dubbing. This usually easy phase was likely to get complicated with actors who couldn’t watch their lip movements on screen. Again, these performers exceeded all my expectations with a bewildering sense of precision. Except only a few moments, the entire dubbing process hardly needed any double-take. Their interactions with auditory signals being sharper and much more practised, they were bang on target, again and again. They flawlessly replicated whatever captured on camera.
Parnab Bhattacharya: The film introduces us to the theatre group with a voiceover narration. That slowly paves the way for the interview of the theatre director where he takes the lead to take us more into the workings, their experience and day to day lives, and subsequently their performance. I want to know how did you construct the narrative and structure it?
Sovan Tarafder: One, I consciously tried to give it a lyrical structure, though the everyday reality of these performers is way lot harsher than we, the normal sighted people can ever imagine.
Two, I chose the location with a rugged, secluded and deserted look that, I thought, would reflect this harsh reality around them.
Three, I chose to make them express their feelings in the way they do it on stage, i.e. within a narrative. That’s why, barring a single instance, I didn’t want them to talk like any interviewee. Only the director spoke to the camera, taking us through the inner ups and downs. I kept the voiceover as the narrative of a bystander, much like me.
Four, I sat through the entire rushes and then wrote the narrative. Certainly, I had one thematic configuration in mind but on the whole, I preferred the narrative to be image-driven. I hopped from one set of image to the other.
Parnab Bhattacharya: Rabindranath Tagore’s plays and songs are very much present in the documentary. It seems that the narrative was layered with his songs that work as a subtext too. At the end they rehearse and perform “Raktakarabi”. Was it a perchance that they were performing “Raktakarabi” at the time of shooting, or did you want to permeate the documentary with Kabiguru’s songs?
Sovan Tarafder: Since the very inception of Blind Opera and then subsequently AnyaDesh, the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, and mostly his songs would form the inner core of the activities. Be it their training phases or public performances, Tagore has always had an overwhelming presence. So, in this film also, Tagore songs and plays were naturally inescapable, in more senses than one.
Having said so, there was the clear-cut risk of not being able to communicate to the audience less acquainted with Tagore’s works. I thought it’s a risk worth taking. So, they didn’t do Raktakarabi (Red Oleander) perchance. It was in my script. Even the sequences were chosen by design. Also, I wanted the film to get permeated with Tagore songs. Not only performances, the BGM too reverberated with his compositions. Certainly, those who can follow the lyrics in original would get a better idea of the subtext lurking beneath. That’s the enigmatic beauty of great poems. They are untranslatable. Nevertheless, there are translations in subtitles.
Parnab Bhattacharya: The general reaction to blind people is either disregard or sympathy - sympathy that sometimes can be condescending to the other person. While filming, was that a concern for you to show their problems without condescending them?
Sovan Tarafder: While filming, apart from a few procedural arrangements, none of the unit members took the actors to be blind performers. They were like any other performer, emoting before the camera. They just happened to lack the eyesight, that’s all. This is precisely what helped the two sides – the sighted and the non-sighted – to be on the same page. We had real fun during the shoot. With much affection they still remember those moments.
Parnab Bhattacharya: Your film compels us to rethink the ways of perceiving and the very idea of perception. Was it a conscious decision on your part, to not just tell their ‘story’ but also to make the audience rethink about the way we see the world?
Sovan Tarafder: 8th Day of the Week is my personal journey to a sort of magic reality. It’s a day that both belongs and doesn’t belong to the conventional structure of the week. This is because it disrupts the normal act of perceiving, unhinging it from the overwhelming command of the eye, the ocular data. Since the normal mode of being depends hugely on the eye, it can fairly be argued that more often than not, the ruling equation goes I= Eye. Disrupting such an easy (and cozy) equation, these non-sighted performers make us perceive through other sensory organs.
So yes, as a covert subtext, this film does have a provocation to question the norm and also to reconfigure the normal ways of seeing. These actors have been able to see the world around them in a different way. That’s what has brought them to the elusive, impossibly possible (or, possibly impossible) 8th day of the Week.
Parnab Bhattacharya: Can you tell us something about your next project on how the blind people interact with five elements of nature?
Sovan Tarafder: This film remains focussed on the performative being of those non-sighted people. In my next project, I’ll dig deep into the inter-connections between their lived reality and their performances. I’ll try to unearth how they respond to the five elemental things that Mother Nature has for all of us—earth, air, fire, water and space. It’s going to be a crowd-funded project, the filming of which would take place amidst natural surroundings. The camera in 8th Day of the Week is largely my eyes, looking at those performers. In my next, I would want their ways of seeing guide the camera and permeate the narrative.
8th Day of the Week will be screened at Nandan III on 26th April at 6 pm and on 30th April at Sisir Mancha at 7.30 pm.
Author’s Biographical Note: Parnab Bhattacharya is a freelance writer, currently working as an intern at Explore Screen.