‘Our intention with Belly... was always to confront curiosities and interests we had that gave rise to certain fears’
Initially banned in the country, The Belly of the Tantra delves into the radical and extreme rituals of an ancient and eccentric sect of Hinduism along the Ganga, in Nepal, and Kamakhya in Assam. Hardnews catches up with directors Pankaj Purohit and Babita Modgil who took the challenging path to enter a hidden world with their camera
Lily Tekseng Delhi
The Belly of the Tantra is a brave attempt. You managed to film practices and communities that are hard to access. Tell us about the journey.
Babita Modgil/Pankaj Purohit: It was an undertaking, indeed. We went places and saw things we’d never seen or comprehended. The result is a film that takes the audience on the same journey. Only when a paintbrush strokes the canvas of its free will, moves anywhere without fear, doubt, logic or reason, a painting is born. I mean, it goes beyond psychology, and penetrates the unconscious. It’s like the Creator himself made the creation, we were merely a medium. We didn’t want to intellectualise our feeling and let the mind, come in the way. What is the mind really, if it doesn’t correspond with your feeling? It was extremely difficult to keep shooting, keep going and be sane. We threw up several times. We were constantly subject to nausea because of the smell of burning flesh on the pyre. Also, there was the threat of being attacked. What if they didn’t trust our intentions? But the dead are burning everywhere around us. Life is temporary and there is nothing to worry about. But you have to be really possessed to be able to think like that.
The film ran into trouble with the censor board, and was even banned in India. What motivated you to pick a touchy subject as this?
BM/PP: Touchy is good. Who doesn’t want to be touched? But as artists and filmmakers, if we only make projects that are convenient and safe and avoid risk, we will produce a stale, bland batch of films. Our intention with Belly... was always to confront curiosities and interests we had that gave rise to certain fears — either about the subject matter or the actual execution of the film. Of course, there’s need for preparation and awareness, but if all goes well, we let that preparation go, trust it remains, and allows the reality of what we confront to shape what we document. We are also motivated to discover and shine a light on an idea that we assume to be one thing but which turns out to be another. The Aghoris in our film can easily be perceived simply by how they look, but it’s the subtext and everything underneath that is truly what informed us. We were surprised, intrigued, scared, inspired, concerned, educated and ultimately, profoundly altered after our experiences with them.
Throughout the documentary, the camera as a perceiver is anxious and alien to the world it is encountering. How difficult was it to balance the outsider/insider conflict
BM/PP: Extremely difficult. It’s challenging to look through a lens and fully experience a moment. There are things we missed and couldn’t fully comprehend until we played it back during the edit. On the other hand, there were moments that we fully experienced which were not captured on film. We were too wrapped up in the immediate circumstance and atmosphere. The balance is tricky.
What would you say to those who would feel the most important element of your documentary is its shock value?
BM/PP: We’d ask them what was shocking.
For example, there are graphic depictions of animal sacrifices and many subjects hint at a longing for the time before the government banned human sacrifice in relation to religious rituals. It is also a male-dominated world. While it’s hard to explore an unfamiliar world with pre-conceived biases, as filmmakers who eventually have the right to tell a story to the audience the way s/he wants to, where would you stand morally with regard to that?
BM/PP: We are not here to please you. We want art to be nothing but the truth. Something that is written in blood. In the Bible it says let truth and truth alone be told, and the truth will set you free. As artists and through our medium, we’re doing exactly that. In the process of making art, we constantly attack ourselves, our hypocrisy of the individual and the collective. We are not construction workers.
Here in Delhi, the film screening was censored and we also saw about 18 minutes less of the film. What did the Delhi audience lose?
BM/PP: Anytime censorship is involved, the reality of what is vanishes and we are left with what we’ve altered — may be for our own reasons, flawed or otherwise. As they say, the devil is in the details. Losing nuance, idiosyncrasy and action that make up the whole do not fully represent the reality an artist chooses to explore. Censorship is more about what we choose to ignore because we are uncomfortable than establishing what is suitable to witness. The whole is lost, the absolute reality is lost and therefore the experience, in its entirety, becomes lost. Fortunately, there have been uncut screenings also. But we are grateful for the screenings nonetheless — censored or not. For some, a step at a time is most important and we’d rather share some cultural sustenance than none at all.
The Belly of the Tantra will be screened at Alliance Francaise, Bengaluru, on November 12, 2014