Patang (The Kite)
Patang (The Kite) is the first feature film from Indian filmmaker Prashant Bhargava. With a bold vision of India and the world’s largest kite festival, and a sense of storytelling that included casting almost entirely non-actors and shooting long takes filled with vibrancy and vivid color, Bhargava has cemented for himself a place as a unique voice in global cinema. Patang (The Kite) is the story of a successful Delhi businessman returning to Ahmedabad with his daughter for the annual kite festival. As their family drama slowly and subtly unfolds, so does the beauty and danger of the kites flying above. Patang (The Kite) opens tonight (July 29th) at Laemmle’s Music Hall, and the director will be on-hand for Q&As following the evening screenings. In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently spoke with Bhargava about the seven-year journey of making the film. Here’s what he shared with me about finding the voice of his first feature, working with Joe Klotz, the Oscar-nominated editor of Precious, and crafting Patang (The Kite).
Jackson Truax: What was it about the kite festival inspired you use it as the basis of your first film?
Prashant Bhargava: I used to see my uncles flying kites when I was young. It was really something that transcended all of their problems of the past, and they were just in the moment. Even those around them, whether they were Hindu or Muslim, whether they were rich or poor, everyone just let go of all those tensions. So I thought that kite flying was a meditation in a very simple from. Then when I went to Ahmedabad…I saw how important it was for their moving forward and moving past some of the religious difficulties of the past and their own personal tragedies, I knew I had to make the film.
JT: How did you decide that an understated family drama would be the best genre of story to set against the backdrop of the kite festival?
PB: The festival is known as “The Day the Wind Direction Changes.” The way that the festival impacts not only one person, but several, was part of what I was thinking about. So when I started to explore the different characters, the nucleus of one family and having a central house, just presented a nice mechanism to link all three of the stories. It’s also very based upon my own family experiences. We had a joint family house. Every family reunion or celebration, people get a little bit closer, but they’re always tensions lurking underneath, and secrets. I thought that that would be a great way to present this kite festival and have a multi-character drama. The understated-ness of the film really came from just experiencing the festival, experiencing the people there, having my own relationships with my own family. It was that everyday magic that really impressed me. Creating a scenario where people could live on-screen was something that I really wanted to do by making this film.
JT: At what point did you decide the family drama should be as understated as it is, and it should unfold as subtly as it does in the film? What was the challenge in executing that?
PB: Initially, the writing was very difficult for me. Because you’re seeing such beauty unfold in front of you right away, and you’re trying to capture that in the written word and preserve all of that. And finding that right amount of dramatic tension while at the same time keeping it so casual was a challenge. Then during the shoot…it was a lot of trying to discover along the way. We did a two-and-a-half month workshop with the kids, which was really great, teaching them theater games and memory exercises. The casting process was really unique in terms of trying to find those people in real life that had gone through some of these things but who also had that quality of feeling really comfortable in front of the camera. Eventually, after our two-month shoot, we accumulated two hundred hours of footage. It was handheld, and very impressionistic and intuitive. So it wasn’t something where I could go to an editor and say, “Hey, cut this.” So I spent two years editing on my own. It was a challenging process of cutting back-and-forth. You find moments where you really connect with the material in a really beautiful way… Eventually I worked with Joe Klotz who cut Precious, and Junebug and Rabbit Hole and he took my two-and-a-half hour cut and we brought it down to size together… This idea of trying to have people live on-screen takes a lot more intuition and feeling. It’s almost like you have to cultivate that family atmosphere on-set… That’s not something you can do mechanically or call the right person and they’ll make it happen. It’s a lot of intuition. To…sustain that for a seven-year journey was a lot.
JT: How much in the script and final film is taken from things you witnessed, and where does it become a work of fiction?
PB: Those family interactions are things that I directly experienced during that research period, in either shooting one hundred hours of research footage and gossiping with the grandmothers, or playing with the kids fixing the kites, or sitting in the kite shops with the kite makers, sitting with families and finding out what their tensions were underneath and what their joys were… All of those things are very familiar… Many of the characters have very deep connections to me. Obviously, the way that Priya (Sugandha Garg) holds her camera and explores the city is something that I did for many years. The instant attraction that Bobby has to her…I’ve certainly been in that scenario with my own life… Hamid’s (Hamid Shaikh) character, as a kid, I always was drawn to those kids, they just had a resilience, and by osmosis, they knew how to catch a kite, or have that kite in their hands… If you look at the rhythm of the film…it unfolds…in a certain way in terms of the plot rhythm, but then it’s shot like The Hurt Locker or The Bourne Identity with the handheld camerawork… There’s a kite battle sequence, which is entirely unnaturalistic in terms of its sound design, it’s sword-slashing and bombs blowing up. And then you have really naturalistic things. That cutting back-and-forth and use of colors. That’s where my personality came out.
JT: Prior to shooting, how scripted was Patang? How closely did you stick to the script in shooting?
PB: I wrote a one-hundred-and-twenty page script. All the dialogue was there. I did write in English originally. You have the six characters and interactions going on. So the journeys were there. Then on-set, only three out of forty people read the script. I would never refer to the script as the foundation. But what I would do is look at every scene and say, “What are the emotional objectives happening here? What does someone want and how do they want it?” If they’re seducing someone playfully, that’s what I had to get them to do as a director. To get those three, four beats in each scene very clear and very well-expressed in terms of being able to communicate with a non-actor and actor… The [rough cut] was ninety percent of the script, including the words that are there. Sometimes people are expressing it in their own way… It’s a really unique way of working.
JT: The film is an interesting blend of a cinema verite look at Ahmedabad as well, and the kite festival, and the story of this family that unfolds in a very subtle way. What were the biggest challenges in finding how to best balance those elements in screenwriting, direction, and editing?
PB: With the screenwriting, it was very much, “How do you preserve that intimacy and that everyday magic of what is unfolding in front of you in such a simple way, and still manage to get enough dramatic conflict in and character journey so that it’s a story and not just a camera pointed at a community?” It’s not a documentary, it’s a narrative. That was very challenging in that way. With the directing, as I mentioned, it was my crew. They didn’t get what I was doing at that time. So it was very challenging to get them to have the patience on-set to allow an actor or allow a situation or allow a group of non-actors to get to that place. They were so accustomed to clearing out an area. Then you have your lights set up. You have you blocking… This was entirely not like that… I just wanted three or four people on-set. I wanted to just keep it so intimate, that everyone would forget that we’re actually shooting. That’s when things would really happen. Particularly for India, they don’t have that indie, naturalistic background. So that was really tough. During the editing, I came back with two-hundred hours of footage and had to spend twenty days just watching the footage and logging it… We shot it in such an interesting way in terms of these long lenses and shooting between stuff, and many times not having your conventional coverage of over-the-shoulder and then the reverse. I didn’t know what to do for a while. I thought I really screwed up. It was intentional when I was doing it, to have all those fragments. It’s such a visual and powerful place with so much going on. It always didn’t make sense to me in how we were capturing those details. But in the editing room, it was sometimes really difficult to pull a scene together… I would say in every scene I had so many tricks I had to come up with… I had kites that were shot on different days to make the kite battle. I had so many different interactions happening all over. That took months to edit… How do you build up anticipation in a kite battle? The answer is, it’s a very different style of editing from the naturalistic stuff. Then, how do you get a consistency of cinematic language across something? You come up with a cool technique and it’s cool for a scene, but doesn’t necessarily work in terms of the whole construct. The way that I approached the editing, was that I was getting all the major plot points first… And then start filling in those other scenes that may be a little more atmospheric or gentler in the tone.
JT: What was the editing process like with Joe Klotz?
PB: He was really great. He has such a great personality, and a really good energy about him. So we got along very well personally. I would talk to him more like an actor. We would talk about scenes and story and objectives and what’s moving where. So he took that and spent two weeks [editing], and came back with a cut that took out almost forty-five minutes and was quite remarkable. It moved faster… I cut the kite battle sequence again, and gave it back to him. We would go back and forth. He was cutting in his house on a Final Cut Pro system. We had duplicates. We could go back and forth.
JT: Why is it important audiences seek out Patang, and what do you think it has to offer that’s unique?
PB: There’s a line in the film that says, “We don’t hold on to our past with sadness, we hold on to our happiness.” I feel like that’s the main essence of the film. When people watch the film, what I’ve been impressed with and touched by across the world at film festivals and in its theatrical [runs] is that it’s a universal story, and yet it’s so local… I feel that when people see this film, there’s a greater cultural awareness, and of the humanity that we all have. That’s why I really believe that the film needs to be seen.
Filed under: LiC Interview