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Subversion on the screen

For Kamal Swaroop, creative life is all about that moment of inspiration

Kamal is deeply influenced by Borges, Derrida, Foucault and admires the work of Andy Warhol.

THERE'S A jack-in-the-box quality about film director Kamal Swaroop that's quite enchanting. No matter which cubbyhole you try to fit him into, he wriggles right out. No matter what labels you try to tag onto him, he shrugs them off with a wily wit.

It's no wonder that his 1988 film, Om Dar-b-Dar, was one of the talking points of Two Nations, A Single Screen," the recent Indo-German film festival in the city. Since its controversial release following a run-in with the Censor Board, the film has attained iconic status. Influenced by the Surrealists and the Dadaists, it sets out to upturn basic film definitions. And very successfully, too. Dodging linear narrative, this art-house movie surprises viewers with its multi-layered satire and subversion — of society, of context, of communication. That's why it proves a delight, just as non-conformist, Mumbai-based Swaroop is in real life.

When asked about the continuing popularity of his cult film, which had a noticeable following at the festival, Swaroop, laughs: "It's not just here, but everywhere... "

How come it hasn't dated, years after its release? "It deals with imaginary happenings in Ajmer and Pushkar in an absurdist plot that people are still trying to figure out. You know, after the film, the audience at the theatre, said: `Tell us the story.' I think of it as a work of art, not a mere film," he explains.

His maddening, charming fable for our times explores intertwined plots that spoof a government servant suspended for issuing false caste certificates, a once-tribal girl curiously entangled with a young man and his cycle, a heroine on an undefined journey. Of its essence, Swaroop says, "I think of it as an essay on adolescence. It's about states of mind. Or the problem of identity." At the centre of it all, is a young man in search of himself, named Om.

Influenced deeply by his readings of Borges, Derrida, Foucault and his admiration for the work of Andy Warhol, this 1974 graduate of Pune's Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Swaroop thinks of Om Dar-b-Dar as "a post-modernist film, dealing with issues and constructs that take us from the cycle to the scooter, from the radio to TV."

Doesn't it present problems of access, constantly challenging the viewer's intelligence? "I'm in the enviable position of still receiving 20 to 25 emails a day about the film from around the world," he smiles, a teacher welcomed at his alma mater and other pan-Indian film schools. "In some ways, I showed today's generation the path. Today's generation is not insecure at all. I feel DV as a tool is going to revolutionize filmmaking."

Swaroop, whose student work at the FTII met with unusual international acclaim, assisted director Richard Attenborough in the filming of Gandhi in 1982.What was the experience like? His eyes twinkling, he responds: "I enjoy handling crowds, so I helped with the funeral and riot scenes. I had a good time. I kept them enthralled by telling them the story of my film. Each time I retold it, it came out different. I think the crowds enjoyed it as much as I did."

Why did Om Dar-b-Dar enrage the censors? "They didn't really understand it," recalls the director. "They kept looking for a story line or a political message in the songs. They even called in a maulvi to check out if one of the songs could possibly be subversive. Of course, it wasn't. After a year's wait, they finally released it with an A certificate."

Pausing a minute, Swaroop reflects, "Isn't it strange that artists understand my film better than others do? Maybe because they can see the very film as a character."

He's currently conceptualising a film on Dadasaheb Phalke. Once realised, it will be well worth watching. That's for sure.

Over the past 30 years, Swaroop has worked with Zee Chakra, Channel V, Star Plus and Cinevista, investing them with the quirky, individual, unpredictable quality that is peculiarly his. For, as this film, television and radio director and scriptwriter sees it, eventually, creative life is all about when "the inspired moment comes." Any takers?


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