UPAJ Documentary: Interview with Antara Bhardwaj

By Shruti Iyer

Juggling two full-time careers, Antara Bhardwaj is a filmmaker and a Kathak dancer, trained since childhood under Pandit Chitresh Das. After completing her film studies at the New York Film academy, she worked as an assistant director for acclaimed director Jagmohan Mundhra, on films such as Provoked (Aishwarya Rai, Naveen Andrews, Nandita Das). She went on to direct her own feature film at the age of 25, a British suspense thrilled titled Telling Lies, starring Spice Girl Melanie Brown and Jason Flemyng (Curious Case of Benjamin Button). She was a producer on Jag Mundhra’ s political thriller Shoot on Sight (Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri). Additionally, as a Kathak dancer and teacher,  Antara tours extensively, and has performed all over the U.S. and India.

Antara’s most recent project, Upaj, is her first documentary. The 2009 tour of India Jazz Suites (IJS) instigated the production of the documentary, and was produced with The Center for Asian American Media in association with Hindipendent Films.

Antara Bhardwaj graciously took the time to talk about producing Upaj, the uniqueness of the film, and the convergence of her passions for both dance and film making.

How did Upaj come about? In your eyes, what is the film about?
Upaj initially got started in 2007 by Rina Mehta , the Executive Producer of the film. At the time, she was working for the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), and had taken the CAAM representatives to see India Jazz Suites (IJS). They all recognized that IJS was such a unique collaboration between the Indian and African American Communities and thought it would be a great opportunity to create a film. So Rina raised the initial funding to film the sample scenes. She brought on Hoku Uchiyama as the Director and Shipra Shukla as Producer. They shot the first sample scene during India Jazz Progressions, [a delineation of IJS, performed by Chloe Arnold and Charlotte Moraga], in 2007. I was really taken away by the sample scenes created by this project and joined the team as producer in 2008. Hoku, Rina, and I took the project on from there and saw it through to completion.

The film is about Pt. Chitresh Das, a 64 year old Kathak artist, and Jason Samuels Smith, a 28 year old Tap artist from Hells Kitchen, New York. They are a very unlikely duo from completely different cultural, artistic, and generational backgrounds, who collaborate together on a show that has been touring the U.S. and India for the last 5 years. In this film, we see an unusual and unlikely friendship develop, and we see how both artists are persevering to preserve their traditional heritage in today’s pop culture world.

How did the production of Upaj differ from other projects you’ve worked on? What was the most difficult aspect of production for this film?
This is actually my first documentary, so to compare it to other films I’ve worked on would be an unfair comparison. Producing documentaries and films are completely different. One of the things I liked about the production of a documentary was that you can shoot it with a lot less bells and whistles than you can with a narrative film. With narrative films, every shot is preplanned and there is a lot of preparation with lighting, sound, etc. for each shot. Whereas with a documentary, you have minimal work with all of those aspects, so you are presented with a raw, natural feeling. The documentary format in itself is very prone to upaj, or improvisation, ironically! There is no set script when you go into filming; ultimately your story will unfold as life happens.

When we went to India two years ago to shoot, we didn’t know what the story was going to be, and we were hoping that it would unravel and become clearly obvious to us when we came back. But it was much harder than we expected! It became a really long process of watching and re-watching what we had filmed; for Hoku to sit down with the artists individually (both on and off camera) to really understand who they were, what their stories were, and then to encapsulate all the ideas into a story we could produce.

This was the hardest part of producing the documentary for me, especially given my narrative film background, where much of the production is planned ahead and we have a prescribed method of going about the film. With all of the work and unpredictability, the average time for producing a documentary is four years!

What makes this film so unique in the genre of documentaries?
One of the aspects that makes the documentary really unique, is that it presents a very different representation of India. Usually when you see films with India as the backdrop, you see a focus on the poverty, women’s issues, illiteracy, etc. For example, even someone like Deepa Mehta, who is focusing on the ill treatment of women in her film, Water. On the other hand, the largest representation of India, that isn’t realistic cinema, is Bollywood. This is at the opposite end of the spectrum and story lines are often far from reality. So it seems like there is not middle ground.

This film is not making India seem greater than it is, nor is it focusing on India’s impoverished aspects. It is showing a different perspective of India that you don’t often get to see. It presents India through the lens of classical Indian dance in the modern day.

The scenes of Upaj take you to several places- from Manhattan to Kolkata, homes to temples, on-stage to off-stage. Can you talk a little bit about this experience?
The film was shot in San Francisco and New York City, in the U.S. and mainly in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Kharagpur in India. There is definitely a stark visual contrast between the scenes in America vs. India. We were able to create great production value with the visual disparity because India looked so dynamic in itself. On top of that, when you place somebody like Jason [Samuels Smith], who had never been to India at the time, in a foreign place, it adds a lot of texture and scope for interesting moments in the film.

India was a little friendlier in terms of our crew filming outdoors and in public spaces. Outdoor shooting was a bit more unpredictable, but, shooting indoors allowed us to add microphones, make tweaks, etc. We did do some filming of stage performances, but our approach varied from performance to performance. For example, filming at the National Center for Performing Arts in Mumbai was a lot more stringent. Whereas, when were at IIT Kharagpur, IJS was performed at a college festival, so the filming was a lot more relaxed and produced some of our best footage. Hoku and the other filmmakers were able to roam freely in the crowd and film the audience members. So it was helpful at times that India was so lax in its filming rules!

Alongside you, were two filmmakers: a half African-half Japanese Director, Hoku Uchiyama, and an Australian filmmaker, Shaun Jefford. How was your experience of working with them in India, a place that they had never been to?
It was actually my first time going to India with people who have never been to India before! I’ve known Shaun for a very long time, and many years ago, I had worked as an assistant director on his first feature film. Shaun had filmed in villages in Africa and lived China for awhile, but had never been to India before and was very excited to travel there for a production. Hoku had mainly been based in the continental U.S. for filming and had not traveled outside of the country as much. So it was really interesting that they were turning to me for guidance and explanations of the culture. They were always following my lead in the cities we went to – which is interesting, because I don’t think of myself as an Indian local at all!

We are presented with two, very different cultures in the film: ancient Indian and modern American traditions. Aside from the artistic differences in the dance forms, can you talk about the cultural nuances brought out in the film?
I would actually say that the film focuses more on the similarities in these two traditions and artists. You see initially, that these artists are from two completely different backgrounds, but as we continue to learn more about both Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith’s backgrounds, you realize that they have much more in common than you initially would have imagined.

You are not only a producer, but also a Kathak dancer yourself, and a disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das. As a student, you are constantly getting directions from Panditji. Did that relationship affect your role as a producer?
It’s interesting because, I always thought it would be a conflict of interest to direct a film about my own Guru, Pandit Chitresh Das. I thought that I would be too close to the subject and it  would be hard for me to distance myself from his opinion or approach the project objectively.   So it was very important to bring in a director who was not as connected to the subject of the film.  As producer, I was still very much creatively involved in the process, but the entire vision is in Hoku’s hands.

Guru ji has been very hands off in the film.  I feel that Gurus know when to push you and help you along and they know when to let you go and allow you to take your own steps.

As the March 18th ‘special work in progress’ screening date nears, are there any final thoughts you would like to leave for viewers?
This a work in progress screening, so there is still some editing to do. But, the screening on the 18th will be a great opportunity to get the audience’s response as we move forward to make more changes in the next few months. I would also like to say that in 2009, Upaj was voted the number one film out of a consortium of 25 films presented for interest to PBS. So, we are hoping that the film will ultimately be screened on PBS in Spring 2012!

The documentary, Upaj, will be screened as a part of the 2011 SF International Asian American Film Festival, on March 18th at 7:00 PMAfter the screening, the audience will have a chance to engage in a conversation with Bhardwaj, the other filmmakers, and artists.

Click here to purchase tickets to the documentary screening and performance

Posted in: Antara Bhardwaj, UPAJ