Wings of a Bird: A Q&A with Gurvinder Singh
Alms for a Blind Horse is the striking feature-film debut
of New Delhi-based director Gurvinder Singh. With a cast of largely
non-professional Punjabi actors, Singh tells the story of a poor
family's struggle to protect their village from corrupt landlords.
The film's highly aesthetic approach - making use of evocative
formal compositions and meditative stillness to frame its
characters' discontent and unfulfilled desire - places it in the
same grand tradition of Indian cinema in which Singh's mentor, the
late Mani Kaul, worked. (Kaul, who died in July, is credited as a
creative producer on Alms.)
Singh, who was inspired by the Punjabi novel on which his film
is based when he read it some 10 years ago as a film student in
Pune, will be in Abu Dhabi for the international premiere of
Alms for a Blind Horse. The film competes in ADFF's
New Horizons / Afaq Jadida Competition. He recently took the
time to answer some questions with ADFF programming consultant
Why did you decide to work mainly with non-professional
actors on this film? How did you manage to extract such intense
performances from them?
The intensity is already present in every individual. A director's
job is to recognize it. When a face is not expressing anything, I
feel it is the most intense, like a still portrait. The face is
like a landscape, already expressive in its presence. The idea of
acting kills it. I told my actors that they were playing themselves
and did not have to act like anybody else.
While casting, I did an extensive tour of Punjab, meeting theater
and television actors. Most actors come from urban areas and have
lost that sense of belonging to rural surroundings. None of them
seemed to belong to my village settings; none looked like my
characters. And when I went to the village where we were supposed
to shoot, every individual looked like my characters! So I decided
that villagers would play the village characters, and city actors
would play the city characters. Acting, of course, is a valid
tool of expression in cinema, but I felt I did not need it for this
film. I don't reject the idea of acting. The truth perhaps lies
somewhere between acting and non-acting, actors and non-actors, as
it does between fiction and documentary.
Why did you choose to make your film in the Punjabi
There has simply been no cinema worth talking of in Punjabi, other
than some imitations rooted in storytelling clichés of Bollywood.
And there is so much to tell about Punjab's political, social and
cultural history. You can say that making a film in Punjabi was an
emotional decision. Before this film, I had toured Punjab
extensively for almost four years, documenting folk ballads. That
gave me an insight into the society, as well as the language and
Who are the key influences on your filmmaking
At film school one is exposed to so much that it becomes a muddle
in the head. I would avoid watching too many films as a student.
Like excessive eating, watching too many films can lead to
indigestion. But slowly one starts relating to what one likes. I
developed an affinity for Mani Kaul's "miniaturesque" aesthetics,
and spent time pondering Ritwik Ghatak's scale and melodrama, the
spectacle of Andrei Tarkovsky and Federico Fellini, and the almost
meditative quality of Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu. Suspense and
ambiguity excite me. Psychology depresses me. I like films which
let me escape into my own fantasies.
What was it like to be mentored by Mani Kaul during the
making of Alms for a Blind Horse?
Two years ago, one evening, feeling somewhat down, I rang Mani and
told him that I felt like quitting filmmaking because even though I
had acquired knowledge and understanding of the medium, I perhaps
did not have the drive or compulsion to make a film. After
listening to me patiently, he said, "Knowledge and practice are
like the two wings of a bird." That sealed the matter. His
mentorship was a continuation of such inspiring thoughts. He,
unlike any other mentor, could unlock your unique individuality and
bring it to maturation. His parting words were, "Don't listen to
anyone. Just do what you think is right."
Alms for a Blind Horse screens on Friday, October 14
at 9:30pm at VOX Cinemas at Marina Mall; and Sunday, October 16 at
3:15pm at Abu Dhabi Theater. Gurvinder Singh will be present at
both screenings to introduce the film and answer questions from the