India already churns out the largest number of films in the world – and that’s just from the country’s film industry. Imagine what would happen if regular citizens could turn filmmakers for a day? Actually, you don’t have to imagine – Richie Mehta can show you.
The Indo-Canadian filmmaker was commissioned only a year ago to direct India In a Day, the latest in the series of crowd-sourced documentaries born out of a partnership between Google and Hollywood filmmaker Ridley Scott. The film will have its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9. The project proceeded at breakneck speed, Mehta recalls. “This was in August (2015) and they said we’re shooting in October (2015), we need a director really fast, and they’d watched my work, my previous films.” Scott and Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap are executive producers for the film.
Pre-production consisted solely of putting the word out asking Indians to capture one day of their lives – October 10, 2015, to be exact. The footage could be about themselves, their families, friends, neighbours or just something they observed around them.
Belying their nervousness about whether anyone would respond, Mehta and his team were hit by a tsunami of over 16,000 submissions from all across India, from the Andaman Islands to Assam, Tamil Nadu to Haryana, metros, villages, the mountains, wildlife parks. The videos came flooding in, in English and a variety of Indian languages, spanning a range of formats, captured on a variety of devices, from mobile phones to professional movie cameras.
My theory is that – and I’m not sure I can confirm this – but I think a lot of people in the film industry throughout the country also shot. They probably went back to their home villages with their hi-tech cameras because the footage is so, so stunning in certain cases.Richie Mehta, Director, India in a Day
While the pre-production was simple, this film was a post-production nightmare, as Mehta set himself the task of compiling the best and most diverse videos into some sort of narrative, highlighting common threads and contrasts, hopes and fears. “In many ways we followed the rules of narrative convention. We try to lure you in with the lightness, how the day awakens, people are excited, energised and moving, and then we start to give the weightier stories in the second half,” he explains.
The result is a feature-length documentary with a bewildering collection of vignettes portraying daily life in India. There’s the father in Tamil Nadu, who has started off his four-year-old daughter on karate so she can defend herself when she grows up, and a single mother in Delhi, who struggles to find five minutes for herself in a day; a flirty couple trying to steal a moment in an elevator and a group of giggly schoolgirls on a trip to a science museum; an old man confined to bed after a fall, who longs to get up and walk around instead of having to stare at the ceiling fan all day, and a farmer in a Himalayan village fretting about the future of his profession.
Some of the episodes are brutal in their rawness, as Mehta presents them without comment. A little girl and her brother are seen brushing their teeth in the morning and then stepping outdoors to wash their faces with water from what looks like a sewer. In the next shot, both are perched on a scooter in their uniforms, being ferried to school. Mehta admits the footage had shocked him.
You have to ask yourself, what’s the relationship between the person shooting that and the family being shot? That family is in Assam, and their whole day was captured by this filmmaker and the family never really acknowledges the filmmaker, they just allow them to be there with them. So there’s no judgment in the gaze and I think that’s really wonderful. Look at the contradictions there, it’s wonderful she’s going to school, but think about where she’s coming from.Richie Mehta
Elsewhere in the film, a young man acknowledges the country’s problems, but bursts with pride as he points out, “We just went to Mars.” Meanwhile, out in the Andamans, a housemaid believes the island she’s living in is “India”, while the “mainland” is some unknown place where she fears she will get “beaten”.
One of the contributors either got very lucky or is enviably knowledgeable about monkeys as a scene shows a shopkeeper pushing a simian away from his store. In a subsequent shot, the determined monkey is shown entering the store and a little later emerges with a banana in its mouth, rewarding the patient videographer with a memorable sequence. This is as much part of India in a day as the young elephant trumpeting piteously as it tries to climb out of a slippery pond with a family of elders watching intently, or a baby rhinoceros hungrily slurping milk out of a bottle.
Amidst all the variety, however, there is one conspicuous omission. Virtually all the submissions were from middle- or lower-income Indians, with the upper middle class and the well-off virtually absent from the landscape, somewhat surprising for a project involving technology and the opportunity for self-expression.
The people who shot really had something to say and maybe have not had the venue or platform to say it before. So for them, the expression was very passionate.Richie Mehta
India has defied comprehension for millennia. With this project, Google may have done a search, but true to form, the effort has thrown up innumerable results, leaving you to make of it what you will.