Looking Death in the Eye Through a Film Lens In Conversation With Barnali Ray Shukla

    by Vinita Agrawal

    All Is Well is a short documentary directed by acclaimed documentary film-maker Barnali Ray Shukla that engages with a world of danger that is a part of circuses and fairs – the Well of Death in which a dare-devil motor cyclist pulls off gravity-defying stunts courting death in every spin. It is a high adrenaline gig. The film takes an up, close and personal look at the world of Raheem, the protagonist.

    1. You mention in your Director’s note that All Is Well is about people ordained for adventure, not the ones who necessarily choose it, and about people who dare death as a profession. What kind of background research did such a theme involve?

    Won’t be wrong to say that ‘All Is Well’, is born of my earlier documentary, Once Upon A Sky. It started showing first signs of finding life and coming into its own, as the research began.

    It all started with my tryst with a near death experience and ever since it has been about reclaiming life and it would unfair to keep the findings just for myself. Often what holds us back from realizing our truest potential is that most often we take life for granted. I did too but not any more.

    My research began along two diverse schools of thought of finding enablers who live and breathe adventure and bring us closer to tribute to life, in their pursuit of what makes them who they are.

    While, Once Upon A Sky, travels with paraglider and an award winning competition pilot, Gurpreet Dhindsa and his choices, here is Raheem Ansari, in All Is Well, who is born to a family that has been over a generation with the Maut Ka Kuan/ Well of Death.

    The diverse results of this research, made me rethink and renew my approach towards adventure. One born in pursuit of it and the other like Raheem, spends four months of his life with the currency of adventure because he can’t help it.

    2. Now that the film has been made and telecast worldwide, what insights did you gather about the compelling need to return to danger that people like Raheem display. Are their motivations economic? Or is there an addiction that such a ‘profession’ holds?

    Am still wrapping my head around the connect that has been seen with the jury and people alike, in places as diverse as Port Blair in the Andamans, or Bettiah in Bihar to say Istanbul or Singapore City. Fascinating to notice how people connect, watching the journey of a man and his world in a well, apparently disparate in scope and scenario yet can resonate with the moments of Raheem’s journey that transforms him into who he is or is becoming. The familiarity with uncertainties, conflicts and eventual catharsis, unites us by challenges though we are divided by borders. If Raheem was in another place, time and circumstance, he wouldn’t have returned to this danger but certainly to some other.

    The motivations in his world are primarily economic, and then of course the level of adrenaline, the rush is a byproduct. The candour of the man makes him authentic. He says hat the higher ‘rush’ he finds is in the accolades and appreciation, as an artist and performer, in this tango with death.

    3. In an increasingly polarising society in India, and given the raging pandemic when the film was being shot, were you able to trace any communal angles to the profession?

    The film was being shot across 2016 to November 2020. The first lockdown happened a week after we wrapped our Saharanpur schedule on the 17th of March. We possibly cant forget March 24th, 2020. The final shoot schedule was last Dhanteras/ Diwali, November 2020. A window in the unlockdown, no vaccine in the offing and the virus thick in the air.

    A choice was made.

    Had the society not been this polarized perhaps I would have refrained from shooting. The decision of shooting in Saharanpur in March 2020, was fixed three months prior as Raheem had invited us to shoot in his hometown and be part of the wedding celebrations of his brother.

    The last week of February 2020, could have cleaved us for good but I remember calling him during the Delhi pogrom and he answering the phone, promptly. While saying he was okay with us landing up and so was his family, his voice didn’t shake. I remember speaking calmly too, said I was reaching in ten days, as per the exact dates promised. He sounded happy about it and believe me, that was the decisive moment. Perhaps if Raheem wasn’t Ansari, I may have delayed but something felt so wrong about what I read in the newspapers and survived the national news. I was sure that this bridge had to be built in my own tiny way.

    I had to go to Saharanpur and we did and we found life.

    As you can tell, that can be alone a film in itself about my choice to live with the Ansaris and allies, in lanes where sunlight and fresh air are at a premium. But their zeal to live surpasses it all and the quintessential South Asian warmth of welcoming the one who is visiting, the barriers were there and had to be eased out slowly. I was in strict ‘minority’. Their discomfort never spilled on to me but was palpable in the early hours. The ice broke with the family, which I had shared in an Instagram post from my shooting diaries.
    Mummy Ansari: “Aap ko khaaney mein kya pasand hai?”
    BRS: “Sab pasand hai bas ek dish mat bolna khaane ko.”
    The Ansaris didn’t want to hear the next line it seemed when I blurted,
    “Mujhe baingan bilkul pasand nahi”.

    What followed was guffaws from the entire family and ever since our breaking bread has come far, in troubled times one has known, on every front.

    4. Is it a job that is passed on from father to son? Do people of a certain religious background only, indulge in this ‘sport’ ?

    Sociologically no but technically yes, if not father to son, in this family from uncle to a nephew and the various branches of the family tree. Raheem didn’t have much of choice, time and again circumstances brought him to the pits and then he learnt to hold his ground, rather to let go of it, he has been sticking his neck out for the riders and his world. But not for long, says he and certainly his children won’t go near this, he vows. But then Raheem’s father too had kept his sons away and now each one have a relationship with this well.

    Research reveals this being common in certain districts of Uttar Pradesh and more often than not they are Muslims. Can we choose to call it engage not indulge, in this sport and they would perhaps not do so if they had a better opportunities. Apart from that, the money is so little, that comes in. To put things in context, a ticket at Mahim Mela cost, fifty rupees for a 15 min ‘show’, in 2016 December. Perhaps one of the last of its kind.

    5. You mention in your Director’s note that what appealed to you was not the grouse or the hurt generated ‘at the seams of the world but the incorrigible joys in the world of Rahim and his brotherhood of riders and the family, and perhaps the most revealing aspect of it all, is how they continue their life in celebration, in spite of it all’. That’s a great revelation actually and one that almost borders on psychology. Would you say that it’s one of the benefits of film making – that you read people from inside their minds. Like writing perhaps.

    What a thoughtful question, Vinita. Only a fine poet would think of this. Thank you for caring enough. Yes indeed, like writing, this is one of the less celebrated gifts of filmmaking, perhaps…

    6. All Is Well chooses to speak for its protagonist. It brings home to the viewer that they count too. When you shoot a film with compassion in the heart, does it help the story move forward in a more relatable manner vis-vis the viewer? Perhaps it’s all about the proverbial ‘ handling of the subject’. Tell us more about the way you think when you’re shooting your film.

    Glad you say this, I can rest easy for a while now. We can only hope as auteurs that our work speaks and has a voice of its own. And the viewer means the world. We are all here and now and I work and watch my page, screen in this context as a viewer. In fiction there is an audio visual simulation that synergizes to get all the disciplines to work towards a vision but in non fiction there is no designed simulation. In a character driven exposition, we as viewers transport ourselves in their shoes, even if for a moment or two, can walk a little with them and feel like calling them for a cup of tea and conversation is when contact is made. Perhaps that is when the work moves from pages to the hearts and minds of the viewers.

    Once that process has begun, during filming my job is not stand in the way but to move away from this organic change to be seen in the triad of camera, the gaze of the edit and the storytelling.

    In non fiction the theme is something one doesn’t forget but serenades in silence, hoping to find unguarded moments, less insular more open, more adaptive and certainly vulnerable. In all of this the broad beats come with how you want to unfold it all, the screenplay and a good structure. Editorial largesse makes for empathy but as a storyteller it is important to restrain the explicit, visualize the implicit and engage. The cardinal rule, ‘don’t tell me, show me how’.

    7. We are aware that the film has done really well wherever it’s been telecast. Congratulations! Do share with us some of the memorable moments, awards and accolades that the film has one. Is any one award more dear to you than the others?

    Thank you so much for your warm words of encouragement. For an independent filmmaker nothing much to take home, save for this and finding the ability to hold one’s ground, time and again. Memorable moments have been of a different magnitude, mostly loss of family members and that somewhere made me more focused and resolute.

    What also I remember what I was asked at the last day of the shoot. This four year old, fused to me all along the shoot, in a mask of course. Her wide eyed question to me.

    “Ma’am aap Hindu ho?”

    Vinita, I have not processed it yet about what all occurred to me then and my utter loss of words to respond to this child.

    As for the awards, all are very special for reasons more than one but may I mention that Tamil Nadu has graced as with maximum recognition in India, am all ears as to what I must know about this finding. The Moving Film Festival in Iran is special for us, a few lines from the director of the festival. He has worked closely with Abbas Kiarostami. And an official selection in Argentina, a country that plays a huge role in the progress of independent cinema, do read more on this. As of today, 16 awards and have 20 official selections have come our way. Nandan screening at Kolkata of course took the cake, it was our Premiere and a physical screening felt surreal. It was wonderful but am thrilled that we are now reaching homes as we stream on iTunes.


    8. Last but not the least, do take us through your future projects and films on the floor, if any.

    Completely engrossed in the post production stages of a Hindi feature film, keen to talk more on it but still early to share more and apart from that poetry is my confidante and muse. We walk together.

    Vinita Agrawal Author of four books of poetry, – Two Full Moons (Bombaykala Books), Words Not Spoken (Brown Critique), The Longest Pleasure (Finishing Line Press) and The Silk Of Hunger (AuthorsPress), Vinita is an award winning poet, editor, translator and curator. Joint Recipient of the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2018 and winner of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence, USA, 2015. She is Poetry Editor with Usawa Literary Review. Her work has been widely published and anthologised. Her poem won a prize for the Moon Anthology on the Moon by TallGrass Writers Guild, Chicago 2017. More recently her poem won a special mention in the Hawker Prize for best South Asian poetry. She has contributed a monthly column on Asian Poets on the literary blog of the Hamline university, Saint Paul, USA in 2016-17. In September 2020, she edited an anthology on climate change titled Open Your Eyes (pub. Hawakal). She judged the RLFPA poetry contest (International Prize) in 2016 and co judged the Asian Cha’s poetry contest on The Other Side ‘ in 2015. She is on the Advisory Board of the Tagore Literary Prize. She has curated literary events for PEN Mumbai. She can be reached at www.vinitawords.com. Write to her at vinita@usawa.in

    Barnali Ray Shukla is a filmmaker and a poet. Her writing has featured in Sunflower Collective, OutOfPrint, Kitaab.org, OUTCAST, Madras Courier, Bengaluru Review, Indian Ruminations, Vayavya, The Brown Critique, Kaurab, Usawa Literary Review, Portside Review. Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry II, indianculturalforum.in, Indian Quarterly, The Punch Magazine, Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians [SahityaAkademi] The World That Belongs to Us [Harper Collins, India] Have a Safe Journey [Amaryllis, India] Side Effects of Living [Speaking Tiger], Hibiscus [Hawakal Publishers], Open Your Eyes [Hawakal Publishers], The Kali Project (Indie Blu-e Publishing], Borderless [Singapore], Voice & Verse [Hong Kong], UCityReview [USA], A Portrait in Blues [UK], Centre for Stories [Australia]. She has one feature film to her credit as writer director, three documentaries and two short films, a book of poems, Apostrophe. [RLFPA 2016]. She lives with her plants, books and a husband in Mumbai.

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