When Rishi Chandna first heard about a family living in a cramped Mumbai apartment with a rooster and two cats as pets, the absurdity of the situation immediately struck him.
First of all, there was the matter of space – or lack thereof, considering that the flat is home to Nusrat Bharde, his wife, Celestine, their two sons, Aasim and Sameer, besides the three animals; all of this in a city as densely populated as Mumbai. Then there was the crowing glory.
“I grew up in a similar middle-class family. I am from Calcutta,” Chandna, 36, says. “I remember my mother would take me to the butcher shop and I saw chicken being [slaughtered]. I never saw a chicken as a pet; it was always an animal that’s meant to be eaten. I started wondering: How is the family – which is so much like my own family – how are they dealing with it? This hierarchy of pets.”
Those initial ruminations eventually became Tungrus, a short documentary that will screen at this year’s Hot Docs Festival, which runs in Toronto from April 26 to May 6.
As soon as Chandna heard about the Bhardes and their rooster from his co-producer Ritika Ranjan, who is a friend and colleague of the younger son, Sameer, he reached out to the family.
“Sameer had just mentioned it casually [to Ritika] over lunch one day, about the rooster. There was a bit of reluctance and a bit of embarrassment, about the kind of situation he was having to deal with at home,” Chandna says, speaking on the phone from Nyon, Switzerland, where Tungrus had a world premiere at the Visions du Réel film festival.
To his surprise, when he called up the Bharde family about the prospect of making a documentary, they agreed fairly quickly. “They were looking for some kind of catharsis, they wanted to talk about this. They were actually stressed out about the situation.”
The rooster is clearly the star of Tungrus, strutting about the apartment in his reign of terror over the two cats, Ginger and Garlic, raucously crowing at all hours, swooping into everybody’s business. The Bhardes, meanwhile, try to explain their connection to the bird: The patriarch Nusrat, who bought him as a chick on a whim, is clear-eyed about the rooster’s destiny on their dinner table, while his sons are not as sanguine about that eventuality; Celestine, meanwhile, has a soft spot for the rooster despite the nuisance.
That potential to explore comedy and conflict, as well as the room for contemplation, also intrigued Chandna, who had been looking to break into filmmaking after a few years of making corporate videos for clients.
“There’s this perception that documentaries have to be topical, they have to relate to current affairs. I like to work with humour – it’s a powerful emotion to make people laugh through satire or black comedy or tragicomedy,” Chandna says, citing celebrated filmmaker Werner Herzog as one of his inspirations. He came across the works of Herzog and other cinema stalwarts as part of a postgraduate degree from MICA, a business school based in Gujarat, when professors would show movies to explain concepts of culture, communication and semiotics. Although he applied several times to one of India’s film schools, he didn’t make the final cut. Instead, after a short stint in advertising, Chandna assisted a few Bollywood filmmakers, shooting behind-the-scenes videos, among other tasks.
In trying to find his own voice, however, he started to gravitate toward documentaries and kept coming back to Herzog’s films, especially his earlier works, “like Land of Silence and Darkness,” Chandna says. “Here was a filmmaker who is interested in people on the fringes of society. He was hunting for anomalies, to him, they were extraordinary. He would extract meaning from those subjects … Even if you look at some of his fiction narratives, they are actually in the language of docu-dramas. That language permeated me.”
In India, documentaries are still seen as a state-funded medium, says Suraj Prasad Mahato, co-founder of the New Delhi, India-based Lightcube Film Society. Besides organizing film screenings, workshops and running an outreach project that screens educational and entertainment films in villages in India, Lightcube also publishes Umbra, a print quarterly on film culture in India.
“Only a few filmmakers who invest their own money into subjects they feel inclined towards, they are making independent docs,” he says in a phone call from India. At the same time, “interest in documentaries in India is very gradually rising. So there have been a couple of documentary-specific festivals that have started in the country, maybe in the past five-six years.”
Discovering Indian documentaries organically is very difficult, he adds. Audiences usually see them at film festivals. Otherwise, “unless the filmmaker uploads it for free on mediums such as YouTube or Vimeo and they push it themselves through social media or friends network, it’s a challenge.”
Chandna and his small crew shot Tungrus in five days over a period of three weeks. As they captured hours of footage observing the habits of the Bharde household, then hung around outside the house for chat sessions over chai and cigarettes, other themes started coming into focus.
The Hindu nationalist government BJP had implemented a beef ban in 2015, a law that banned the slaughter of cattle such as cows, bulls, bullocks and calves. Sale and possession of beef became a punishable offence, earning a fine or up to five years in jail. In September, 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq died at the hands of a mob that suspected him of eating beef.
“The [BJP] came out and started telling people what they can eat or not eat. This was all in the back of my mind, and it motivated me. I wanted people to understand how you can form your own relationship to what you want to eat or not,” Chandna says. “Food is identity. This was an opportunity to bring out subtext [of acceptance and tolerance] … It was almost like an epiphany.”
As the shoot wrapped, Chandna found himself ruminating on his own life.
“It’s not like I am going stop eating meat, or chicken. [Tungrus] made me realize that we, as human beings, we are also like this animal, living in cages. We are also looking for our freedoms,” he says.
As for the fate of his own documentary? After trying to give it as much of an international festival run as he can, he will start planning an Indian premiere, he says.
“It’s when we will come home to roost.”
Tungrus screens at the Hot Docs Festival April 27 and April 29.
Special to The Globe and Mail