Lubdhak Chatterjee on ‘Whispers of Fire & Water’

Lubdhak Chatterjee’s first feature film, Whispers of Fire & Water is a bold, experimental and experiential eco-film turned meditation with a powerful message about the depletion of resources in Eastern India. Spling caught up with Chatterjee at the Festival Plaza in Hurghada, Egypt, during the El Gouna Film Festival where it’s being screened, to discuss the finer points of his thoughtful and iconic debut.

So, can you tell me about how the idea for this film came about?

So, hi, I’m from India, and Whispers of Fire and Water is also my first film. And it was around 2017, well, right, so I actually have an engineering background. I have not learned filmmaking in an institute, or did not do any courses in filmmaking.

It was all self-taught. But from 2017, when I started making the dive into the world of filmmaking, initially I used to shoot and edit as a freelancer as well, for various projects. Many of them were documentaries, short, short docu-videos.

And for that work, I was travelling to the interior parts of the country, away from the city, where I was born and raised, to a new life, which I was not familiar with. So these places were rural India, into the hinterland. They were the tribal areas in the forest.

Also some of the mining sites, which are very much common in the central and the eastern parts of the country. At that point of time I was interacting with the people and local communities, which slowly and steadily made me aware of several problematic things. One of them being making me very aware of my urban gaze, the external gaze with which I went there.

I was really not acquainted with all these issues before, but then the moment I started talking to them, these questions came up very organically. And maybe because I was sensitive to all these issues, so I became aware. Then there were many more questions which came up, which slowly and steadily became a very reflective journey for me, about my position, about the position of the camera, what my role as an art practitioner can be, beyond these projects.

Simultaneously, I was touring more areas… mining areas as well, like bauxite mine. But finally I came up to this crazy coal mining zone of Jharia, which happens to be one of the largest coal mining zones in eastern India. And there I was completely astonished by… not just the grand size of the mines, but mostly by the sights of fire and smoke everywhere.

I could never imagine a place where you can see smoke oozing out of the soil, right in front of a house, and all of a sudden people coming out of their house. And also the land being plagued by all these sights of fire all around. What really made me surprised is that this place has been burning for over 100 years, and it is just four hours away from Calcutta, which is one of the most important cities in India.

We have heard about the place, but really had no idea… this thing hardly comes up in conversation, how terrible the situation is in the area. So that was probably the final trigger.

So Whispers of Fire & Water actually became a film, or a reflection, of all the questions I had while walking in the community, in the community areas. But I really wanted to use Jharia, this crazy coal mining space, as one of the important sites of that exploration. And yeah, that’s how the film came about.

So it’s from 2017-18 when the first seed was shown, and it was only from around 2020 when I was really working on the script, early 2020, right before the pandemic. We shot it in 2021, the second half of 2021, and finally premiered in 2023 at Locarno. So it’s had a journey itself.

Yeah, it’s been a journey. It seems very focused on the audiovisual journey. Can you tell us a bit more about how you captured the ambient sound on your film?

So I’ve always been excited by sound, in general. Before this fiction feature film, I had one documentary, my first documentary, and also a short film. The documentary dealt with the idea of utterances in Indian music. The short film also talked about Indian philosophical issues, but kept sound very central.

I’ve been exploring sound in smaller scales, but when I decided to make a feature film, I really wanted to put sound as one of the main vehicles of exploration or experience in the film. And a lot of credit goes to my sound designer, cum-recordist, cum-collaborator, who has been collaborating with me ever since my first work, like my shots as well. So as we know that the protagonist of this film is an audio installation artist who goes to this coal mine and keeps recording, so of course, the recordist was there and we wanted to be extremely aware and sensitive to the small minute details in the sound.

But it was not just about going to a place and recording sound, it also became a process about what impression does a certain sound leave, a real sound leaves on the mind of an installation artist. In his mind, it’s not just the real sound, but also the kind of possibilities which the sound could create, which we wanted to give an experience in the film. Because I think therein lies the fun of sound, and probably that’s where sound can be also very interesting.

Like in an image, we can only see what’s there up on the screen, but in a sound, the image can be extended to infinite. And here, it’s not about stretching the image or the limits of an image, but also making it more impressionistic and probably trying to figure out more layers of experience which a certain soundscape can give.

And this process actually came about over a long period of time, it didn’t happen overnight. One thing I wanted to have is that my sound designer also be the location sound recordist, so that his relationship with the place, the film, starts from the very first stage and that carries on till the final mix of the film.

And there were numerous conversations, trial and errors, we wanted to make mistakes, so that we can figure out what exactly we want. And a big thanks to my producers who enabled that process. We got the resources and time to experience. And it has been a real learning experience for both of us, like how different tones of sound, I mean, how one sound can be also experimented and given a different shape for a different, unique experience.

This film set against some beautiful natural vistas from quarries to forests. Did these locations help inspire the story?

Yeah, we spoke about sound being a very important vehicle, one of the main protagonists of the film. We have the character, of course, whose story we are following. But probably the other protagonist is the land itself and nature. I will give you an example, like just let’s go back 200 years before. This coal mining place was not a mine, it was a dense forest. And right now we are seeing what the situation is. It’s a near apocalyptic kind of a space, which is set to come.

And then, coming back to 2023, my relationship with the space still remains because I still visit the place quite frequently. I’m also working on another project in this area. And I can tell you many places which you have seen in the film do not even exist anymore because they have been mined away or maybe it has collapsed due to a landslide.

So that in itself has been a bit startling… I mean, it’s a startling experience for me when I stand there and I cannot figure out the place anymore. And it’s the same for anyone. Like when I show them the visuals, people who have worked in the film or people who are familiar with the film by now, when I show this present photograph of that place, they are also shocked, how is this possible? That raises a much more important issue about how fragile the land is, how fragile our earth is.

And probably I think this gives us a window to look at a much wider environmental and ecological ramification which human intervention in nature over the years has brought right now. So that’s why land is also, nature is very important, nature and its transformation.

whispers of fire and water movie

So, from what I’m picking up, you were quite free to experiment with this film in ways. How closely did you stick to the script and how long did it take you to write?

Yeah, so, only formally I started scripting only in the late 2019, early 2020. But I have been thinking internally since a long time. Because as I mentioned, it’s not autobiographical, but definitely a reflection of my own past experiences of working in this area, which I wanted to channelize through the journey of this sound installation artist in the coal mine area and then in the forest.

So, yes, definitely there was a script, but I always wanted to be flexible, because I was very lucky to collaborate also with my main protagonist, Sagnik. We used to discuss the script, we used to read scenes for a long, long time and he actually had experience of working with communities in different areas.

My script was just a starting point with which I went, the draft of the script, which kept shaping and changing. Also, one thing I was always aware of, that especially, as I mentioned, this mining space is very fragile and maybe you go to a place and think about the location and then when you come back for the shoot, by that time the land has changed. So, one needs to be very much flexible as well to work in a very tricky area like the mine.

So, we constantly improvised on the spot. If we got something better, we were shooting in the monsoons in the forest as well and where it was really raining heavily and there were areas which were not being able to access because there was a flash flood and we had to change the location as well because the water was overflowing. And we always accepted all these, but the reason we could even experiment and improvise on the spot was because we knew what we were actually trying to do.

We were always open and receptive to new ideas, but the central theme from where the film actually emerged, that was always there. So, definitely there was a script, there were dialogues written as well, there were scenes which were rehearsed, but also it was kind of a participatory experience with my actors who also contributed a lot to the final shape of the film. And I think one of the things which really helped in that process was also to take the actor on the recce.

So, we did that. The actor went for the recce as well and his relationship with the people, with the place started way before we had even started shooting the scenes. So, it gelled very nicely in that way.

Yeah, I was going to actually ask about some of the preparation that you did in terms of preparing Sagnik for that role. You wrote, directed and edited it, you’ve obviously had a very firm hand on this whole process. Were there any challenges of wearing so many hats during the process?

Yeah, see, as an independent filmmaker, there will be many challenges. And now if I come specifically to your question, like wearing so many hats, I think, yes, I was wearing a lot of hats officially, but as I said, the process was always collaborative. One of the plus points, probably, in an independent setup of playing a multiple role is that the process becomes smooth. I mean, there are not many divergent opinions – we just go.

But the bigger problem is that it goes unfiltered. It doesn’t face questions. But having said that, like as I mentioned, I was collaborating with my actor. I was collaborating as well with my DOP as well. We always had these discussions with my sound artist, so there was constant dialogue and conversation.

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And even though officially I am wearing so many hats, those conversations kept me aware if there was another way of working or path to follow. So that was always going on. And then if I specifically talk about the post-production process, I edited the earlier cuts all myself.

Our process was that we edited a cut and did a sound of that cut as well, like a basic sound. Then we took a break. We again edited another cut, the second cut. We again worked on the sound. Then again we took a break. We needed this break for a better introspection, to have a distance from the material.

And of course, my producers were helpful. They have been working in the field for quite some time and their inputs were also becoming very important. Then after a certain point of time, I worked with a co-editor as well, Arjun. He is one of the most, senior editors in India right now. And his point of view became very important in shaping the final film after that. So I did consult people.

I did have people on board. With time also we realized the film also had its new shape in the edit and the sound. So I really can’t claim that I just wore so many hats. There were always people with whom I could bounce ideas off and show the film. And I think we’ve kind of covered casting or preparation at least.

Sound is so important in this film. It’s grounding, translating, conveying a mood, creating an emotional currency. Can you tell us just how important sound is to Whispers of Fire and Water at the risk of covering something we’ve already spoken about?

So as I mentioned, sound is one of the primary vehicles of realization of the film. And if you see the way the film begins with that black screen. For me, sound has that very interesting and innate capability of opening up an inner vision.

It takes us inwards. And that’s something which is very important to me. Because when we are really trying to stay focused on the minute changes in the sound. I believe it that really makes us more sensitive and more aware. And I think it’s not just being aware and sensitive to the sound. But also to the aspect of being, to what’s going on around.

For me, it becomes a process of sensitizing the audience as well. And being grounded and taking us inward. Because at the end of the day, what we are trying to focus on is an inward journey of the character we see on the screen and the larger picture of the land we see.

So they become the whispers. Because maybe you are listening to the blasts in the coal mine. A lot of sounds of the drilling machine. You are also listening to the various scales of the sounds of cicadas and other crickets. But probably beyond there, there are the whispers which are probably more important. And if you are more sensitive, only then can we hear them.

Also, last but not the least, I think it’s very important in today’s world that engaging with sounds, it’s just in the practice or in the act of listening. I mean, we are in so much of a hurry, we want to say, but do we want to listen?

Stop and listen.

Stop and listen. Even the act of listening is very important for me or for us.

whispers of fire and water

I think you actually did a good job of introducing audiences to that world by actually getting them to focus on the sound. Because it’s painting a picture through that soundscape already, so you already are aware of it. And I think filmmakers actually don’t use that enough. They don’t activate the audience’s imagination enough. So I thought you did a good job.

And last but not least, as I mentioned, sound gives that currency to the audience to participate. You hear a sound and you conjure up your own image. It’s beyond the frame. So you also participate as an audience. There’s nothing better than that, because after the screening, if you come up and say, okay, fine, we thought maybe this might mean this. It’s always exciting for a filmmaker to know, because there are new ideas, new possibilities. That space, at least Whispers as a film, has that space for an audience to come. It’s more of a collaboration.

The visuals are otherworldly and even mesmerizing at times. Which would you say is more important in this film, sound or visuals?

I really can’t claim that, because these are the two pillars. And they have to be equal pillars. Then only the whole edifice will stand properly.

Yes, it is a bit of a tricky question.

It’s a tricky question. But I think what we did, my only take for this will be that in this film, we tried to actually balance out the visual and the audio. Because generally in films, it’s the visual which dominates. Although we say it’s audio-visual, the audio comes early, but still it’s the visual which dominates. Probably what we did in this film, we brought them on the same level.

I won’t say something was higher or lower. But we wanted to give equal importance to both the sound and visuals. And of course, it’s the central theme, what we want to say and how we want to say, which determines how much space we give to the audio and the visuals.

Most audiences don’t really realize just how important sound is. And even young filmmakers, when they’re getting into the filmmaking process, they don’t know just how much layering goes into a soundtrack. In fact, they’re like eight different departments when it comes to sound.

Sound is such a huge, critical part of any film. And also, something which I personally learned during this process, that at times it can be very tricky to deal with. So when I’m very focused in telling a story, narrating a story through sound, then there is also a temptation of playing too many sounds all around.

And probably it lies in that sense of economy. It’s the economy with which I use sound. How much, what balance is also the key. And probably which comes with time. It’s not in the first attempt.

And that’s why I stress the fact that we need to give time to the film. We need to take some time out from the film, and revisit it to really figure out the right balance in a way. So yes, it could have been a very different film, like playing too many sounds all around. But at the end of the day, what impact we want to have, what’s the main target. So it should shape our choices as well.

You know, this almost seems like a spiritual quest. Would you say the filmmaking process on the production could be described in the same way?

Ideally it should be a spiritual journey for all of us because what we are trying to discover while making the film doesn’t end with the film.

It’s just a part of the whole journey. In my case, it started from my early interactions as a newcomer with the communities. And right now it’s still going on. And I cannot claim that I have been able to solve the questions. Whispers for me is just the questions.

It’s probably just a very small segment of a much longer journey. I think if we can approach what you mentioned, if we can approach it with a lot of humility, with a lot of groundedness, if the filmmaking process can make us more humble, I think we are on the right track.

I don’t know how to articulate that in words because again, these things… I mean, if you are sensitive to the whole process… And that’s why the process is very important. So what happens in the filmmaking, when you are thinking about multiple issues, especially in terms of the production, wearing multiple hats, our attention might get diverted from the real things. But probably, even the process can be very intimate.

And when we question ourselves and when we really contemplate our processes, even while shooting and working on the film, I’m sure it will throw up multiple things which will get reflected in the final film as well. And definitely as a human being. Like now, even in the interview where I’m speaking to you, I’m also reflecting on the process of what I’ve done.

Many things in the film are instinctive in our own journeys. Like we really do not know why exactly we are doing this, why exactly we are framing this. We have an idea, we have an impression. Maybe we can articulate why we are going to shoot in that angle. But probably there’s something more.

Sort of the intuition of it?

It’s intuition, but that intuition has a certain… It’s not a logic, but a certain groundedness. It feels like it comes from somewhere. And in that moment, we choose a certain option, but later on we imagine, maybe the critics come and say, okay, you did this and that, it meant this.

I said, of course, yeah, it really means that now. But when I did it, it was so instinctive. But probably in being grounded, in being contemplative always, we choose that path. It falls in place. That’s what I believe in, at least as of now, in the early stages of my career.

There seems to be a strong environmental theme. What message are you hoping to leave with your audience?

Yes. We have been speaking about the environment globally. It’s no longer an alien topic. Everywhere, environmental concerns are of utmost importance. But what I really believe is that this conversation should initiate some action. As filmmakers, the most I can hope to do is bring these issues to the forefront of our public discourse.

We can talk about this more often than not, and not leave them in the last page of a newspaper, but it should be page one. But I think right now, we have already reached a certain stage where it calls for more action, rather than just talks and seminars. For my film, especially when we talk about a coal mining area, in a country with the kind of economy which India has right now, with a vast poor population, unfortunately, coal still remains the cheapest power generation.

That’s the reality. But what are the alternative ways in which we can stop this environmental catastrophe, yet generate a lot of power, and provide power to a country like India, which has the maximum population in the world?

We have the non-conventional sources, like the wind energy, solar energy, but are they sustainable for the poor people? Are they accessible to the poor, to the majority population in India? They are not. And there comes the government’s role in forming the policies, putting the right subsidies in the right places.

So, as a filmmaker, what we can do is, we can push this conversation, bring them in the forefront of any kind of a discourse, and really hope that this can be done. But we should talk about it more often than not, because I believe the more the conversations start flowing, this obviously will become an important agenda in all walks of life, and then the action will start, because time is running out.