Imagine walking 20 kms to school every day. Imagine not having friends and failing in class again and again. Imagine being a loner and an introvert in a small village called Mangwa, above the Teesta valley. And then imagine this same person 15 years later walking the red carpet- no, not in Bollywood, but in an international circuit – YES, the most coveted film festival of the world, the Festival de Cannes.
Join Adwiti Subba Haffner as she interviews our lionheart Saurav Rai, India’s sole representative of the 69th Festival de Cannes (Cannes Film festival) 2016. Read on, as he reveals stories of his riveting childhood and all the elements that influenced his short film “Gudh”.
Brené Brown said “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen”.
Find out what makes Saurav Rai so vulnerable and yet so strong in his communication, find out the mind behind the movie, the heart behind the script and the man behind the lens. You will be nothing less than captivated by his humor, his genuineness and his Gorkhay heart!
Adwiti: A HUGE congratulations to you Saurav Rai from D C and D T for being India’s sole representative at the 69th Festival de Cannes (Cannes Film festival) this May, 2016. The Cinéfondation Selection chose 18 films (14 works of fiction and 4 animations), from among 2,300 works submitted this year by film schools from all over the world, your short film “Gudh” made this coveted list! How was this fabulous news of your selection delivered to you? What was your first reaction? Who did you share this news with immediately?
Saurav Rai: Wow! Thank you so very much. An outpouring of love and approval from one’s own community can make anyone’s day. This has been quite a year and I definitely feel the impact. The news was delivered by mail. I received a congratulatory note in March announcing “Gudh” to be one of the films amongst the 23 selected for the 69th Cannes Cinefondation Competition. I was stunned by the news. “Ek chin tah teen chuck parey nee” There was a sort of numbness, a surreal quality when this news hit me, although deep inside I had a uncanny hope that it would make the selection. But you know what moved me most? A small note attached to the mail by the festival director, who beautifully expressed how much she appreciated the nuances played in the film. That personal note really meant a lot to me! The first person I shared this news with was my bajey (Grandfather) Mr. Dig Bijay Singh Rai. He is 76 years old.
Adwiti: What was his reaction?
Saurav Rai: He was really; really excited for me but more than anything else he was happy that his grandson was getting to travel to new and interesting places. I guess it is his way of bringing everything in perspective.
Adwiti: As much as we are interested in the art and culture of the Cannes Film festival, we are also a culture (not that I am vilifying our current cultural obsessions) gripped by movie stars and the glitz and glamour of the silver screen, made famous by the designer clothes and sensational photographs? I saw an image of you wearing a well-tailored tuxedo – looking quite dapper. Who was your fashion designer?
Saurav Rai: I was notified about the dress code and how important it was to adhere by it as it gave me access to special screenings, parties as well as conferences. I mean here I was , a plain old boy from the village that had spent the most part of his life in his shorts and chaplee and then all of a sudden I was to attend this international event requiring me to put on aspecific attire. Seriously, I was in trouble! But, to be honest my Tuxedo designer came from a shop in South City Mall, Kolkata and I went shopping last minute. My bajey very helpfully suggested that I could wear the same for my wedding and save money. (Haha)!
Adwiti: Share with us your experience about walking the red carpet. As a director what did you observe? As a person from Mangwa, Kalimpong what images/thoughts flashed through your mind?
Saurav Rai: I guess it’s an honor for anybody to be able to walk the red carpet at such a prestigious festival. I am actually quite a “bindaas” (carefree) person yet I was a little nervous that day. It was a special moment for me when I finally reached there, walking the red carpet along with my fellow competitors. It was an unexplainable experience where I got to see and meet some of the greatest auteur of Cinema like the Dardene Brothers! It was a moment of great realization of how a work of art is seriously appreciated and how fortunate it is to be present there with your work.
As for thought and images – Visions of myself walking to and from the village school, traveling third class compartments and dingy buses came to my mind and then to be given this opportunity and honor to rub shoulders with world famous actors and directors. I mean it really felt like a surreal Akira Kurosawa “Dreams” moment!
Adwiti: What exactly is the Cannes film festival in your opinion? Did it live up to its reputation?
Saurav: The Festival is an invitation only annual international film festival held in Cannes, France, which previews new films of all genres, including documentaries, from around the world which is indeed the biggest festival celebrating world cinema at a grand level. But essentially it’s a place where you build your network for future works and collaboration! Yes! It lived up to its reputation and more.
Adwiti: Indian director Anurag Kashyap premiered his movie “Raman Raghav 2.0” at the festival and pulled a house full. Did you get to meet him? Did he impart any words of wisdom or encouragement towards you?
Saurav: Oh yes, thanks to Ms Sonia Raddou, my Sponsor and PR Person for the festival, we (Me and my sound Designer Ms.Ankita Purkayastha) got a VIP pass to attend the screening of Raman Raghav.
There was this one event in the Indian Pavilion (Every Country has their own Pavilion in Cannes) organized by Ms Sonia Raddou, where Mr. Anurag Kashyap, Mr.Aditya Vikram and I were invited to share a panel. The discussion was on how to prepare for the first feature film. I talked about my little village “far from the madding crowd”. I think he liked my movie “Gudh” and he talked about all the film festivals around the world. He was very welcoming for sure.
Adwiti: Were people at the Cannes Film Festival surprised that you were from India? Did you have to give a bit of a geographic orientation of where your looks come from? I face that all that time I guess we all do.
Saurav: He he! Well, this plagues us everywhere doesn’t it? I mean it happens all the time! Where ever I go I face this strange question. Are you really an Indian? But most of them get the idea once I inform that I come from a village within Darjeeling! Even if someone doesn’t get it, I make them understand where exactly!
Adwiti: How was the screening of your movie “Gudh” at Cannes? How was it received by the audience? Can you share with us the whole process?
Saurav: Well the screening was indeed a nervous affair as there are hundreds of eyeballs waiting to see your film. But unlike my previous experiences at other International festivals, it was overwhelming to see people waiting for you to tell how touched they were. I am a villager at heart, my movie possibly shows the hardships and the simplicity of life and I feel so happy to see that the film connected with so many people in so many ways. I will never forget how one guy from Kazakhstan walked to me and humbly told how he cried twice during the film. These were the highlights for me Didi! But yes, it’s was a special feeling!
Adwiti: In one of your interviews you mentioned that your movie “Gudh” (I cannot wait to watch it) was autobiographical. What were you like as a kid? How did school treat you? Did you participate in school plays or direct them? Share with us what it was like growing up in Mangwa bastee?
Saurav Rai: The film “Gush/Nest” does reflect my childhood memories, desires and imagination to a certain extent. But I was essentially probing my innermost feelings of those growing years!
So to answer your question, I was brought up by my grandparents in Kathmandu. Those were wonderful days where I wasn’t restricted to do anything. For instance I never remember doing my homework ever and I always enjoyed coming home late in the evening after school despite my grandpa’s warning. And yes I failed every year in class, but somehow got promoted with PUC (Pass under Consideration) remarks.
I was also this guy who always ended up in the school corridor during most of the class, but there I loved the free time, this is where my imagination ran wild! I always loved performing on the stage, whether as a dancer or an actor – the stage was where I was most comfortable. In fact the two months preparatory time for the annual school cultural program used to be the favourite time of the year. And the final day of the program – the worst, as they would distribute our Report Card.
Those days came to a sudden halt as we migrated back to our native village Mangwa in the late 90’s. Everything changed, but I continued failing at an ICSE school in Kalimpong. So one day my grandpa suddenly pulled me out of the fancy school and I found myself a student of the village school. This was a game changer. Life was never the same, as I hardly could relate to the new surroundings, the kids or even the teachers, so I retreated further into my shell and became a loner.
It was a difficult time as school was about 20 Km up the hill, through the forest and I had to go, come rain or shine. But then here is where I started cultivating my art, curating my mind and passion. I gradually began enjoying those lonely walks, whereby emerging as a thinker, mostly a very visual thinker and a mad artist.
Those days I also had a Yoga teacher, who taught me some very valuable lessons for about three years. “Tratak” laser focus and a strong sense of not to be seeking outside approval are some of the lessons that sunk in.
I also started doing really well at school and because of my inward focus and life lessons given by my grandfather and those soul searching walks, school became effortless for me. I was acing all my subjects by then. Then I went to St Joseph’s College, Darjeeling and I think that is where I came out of my shell and like all Darjeeling boys and girls I had a good time!
But growing up in Mangwa with my grandparents’ love was the most formative and influential years of my life. It gave birth to “Gudh”.
Adwiti: Film and Television Institute of India, Pune is supposedly the more popular choice in your field. Why did you pick Satyajit Ray Institute , Kolkata? How was your experience there as a Gorkha from Darjeeling/Kalimpong district? What was the medium of instruction there?
Saurav: – Irrespective of the debate whether which film school is better in the country, I guess one needs to realize it’s not easy to get access to either of the film school. If you look at the admission eligibility and screening one has to go through an extensive process to secure a seat. I was lucky to make it through.
The medium of instruction was English. The Satyajit Ray Film And Television Institute has been a life changing space for me, where I received every possible help in terms of learning not only about cinema but basically about every aspect of life. The library is exceptionally equipped and in my opinion the education was not typical at all. We didn’t have to regurgitate our lessons for tests, I mean there were few but very effective classes. The teachers gave us a lot of time and space for self discovery, they tried to keep the schooling as organic as possible.
The institute consists of two theatres; the main theatre and the preview theatre. There is also an open air theatre and has a 35mm and 16mm screen projection facility. We watched a lot of films, all genres. This is a place where everyone eats, talks and breaths cinema. Healthy discussions and debates about films were constantly encouraged.
As for being a Gorkha from Darjeeling area; this place is quite liberal and the students are mostly open minded and diverse. The institute attracts both national and international students. There was really no question of being left out. It’s a beautiful place where different individuals from varied backgrounds gather under the same roof and make films in collaboration.
Adwiti: We now have a profusion of Audio/Visual entertainment. What in your opinion is your niche?
Saurav: Irrespective of the medium or the technology, for me it depends whether I have the requisite desire or the urge to tell anything through a film and no matter what I am creating right now I keep going back to where I am from- the little village, Mangwa.
Adwiti: What is your next venture? What are the requirements for your upcoming undertaking to be successful and how are you going about it?
Saurav: I have been traveling so much with “ Gudh” I really haven’t had time to sit down and create or think extensively about my next venture and even if I have, the venture is at its embryonic stage. I have only just decided to stop traveling and be still with my thoughts, ideas and rejuvenate a little bit.
Adwiti: What made you so fearless yet so deep in your art?
Saurav: My grandfather ! He always tells me ” Jetha” as I’m the oldest amongst my siblings, do whatever you want to do, but make sure you enjoy what you do.
Adwiti : What advice do you have for the up-coming generation of aspiring film directors and actors from our area?
Saurav : Well, I only have one film under my belt and been in this career for a short while. I can only speak from my own experience and that is; I really, really love what I do and I always try to be true to myself through my art.
Identity is not what we try and reveal but what can be seen through actions, words and well in this case his movies. Saurav Rai is a “Lionheart” . His fearless willingness to seek and find beyond our limited resources and use his raw experiences to show an international audience his heart is really inspiring to me and hope that everyone who reads this will feel the same.
Here are some links to his movies including a preview of “Gudh”
Needless to say we are eagerly waiting for “Gudh”s release.
Free to choose whatever life that he could imagine Saurav Rai has arrived in a place so inimitable that all we can do now is wholeheartedly wish him great success and a brilliant career ahead.
[Adwiti Subba Haffner is an entrepreneur, social worker, writer, freelance journalist, world traveler, mother, wife, yoga/meditation teacher. You can find her at https://www.facebook.com/AdwitiHaffner and her website is www.alivewithadwiti.com]
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