Friday, June 5, 2020

COVID19 Lockdown: Light, Camera, Action

My thoughts on the 50th day of staying under Lockdown

Today is the 12th of May 2020 - the 50th day of lockdown in India and of my stay in the ancient village of Sankisa. I started my foot journey, ‘Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang’, on 20th February from Adi Badri in Haryana. From there I walked eastward for 530 kms crossing Haryana, entering Uttar Pradesh and then arriving in Sankisa on 20th March. 

Rehearsing my interview ahead of shooting.

The news of COVID19 spreading fast in India had already been circulating when I started my walk but I was hopeful that the government would be able to find a solution and somehow the whole affair would not affect my walk. But I could not have been more wrong! To curb the spread of the virus, the government announced a nationwide, complete lockdown ruining any prospect for me to carry on with my walk. The initial lockdown was said to be for a period of 3 weeks, but I could have guessed that it would take a lot more time to bring the situation under control, and in fact, the lockdown was extended several times to a total of 8 weeks. The lockdown is not completely lifted still but is in the process of phasing out. filmmaker friend, Surinder Talwar, whom I endearingly call Talwar Sir, is directing as well as producing a series of documentaries on my foot journey ‘Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang.’ He was scheduled to arrive in Sankisa on 20th March but certain last minute arrangements kept him back. He had arranged  for a Canon 5D Mark 4 camera, a number of prime lenses, MAVIC Pro drone and Crane 2 Gimbal to be brought from Simla but none of these could arrive because the government of Himachal Pradesh levied travel restrictions from 19th March onward due to the COVID19. Talwar Sir could not rent alternative filming equipment either from his hometown, Panchkula, because by that time, the Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association (IMPPA) had issued a  ban on shooting films and serials till further notification/advisory. As a result of the ban, no vendor was willing to rent.

Shooting going on in the YBS Library.

I was carrying with me for the walk a DJI OSMO (Osmo Pocket) given to me as a gift by my photographer-friend, Alok Jain which I had suggested to Talwar Sir could be used for filming on the foot journey until we could arrange other cameras from Mainpuri or Aliganj (nearest big market to Sankisa).

Family members and friends of Talwar Sir were a bit hesitant that he should travel under the Covid situation which was increasingly getting worse. But, Talwar Sir, the adventurer and remarkably committed person that he is, decided to come to Sankisa despite all odds. His assistant, Rajinder Sharma (Pauly), could not join him at the last moment. In the absence of his assistant, Talwar Sir drove from Panchkula to Sankisa, a distance of no less than 600 kms, to arrive in Sankisa on 21st March just in time before intercity travel was stopped by the central government. Thankfully, Talwar Sir’s nephew, Rudraksha, who is an amateur still photographer, could join him for the trip.

Within a few minutes of Talwar Sir’s arrival in YBS Centre, Sankisa, where I was staying, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 14L-hr voluntary public curfew to be observed the next day i.e. on 22nd March. Thereafter, the situation changed very fast giving us hardly any time to prepare ourselves for the coming days. The local vendors whom we contacted in advance for hiring the cameras stopped taking our calls. We had planned to get a Canon 5D mark 4 or a 7D with three lenses and a drone from Mainpuri for shooting videos while my Osmo Pocket could be used as a gimbal for shooting some segments. But as none of these cameras could be managed, we had to shoot everything  using what we had on us - a Canon 700 D (with kit lenses 18-55 mm and 55-250 mm) and my Osmo Pocket. Thankfully, Talwar Sir had a Zoom 6 audio recorder and Boya cordless microphone, which could record professional standard audio.

Talwar Sir trying his hands at my DJI OSMO pocket to shoot the details on ancient remains.
Rudraksha, Talwar Sir and myself at the archaeological site in Sankisa on the occasion of Veshak Piurnima.
The next two days, 23rd and 24th March, we went to shoot in Sankisa and Chachunapur. We began noticing a sense of alarm in the people - although they welcomed us, offered tea and snacks and even gave interviews, they were worried about the spread of Covid. On the 24th evening, Prime Minister Modi announced a 21-day complete lockdown. My worst fear had come true. The last thing I could have wanted was to get stuck in the middle of my walk for such a long period. We had only a little bit of shooting so our documentaries could not be released either.

Interviewing Shri Awadhesh Dixit, Sankisa with makeshift equipments. 
Enjoying our time in the rural beauty of Sankisa.

Lockdown meant we could not go anywhere outside the campus we were staying in. Not to get disheartened under these circumstances, we decided to make best use of our stay at YBS center by making a short film on YBS which could be used by them in future for showcasing their work and attracting funds and supporters.

We had hoped to resume shooting at Sankisa for our walk once the lockdown would get over i.e. after 15th April knowing little that more surprise was awaiting. The lockdown was extended for 2 weeks, and at the end of that period, it was extended again for another 2 weeks until 17th of May. But this time, some relaxation was given in the lockdown. Based on the number of Corona positive cases, districts and regions were divided into three zones - green (no cases), orange (less than 6 cases), and red (more than 6 cases). Fortunately for us, district Farrukhabad, where Sankisa is situated, was in the Green Zone. It meant we could move around within the district within the stipulated hours. Still, we were not comfortable going into villages for shooting. We are grateful to Suresh Baudh, Secretary, YBS for his help and guidance in this regard. He introduced us to Shri Lalit Mishra and Deepak Rajpoot, people of the local press and friends of Suresh ji, both of them accompanied us everywhere we went and helped us in completing the filming. We did the shoot in the villages of Sankisa and Chacunapur in accordance with social distancing norms. 

The shoot turned out to be quite challenging as we did not have proper filming equipment nor the support team of cameraman, sound recordist, light operator and others. Talwar Sir is not a cameraman and had not operated a camera for a number of years, although he knew all about filming and setting up cameras. Drawing upon 34 years of filmmaking experience, he gave a shot to the equipment at hand. Despite the various limitations, he was able to shoot some highly professional videos.  
The DJI Osmo Pocket can be called a first generation device. Other Osmo devices have been used in filming for a long time but the DJI OSMO pocket is completely different from them - it has several limitations. It has two built in microphones which does not give professional quality audio. An adapter and a compatible microphone has to be used alongside. Therefore, we used the Canon 700 D in conjunction with the Boya cordless microphone or the Zoom 6 audio recorder. We had an Osmo pocket extension rod which was quite handy for interviews but we did not have a tripod to mount it on for recording longer interviews. The Osmo pocket has a half inch camera sensor which renders good results but not good enough for the professional market. Face tracking also does not work well all the time. The device gets very warm in the PRO mode or if used for a long time. The Osmo gimbal is very delicate and one needs to be very careful while using the device so that the gimbal does not get damaged. Lastly it shoots only wide and not extra wide and we did not have any wide angle lens that could be attached to the device and neither did we have any ND filters to handle extremely bright daylight shoots.

To sum up, we were handicapped to a great extent in executing a demanding shoot in most trying circumstances. Despite all the handicaps - lack of equipment, manpower and support - we did a great job by acquiring professional grade footage thanks to the experience of Talwar Sir. The Osmo Pocket was used as the main camera for most shots and interviews. Rudraksh, despite having no previous experience in filming videos, did a great job by taking some outstanding shots in good lighting conditions. He also captured some amazing stills of birds, insects and wild animals.         

Talwar Sir, Rudraksha and myself shared the same room during our long stay at Sankisa. This provided me with many opportunities to listen to the experiences of Talwar Sir. I was particularly impressed by stories of his filming in Jammu and Kashmir in the 90’s when militancy was at its peak there. Talwar Sir worked with the International Institute of Non Aligned Studies (IINS) for making films on Kashmir showing the correct picture of the conflict, the Human Rights violations, and the effects of militancy on the local economy. Talwar Sir recounted how he would go  into remote villages and stay there undercover filming for months. He also had to walk for days and weeks with his two assistants over difficult terrain carrying all the filming equipment themselves. All the while he was risking his life - a single mistake could have landed him in the grip of the militants.

In those 5 years, Talwar Sir produced many documentary series like THE TRAGEDY IN KASHMIR (1993, 40 minutes), PAKISTAN KA PRAKOSH YUDH (Proxy War by Pakistan – Documentary, 1994, 27 minutes), KASHMIR – A HOSTAGE TO TERROR (1994, 28 minutes), A NEW DAWN (1995, 42 minutes), DEMOCRACY TRIUMPHS (1996, 28 minutes), KASHMIR TOWARDS TOMORROW (1996, 28 minutes), THE STORY OF KASHMIR (4 PART documentary series, 1997, 28 minutes each episode), KASHMIR – THE FUTURE BECKONS (1998, 25 minutes). His films on Kashmir were  effectively used by the Government of India in different forums of the United Nations to show the inside story of Kashmir. Talwar Sir told me that he used to have one-on-one meetings with the then Prime Minister Shri P.V. Narshima Rao. The Prime Minister liked his works a lot and many times even sought his advice on Kashmir. 

Later, in the decade of the 2000's, Talwar Sir made films on Buddhism for the Government of India. I met Talwar Sir for the first time during the making of a documentary film on the inauguration of Xuanzang Memorial at Nalanda for Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University) in 2007.  Thereafter, as we worked on more projects together, our association kept deepening.

My stay with Talwar Sir gave me an opportunity to understand the intricacies of film making: why we need different types of cameras, what is good, bad, even and uneven light and how light can be used to our advantage. I now understand how timetaking filmmaking is and how much more funds it needs than I had ever anticipated. One of our constant worries and point of discussion during our stay together was funds for filming the documentary series on Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Walk. So far, we have been able to raise only an insignificant fraction of the funding that we actually need to film the eight segments of the  foot journey. We have shot only two segments till now, on Kuru and Sankisa, that too using our personal funds. Both of us have exhausted our funds for the time-being, hence we have no choice to stop filming until we can raise funds again. But my thinking is that fundraising would be nearly impossible at this time because the lockdown has destabilized the economy and affected social life badly. 

We finished our shoot in Sankisa on the 9th May. Talwar Sir wanted to stay put until 17th May to see if I could resume my Walk at the end of the third phase of the lockdown on 17th. But his nephew, Rudraksha complained of homesickness and his mother too wanted him to return home. Hence Talwar Sir had to apply, albeit reluctantly, for a government pass to travel from Sankisa to Panchkula. With help of Venerable Upananda, Secretary, YBS, he got the pass and left on 12th May.

Talwar Sir and Suresh ji tried to convince me to go to Panchkula with Talwar Sir and stay there until the Covid situation improved significantly. Hence my name was also on the travel permit. However, deep down I felt that this was against the spirit of Master Xuanzang - to abandon a journey because of the challenges on the way. When Xuanzang resolved to travel to India to collect Buddhist texts and pay homage to Buddhist sites, he was denied permission by the Emperor Taizong to leave the country and governors of all the provinces were ordered to detain him. While on his way to the border, his companion advised him to return because there were high chances of him getting detained at one of the 5 watchtowers along the border but Xuanzang replied: Though they cause my body to be cut up as small as the very dust, I will never return; and I here take an oath to this. In the rest of his journey, he faced many difficulties but never gave a thought to turning back and therefore successfully completed his mission giving 16 years of his life to it.

Shooting in the prayer hall, YBS.

Celebrating the birthday of Talwar Sir on 23rd April in the Buddhist way of prayer and blessings.

Our clean and comfortable room in YBS.

Talwar Sir left on the morning of 12th May. After spending 50 lively days together brainstorming about the Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Project and future plans, I felt terribly lonely in that moment he left. I feel all the more lonely because of the uncertainty of my foot journey. The lockdown has been extended 3 times already and there was news already of a possible fourth extension. My wait seemed to be endless. I started contemplating on starting my walk in spite of the lockdown the way the migrants had done. Many of them walked from big cities like Mumbai and Delhi to their hometowns covering impossible distances of over 2000 kms on foot. Among them were physically challenged people, pregnant women and  small children. Many of them died on the way from hunger and exhaustion.

The main worry for me now is finding food and accommodation as I move on. The Covid pandemic has changed the circumstances completely. Now food is in short everywhere so I may not receive food in temples and villages as I had received earlier. Likewise, people all across the country have been cautioned regarding interaction with strangers whose travel history is not known. People are panicking quite easily upon encountering strangers. Hence, I might face difficulty in finding a place to stay for the nights.

Filming team of the Walk with friends from local press in Sankisa Village

Story chronicled by Aparajita Goswami

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