A Beautiful Friendship
Growing up in New Zealand, filmmaker and photographer Arjun Suri recalls always having been interested in photography. He began experimenting with film photography at the age of eight. Eventually, he chose to pursue an MBBS and became a doctor. However, during his years at college, he never had his hands off a camera, constantly picking up some projects in the field of photography. When cameras advanced to incorporate a video feature in them, he began his journey with filmmaking. Between trying his hand at theatre all through college, winning every play they performed, and shooting weddings for about a year, Arjun realised he was inclined more towards the lens than medicine. And as more and more people recognised his talent, he enthusiastically endeavoured to apply to film school and spent two years at Whistling Woods International in Mumbai, after finishing his MBBS from Manipal University.
Tying together his love for filmmaking and his fascination with the world of healthcare, Arjun made a short film called Seven Feet, which delves into the psychologies of a post-pandemic world. In 2020, he won the ‘Platinum Film of the Year’ for Seven Feet, as part of India Film Project’s ‘50 Hour Filmmaking Challenge’. The film packs within its short seven minutes the discomforts of fear, paranoia, confusion and frustrations, and confronts the viewer with a reality that is all too familiar. When not ideating a new short or feature, Arjun prefers to capture all the explored and unexplored nooks of the world and entirely immerse himself in the experience. Each print by him, recounts a visual story, transporting the viewer to places beyond.
We spoke to him to know more about his journey and his love for photography and filmmaking.
Your short film Seven Feet, speaks of the anxieties of a post-pandemic world. What was the ideation behind it, considering it was ironically made in the thick of the pandemic?
About three months before the pandemic actually started, we where in Ahmedabad and trying to make a film about an epidemic and how the healthcare system has collapsed. Being from a background in healthcare, I find these stories very interesting. I’ve been working on scripts about doctors and how the Indian healthcare system has always been on the edge — pandemic or no pandemic. Back in 2019, I was at AIIMS for two or three weeks and I spent some time in their Emergency department. These days we’re seeing all these images of excess of patients and a lack of beds, but this is not new. So we were trying to make a film about that. I was going to make it based on the Nipah Virus outbreak that happened in Kerala. But then an actual pandemic happened, which nobody could foresee.
In terms of this film, the psychology was of someone who’s sort of been stuck in this headspace of ‘oh I can’t go out because if I do then something will happen to me.’ But then something has to happen to you, right? So it’s basically a psychological effect. You tend to let fear take hold of you even when an imminent threat has passed. So when I was writing — and I really didn’t have even half a day to write it — we were all brainstorming and our first thought was that we won’t do anything linked to the pandemic. But then I thought, let’s think of what happens after the pandemic, maybe in a few years. What would be some interesting characters in that world? Then the thought emerged that what if it’s all over but somebody is still stuck in that headspace? What if someone is not able to come out of it, which has been the case for a lot of people, whom I know actually. Even when things got a bit relaxed, they couldn’t come out and they were just at home, sanitising even their vegetables. The excess paranoia also is not going to help either. If you watch the film, there’s a line which says ‘kuch bhi nahi hoga’ (nothing is going to happen). If you don’t let anything happen to you then nothing will happen to you — good or bad. But time is still running out. You only have one life and you only have certain number of days. So yes, prevention is fine, but once it’s all over, we all have to step out into this world. Which is why we were also excited because it went with the theme of ‘brave new world’.
What was your approach behind making the film?
Firstly, I really don’t think anything is ever original, I think everything is a remix. I think everything comes from what you’ve seen, read, heard, thought of, prior to that thought. Any act of creation, whether it's in nature or it’s in any art, it always comes from a collision of two thing that haven’t really met before, haven’t really matched before. So it’s all remix. I remember, when I was writing Seven Feet, I spent two-three hours where nothing was coming out of it. I picked up a book of essays by Rilke and started reading a few things. It’s not a conscious act, you just sort of disengage from what you’re doing and what you’re thinking, and something will spark something else. This whole script came about in half an hour I think. I’m not saying it’s easy. We tend to focus on things so much and we tend to make things so hard. We expect a struggle so it is a struggle. The prophecy is self-fulfilling in a sense. Just because you expect it to be difficult to make a film in 50 hours, you won’t be able to make it. Don’t even think about it and take is easy, and go on with your day with the approach of okay if we manage to make a film in 50 hours then great, but if not, then that’s okay too. And that was our approach till the very end.
When we were submitting it, everybody went and slept but I of course had to be awake for the whole thing. So it was just me and Abhinav, our sound designer, working on it and there were two hours to the deadline when he said ‘Arjun if you give me two more hours I can really do something good with the sound and music.’ But for the extra two hours you have a ten percent penalty. For me, it’s not about the winning. I told him to take his time, do his thing and finish it how he would like to finish it. And it worked out. It’s just about not taking things too seriously. The whole country is in the headspace of winning and our whole childhood went in that. Everybody is in a race to the top. But if you just sit back and see what it is, take your time, things do work out. Playing the game itself is a choice. Everyone is playing some game or the other — life games, career games, relationship games. Not choosing to play a game is another thing. I personally feel that whenever I’ve taken things too seriously and let the outcome affect my choices, it hasn’t really worked out, ever.
As a photographer, is there one particular subject you love to photograph?
I like to get lost in strange landscapes. Whenever I have the chance, I go somewhere wild, with no humans around. I’m not really a people person. I’d rather go out to nature where it’s quiet and make coffee sitting by the sea. I carry my own stove and a small fridge, making a sandwich with a friend or two. I like shooting nature instead of people.
Journey To The Sun
Do you have a creative process when it comes to photography?
What do you think? How do you search for anything? How do you search for a photo? You can only be aware in whichever place you are in. That’s all you can do. If you’re aware of where you are and what you see and how you see it, something will eventually present itself. And the act of clicking a picture is not really that hard. It’s just how aware you are — where are you, when are you there, what’s the weather like.
I remember, I was in Iceland a few years ago when my friends and I were going up a huge hill and there was a massive cloud. I thought that we have to cross this hill soon because I’m pretty sure if the cloud moves and the sun hits at a particular angle, its going to look amazing. And I built up to that moment so much that when we finally did cross that hill, it was absolutely magical. But I couldn’t do anything. I took out my camera and I had a drone, but the drone just refused to fly. Then I took out another camera but I just couldn’t take the shot. I got something but it was a fraction of what was really there. Whereas, there have been other instances where I’ve taken shots from a moving car and they’re much better because they were instinctive and I was aware of what was happening. So in terms of process, just be aware of what’s happening and I think everything works out. Or it doesn’t and that doesn’t mater as well. It’s just about how much of a hurry you are in. If you are in a hurry then you really won’t enjoy the process, so what’s the fun anyway?
What is the difference you have found between creating a motion picture versus capturing a singular moment in a photograph?
Oh that’s a good question. It’s a completely different format. Film takes longer to plan. I prefer films, but only if I can write them as well. Because if I can’t write them, then they seem very foreign to me and I don’t know what to say to the actors. I don’t really work on other people’s scripts. If its just like a trip or something then I’d rather click pictures. I have an online store and I sell my prints as well. Even making prints is an art form in itself — how you adjust the blacks, what kind of paper do you use, et cetera. So that’s a completely different field and art form.
Films just take longer. I have four feature films ready. The first one was done in 2017 and now I have four, and I’m woking on the fifth one. Films require a lot of money and investments, even from the creative team. It’s a longer outlook so you have to be very sure that, okay am I going to give one year of my life to this? And I’m not even talking about money here. I mean one year of you and your team’s life is far more valuable than any budget can ever be. It takes time to be sure that it will be worth it for everyone. A film is also far more influenced by external factors. Which is why we wanted to keep this short very small — just taking our own money and doing what we want, with friends as actors. But for a feature there are too many points of conflict. Like the producer wants a ‘better hero’ or ‘a better heroine’ — in their own words. It’s too many minds working on the same thing.
I feel that art should be a little authoritarian and the nation should be a little more democratic. Because any art form will have an authoritative quality, right. You have to be the author of your work. So everyone who works with me, be the sound designer or cinematographer, I’m not going to tell them this is the shot and this is what I want. I’d rather have their signature on it. Like, ‘this is what I feel about this particular thing, how would you show it?’ Photography is a one man show, so it’s easier. Less permissions, and more time to work!
Lastly, what are you working on right now?
I’m writing a film. It’s a film which is set in a village and it’s called God-Men. It’s about the question of why do societies or why do humans want a god-like figure? Why do they want someone or something to believe in? Why can’t they take responsibility for themselves? It’s like a satire-drama-comedy in a sense, which deals with the idea of how a religion is formed and how does somebody become a ‘baba’. How does someone exert that influence on people and why people also want them to? How the people want to absolve themselves of all responsibility by choosing to worship a higher power- using religion as an excuse instead of taking onus and authorship of their decisions and ultimately their journey in this tiny slice of time, space and experience which we call life.
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Text Devyani Verma