Harkat Studio

Harkat Studio

Harkat is an international boutique arts studio, alternative performance space and film lab based in Mumbai and Berlin. At their core, they are a collective of passionate storytellers from diverse cultural, business and creative backgrounds. As a space, they have curated and programmed more than five hundred performances in the mediums of film, music, theater, dance and contemporary art, all from the fringe and alternative. In the commercial world, title sequence animation and marketing content are some niches in which they specialise. They also have their own practice in the medium of photochemical film and host the 16mm film festival every year. We’re in conversation with Michaela and Karan, the founders of Harkat.

What drove you to create this space?
Harkat is a multidisciplinary space for everything from the fringe. It’s alternative, diverse and a thriving community hub for play and experimentation. The space, in a way, has been creating itself. It evolves with the people that are in and around the space. That’s actually also what drove — and drives — us. We want to be a community space, a place where you can feel at home — an intimate space without the intimidation of an institution. When we started the space in 2014, this kind of environment was completely missing in Versova and the larger area around it. The only theater nearby was Prithvi and there was no ‘informal’ space which was conducive to experiments. So we became a home to a large cross section of art and performance makers whose work wouldn’t fit a large stage or who craved the intimacy of a small space, but still an audience facing professionally run theater space. 

How do you curate the selection of films, theatrical productions, and art exhibits that are featured in your studio?
Diversity. We don’t want to do too much of the same — that doesn’t mean, we don’t bring great performances back several times, but we like to spread it out. We are super open to experiments and are more than happy to give the stage to new talent. We’ve had lots of premieres and a lot of now popular indie talents had one of their first gigs here. Having said that, we do hold quality very high. We are small and intimate, and hence the experience is much more immediate — there’s no fancy stuff to buffer a bad performance. 

We ask every performer to share a recording of their show, or their films, or links to their music and then the team collectively decides whether we will go ahead with it or not. There’s also larger curatorial visions, like themes that we’d like to emerge from a three-month planning calendar, something that’s like a North Star for us as curator collective. These might not be immediately spottable by the audience, but in the larger vision of the space they do come true. We also approach artists when we see there’s a gap or something lacking to make the coming months a wholesome experience. 

Harkat Studio

Since you specialise in film and theater, what kind of genres and projects within theater and film do you usually indulge in? Could you tell us about a few memorable ones?
We like to be pretty genre-bending! So there’s really no genre which we champion over another. One performance which we will always remember is of course Karl Marx in Kalbadevi, which was our very first show and it set the ball rolling. It made us think of how this space can be so much more and used by the performers. And then Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Me to the End of Love, which he devised especially for the space, really using all corners of the studio and making it come alive!

We’ve also produced a number of performances for our virtual interactive stage and that has been exciting because considering the technological possibilities our cutting-edge setup gave them, the directors came up with really fun devising. Age of Prison was almost entirely movement based. It was as bareboned as it gets, and at the same time, super engaging. So was O Gaanewali, an ode to the courtesans through music and storytelling. We love when forms collide and newer imaginations emerge. 

Apart from this, the Museum of Ordinary Objects has probably been our most successful community art project so far. We crowdsource ordinary objects, along with their stories, and put them in a museum like setting, but accessible — a museum where you can touch things. These stories and objects are also documentary theater in a way. But the most memorable is the larger community feeling through consistent programming. The experience that a space like this creates for the community is what’s most important. To know that other imaginations can exist and flourish. 

You recently announced that you’re going to be making an original film this year. What’s that been like?
Harkat has been a long supporter of independent and conscious cinema. And is also an arts studio working with its own practice in experimental and alternative cinema. One of our visions is to see more of the cinema we programme, curate, and love. And also see a sustainable future for such kind of cinema. As filmmakers ourselves, it became obvious for us to tell our own stories and literally put ourselves first out there — as litmus tests for this imagination. 

The film, just like our other work, is completely self-funded, derives a lot from our work in the arts, and is a slow cook in the making. The shoot might seem like a culmination but it’s really only half the journey. It’s very difficult to pull this off on one’s own and in the process-driven manner in which one wants to do it. But, thankfully, we’ve built a strong community and name in the past few years and people are willing to trust our vision and bet on our reclamation of the cinematic space. Until now, we’ve only got love for this project. And going forward, we just need people to show up for it when it’s time comes. One such project becoming successful could create a domino effect for makers. 

Harkat Studio

Where did the idea for the 16mm festival come from, and what is the intent behind The Harkat Lab?
In 2017, when we wanted to work on our own films and were just about coming into our own with finding our voice as a collective and as a space, we wanted to work with film — having loved and admired the medium for such a long time. But we quickly realised that it was all but dead in India. All the equipment, processes and many decades of cinematic knowledge lay dismantled. As we started to ask questions, the idea that the medium on which cinema originated and traced its history back to had been tossed aside. And that was a very discomforting thought. 

Digital cinema, in all its democracy and accessibility,  is but an emulation of the cinematic medium — in process, terminology, colour theory and more. It’s now outpaced the original medium, but for us, it's important to consider how our making, seeing and experiencing has shifted by the loss of this medium. And why should the medium be lost in the first place. It’s like asking an oil painter to paint on an ipad. So, we began with the 16mm film festival. We did what we knew how to do first. Make an event of it and gather a community. The festival only screens films that are made on film. Any/all formats are accepted. And we try to show prints as well. Since, ours is probably the only space to be able to screen 8mm, 16mm and 35mm in India. 

The lab is a kind of second step to the festival. Globally, there is a collective of about thirty odd artist-run analog film labs, and we are the only one to exist in South Asia. Our practice in film requires one to do all the processes by hand. From filming on 16mm or 8mm, to hand processing in self-made chemistry and post splicing directly with film. It’s an arduous process and the lab space is what the collective now uses to make their own work, do workshops, and the intent is to slowly open it out more and more to the community to collectively use. The analog community is already so big and we also work with still film and slide projectors. 

Lastly, what does the future look like for Harkat?
There is a certain magic, mysticism and freedom of expression in experimental film, and we love to play with it. It’s a different kind of experience. From the making of the image to the showing of it on a film projector, where it sits in the middle of the audience, making its presence felt. Or even through expanded cinema performances- where you fuse film as a medium with its devices and performance. Imagine two projectors being manually operated and creating a film live while a performer on stage also responds. We want to shift the moving image out of a square box through our work with the lab. And really bring about a sense of play with the cinematic medium. Nothing beats physically handling film and being so close to the image. In a world where we are bombarded with images at such a fast pace, film re-pedestalises the value of the image — both for the artist and audience. 


Words Neeraja Srinivasan
Date 21-07-2023