Dheeraj Akolkar is the Director of the documentary “Liv & Ingmar” and honored us by providing this interview.
Q: What drew you into the magical world of Cinema instead of practicing your profession?
A: I have been fascinated with Cinema from a very young age. Me and my brother were lucky because our parents started collecting good films when they could afford to have a video player. Every month they would go out and buy two or three classics and then we would watch them together and talk about them. So cinema was a very important part of our growing up.
It was Sir David Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’ – two absolute game changers for the sensations they left in me – the subtlety, the unsaid, the grandeur of human emotions, their universality, their tenderness and beauty – it all invited me in, I think…
One of my schoolmates reminded me recently how I used to secretly confide in him my dreams of becoming a filmmaker when we were 11-12 years of age. So the process started quite early on.
After graduating high school, I wanted to join FTII – The Film and Television Institute of India and even went there with my father. But I was only 14 and they rejected me. I remember being quite frustrated and angry at this rejection.
When I chose to study architecture, one of my first teachers was an accomplished architect-artist-production designer and filmmaker – Mr. Nachiket Patwardhan. Him and his wife Jayoo, who often work together, inspired me endlessly! I realized that I don’t have to fit in one, single box and I could be whoever I wanted to be – because an artist, is an artist, is an artist!
From 1998, when I was 20, I was already working in Mumbai as an assistant art director on some massive films.
There is an old Buddhist saying – ‘Try stopping a monk from a monastery’
Despite my detours, today I wonder if I found cinema or did cinema find me? Either way, it has been a good thing haha.
Q: ‘Liv & Ingmar’ was your first feature film. You were mostly intrigued by a love story or the backstage of a legendary director and his “stradivarius“?
A: I read a book by Liv Ullmann called ‘Changing’. It’s not an account of an actor, but of a woman and a human being. In those pages, through her, I met a man who was complex, courageous, frightened, controlling and endearing who also happened to be a genius filmmaker called Ingmar Bergman!
What fascinated me was the humanity of their thirst and need for each other and how real it was. ‘Changing’ is not an image creation – it is what it is – dare I say, a very Norwegian quality! But also put down rather effectionately. Liv has written it beautifully. But what she hasn’t written is present in abundance in between those lines and that affected me intensely – the unwritten!
There is a line in the book where Liv narrates the day she was informed by Ingmar of his mother’s death and how helpless and alone he felt and then she writes – ‘I knew I could never leave him, and in a way I never have.’
She doesn’t write – ‘I felt’ or ‘I thought’ – she writes, ‘I knew!’
That knowledge, is love.
What intrigued me was that theirs’ is not a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ type of a love story. They never married, they fought all the time and were very angry with each other. But they also cared and protected each other – They were so deliciously imperfect! I liked that it was not a squared out, well conformed, regular sort of a relationship – it is their kind of togetherness that lasted for 42 years and resulted in 12 films – if you think of it, it’s quite extraordinary and rare. This doesn’t happen to everyone! And when something is so complex and so simple at the same time, it is definitely worth a film.
I was less interested in knowing how they worked together. I was much more interested in knowing how they survived each other and still remained the best of friends… I was interested in two human beings and their incomplete, benign, delicate, painful, elevating, childlike tale. And how it reflected in what they did.
Q: When the idea of the documentary started becoming a reality, what were the biggest problems you faced?
A: It’s always one step ahead and three steps back. Hahahaaa
I wrote down the theme of the film as a poem the day Mr. Bergman passed away. And sent it along with a letter to Liv’s Norwegian address brought to me by my friend Christina Christensen. Upon getting that letter, Liv rang me and assured me of her support.
That gave me a lot of hope.
Then the challenges started and the biggest challenge was to find the right producer. I went to Cannes and met a whole bunch of people, kept meeting producers in London, then got invited to the house of the then Swedish Ambassador and through him, went to Stockholm. I wrote to, and met over 70 producers in Sweden and few more in Norway, also one in Finland. And they all said a big fat ‘NO’ to the project. Some of them were actually quite cynical and open about their hatred of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. A few predicted that the film would have no future. So that was the tough part – not only to face rejection but also this hollow hopelessness that these people were generously dumping on me for no real reason.
But I learned a very big lesson through all this – that every door that closes, leads you to the one that is suppose to open.
My friend Ragnhild Lund, who I met in Edinburgh, Scotland through another dear friend James Wallace, got me a meeting in Oslo.
I am actually very thankful to all those people who rejected the film because they lead me to NordicStories – a beautiful production company and to Rune Trondsen and Stein-Roger Bull – two exemplary producers. Today, I would not trade them for anything, and I can never fully explain what that company and those people working there mean to me.
They made the film right and they gave me complete creative freedom to do my job the way it was aught to be done! They rarely misunderstood my stubbornness and created a warm, safe nest where I could return no matter what went on in the outside world.
Q: Cinema, amongst other forms of art, is a way of enlightening our spirituality. What do you think is the most effective way for this to happen – Fiction Film or Documentary? In your opinion what are the major differences between those two?
A: Cinema or any other art for that matter, doesn’t just enlighten, but is capable of stirring up a spiritual revolution! The reasons behind this are very clear, really.
Art can only be made by accessing the spirit. ‘Creating’ is rather an inaccurate word, I feel. ‘Channelizing’ is more appropriate.
No one really knows where inspiration sparks, but once it does, the artist must initiate the process of listening and accessing and realizing. One needs to allow a dialogue between the ether, one’s soul and one’s ears, in order for art to appear in the form it eventually does. And this is delicate work – truly sacred!
And when art is fully formed and travels to the other side, towards the audience, it has the capacity to affect their soul. Thus, evoking and even transforming their spirit… Great art is known to affect us in places we really can not imagine or know – its essentially a flow of energy.
Cinema, being a combination of literature, architecture, dance, music, painting and other art forms can be a deeper, more intense experience. And it doesn’t matter whether its a documentary or fiction – a good film, is a good film, is a good film. The most effective way, is to make it right and what that ‘right’ is, is not possible to explain.
Cinema is not a mean to reach a goal like fame, validation, praise, money, because all these are essentially the peripherals. Cinema is the goal. What happens to it, must never be connected to why it happens.
To come to the last part of your question, there are certainly many differences between Fiction and Documentary – but the main difference is that documentary needs tremendous amount of listening and is far less controlled. Life happens and one needs to be present to absorb it with one’s eyes, intellect, sensitivity, cameras, sound recorders etc. Whereas in Fiction, the listening happens in varying degrees at various stages – to a great extent during writing and editing, whilst the process of filming requires exercising a great deal of control and then allowing as much space as possible for the untangible to appear, for magic to happen… But one is not better than the other. There are places where a documentary can never go and the same is true of fiction. Limitations and merits are everywhere.
Q: What are the challenges in making a short film and a feature film
A: On the conceptual level, making no film is easy. It has nothing to do with its duration. It is as complex and as exciting and requires as much dedication and devotion.
Of course, logistics of making a short film can be less daunting, depending on the subject.
There is a common misconception that if you make many short films, making a feature will come very easy. Which is just not true. One needs a very different skillset to mount a feature length film.
On the other hand, distributing a short film can be far more difficult due to the unavailability of popular platforms.
But these are all exciting challenges and filmmakers keep finding most innovative solutions and that is very inspiring!
Q: What is your opinion about the Cinema of today?
A: I think cinema has become far more accessible. Technology has played a major role. But funding a film is still as challenging and to guard the artistic core of the film is as difficult as it always was, given how expensive it can be to make a film. There is far less space to make mistakes, but despite these challenges, good cinema is being born. Every now and then one watches an absolutely brilliant film and is full of happiness and hope.
I think it is a little unfair to look back and talk of the ‘golden age’. I myself wrote an entire essay called ‘After the Masters’, investigating reasons to support my hypothesis that ‘Our times are not going to produce a master of cinema.’ – I have my reasons, but still its a bit cynical to think that way. I do hope that the era of auterus and artists in cinema is not over!
Today television and online content creators like Netflix have stepped up, based on new financial models, offering the makers much more creative freedom and money. Conventional Fiction Cinema and Documentaries are still struggling and trying to figure out many different parts of that equation. Creative Freedom is still under lock and key. A lot of these challenges are surely affecting the process making films… and therefore making it that much more interesting.
Q: Most of the people that think about Indian cinema, the word “Bollywood” comes in their heads. What do you think about that?
A: Firstly, I hate the word ‘Bollywood’! Some journalist coined the term few decades ago and it stuck. It is apparently an acronym for ‘Hollywood in Bombay’. Well Bombay is not Bombay anymore or it never was – It was what the British called the city because they couldn’t pronounce ‘Mumbai’ properly and now since the city is officially called Mumbai, what are we supposed to do with ‘B-ollywood’ ? Rename it ‘M-ollywood’ ? And Hollywood is the name of a geographical place… It’s like calling the Mumbai International Airport ‘Meathrow’ given that Heathrow is such a world famous airport. It’s plain idiotic and really needs to change. There are so many talented artists working in Mumbai that its high time they came up with a better name for its film industry instead of calling it ‘Bollywood’ – and then, I have heard that the Nigerian film industry is called ‘Nollywood’. What the hell is going on? Why such poverty of thought? And why should any film industry follow another? It’s ridiculous!
To answer your question – The Commercial Hindi Film Industry in India is very popular globally, so it is bound to become the face of the entire country’s film efforts – and that is as obvious as it is unfair. There are many regional, language specific fiction and documentary films made all over India – in Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malyalam, Assamese, Uriya, Bhojpuri, Gujrati etc. And some wonderful work is produced all over the country and is very popular, too. I do hope that more platforms to project this work are available.
Q: What, under your opinion, influenced cinema in your country over the years?
A: Politics, socialism, economy, religion, survival and other arts influence cinema everywhere. It’s difficult for me to generalize or give a specific answer because I am not a film scholar. But cinema, like any other art, imitates life the most and whatever affects human life, is bound to affect cinema, and not just in India or the UK.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: As an independent writer-director-producer, I always have a slate of films in development and production. I have always been excited about cinema without borders – cinema rooted in the soil of emotions and humanity, and I want to continue making films in different parts of the world.
I have fiction and documentary film projects being developed and produced in the UK, US, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, the continent of Europe, Palestine-Israel and India. I have also founded a start-up charity to make films about issues shrouded in silence and in need of voice and representation. And the effort to have freedom to make those films and work on an impact plan is constantly ongoing!
Q: How did you feel when you first saw your film on the big screen?
A: You know, when I used to go to the Cinema before I made mine, I used to go down to the screen after the show and touch it gently, hoping and dreaming and wanting to see my own film up there. In fact, I did not allow many of my close friends to watch my films on DVDs or on their computers. I insisted they waited till they could see them on a big screen… Some of my close friends traveled all the way to Paris for the French premier and many of them got to see my films in London during their UK premier.
I remember the 40th Norwegian Film Festival where ‘Liv & Ingmar’ opened Nordic Focus in a beautiful theatre on a massive screen in front of an audience of 1000 – nothing short of stunning, emotional, nerve racking but ultimately very elevating. And the standing ovation that lasted for such a long time afterwards was simply inexplicable…
‘Let the Scream be Heard’ – a film on the life of iconic artist, Edvard Munch was the opening film at DocsDF Film Festival in Mexico City and they screened the film in their colossal Opera House in front of 1200 people. When their 4 storey high cinema screen descended on stage and the lights turned off and through a beam of luscious light Edvard Munch’s paintings projected to enormity, it was an overwhelming experience, to say the least…
Q: What is the distance that exists in a film between the public and director’s mind?
A: I think the director is a facilitator, not a creator and he must learn to step aside and let the film and its subject connect directly to the audience. Tracey Emin, an amazing British artist, told me that a great artist is a device for the transference of soul. No director must forget that he is ultimately a device.
On the other hand, my very dear artist friend Katja; when she takes people around to see Munch paintings; always tells them that they must meet the paintings a naked soul. The audience has as much responsibility as art, for they must walk in without prejudices and preoccupation and be present in the moment and surrender.
When the makers and the viewers have both done their part, that distance vanishes and art begins to envelope. Great cinema helps you live an experience and when that happens, things unlock – life begins to flow…
The way film energizes the audiences, at times, I have witnessed even the reverse being true – the audience energizing the film!!! For example during the screenings in New York, Montreal, Lubeck and Mumbai – I felt that the collective energy of the audience was enlivening the film, lifting it up – it was an amalgamation very hard to decipher – Simply EXTRAORDINARY!
Q: From ‘Liv & Ingmar’, which was the most precious experience you have acquired as a director?
A: The most precious experience ‘Liv & Ingmar’ gave me is the knowledge that it is possible to make a film you believe in making and it is possible to make it the way it’s aught to be made. I have stored that knowledge and that hope deep in my heart and I use it ever so often…
And then there was witnessing Liv Ullmann, Ingmar Bergman ( and Edvard Munch, for that matter) from such close distance. Because knowing them so intimately taught me that it is possible to survive the challenges of the world and still be an uncompromising artist devoted to one’s art and be successful and achieve timelessness. That is a beautiful lesson to learn…