India through his lens: In conversation with Bharatbala

Last March, when the nation went into a lockdown to battle the pandemic, everyone wondered what the busy thoroughfares of our cities looked like. As filmmaker Bharatbala Ganapathy heard the announcement of the lockdown on television, an idea struck him and within 48 hours, he was at work with his team. He wanted to capture the silence of the lockdown for posterity.

“It was a nine-week journey, an unprecedented experience for the country and those of us, who were capturing it. With several strict measures in place, there were a series of permissions that were needed across cities to shoot the visuals. Our real intent was to document this event. We were not sure what form it would take but by the end of it, we had 100 hours of visuals. What you see is just a glimpse of the actual footage,” says Bharatbala.

Ode to the nation
Bharatbala’s father was a part of the freedom movement and was an associate of Kamaraj. One day as they were talking about advertising and the power of emotions to sell an idea, his father asked him to create something that would resonate with young Indians. “I was talking to Rahman on the side and we wanted to do something together. The phrase Vande Mataram had fired the spirit of freedom among several generations of Indians during the freedom movement and we wanted to use it for the modern generation.” Thus was born the bilingual blockbuster album Vande Mataram that was released on the occasion of India’s 50th year of independence.

In 2000, when the county was gearing up for the 50th year of being a Republic, Bharatbala and his team created 50 recordings of the national anthem. “We created a unique recording with several maestros from the folk and classical traditions of India such as DK Pattammal, Dr M Balamuralikrishna, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, SP Balasubramaniam and many others.”

Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle recorded their portions at Famous Studio in Tardeo. It was exactly in this studio, 50 years back, that they recorded their first song together

While working on the National Anthem project, the team had gone to Pattammal’s home and briefed her about the project. She had agreed. “On the day of the recording, when we went to pick her up, her husband felt it was too much of an effort for her at that age. But she was insistent and did not want to let us down,” he reminisces. Last year, during lockdown Bharatbala’s team recorded the first virtual anthem for Independence Day with around 3,000 people from across the country. The National Anthem video with the soldiers at Siachen was recorded at minus 40 degrees at a height of 21,000 feet above sea level. Many theatres in the country play that video before the beginning of a film today.

Story of India
Bharatbala has a network of young artistes across the country, which makes his initiative ‘Virtual Bharat’ possible. “When you are in this field you automatically scan for stories everywhere, every day. And then there is destiny, which takes you to interesting stories,” he says as he recollects an interesting encounter two years back while capturing the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj.

That is where we stumbled upon Swami Sivananda, who was 123 years old. We requested if we could visit his ashram in Varanasi and film him for three days. We called him the world’s happiest man. Think of it, he has lived in three centuries and has seen the timeline of most of our modern inventions. It is an incredible story

123 – The Happiest Man | Virtual Bharat

In the 150th year of Mahatma Gandhi’s anniversary, Bharatbala decided to chronicle people who were closest to Gandhi during his last days. This journey took him to the 93-year-old Sarla Behn, who lived in Goregaon, in Mumbai. The team took her to Sabarmati ashram where she shared stories on Mahatma Gandhi. “We also spoke to V Kalyanam, who was the last private secretary of Mahatma Gandhi and was six inches away from him when he was shot at. He is 96 and lives alone in Teynampet today. I went and filmed him at his home.”
Such journeys have taken Bharatbala to the unlikely corners of the country at times to film the ritual of Muthuvan Kalyanam and at others to discover the story of the Ramnamis, a community that tattoos the name of Rama all over their body. “India has several stories that are waiting to be told. We need to give it a cinematic treatment replete with good music, editing and cinematography. People will definitely lap it up.”
So, what happens to the hours of lockdown footage? “Someday, when the pandemic is far behind us, I would like to revisit this period. When we look back at this moment many years later, we will realise how unbelievable were the times we lived in.”

This story was published in the 13th anniversary special of The Times of India, Chennai

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