Interview Nishtha Jain

“The form has to suit what you want to say with a film”

“I have now come full circle”, Nishtha Jain – who pitched her latest film The Golden Thread at the IDFA Forum 2019 – concludes. “This is a stylised, conceptual film, just like my debut.” For that first film – City of Photos (2004), also supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund – Jain trained her camera on India’s now vanished photography studios. Once the domain of the privileged class, in their latter days these became popular mostly among the poor, who liked to have themselves recorded for posterity in theatrical poses in front of at times grotesque backdrops. “I made that film during the transition period from analogue to digital photography. Since then, these studios have been replaced by mobile phones and selfies. City of Photos was an exercise in archiving, really. But it’s also about the essence of photography: when we press the shutter, what we record is the moment that is gone. The film is more of an essay than a documentary.”

Following this tightly scripted debut, Jain adopted a more cinema vérité style. “For films such as Lakhsmi and Me (2007) and At My Doorstep (2009), I did have an idea in advance, but what I came across while filming was at least as important. The story finally emerged during the editing. These films are much more character-driven and respond more to the situation.

“The form has to suit what you want to say with a film”, says Jain. “This is why, perhaps, I have not stuck to a particular style. You could say that Gulabi Gang (2012) is Dogma-like. The filming was almost entirely hand-held, no interviews, no staging of any sort. But then, an interventionist style wouldn’t have worked for this film about women standing up together and taking action against domestic violence. But I did employ such a style in subsequent films, Lakshmi and Me (2007), At My Doorstep (2009) and Call it Slut (2005).”

For The Golden Thread, Jain spent two years visiting jute textile factories before she got a sense of how to film the jute work that takes place in these colossal plants, where three or to four thousand people work at any given time. “I studied the machines and the interiors, but finally concentrated on the bodies – both while moving and at rest. I also look at the relationship of the workers with the environment – the dust, noise and mind-numbing nature of the work. The ambient sound of the factories draws us closer to the inner landscape of the workers, while the dialogue becomes musical and rhythmic in the sound design.” The film is reminiscent of Bert Haanstra’s Glas (1958), which feels like a jazz number without a beginning or an end. We have almost forgotten this kind of cinema. Now, it’s always about this story or that crisis, formats and formulas. I think it’s incredibly exciting to break with the slavish habit of following the plot.”

Which takes nothing away from the fact that in The Golden Thread Jain certainly does tell a story. “Like in City of Photos, this also deals with a world that is about to disappear. The oldest factory where I filmed opened in 1857, and the very first trades unions emerged here. The jute factories have never been filmed before, and in a few years’ time they will no longer exist.” The factories have remained unchanged over the last 100-150 years but for the last few years they have been undergoing rapid transformation given the revival in demand for jute fabric. So once again, I find myself in the role of an archivist. Perhaps, that’s true of all documentary.”

As a result of her search for the best way to present this industrial choreography, the duration of Jain’s shots became longer and longer. “There are shots in there that last five minutes. This means your experience of work in the factory really becomes immersive. Not only do you see the weaving, but you can almost feel it, smell it. The long takes force the viewer into a more active engagement where they start to question the meaning and significance of what they are watching. They start to wonder what an image means, to imbue it with significance. And the best part is, neither they nor I know where this will lead.”

Nishtha Jain speaking during the Round Table Pitch of The Golden Thread at IDFA Forum 2019.