Normally I like to send interview questions to a guest a few days before, so the artist has a few days to think about how to formulate an answer. Independent film maker and Indo-Canadian Vikram Dasgupta told me he prefers an ‘off the cuff’ conversation because he said he is “all about documenting and documentary with genuine interaction” so he felt it was good he wasn’t prepared for the questions.
Born in New Delhi, India, Vikram was born into a family of artists, musicians, dancers, and scientists. A gold medalist in Fine Arts from Kolkata University, Vikram came to Canada to pursue cinema.
Some of the titles of his short films and documentaries sound interesting. For example, his short film, the multi award winning ‘Calcutta Taxi’ funded by Bravofact! and NFB Canada, was in the races for the Academy Awards in 2014 after winning the Oscar Qualifier at the Aspen ShortFest 2013 and was screened at over 50+ festivals worldwide. Vikram’s commercial on Paralympanians for the PanAm TO2015 entitled ‘Are you ready’ was nominated for the Cannes Lions in the Film Category. His debut feature documentary ‘Beyond Moving’ premiered at the HotDocs theatre in February 2020 with theatrical and VOD distribution through Blue Ice Docs. His upcoming feature documentary ‘Dog-Ma’ – a deeply personal journey about his mother feeding 500+ stray dogs on the streets of Delhi was set to release in summer 2021.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you so much for the conversation, Vikram:
I see from your bio that was sent to me states that you come from a family of artists of all kinds and scientists, and yet the biggest influence on you as an artist was your grandmother’s storytelling. Tell me a little about your grandmother and the art of her storytelling.
In my family we have such a beautiful, weird mix of people. My immediate family is 75 people. I’m raised from a really big village.
My grandmother was the storyteller of that village, and she would just make even the most little of things seem spectacular. I remember when she first came to visit my uncle in the US, they visited Niagara Falls. When she returned, she told me about that story when she exited the car in the parking lot and she could hear this roaring sound of a monster. The more she was wondering what the sound was, the more my eyes widened as I was a kid hearing this story for the first time. She revealed how the monster was this healing body of water.
I was blown away by it.
When I finally visited Niagara Falls, my visit fell short of what her story was to me when I was a kid. For me, that is the power of storytelling, and that’s what I was raised on.
I wanted to get into a profession and do for a living what my grandmother did. I wanted to tell stories as well. In my immediate family of 75 people, I grew up hearing stories and discussions for example about God versus the atom. I’m very lucky that way in that I grew up in that cross section of society, that I had access to all these stories and conversations.
I had to be a filmmaker. I had to find the medium ground to tell without any kind of prejudices stories on either side.
I feel it is all just one story and we have dissected them, kept them, and made boxes, but it is all just one story. Every story is a human story. That’s why my field of work is from Paralympians to dancers to musicians to orchestra. It doesn’t have that boundary. We don’t have that boundary, we created them. Stories see past these boundaries and unite us all.
Stories make us feel that way.
Your biography states that you are a gold medalist in Fine Arts from Kolkata University, and then you came to Canada to pursue cinema. Did you continue some of your studies in cinema when you came to Canada, or did you move right into cinematic work immediately?
I actually studied Fine Arts because I wanted to be a storyteller. I had this conversation with my late father who passed away a few months ago. I told him I wanted to study film making and he said perhaps I should focus on one frame at a time instead of 24 frames per second, and perhaps to study fine arts and painting and understand the content of telling stories through one frame before you go and take cinema.
That’s why I studied fine arts on the advice from my late father. I like water colours, drawing and painting to eventually be a filmmaker. It’s funny that this makes me connected to the artists with whom I work in all different fields.
After my father’s passing, I returned to doing some painting. But I’ve not had the chance to do it for a long time as being a filmmaker is time consuming.
When I came to Canada, I was here to study film. My post graduate work is here.
I see that premiering on October 13 is the three-part performance film directed by you for Fall for Dance North. What specifically is it that film can capture regarding choreography, dance, and movement?
This is a very loaded and yet a very good question.
I will tell you what I try to hopefully bring.
So, what is it that cinema can bring to dance that there is something for us to strive for?
Personally, I feel that when I film dance I actually like to be in the dance and not from the way the audience watches it from the stage. When we watch a dance on a stage, we watch it in a perfectly set theatre and framed the way it is projected.
I actually am with a camera and running around with the dancers and trying to give the audience and myself how does the dancer feel.
For me, it’s always about that connection be it with someone feeding dogs in India, be it a Paralympian trying to strive for a gold medal, or be it with a dancer, I want to try and connect in the closest, subliminal way possible from an angle that the stage might not be able to give a vantage point to the audience and what they can see.
And that’s what film making is all about as it offers the audience another vantage point to see, and what is normally portrayed to the audience. If I’m filming dance, then I’m going to film it from a vantage point that the audience cannot see.
It’s a challenge because if the camera is going to be with the dancer, then we have to choreograph ourselves on the choreography of the dancers, and we have to make sure that at the end of it, the filmmaker has to ensure there is not any visible footprint from him/her/them. Eventually, you cannot see the hand of the director and nobody should know that it is filmed. The second we are too self aware of the presence of the filmmaker we take away from the actual creation of the dance and the dancer.
So it’s a very thin line for the filmmaker in deciding how to be there and not be there. I never want to see myself in it. Every documentary I film, I don’t want to see myself in it. I hate it when I can see myself because it looks crafted, it looks like a reality show and I don’t want to see myself in anything.
If I do it right, then I disappear and that’s my goal. The goal is to allow the art to be in its truest form. If I can do that right, then I’m on the right path.
When I was filming Siphe for my documentary ‘Beyond Moving’, he was developing the choreography and we were filming as he was developing it. We developed our movements in the way Siphe was developing the choreography. We grew with Siphe as he developed the choreography. We were discovering our movements with the camera as Siphe was discovering his movements, and that is the synergy that helps us to disappear.
On a side note, my aunt is an extremely celebrated Indian classical dancer. She won the President’s award; she’s a big deal, but I’ve never filmed Indian dance before. It’s been interesting for me coming back home to film classical Indian dance form. My aunt has always me to be a dancer as a kid, and I told her I don’t want to be a dancer.
She would make fun of me now because I am filming dance.
What drew you to want to film this kind of material?
People. I fall in love with people, and I just want to understand and learn about them. I work with people that I love and, for me, that love really shines on the screen in whatever the field whether it be dance, athletics. I’m doing a film about widows as there are about 30,000 widows who live in India.
Tell me about your connections with Fall for Dance North in Toronto and how you came about to relate and connected to them.
I fell into filming dance for about 7-8 years. I never used to film it, but I fell into it during the Pan Am Games. I filmed Peggy Baker and then at Canada’s National Ballet School I ended up filming Siphe November for 7 years which made the documentary. Ilter Ibraimhoff, Artistic Director for Fall for Dance North, saw the documentary from the National Ballet School of Canada and asked if I wanted to do a piece with Siphe and his brother because the documentary ends with Siphe’s desire to work with his brother on the world stage.
So, I said to Ilter I would love to do it, but I couldn’t do it in the months he wanted as I was in India. Ilter then said that since I was in India if I was going to be near Bangalore. I said yes that’s where my late father was going to pick me up from. There’s a dance village in Bangalore called Nrityagram, and maybe I could film there. So that’s how the second project came about.
The third one was with Aszure Barton in Cuba. That’s how I got into Fall for Dance North.
While I was doing a promotional piece for the National Ballet School one day with Siphe, I fell in love with this kid. The way he looked at the camera, he looks through the lens and it looked like Siphe was seeing our soul. Both my cinematographer and I thought, “Wow, this kid, Siphe, is so profound to be able to do that.” We went to South Africa as well to film Siphe. We stayed with his mother, met his brother who’s amazing and another brilliant dancer (and whom you will see in the program).
Their story became a part of my story and I started recording the journey. This is how I made ‘Beyond Moving’. Ilter saw the film and ‘Beyond Moving’ concludes with a quote from Siphe saying that he looks forward to that day he can share the stage with his brother and Fall for Dance North wanted to provide that for the first time.
This process has been organic and unplanned and that’s how I like to work.
I’m intrigued by the title +(DIX) – how is it pronounced and the exploration of the Odysseus myth about journeying far but always desiring to return home. Tell me about the rehearsal process so far into the performance on September 23.
I’ve been involved in the rehearsal process for the last few weeks.
We’ve been working with the dancers and trying to understand the best way because it also comes philosophically from a point of Guillaume Côté watching the piece emerge. There are instances in the filming that I would like to show Guillaume when he has left the stage and gone off, and I would like to show from his perspective watching the dancers from afar.
Because I’m filming the whole theatre, I want the theatre to also be a character in the piece. Let’s see how far we can achieve it.
I haven’t had a great deal of training in the art of dance and movement. I’ve noticed many of the professional dance companies want to encourage people like myself and others who haven’t had any experience at all in the art of dance and movement to come watch and to experience a production.
What would you say to individuals like me, others who have very little background who have little understanding of movement and dance, why is it important for us to watch, through cinema, the art of dance. Do you think that will allow us to accomplish something?
This is a lifetime of a question.
I think it boils down to not just the immediate question of how people can appreciate dance through cinema. It’s a much deeper and philosophical question regarding what exactly is the purpose of art.
I think that is the bigger question.
Why art and why is it important?
I think I was very lucky that way being raised in art. I didn’t realize that art is a thing because that’s what happens when you’re raised in art. I never realized that dance is for dancers; painting is for painters; singing is for singers; science is for scientists.
I never knew that.
And I think we lack that because we in society put things in certain boxes and that you have to be a certain kind of person to appreciate art.
I don’t think so.
I think understanding and appreciating art is comparable to understanding and appreciating life. Everyone needs to do that, and everyone should be born in it. That should be a part of our inherent diet of ideas. If we are to think of it that way, then that makes sense why no matter where you are or who you are, where you’re from, what race, what religion, what part of hierarchy or class, we all need to understand about life. We all need to figure out why we’re here.
It’s not an immediate or direct question. It’s such a bigger universal question. I’ve been dealing with a lot of existential questions and things about my late father’s passing away, and there are times when everything seems absolutely pointless and immediate. And there are other times when things have a purpose and things go far beyond my existence.
Art kind of rounds off the edges. It’s that nice, warm embrace that we all need and want after a hard day of life’s reality check. It makes you feel at home in whatever you are and wherever you need to be. That’s why art, dance, cinema or poetry is important as it allows us to be honest as to who we are.