The latest in the thematic series which began with Life in a Day (2011), Richie Mehta’s India in a Day received its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. We spoke to Mehta at Sheffield Doc/Fest about the project.
Can you explain briefly how this links to the previous films?
The basic brief when you do these ‘In A Day’ films is that everyone can only shoot on the one day. Any people can pretty much shoot anything they want and upload it. When you make the film, generally – we didn’t have to – you stick to that structure of going midnight to midnight, seeing how the day unfolds chronologically. You can only use the footage that was given to you by people who shot on that day, and you cannot manipulate that footage in any way. So you can’t speed it up or slow it down. Obviously we can do the basic colour correction, we can do the sound mix, music and all that stuff, but pretty much all we’re doing is curating what we use, and that’s what you do to create this whole tapestry.
One of the main differences I’ve found of this ‘In A Day’ versus the others is that this one seems to coalesce into specific themes. This is what the Indian people were telling us. This is the first of the ‘In A Day’ films in quote-unquote ‘a developing country’, so they talk about where they’ve come in 68 years of independence, and where they’re going, which to me translates as where has humanity come and where is humanity going. In that way it becomes the most reflective of the ‘In A Day’ films, I found. I don’t know what the other films had to work with in terms of footage, but in this one I was astonished at how people were really opening up about their views about where we’re going, and that to me became very important as a theme.
How did you get the job of directing this film?
I got the job by hanging out in London. I live in Toronto, and I spend most of my time between Canada, the US and India because the last few films I’ve made have been India-based. So I was hanging out in London last summer, my partner was here and we were just spending time together, and then I got a phone call from Scott Free [the production company founded by brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, who produce the ‘In A Day’ series] saying ‘hey, we heard about you, we’re doing this film but we have to move really quickly – do you want to do it?’. There was no question when they told me what it was. This is pretty much what I have been training for for the last fifteen years. I was recommended to them by a mutual colleague. They found my others films, watched them, we met and that was it.
Three questions – how much footage did you receive, how long did it take to go through it and how many people were involved in going through it?
We received about sixteen-and-a-half thousand clips; clips ranged from two seconds to two-and-a-half hours. [For the second question] hard to say. October 10th  was the shoot date, the 11th I came back to London and started going through stuff. It was trickling in because it was coming from the far reaches of the country, sometimes they couldn’t upload so it was being delivered in drives and DVDs and stuff. We didn’t actually get the final delivery until Christmas. We were watching stuff all the time. There was a bunch of loggers, I think about fifteen loggers. They would be assigned chunks of footage to watch, rate the footage one to five, and me and Beverly, the editor, would see the fives, the fours, some of the threes, and I would occasionally go down to twos and ones just to check.
What were your criteria? What was a one and what was a five?
Well that’s the thing. Every week I would meet with the loggers and change the criteria! It was slightly evolving because it would be like ‘look, this may be shot really poorly but it’s saying something really profound so it shouldn’t be a two, it should be a four’, things like that. We kept changing that every week for months, just evolving it so that we were all on the same page. I wanted to make sure things didn’t slip through the cracks. Once in a while I’d check on a one and be like ‘this is a five!’. Just because it looks crappy doesn’t mean it is. Sometimes you’d get a five that was shot really well but just said or did nothing. We were watching and watching and watching through Christmas and only towards mid-January did we start putting things together. At that point I was writing with the editor, discussing what we thought it should be about, laying out stuff; we got to absorb the footage. Me and the editor, we were the only ones who knew what was in it across the board. Then she went off and started putting stuff together and throwing me scenes.
What was the footage filmed on?
Everything you could imagine. A whole range. You have your Samsungs and your iPhones and your Blackberry videos.
Anything weird? Did you get film submitted to you?
No. That’s an interesting question – never did anyone shoot on film but we did get people who…I know what’s in the film inside out, I don’t necessarily know who shot what. Everyone’s a co-director, right? But I don’t know their story, their life or where they came from; I just look at the footage. I suspect a lot of people probably work in the film industry, in various parts of the country, and probably had access to INCREDIBLE cameras, and went off back to their home villages and shot stuff. We got stuff from villages which, to me, is like Terrence Malick-type stuff of nature photography. We couldn’t have sent a better crew to do it. I think that people who are really high-end professional or amateur photographers went off and did their thing, and you have it mixed in with iPhone. Every frame rate is different. iPhone has this amazing thing – which is so strange – where it changes frame rate within a shot, so our final film is a 25 frames-per-second project but you had clips where it came to us and at the beginning of the clip it would be like 60, then it would go to 40, then to 20, then 15, then 12…and so it kept switching. To form everything into one format became a nightmare. A nightmare for everything else – I just heard about it.
Then you have someone like Priya [one of the memorable characters in the film]. I believe that she used kind of an old handicam, which is fine for the story she’s doing. It totally works.
Going back to what you were saying about this one having stronger themes, how did you go about structuring a narrative? Did you consciously pick up on thematic threads or did you have ideas – talking about love, for example – in your head from the start of the project?
We threw some of these questions out as guides, if people needed them, but it was totally optional and we didn’t emphasise it much. You know, what do you love, what do you hope for, what do you fear, those kind of basic, simple questions just to get you to think. Going into the edit, I didn’t pay much attention to those guides. Looking at the footage, it started to speak very strongly to me very quickly. As the footage trickled in some of the key stories started to emerge.
By the time we got to editing it had pretty much all been laid out in my mind, the important things. I got lucky with amazing producers who then watched it after and liked what we did and agreed. They didn’t have any idea what the film was about until they saw the first cut, which was months after we started working on it. To commission a project – I’m including Google here – to commission a project and say ‘we don’t know what this movie’s about until you show us an edit’ is pretty amazing. It’s an amazing place for someone like me to be in. We didn’t take it for granted.
In one scene we see a man discussing women wearing the ghoongat [a veil which sometimes covers the face] in his village, and noting how he disagrees with it. It is a bit of a throwaway comment. How political did you want the film to be?
That line – ‘I don’t agree with women covering their face in front of men in our village’ – could easily have been put in another section where we just have everyone saying issues after lunch. We call that the ‘and another thing…’ sequence, everyone just has their grievances. That could easily have fit in there, if we’d wanted to. I didn’t want this to be an issue-based project because it easily could have been. There’re a lot of issues to address in a place like India – there’re a lot of issues everywhere! I also didn’t want to brush any of that under the carpet because it was important to mention, and I also wanted to do it in a manner that we haven’t necessarily seen before. One of the things which was very important to me on this film was that what we present must not be an India which a tourist can just show up and see. A tourist can show up and see a woman covering her head. What they can’t show up and see is a villager, who was born and raised in that village, express very eloquently and very simply and matter-of-factly ‘I don’t agree with that’ – somebody who, over the last couple of minutes, we may have started to trust. We see him at breakfast, his voice is very soothing. He says that, it’s like ‘oh, that’s very interesting’, and then we move on. Then he’s like ‘let me show you the sunrise’, it’s very pleasant. To me those are not discussions you would have if you were a tourist and you just showed up and spoke to someone for five minutes. That was very important to me.
Did you get any inappropriate content, anything you had to immediately discard?
There were a few things. There were some people who expressed themselves in very abrasive ways. People have a right to be angry, that’s fine, but in this if you come out of nowhere, without establishing trust for a character, and just start yelling things, or saying things in a really angry way…you can do it. We did it in an almost humorous way. People are angry at certain times. But some people took it a little too far, I found, for this venue, for this medium, for this particular type of film.
There was other stuff which was submitted which was disqualified for technical reasons because it wasn’t actually shot for the film. It was shot well prior to and then submitted.
Were there things you wanted in there that didn’t make it?
Yeah. Outside the disqualified stuff there was some really beautiful stuff that we just couldn’t include because it didn’t fit into the rhythm. A lot of that ends up in the film as quick shots. For example there is what we call the ‘what I love’ sequence, and we just show it where someone might have a little bird in their hand, a little kid shows a purse and she smiles, all this stuff. There’s an old woman who opens a book up and she’s about to cry – it’s a very quick shot. The whole thing behind that shot was that she’s reading a poem to her grown-up children that one of her old teachers had written, and it was really getting her choked up about the loss of her own mother. It was a long series of clips we got, we just couldn’t include it, we couldn’t find the context. There are a lot of those where the editor and I and a few loggers would know what’s behind it. Nobody else will ever know but hopefully you’ll at least get a sense of the humanity behind it.
Were there points where you verified things? I’m thinking specifically about the mourning cow and the bus [a particularly memorable anecdote in the film]. Did you look into the stories?
We looked into most of them. First of all we checked that they weren’t shot before October 10th. One of the things [for the cow] was that it was already posted on YouTube, but shot on October 10th so it was okay. It was actually on the news in India. I wouldn’t have put it in if it were fabricated. We had a team of people who checked. Sometimes I would see something and say ‘oh my god, please let this be true!’ and the first thing I’d do is go to the clearance department and say ‘guys, I need you to double check this’. Oftentimes they’d come back and be like ‘no, not true’.
There’s one bit with Priya towards the end where she says ‘I am enough’. Did this become in some ways the idea behind the film – everybody’s different but everybody’s enough?
That sequence of Priya was the first thing I saw of hers. That was really fascinating. Definitely ‘I am enough’ does encompass a lot of what you have to hold on to in an environment like that where it’s just an assault in every way. It’s a hard place to live, on one hand, it’s a place where community trumps all, and if you have a certain education, you have access to education and see what’s happening in the rest of the world, it’s very easy to see that you would be wanting for other things. I think it’s an amazing sentiment to throw out there. At the same time – and I don’t want this to sound arbitrary – really I would look at something and say ‘this is amazing, let’s find a place for it’ and we would look for a place, and I wouldn’t spend a lot of time in that initial stage digesting why it’s amazing. I would just say ‘this is amazing – go! This is no good, don’t go’ for individual things. Priya’s story doesn’t necessarily relate to everything else which is happening in the film. It is very much about her, which is great. Things like that, even the cow story, relate to other things but not the whole thread. Most of my worry at the initial stage was about finding the spine of the movie, and once we found that there were all these amazing things we would try and put in and find places to relate to that, like a nervous system. Once we figured out what to do with Priya’s story that was the fun part, because you’re basically writing with imagery. Now the film is done and I’m so proud because I think it’s the best we could have done. Now I’m going to go back to the film as a viewer, because I shot very little. I shot little bits as well because I was there on October 10th, but everything else is everyone else’s, so I can now really learn from it in very interesting ways. Me consuming it is part of my experience now.
What is your next project – is it documentary or fiction?
This is the first doc I’ve done since film school actually. Fiction has been my thing and I’m going back to fiction for the next little while. I’m writing a series right now about policing in India. I’m really excited about that. Then I have another feature film project which will take place in Delhi which I have been developing for years. Then I have another film project which takes place in Beijing. So I’m going back to that, but this has also definitely lit a match. I’d forgotten how exciting docs can be. I think docs are the place where you can really mess with structure and genre in a way that you can’t do in fiction. That, to me, is really enticing. This type of film is fascinating because you have no idea what you’re going to get when you watch it.