While the nation sits home with bated breath, awaiting the uncertain end of a global pandemic that has brought the world to a standstill, time itself has taken on a new form. As days begin to blend and merge into the next, and weeks of isolation are spent plugged in to the web or with eyes glued to television screens, more and more of us find ourselves gazing out of the window with an overwhelming feeling of longing, for what lies beyond, for the return of just an ounce of normalcy. It is this very emotion, this endless yearning that filmmaker Aditya Varma captures with his moving film, Birdwatching, a film that chronicles life, as seen through a solitary window from the comfort and safety of his home.
“Every day, I would sit with my cup of coffee facing the window with my legs up on the ledge and stare outside.” Aditya explains, “The absence of cars, the lack of horns, the windows – some dark, some glimmering. And I started noticing the birds,”
Finding a sense of resonance with the free-flying birds, who seemed to soar so carelessly through the open sky while below, humanity cowers for safety, Aditya set up his camera for a filmmaking journey unlike any other he would undertake.
°A Filmmakers Journey
Born in a village just outside of Tirupati, Aditya Varma began his journey into the life of a filmmaker when he was only a little boy. Taking pictures with his childhood starter-camera in the age of Orkut, Aditya Varma admits he would make wild edits of his pictures on the ancient ancestors of Photoshop, and then upload them to the archaic social media platform. “It was the cool platform back then,” he admits.
With a firm love for photography already instilled in his heart, Aditya’s road to becoming the filmmaker he is today was not, as he puts it, a straightforward expedition. Working for a while as a photographer’s assistant, Aditya saved up his earnings with which to buy a Canon 60d, complete with a video feature.
“The ‘record’ button became my obsession. And here I am now.” Aditya reveals.
The young filmmaker soon discovered a new world through the lens of his camera, and began to decipher the world around him through that of others’. Within every frame, within the balance of colours, and the pacing of scenes, Aditya began to find traces of ingenuity in every film he watched. Finding inspiration in the Indian masters of his youth, Aditya reveals a sense of awe at the craftsmanship of those who came before him.
“I grew up watching Indian films.” Aditya explains, “I was a huge fan of Santosh Sivan. Those wide shots made me fall in love with him. I was gorging films by Mani Ratnam.”
The journey from that little boy with his starter-cam, editing photos on Photoshop for his Orkut page, to becoming the filmmaker he is today, was not one that was planned, or without its highlights, as Aditya reveals.
“I have had a long winding journey. I have taken different paths and alleyways that weren’t necessarily leading me to where I am today. But, the whole process has been really interesting and quite filmy, I must admit”
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus came as a shock to the world at large. Where one day things seemed as usual, and we, as a people, celebrated the dawn of a new decade, the very next, it seemed the world itself had flipped upside down.
“Our circumstances right now are anything but normal.” Aditya explains, “The strange thing about our situation- and I mean people like us with resources, a shelter over our head and security, we who don’t have to think about where our next meal is going to come from- is that it feels absurd but also normal. We are waking up, eating, taking a bath, watching films, but outside there’s a whole crisis going on.”
The nationwide lockdown has sequestered many of us, who are fortunate enough to have the privilege, into our homes, with no contact with the outside world, and with very little to do. Every morning, Aditya sat with his cup of coffee by his window and observed the surreal state of the streets outside, and soon, found his attention captured by those who still roamed as if nothing was amiss- namely, birds.
“Some fly at a lower level, some so high that it seems they will touch the sun.” Aditya tells, “Some shake against the wind, some birds just slice through the air with their wings.”
Captivated, Aditya began a new ritual. At dusk every day, Aditya would set up his camera before his window, and start recording. Soon, he admits, he saw the world outside his own window through a new lens. The trees, he explains, standing lonely on the streets below, seemed to huddle together. The houses, much like their inhabitants, stood solitary, like lone islands.
Shooting every day for ten days, Aditya was left with a mountain of footage that would eventually take on the form of his isolation-masterpiece, Birdwatching. The film, which paints a picture of an almost post-apocalyptic world, with few survivors to speak of, and an unreliable narrator whose mental state seems almost to be slipping away from him, is both unsettling and breath-taking at once. When asked about the voiceover, written by Ritwika Pal, Aditya explains that the intention was to illustrate the unwavering stillness of our times.
“The sequence of the days was jumbled up to kind of mimic the sensation of time we are having these days – not knowing which day it is or when the days are ending or starting, the fact that what we might be experiencing within the walls might not have anything to do with what’s going on outside the window.” Aditya explains, “It’s about the slowness of these days, it’s about the daily routine of chores, it’s about getting bored, it’s about loneliness, it’s about noticing minute things, it’s about hearing, listening, watching, seeing, thinking, it’s about life going on – it’s about a lot of things. It’s composite, like the experience of living. It’s not just one thing, it’s a lot of things.”
While he admits he believes the words come from a personal space, they were recorded as a character. “It was recorded to sound sleepy, a little spaced out. Drunk on the abundance of time. I also didn’t want to push or overplay the emotions too much, keep it low-key.”
What resulted, was a film that is poignant in its depiction of humanity’s mental state, that of the natural world in these times of isolation, and a unique undertaking in its own right.
°The Art of Isolation
As we talk, Aditya reveals a sense of impatience, a creator’s angst amidst the limitations of our current climate. As with many creatives around the world, isolation can be both a blessing and a curse. While the global pandemic has afforded countless with the opportunity to create where there was none previously, others find themselves struggling to make do with what little inspiration the can muster, pressured by the need to express themselves creatively. As Aditya reveals, this very place of existence, this uncertain duality is often the birthplace of great art.
“Filmmakers are always under this self-imposed pressure to create something. I’m trying to shrug that, but also be motivated to do something.” Aditya explains, “I was trying to shoot something that could be done with what I had- a window and each day. Something that didn’t need an elaborate set, or strobe lights, a cast of fifteen actors, period costumes and such things.”
Finding a sense of joy in this practice of observation, rather than just shooting, Aditya admits that the project became something of a fun undertaking, with a cast and crew that consisted of his only companions.
“The birds have been keeping me company.” Aditya explains, “They are passing bits and pieces of wisdom to me. So, I guess the film is a thankful note to them. Maybe one day we can have a screening for the crows and the kites.” He jests.
When asked about the experience of shooting a film in this unique manner, Aditya recounts the countless calls he received from friends and associates, who all demanded to know whether the film was truly shot from just one window. As Aditya reveals, it was.
“I have three windows in three rooms, with three panes each. But, honestly, I shot through just one window, and I didn’t even shift the camera to the other window panels. I really wanted it to be an authentic experience.”
Driven by a need to create, Aditya reveals that there is no one message he hopes to convey to audiences if his film, but rather, hopes that it acts as a mirror, revealing only the viewer’s perception of it.
“I made it because I made it, because I wanted to make it, that’s all.” Aditya tells, “What people take away from it is their personal experience. What would strike you might not strike another person. I left it for whoever is watching or listening to make up their minds on what it is about.”
When asked what advice he would give to others hoping to follow in his footsteps, Aditya shares a mantra he believes all should live by.
“Keep shooting.” He says, “Keep shooting for yourself. Upload them on YouTube. Make 10 things for yourself and share. You will find a style. Work will find you. Everything that follows is negotiations with time and money.”
Watch Aditya’s film, Birdwatching, here!
All images used in this article are courtesy of Aditya Varma.
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