Akram Khan's debut film “Ghasphul” released in 2015 to largely positive reviews, but it is with his second feature “Khancha” that he really gained attention. The film was Bangladesh's entry to the 90th Academy Awards in the foreign language category, and won best film, best director and best actor (for Azad Abul Kalam) at the 20th Meril-Prothom Alo Awards. The director recently sat down with The Daily Star for a candid conversation about his filmmaking philosophy, influences and more. Excerpts:
“Khacha” has just won three awards at Meril-Prothom Alo Awards. How important is recognition for a film?
Akram Khan: For any artiste, recognition is a way for them to know if they are doing things right. The other thing is, since we don't make commercial films, it's difficult to get funding. Any award or recognition helps in securing funding for the next project. And especially for this film, I worked with a topic like people's struggles and pain of migration during the Partition, and recognizing this film is also recognition for the issue. Maybe because of this award a new generation will also take interest and want to know the history of that time.
You had said in an interview that you don't make films to win awards or participate in festivals, because you cannot create art with a purpose. Why do you make films?
Akram: From childhood, I had an interest in literature that expanded to other branches of art as I grew up. There is a lot of history of the marginalized people of this land that is nowhere in our history books. It's said that history lies in the white space between the lines of history books. So in our films we have an interest in bringing out that hidden history. Another important reason is that cinema is a storytelling medium, but it's also a way to explore cinema as an art form. I am searching for a language of cinema, and making films is a way for me to explore that form.
You have released two films and they have certain characteristics, like rural backdrops and a sense of serenity. When you work on television, you have been much more diverse in subject matter and treatment. There is a clear division in your work for TV and film. How do you make that distinction?
Akram: When I took interest in films, I saw it as a pure form of art. When I came to TV, as a profession, there is not the same space as an auteur. That's the reality. In television you need certain things, because it's what the format and its patrons demand. Television is a profession for me, and for that I have a clearly different mindset. I try to include my craft in it however I can within the scope, but I do not have the artistic freedom in decision-making for TV, which I can do fully in cinema. My artistic identity is reflected mostly in my films. In television I got to do it maybe once or twice, when I got the freedom for a special production or so.
You said you developed interest in films as a form of pure art. Who are the artists that have shaped your filmmaking influences?
Akram: Yasujirō Ozu, Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi are favourites of mine. Ritwik Ghatak is an influence to me in a way. What Ritwik Ghatak did was he said that there is Bangalee style of films, or an Indian style. He took that freedom in his content and approach, and that has influenced me. Structurally, Ozu has inspired me. What he did, in brief was 'Life is the subject and camera is a mere object.' He made camera almost non-functional, eliminating the lenses and camera movement, and used ellipses and off-screen space that have also inspired Kiarostami and others. Another thing that Ozu inspired me greatly was that when Americans or even Europeans made films they focused on a dramatic event that may happen once in a person's life, but Ozu made the mundane events an important part of his films. He made those things that were traditionally left out of cinema his central element. Philosophically these things have shaped my style. The works of Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Shri Aravindan have also influenced me in the way that cinema is a temporal art. Like music, cinema stands on time.
When you're making a film, what are you looking to achieve?
Akram: What I am really interested in now is life and how we see it. François Truffaut said something very important: it takes four days to learn the technicalities of film. When we talk about films we talk about what lenses and what cameras are used. Cinema is not made by these. If it was the case then films made 80 years ago would have been obsolete; instead they are becoming more important. Eventually, it is life that is the most important aspect of my cinema now.
Some audiences of your films have said that they are slow. Why do you think that is?
Akram: I don't like to chop time in my films like potatoes are chopped for fries. Time has a flow. Those of us who are making narrative cinema to be close to realism, we try to capture the essence of reality. I try to get the feel of real-time. There is a reason behind everything. Why do Hollywood films look the way they do? Because Hollywood was born to sell stars, which gave birth to big close shots of face: because it was important to show the faces of Gregory Peck or Clark Gable. Bollywood is going the same way. Even Anurag Kashyap is making Bollywood films. I don't want to make that cinema and that's why I don't shoot like that.