February 4 2016
Not strictly a horror movie or a conventional whodunit thriller, ‘Feast of Varanasi’ has discernible elements of both, as newcomer Rajan Kumar Patel tells us…
MAKING a film in India is never easy, even if you’re an experienced filmmaker* – so imagine trying to do what Brit Rajan Kumar Patel has just done – make your first proper film in Varanasi, of all places.
“The only filming I did before this was like on the home camcorder,” conceded the amiable filmmaker, whose first feature enjoys a central London world premiere tomorrow (March 5) as part of the London Asian Film Festival which opens today.
“Feast of Varanasi” is an impressive work for someone so new to filmmaking and was financed by Patel himself with some funds from close family and friends.
He had a lot of support from well-known professionals in the industry – Raj Acharya, the first assistant director on the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” and the more recent Sonam Kapoor release “Neerja” was an unofficial consultant.
Sean Barton, who edited “Feast of Varanasi”, has “Jagged Edge” and “Return of the Jedi” on his list of credits, while director of photography, James Aspinall and producer/script supervisor, Caroline O’Reilly, both have extensive TV and film experience.
Patel, a town planner with a background as an architect, practically stumbled into directing – his first idea was to produce the film from a story he had written, but as you will discover, it didn’t work out that way.
Patel captures the seductive atmosphere of Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s most sacred places, but also its slightly darker edges.
“I went there (Varanasi) for the first time in October/November 2010 to see the place, and I was a couple of drafts into writing the story,” Patel told www.asianculturevulture.com.
“I saw the potential locations for the film and thought ‘crikey, there’s a lot here’. And then I thought, how am I going to shoot in a place like this? It’s quite conservative. I’d heard stories of Deepa Mehta’s sets for ‘Water’ being destroyed and my story started with a cannibalistic priest.”
He dropped that particular character trait for the film, but said he has a novel on which the film is based, that has far darker elements to it.
“There is a bigger backstory in the novel to all the characters, especially, the priest figure of Nana (Ashwath Bhatt).”
Patel’s film flits between a horror and a thriller, with elements of both, and as well as the sumptuous cinematography, he elicits decent performances from both established Indian and British actors. Tannistha Chatterjee and Adil Hussain are well known on the independent and international circuit in India.
The story revolves around a young white British girl who, after some family trauma, has come to stay with her aunt, a Varanasi resident for many years. She herself has found some spiritual comfort there after tragedy.
At the same time, a serial killer is at loose, and the local cops have not been able to make much head way. Enter Arjun (Hussain), a CBI sleuth originally from Varanasi, who is sent down from Delhi (the CBI is India’s version of the FBI), to help investigate. There is also an underlying caste theme too, which is both topical and relevant to the plot.
Varanasi is probably the most popular final resting place for Hindus, with many believing cremation, and/or their ashes being immersed in the sacred rivers of the Ganga, helps them to move onto the next stage in the cyle of death and rebirth.
It is a place of huge spiritual resonance, and has barely changed in the 3,000 years for which it has a documented history.
That charlatans, fraudsters, and sham priests also do good business there is perhaps less well discussed. On top of all that, being a place of death and rebirth in Hindu theology, it also attracts mystics, soothsayers and ‘holy men’ of dubious credentials, as well as those of honest spiritual endeavour. It is one of the most beguiling places you can visit.
Patel, who started writing “Feast of Varanasi” at the tail end of 2009, described the original inspiration.
“I was at a family funeral in Golders Green of all places and it was when the casket went behind the curtain and I thought what happened then…I thought what if the person who was looking after your last rites ended up doing something quite terrible – I mentioned it to my Mrs – and she said it was a disgusting thought – but it needed more exploring.”
There are horror tales – both in the popular imagination and older ancient texts – that mix spirituality, occult and myth, and Patel has leaned on all to make “Feast of Varanasi”.
He visited Varanasi five times from his London base – four on research and recces, and finally once for shooting.
On his third trip, he discussed the film at length with Acharya, whom he intended to employ as director.
“We walked everywhere,” recounted Patel. “I think he wanted to test my mettle and make sure I was not some NRI on a vanity project. But we saw the film differently in style terms. I wanted it to be a Western shooting style like, “Seven”, “Silence of the Lambs”. He wanted it to be more Indian and mystical. He told me – ‘you direct’.
“I thought he was joking, but he said it very genuinely, ‘you’re a fast learner, you have good people around you and your architectural/planning background means you know how to visualise it’.”
At first, it didn’t seem like a great idea but in the end, Patel knew better than anyone else the style of film he wanted to make.
The bosses at Cineworld – which is supporting its UK release for next week, he feels, have understood his vision.
“’It’s a really good film’, they said. It’s not a thriller, not a horror film outright and not a festival film per se. They liked the idea of a Brit making a film in India, it’s not about the British Asian experience. It just happens to be shot there and if more of these films are made, then in the long term it becomes commercially viable.”
Patel hopes to release “Feast of Varanasi” in India this summer and has already had popular interest through a Facebook campaign (as well as negative reaction with some complaining about the potrayal of Varanasi, without even seeing the film). It isn’t at all.
He has already dicussed the release with an Indian film distributor. Horror is a developing film genre in India; and Indian mysticism/mythology have already proved popular as English language fiction. Patel wants to market the accompanying novel alongside the film, when it gets to India.
If anything, this is one of the most creative and enterprising folks you’re going to meet – he’s already working on a new film, while continuing to earn his keep as a housing planner and developer.
With the film set in India again, it will be loosely based around the international charity auto-rickshaw races they have annually there and will involve a multi-racial cast.
He also wants to publish a trilogy of novels linking Hindu mythology and ancient scriptures to contemporary times.
“I’ve always found it (mythology/scriptures) fascinating,” he admitted.
“Feast of Varanasi” is probably unlike anything you have seen before – certainly recently, and if anything, it could be the start of a new and different genre. Watch this space, quite literally!
Main picture: Helen (Holly Gilbert); Sunrise on Ghat at Varanasi
* ‘Feast of Varanasi’ World premiere – Cineworld, Haymarket, 63-65 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4RL, 6pm.
*’Feast of Varanasi’ on release at Cineworld Cinemas UK from March 11.
*Rajan Kumar Patel talks in more depth about the pluses and minuses of making films in India… to be published next week