Strula Gunnarsson’s documentary
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Strula Gunnarsson’s documentary "Monsoon" is creating quite a splash

Iceland-born Canadian filmmaker Strula Gunnarsson’s soon-to-be-released 106-minute documentary on the Indian monsoon is creating quite a splash

brunch Updated: Jan 31, 2015 19:44 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times

In early 2015, Monsoon will make its way through Canadian cities. That, of course, isn’t the annual phenomenon that powers through large expanses of India. Rather, it’s the feature documentary that bears the same name – a sprawling biopic that charts the travels of the monsoon during the 2013 season.

That 106-minute long documentary feature is the creation of award-winning filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson.

The 63-year-old director was born in Iceland and moved to Canada at an early age and now lives in Toronto. In fact, his home is barely a handful of blocks from the Lightbox, the headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF, where Monsoon premiered in September.

In January this year, it won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF’s annual selection of Canada’s top ten films of the previous year. It heads into a wider theatrical release in late February and will, potentially, play at film festivals in India.

Sitting in his living room, the Emmy-winner and Academy Award-nominated Gunnarsson explains his fascination with this peculiarly Indian experience, the monsoon: "It’s kind of the product of a long romance that I have with India. I made a film there 14 years ago called Such a Long Journey, with Naseer and Om Puri and Roshan Seth, Soni Razdan. I married into a big Punjabi family. So, I’m a son-in-law (of India)."

Gunnarsson, who was raised in Vancouver, met his Indo-Canadian wife, Judy Koonar, there and they have two children. Koonar, in fact, worked as an associate producer on Gunnarsson’s 2008 documentary, Air India 182, about the 1985 terrorist bombing of the flight from Montreal to Delhi which claimed 331 lives.

Wet, wet, wet: Gunnarsson (above) captures the chronological progress of the monsoon through individuals and their stories.

A frequent flier to India, Gunnarsson often heard tales of the monsoon and sought to create a film that would capture the sheer majesty and mayhem that it defines: "Over the years, I got so romanced by the notion of the monsoon. This very powerful force is a grand spectacle, but has a very intimate human impact on everybody.

It’s something that arrives with joy but can turn into disaster on a dime. I felt that by making a film about the monsoon, I could make a film about India in very high relief because the monsoon is a very intense, dramatic time of the year in India."

The opening sequence of the film underscores this force of nature. Dark, threatening clouds crowd the screen, and at first, they appear to crawl and suddenly, they careen. "When you see these clouds, they appear to be moving very, very slowly, and then as they get closer, they’re rushing at you like a herd of elephants," says Gunnarsson. It reminds him of Kalidasa’s epic Meghdoot, that has a stanza that riffs on this resemblance.

While Gunnarsson captures the geographical and chronological progress of the monsoon, he does so through the device of individuals and the personal stories married to the monsoon: From viewing its arrival in Kerala through the eyes of 12-year-old Akhila, to former Bollywood actress Moushumi Chatterjee’s romance with it in Mumbai, in life and in celluloid, to a bookie in Kolkata, a warden in Kaziranga and even the former director general of the Indian Meteorological Department, Dr Ranjan Kelkar, who described the monsoon as "the soul of India".

Maximum pleasure: Actress Moushumi Chatterji’s romance with the rains – in life and in celluloid– Mumbai is central to the documentary’s narrative.

Since he had devised this narrative arc, Gunnarsson could not include the devastation caused by the 2013 monsoon in Uttarakhand (just as it did in 2014 in Jammu and Kashmir). As he explains, "I totally felt the temptation but with a film like this you make your choices at the beginning. If we got on a plane at that moment, we would have been just another news crew and this is not really a reportage film."

This feature presents perhaps the most powerful vision of the monsoon yet, using Red Epix cameras delivering 4000 scans per second, equivalent to that of an IMAX experience. Gunnarsson says, "There was a lot of time-lapse photography, and there was a lot of high-speed and ultra-slow photography to get the dancing rain. We did off-speed shooting, in order to capture the movement of the clouds, the water, and the rain."

And the visuals are enhanced by the score, composed by Bombay Dub Orchestra’s Andrew T Mackay, who based it on Malhar ragas, but brought in electronica and "a contemporary vibe." As he says, "That was a perfect starting point." Mackay wanted a soundscape that would match the monsoon’s magnificence: "The film shows the beauty of India from another dimension."

Gunnarsson describes Monsoon as his "love letter to India." It comprises a palette as vivid as Gunnarsson’s own career, that includes documentaries, features like Beowulf, and television work.

Monsoon, however, is his most ambitious project yet, one that tries to match the grandeur of this most magnificent of all seasons.

Top of the docs

Several well-received documentaries with India-linked themes have been released recently. Here are three of the best:

1. Beyond the Edge:
Rarely does a cinematic experience leave you with a sense of vertigo. But this aptly titled 3D documentary from Kiwi director Leanne Pooley, does just that. It recreates the arduous journey that culminated in the first-ever conquest of Mount Everest by New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepali sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953.

2. Faith Connections:
From Indian-origin director Pan Nalin, this Franco-Indian production visits the Kumbh Mela, and over a period of 55 days, tells its tale through five characters, from a nine-year-old runaway to a sadhu who gets high, not only on spiritual ecstasy, but also ganja.

3. Radhe Radhe:
This film by director Prashant Bhargava is part of a larger multimedia project from New York-based jazz artist Vijay Iyer, and was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Filmed during the celebration of Holi in Mathura, it’s a performance piece in itself.

From HT Brunch, February 1
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First Published: Jan 31, 2015 14:00 IST