Agli Baar … And Then They Came For Me

It’s a short, powerful film and it hits you right in the solar plexus. Devashish Makhija’s Agli Baar (‘The Next Time’) marries the tools of modern communication—Skype, Smart Phones, the Internet—with the violent, sectarian corrupted, lawless ways of modern India to come up with a frightening parable of the vulnerability of urban life for those on the margins, and even for those who identify with those on the margins.

Watch the 7 minute film and then read our interview with Makhija below.

What was the motivation for making the film?

I’ve written about 10 feature length socio-political screenplays (using the term in the loosest sense). One was 90% shot and then canned when the producer bailed, was called ‘Bhoomi’. Another was made and never released, called ‘Oonga’. Several others I’ve been fighting for over eight years to find producers and funding for. So when TTT came up with this platform I didn’t spare a second to jump at the chance to make a short film.

It’s not everyday someone gives you the freedom to take this kind of ‘risk’ (again a term that I wouldn’t use if it weren’t for the industry I have to navigate on a daily basis). TTT gave me the independence (all puns intended) and I milked it.

How did you choose the idea behind the format?

There are three reasons.

First: TTT gives a Rs.50,000 budget to make a short. It’s near impossible to pull off much in that little money. But having faced disappointment for so long and so consistently, I’ve reached a place in life where I can make something out of whatever I get. The ‘intent’ overrides every so-called problem. The first film I made with them, ‘El’ayichi’, went over budget. I had to do some unpleasant jobs to pay off the extra dues to people. So this time I set myself a task: I first came up with the technology that wouldn’t cost me much to shoot a 5-10 minutes’ film. The first things that went out the window were ‘camera’ and ‘lights’. The only options left to shoot on were a laptop camera and mobile phone camera.

Now, what kind of story lends itself to this technology, so it doesn’t seem like a technically poor film, so that it marries the content with the form? I remembered my dear friend Faiza telling me about the video volunteers she works with, and how they try and empower the marginalised with phone/web cameras usage training. And boom! I had a ‘setting’ for a story.

Second: my biggest cinematic influences have been films that don’t cut away from the action much, e.g., ‘Irreversible’. The ‘stay’ on a shot, the length of the take makes one not blink. It’s so immersive a viewing experience that you’re compelled to keep watching because, as Walter Murch famously said, the cut is timed with the blink of an eye, so no cut equals no blink! And I wanted to see if I could hold a narrative without cutting away. The film therefore has just three shots: Rukhsana’s and Faiza’s laptop cameras and Javed’s cellphone camera. The single shot makes the horrific experiences shown impossible to snap out of.

Third: ‘… and then they came for me’ from the famous poem by Martin Niemöller was the underlying theme of this film. I needed the viewer to feel involved and hence implicated. This could only happen if I broke the fourth wall—if I made the characters look at the viewer, so the viewer became the spoken-to, the helpless onlooker as well as the next victim. The chain of apathy would then be complete. Only the webcam and mobile-cam allow that, because we look at these cameras when we communicate.

In sum, everything was figured in tandem for this film. It could not have been scripted without having been ‘seen’ first.

What are the real-life facts that your short illustrates?

So many injustices. I didn’t limit the narrative to any one. I always keep in mind that I’m not documenting, I’m ‘telling a story’. I have a huge advantage over the one who documents because I am not beholden to fact, so I can merge many socio-political issues into one narrative.

The slum-demolition issue, the displacement issue, the targeting of minorities, the risks of being an activist in an increasingly authoritarian world, the testing of the limits of non-violent protest in the face of extreme violence, the apathy of the state, the apathy of the individual, the blindness of justice, and the impotence of the law: I think they all come together in this story.

And I think they’re all grassroots issues we grapple with regardless of where we reside and who we are.