Prashant Bhargava ’94 may have began as a humble computer science major here at Cornell, but now he’s directing films that have garnered acclaim from Roger Ebert and The New York Times. The Sun had the opportunity to speak with the up-and-coming director whose film Patang: The Kite, about the Patang kite festival in Ahmedabad, India. He tells us of his peculiar path to a film career, his opinion on Bollywood and the universal familial themes present in Patang.
The Sun: Tell us about your experience at Cornell. What prompted a computer science major such as yourself to go into film?
Prashant Bhargava: Cornell was very good to me that way. I was originally in the engineering college and I switched and started doing computer science and working towards an Arts BA rather than an engineering degree. And by my last year, I was also doing a lot of artwork. I was [coming from a] computer science perspective but I was also taking a lot of art classes … My time at Cornell was so important to me because it was a place that encouraged so many cross-disciplinary things. I was able to take art classes, math classes, culture classes, and my professors really encouraged me to find my own pathway. And that was something that I really valued. By senior year I was mixing the computer and the art, and that was something that led me to what I began my career with.
Sun: I was very much struck by the documentary style of the filming. What effect did you hope to achieve with this technique?
P.B.: Well, [Patang] was seven years in the making, and I was very conscious that I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and I wanted to let go of that perspective and really capture the pride and the resilience of the people of Ahmedabad. I was struck the first year that I went to Ahmedabad how vital it was [in] celebrating this festival, the Patang kite festival... [The film shows] how celebration brings people together. And so that’s what I wanted to focus on. I did three years of research, and I went there one to three months every year, and I got to know the community. I would gossip with grandmothers, chase kites with kids and interview a bunch of kite makers. And it was in that process that I discovered the way that I was going to shoot the film. And I thought that the everyday magic there, in terms of the smallest details about life, were really fascinating to me, and I wanted to preserve that onscreen. And by the third year that I was doing research, I was able to hold the camera just two feet from someone and they would continue to be themselves. And that’s what I sought to preserve in the filmmaking process.
Sun: What made you decide not to make a traditional Bollywood film with singing and dancing and elaborate costumes?
P.B.: Bollywood films are great, Slumdog Millionare is interesting, but I think that there are so many more stories in India that have a simplicity and humanity. And by sharing those I think it invigorates a sense of pride within all of us. So I really wanted to focus on that. Bollywood is largely escapist in nature. When you watch a Bollywood film, it’s a way of stepping away from your life. And I’m not a big Bollywood person, I much more enjoy other things. [Patang was] something so magical and so intimate … I don’t know how to explain it. It never crossed my mind to make a Bollywood version. I did want to bring the song and dance and exuberance, and if you think about some of the topics that are covered in Bollywood films, it’s the celebration of family and the dynamics between [family members]. That was something I preserved. If you think about the way a Bollywood film involves you from a more of an emotional standpoint and it takes you on that journey, [Patang] has that emotional quality to it. But it was never on my mind to make a Bollywood film.
Sun: The relationship between the older generation and the younger generation is filled with tension. How universal do you think these conflicts are, and to what extent to they pertain only to Indian society?
P.B.: I chose Jayesh [the protagonist] to come from Delhi and not from the U.K. or the U.S. because I found that a lot of those conflicts that we used to think of being from the outside now happen all within the country itself. But a lot of the textual elements that are there are so local to Ahmedabad. But I’ve been struck throughout the journey how universal [these conflicts] are as well, whether it’s a pizza man in Brooklyn who watches the film … saying, “Hey, that’s my family onscreen.” I’ve shown it in Berlin and all throughout Europe and in the Midwest in America, and people say, “Wow, here’s a story about India, but actually it’s like my own family up there.” At the same time, my family, we’re from Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh in India and both sides of my family are going through these property arguments for years and years and years. And … someone wants to stay back and other people want to encourage the family to move forward. [These families] are moving away from ancestral homes; that whole conflict is part of the film and is universal to almost every Indian family ... I tried to really capture all the generations, whether it’s that 11-year-old kid Hamid wandering around and his relationship in terms of being a breadwinner in his family and what that means, all the way to the grandmother and the sister-in-law [who is] the matriarch of the family and the one that keeps the house going. I tried to bring a more universal perspective on it, but all of these relationships are very local and very intimate. What touches me the most throughout this process in sharing the film is how audiences react to the story. It’s a local story, but it has some universal truth to it.
Bhargava will be giving a free public lecture sponsored by the South Asia Program on Nov. 8 at 4:30 in G-08 Uris Hall, accompanying a screening of Patang: The Kite.