Rana Ghose: “I’m a pragmatic robot programmed on binaries”

Rana Ghose is an editor and director, known for Take it in Blood, Empire (2021) and The Creative Indians (2016).

India – Rana Ghose has been committed to two parallel streams of engagement for over a decade, equally passionate for experimental, thought-provoking research on genetically modified organisms on one hand, and his other interests – live music, training others how to shoot video, and classic film based black and white portraiture – on the other. Mostly known for his documentary filmmaking, Rana Ghose is a professional communicator and considers it a responsibility of an academic to connect with as wide a public as possible so that they can contribute their own voice in the narrative and be aware. He is the sole proprietor of REProduce Artists which manages upcoming independent musicians to carve a niche in the Indian music scene. A man of many virtues, Rana Ghose has a candid conversation with Emaho Magazine.

 

 
Emaho : Your work brims with diversity; you have documented on film causes ranging from one end of the spectrum to the other: the missing youths of Kashmir; rediscovering the pioneer of acid house, Charanjit Singh; the agrarian crisis and emergence of Bt Brinjal and Bt Cotton; the tribal stories of Chattisgarh; the poverty alleviation scheme in Pakistan, to name a few. What draws you towards such a variety of topics?

 All of my work is premised on my coming to grips with how people perceive risk.   I trained as an economist because I’m fascinated with how we assess value in the context of exchange – not just financial transactions, but the markets of ideas, aspirations, and intended outcomes. We all struggle with some means to mitigate both known and unknown risks in the millions of decisions each of us makes over the course of our lives.  It’s the most genuine engagement humans undertake; it has to be authentic by construction, and when shared with an audience, it presents something anyone can immediately relate to.

 I do not really see my work as being that diverse. My research on the regulation of genetically modified organisms in India is based on my unpacking how people understand and construct risk, in this case the risk of GMOs.

The documentary films I make are premised on characters that are subject to situations that forge reactions premised on decisions, underpinned by a unique construction of risk – it’s that which fleshes out their character.

And the music management side of my work is premised on presenting music in contexts where risks are framed by novel engagements due to the nature of the music, the performer, the expectations of ethnicity and geography amongst performer and audience, or all three.  I am motivated by an innate desire to see what happens when I either curate or critically observe engagements where no one knows what may happen.  The professional interface and motivation is my capacity to document it for a wider audience, premised on my take on it.

 

               Roushan on our last day shooting.  Lal Chowk, Srinagar, November 2011©Rana Ghose

 

Emaho : The protagonist of your most recent documentary, ‘Take It In Blood’, is a 22-year-old rapper, Roushan Illahi aka MC Kash, who sings of the injustices in Kashmir. What do you think about this upsurge in Kashmir where rappers are using music as a medium to raise their voice? 

I think it’s reflective of the profound sense of marginalization that Roushan’s peers are often embroiled within.  In such a context, music can become a catalyst for new communities. Broadband came relatively recently to the Valley, and with it came the onset of social media.  You cannot send text messages in Kashmir north of Jammu, but you can use Facebook and Twitter – so far.  I think that this, combined with the ease of sharing music via portals like Soundcloud and Reverbnation has allowed an entirely new arena to forge community dynamics.  Granted, that is true anywhere in the world where broadband is accessible, but the difference in Kashmir is the context – a heavily monitored public combined with a generation who know how to use social media to voice and share concerns.  The stakes are higher.

Someone like Roushan draws heavily from certain rappers who used hip-hop as a means to express their frustrations with their lives and what surrounds them; Immortal Technique being one example.  I think this resonates with other aspiring rappers in Kashmir – hip-hop as a means to voice these frustrations.  Personally, I can remember what it was like when I first heard hardcore, Black Flag in particular.  When you hear music at a younger age that seems to speak directly to you, you are drawn to it, and I know from my own experience, the music spoke to me and offered an outlet, a comforting sense that I was not alone.  Conversations I’ve had with Roushan indicated a similar kind of dynamic.

Emaho : What moved you to present the story through Roushan’s eyes and how difficult was it to get him on camera for that, considering most of these Kashmiri rappers avoid Indian media attention?

 When we met, I didn’t roll camera for three days.  We just hung out.  I didn’t know Roushan and I didn’t want to come off as just another journalist looking for a scoop; to stay for a few days and then leave with copy to send to an editor.  Stated this way, it may sound planned, but it wasn’t pure strategy.  It was more reflective of my genuine interest in Roushan and who he was and is.  It just didn’t feel right to roll right away.  I think doing this forged a relationship of sorts between us – one genuinely premised on a mutual love of hip-hop.  I grew up with hip-hop and still love the art form, so we talked a lot about music we both appreciated.

Around the third day, myself, his good friend Baba Tamim, and Roushan decided to have Roushan meet Parveena Ahangar first.  I suggested to Roushan that he should interview her, which he agreed to do.  He was reluctant at first as he didn’t want to come off as uninformed or amateurish, but I had full confidence he would ask exactly those questions he sincerely wanted answered, given his commitment to Kashmir and his trying to come to grips with it through his art.  It just so happened that Tamim was also an aspiring filmmaker and also had a camera, so both of us began to roll camera from that point onwards.

But from a more instrumental perspective, the technique I employed comes from years of training other people how to shoot and edit video on the one hand, and a formal training in economics and anthropology on the other.  Between my Masters degree and my doctoral research, I acted as a consultant for a donor agency, first as a research intern, and then as a videographer, catalyzed by a film on my research.  It wasn’t planned but I just tried it; I have no training as a filmmaker but I didn’t want to limit my research findings to the written word alone.  They liked the work and then hired me to document some of their projects on video, mostly in Asia and Africa.  As I did so – quite by accident as I never really saw myself as a filmmaker but became obsessed with the craft and editing in particular – I felt a sense of lacking authenticity in my capacity to tell stories; as though those I interviewed on camera were essentially telling me that which they expected I would want to hear.  So, I proposed to my client that I train them how to shoot video as a means to bolster the authenticity of the narrative and switch the role of authorship.  This was a watershed moment for my coming to grips with what a video camera is capable of. 

 Years later, I returned to academics and discovered an entire body of work that addressed precisely the concerns I was having – positionality and reflexivity in particular.  In terms of a practice, I began to combine my prior practical experience with this theoretical background, and began to use video as a tool in my doctoral fieldwork via training the farmers I worked and lived with on how to use video, so as to minimize the possibility of my questions being answered merely on the basis of their expectations.  I wanted my research to be informed by narratives they constructed as opposed to merely being based on answers they would give me.

At this point, I can’t really imagine making documentary films in any other way.  That transfer of authorial agency frames what I feel is the only kind of sincere filmmaking I can engage in.  Take It In Blood was imagined and executed along those lines.  I wanted Roushan to decide on the interactions he had, and I wanted him to carry and generate the types of conversations that form the narrative of the film.

 

 

Emaho : In the 48-minute long documentary, Roushan seemed to be struggling to keep himself together after listening to the people who had lost their loved ones – husband, brother, son – to kidnappers. Shooting ‘Take It In Blood’ must have been a very emotional journey for you too. Did emotion overcome the art of filmmaking at any point in time?

I can be somewhat mercenary in my motivations, but generally this is always tempered with an awareness of the “bigger picture”.  So while, yes, there were times when I was quite moved by what has happening around me, I had to remember that my task was to capture it and not let my emotions get the better of me.  It was real, and I felt it had to be shared with an audience, and so that was always in the front of my mind.  For better or worse, I have a tendency to switch to a pragmatic robot programmed on binaries if I need to.

Emaho : The last scene of Roushan and activist Parvina in the documentary is very moving. It mirrors their state perfectly – Parvina’s longing to hold her lost son and Roushan’s anger, which takes the form of tears. It wasn’t a planned shot. What was it like shooting the scene?

I could not stop filming. Stopping would be a disservice to the legacy of that interaction, especially if premised on a self-assumed sense of intrusion on my part.  I rendered that assumption as ephemera at that moment and considered what was more important, which was to capture that moment regardless of my hesitation. Also, those that Tamim and I were following on camera were used to constantly being around filming, as it had been about a week at that point.  The cameras were ignored, which from a documentary filmmaking perspective is precisely where that camera should reside.

Emaho : You did a lot of traveling around Kashmir to shoot the documentary, to meet people, so what was it like exploring Kashmir? What sort of vibes/reaction did you get from the people, especially after them getting to know what you were doing there?

Actually the film was shot entirely in Srinagar, with the exception of an opening sequence with Parveena that I shot at Delhi University.  That said, I can’t stress how important it was to have been working with Tamim.  He had been shooting in Srinagar for years and was able to lend an authenticity to what we were trying to do that I could never have been able to on my own.  But from a personal perspective, I was really just perceived as a cameraperson by those we met, even though I was introduced as who I was – a filmmaker.  I did not interview anyone myself apart from Roushan on our second to last day together.  It would have changed things entirely if I did, and that was not the film I wanted to make.

 

 

Recording in Srinagar is next to impossible for Roushan as studios he has used have consequently been raided by the authorities.  This was captured while recording the song “Take It In Blood” © Rana Ghose

 

Emaho : What confirms your belief in the power of using video as a participatory research tool? How have you seen it play out in the context of videos of Charanjit Singh?

My “belief” is premised on my training on the one hand, but more recently, on a new execution – namely the direction of ‘Take It In Blood’.  There was only one way to make that film to tell the story I came to grips with, and that was to give Roushan as much “control” as possible.  I’ve always thought the best work comes out of contexts where the lines between creator, subject, and audience are blurred.

The ongoing production of Charanjit Singh’s story however is a bit different.  I’ve thought about giving Charanjit a camera, but I don’t know if it would have the same effect – to me, he is a bit of a mystery in some ways.  He does not talk very much, and we have a somewhat strange relationship.  I’m still coming to grips with it as his shows become larger and larger.

I should state however that I essentially took on the task of booking him as I knew there was a story to tell, and the only way I felt I could tell the story I wanted to tell was to directly participate – to become professionally involved in his career in order to gain unmatched access.  I tour manage him when we are on the road which is a full-time job full of immediate responses and challenges that have to be addressed, while at the same time I roll camera as much as possible.  So, it’s a balance.  I recently worked with another cameraperson, but it did not feel right – which was a shame as I suppose I am as much a character in this story as anyone.  Actually, in an ideal world, everyone involved in our tour party of four should have a camera.  That could be amazing. Though a nightmare to edit.

 

Charanjit was  a session musician for the film industry in Bombay throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. From 1980, Charanjit with Kishore Kumar.

 

 

Emaho : About Charanjit Singh, what is more fascinating – the fact that he is the anachronistic pioneer of acid house and electronic music, the way we know it today, or that he still gets people riled up when he performs live at the age of 72?

I curate musical events on the basis of balancing spectacle and majesty – that which people come to see versus that which they hear.  I started doing this on the basis of a band I brought to India in 2009 called the Black Lips.  I personally loved their music, but was also quite curious to see what would happen if they came to India.  The band was equally curious.  It ended up with their having to leave India to avoid police reprisal given a concert in Chennai that reflected an honest performance, which was of course a somewhat stressful occurrence.  But in many ways, I booked them in India as I knew a story would unfold.  So in many ways, booking them was the only way I could find a producer to finance the film I wanted to facilitate.

That really was the catalyst for both the filmmaking and artist management side of my work.  The story of Charanjit as I am directing it is premised on similar dynamics.  I initially had no idea how his music and the live show would be received by European audiences, but I knew it had to be documented.  So, context aside, I can answer this question precisely: I would say that I am most fascinated by the latter – the interface between performer and audience.  There are uncertainties and risks, and to document how parties engage with this – especially when stakes increase – makes for the kinds of films I want to direct.  I’m not sure if I am cheating by essentially programming a trajectory for events to unfold by both managing and documenting this story, but it is totally fascinating to me so I run with it.  It’s still very much in production as we are planning more shows for 2013 and beyond, so I can really only comment on what I’ve experienced and shot to date.

 

 

Emaho : When did you decide to manage Charanjit Singh’s performances and shows?

  As soon as I met him.  I heard his music from Samrat B aka Audio Pervert one evening, and we soon found ourselves in Bombay at the same music conference, though for different reasons – he to release a book he had edited on Indian electronic music, and I to meet prospective promoters for future events.  Samrat had mentioned to me that he had Charanjit’s number, so I called him and arranged a visit to his house.

We did, I rolled camera, and it immediately became clear to me that this artist had to play live.  Both the music and the story were too remarkable.  But rather than find someone else to manage his bookings, I decided to take it on myself – again, mostly premised on my wanting to document the entire process.  Documentation aside however, I like the business angle of it all.  I enjoy negotiating terms as it all comes back to my interest in constructions of risk and how different parties perceive and negotiate values in an exchange.  I learn a lot from it, it all informs my ongoing work and how I manage it, and so I’m happy.

 

One of Charanjit’s first releases – a 7″ from 1970.

 

Emaho : His work didn’t click in 1982 when his album ‘Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat’ was launched for the first time. He has been performing live in clubs in Europe of late. What do you think works in his favor now?

There are two elements – the first is the obvious fact that he predated house music by four years, and when his album first came out it was way too ahead of its time and didn’t really make sense to anyone.  That, and the fact that EMI India only pressed a few hundred copies, so it wasn’t distributed well, and certainly not internationally.  But it’s the second element that I’ve given a fair bit of thought to

 In May, we played a show in Bordeaux, France.  When I initially saw the promotional material, time stopped for a moment.  The image was that of a stylized Sikh man in a turban with a third eye, on a poster fringed with acid house smileys with curly moustaches.  My immediate reaction was a combination of utter fascination and an observation of how pervasive certain visual tropes of the “exotic east” still resonate in certain contexts – in this case, France. When I came to the venue, I bore witness to the stage – a massive paper cut out elephant adorned with a palm tree and an umbrella, under which Charanjit was to play.  I contained my incredulity.

 The promoters were genuinely excited about the show, were massive fans of his music, and were extremely courteous and professional.  The performance itself was incredible – crowd surfing, fervent dancing, and a real connect between performer and audience.  But this small vignette does frame a broader concern I have.  Is the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his music premised on a genuine love of what people are hearing, or is it more premised on what they are seeing and imagining?

I’ve been now working towards booking him in the North American market.  I’m not sure what to expect – promoters there seem more interested in the bottom line than any story, which is reasonable.  Anyway, it will happen soon enough.

 

 This show had one of the most amazing crowds we’ve seen; one particularly involved fan convinced Charanjit’s wife Suparna to get onstage.  Bordeaux, France, May 2013 © Rana Ghose

 

Emaho : Is there a sense of reveling when you see the audience’s reaction to his music in Europe? Isn’t the Indian music scene prepared for him, yet? When do we get to see him perform live here?

I have no idea how people will respond to Charanjit here in India.  Ironically, I’ve thought about his playing here in a similar context to the European one, though a mirror analogue of sorts – would Charanjit be taken as seriously if not for the fact that he has been so well received in Europe?  If a postcolonial fixation potentially renders Charanjit into an exotic spectacle in Europe, could a similar postcolonial insecurity render any appreciation of Charanjit’s music in India premised on his being accepted by those outside India first?  This isn’t an isolated concern of mine, but one I’ve heard from others here in India as well.

 I decided to book him more abroad first, get the press, and them have him play here, likely towards the end of 2013.  It still comes down to the music, but at the same time I’m not able to ignore or not carefully consider the curational dynamics and the identities that form the audience and their appreciation of both the music and the spectacle.

Emaho : What was the response to the documentaries like– the one on Charanjit Singh and ‘Take it in Blood’?

Positive.  I’ve just finished a website and a trailer for ‘Take It In Blood’, so I’m now in a position to begin putting it out to film festivals based on the encouragement of some producers I’ve been speaking to.  The piece on Charanjit however will take time.  I’m really not sure how long I will continue shooting Charanjit for – I had set a number of him playing to a 10,000 capacity crowd as when I would stop rolling, but he played to a crowd of 6,000 in France last May and, actually, that’s not so many people when you look out from the stage.

 But for the time being, I have a producer and an editor who I am working with on the Charanjit story to date, and we are aiming to screen the story at a festival in November 2013.  So let’s see what people think.  I’m certainly curious.

 

Amidst a growing surge of musical talent, a lot of independent music bands are confidently experimenting with genres, techniques and instruments. What do you make of the upcoming music scene in the Indian metros?

I can really only speak from a Delhi perspective as that is where I live, but based on that, it’s obviously a very exciting time.  The context has been already presented by many observers – a rise in disposable incomes and a corresponding increased capacity to save, the onset of new venues to perform (and drink), corporate sponsorship to provide capital to actually program events regularly – but the end result of all these are captive audiences who want to hear music.  And of course that fosters a regular series of contexts for musicians to play.  The art gets refined, word gets out, an audience is forged, and more music is made.

That said, and this is likely based on the artists I work with, the most rapid evolution seems to come from electronic music producers; generally, sole individuals as opposed to a band.  It may be simple economics – a smaller number of people who make up a “band” and therefore less people who have to get paid by promoters –  but those artists who get gigs most often seem to be making dance music.

 And perhaps that also reflects the desires of the audience; perhaps the music is primarily seen as an accompaniment to a night out as opposed to a form that is to be critically engaged with; that which will guarantee footfall, which ultimately is what still drives the ambitions and needs of most promoters.  Nothing wrong with that, of course.  In the end, it translates into arenas where artists can grow.

 

 

Emaho : A lot of interesting artists are members of ‘REProduce Artists’ which you manage, such as -Audio Pervert, Bassister, Lifafa, Peter Cat Recording Co., Teddy Boy Kill and Toy Mob among others. Tell us more about what REProduce is all about and which thread binds all its members together?

In a word, sincerity. When I was thirteen I began to work at a college radio station, and for the next four years I spent a lot of time in that library tracing back musical histories via their library.  My musical tastes are and were forged on music that could only be made by that artist – as if he or she had no other choice but to make that music, as if it was channeled from somewhere invisible but definitive.  It’s hard for me to take music that comes from anywhere else seriously.  I gravitated to those artists I work with now on similar terms.  They stay sincere to their art, do not do this as a hobby, do not pander to the lowest common denominator to forge acceptance, and have all decided to commit to that – and nothing else.

However, being marginalized on the basis of making art that may not be palatable to the masses can compromise livelihoods.  So, there is a balance to strike, and that’s really the common thread – to make music that is sincere while still finding a sustainable audience and arena to play within.  I think that in urban India now, audiences are wide open to sound, and if anything, constant gigging will give rise to a sound that reflects that sincerity, which will be premised on an audience that follows and supports these musicians.  That’s why I began to take artist management on – that, and also the fact that I just enjoy it.  I’ll always be music-obsessed, so the tasks I have to do to promote and produce events aren’t really “work”, but more an extension of my interests.

 

Emaho : Which project are you working on currently?

 I’ve been approached to produce a series of video shorts for the video portal of a magazine on some of the artists affiliated with REProduce, along with tailoring some of the content I’ve already produced for other portals.  Aside from the video work, I’m now focused on building REProduce into a publishing company for the rights management of the artists I work with – something I don’t really see happening in India yet – and of course working on bookings.  I’ve decided to focus my efforts on booking the artists I work with abroad as I feel there is genuine interest there, so between Charanjit Singh in Europe and North America and Teddy Boy Kill in China before the end of 2014, there is a lot of production to manage. I still have a focus on Indian bookings, but more from a curatorial perspective – to work with non-conventional venues and to bring artists from abroad to India who fit the kind of criteria I am interested in – remarkable, sincere, and compelling.  Earlier this year I signed a book deal with a publisher for a more mainstream treatment of my PhD with a focus on risk, so that happens in between – I’ll take some time off in 2014 and disappear somewhere to finish it.  Everything I’m doing informs the narrative of the book given the focus on risk and decision-making.  So it’s more or less one big overlapping project with many interlocking pieces.  I used to obsessively play with Lego as a child, so in many ways not much has changed.

 

Art & Culture Interview by Raksha Bihani

Feature Image Credit – Sachin Soni

 

 

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