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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Notes from India

Notes from India
January 25th, 2011

Gregory Walker, our can-do protagonist for Song of the Untouchable

It’s Chuck again, back in the USA!

We are now back from several weeks of production in Kerala, India for our upcoming feature documentary Song of the Untouchable. What a great feeling to arrive at the conclusion of a production almost 2 years in the making. This was one of the most carefully planned productions we’ve worked on recently, and the planning and preparation led to a (believe it or not) on-schedule and under-budget filming trip through southern India… something most of our contacts said was an impossible dream. There were plenty of surprises and setbacks, but luckily our schedule (and our awesome crew) were agile enough to deal with India’s unpredictability. Here I’ll share a few of the frames from the video, and a few of my own thoughts about India – a place full of everything. We will finish the film over the next few months here in Colorado and then prepare for a release sometime this Fall. This will be our ‘official’ post. I’ll let Steph and Nelson chime in with a few of their own thoughts about India. They have much better travelling stories than I do anyways.

A man stands at the end of an alleyway in Kochin, India.

The production started slowly for me. Oddly enough the single biggest setback during the production had nothing to do with India, and everything to do with a blizzard on the East Coast, which delayed Steph, Nelson, and Gregory for two days as they struggled with airport closured and delayed flights. So my visit to india started out just shooting B-roll around Kochin with Moin (the driver) Raj (our fixer) and Amresh (our sound recordist). Though I would have preferred to dive into the story right away, the opportunity to quietly observe the happenings of India was a pretty nice way to ease into the film. We spent two days just shooting snippets of everyday life in India, which will help serve as a backdrop for some of Greg’s travels. I enjoy shooting b-roll and I like the process of observation a lot.

There's some kind of metaphor here. I'm just not sure exactly where.

Is India confusing? Yes. So many cultures and so many languages all existing together among a crush of humanity makes for a kind of confusion that’s difficult to describe. The above photo is basically a metaphor for everything India. I could basically dial in the amount of confusion by just selecting different types of lenses. In general – and throughout the entire production – wide lenses were full of confusion and chaos, and telephoto lenses were full of beautiful detail and refined complexity. When you first arrive in India, it’s difficult to look at the place through anything other than a wide lens. Sensory overload comes crashing into you from every direction and it’s difficult to focus on any one thing. After some time though you can start sifting through the noise and chaos and seeing some of the beautiful details that make up the bulk of the fabric of the subcontinent.

Four boats in the Kochin harbor, India.

Once Greg and the crew got their travel nightmares out of the way and arrived in India, the production could begin in earnest. Our first stop on the musical journey was in Thrissur, to visit the Chetana Music Academy, home of Father Paul, aka The Singing Priest.

Father Paul Poovathingal, The Singing Priest

Father Paul is a master of Carnatic music – the subject of Greg’s journey – and our interaction with him and the other musicians at the academy was a great way to start our journey through Indian music. Greg received some one-on-one instruction from a Carnatic violin master, and the crew was impressed with Greg’s ability to pick up some of the techniques of the style so quickly. The master delivered a memorable quote when he said that Greg – a violin master himself – could possibly be a decent Carnatic player in possibly as little as two years. We left Thrissur and arrived late in the evening to the back waters of Alleppey, and climbed aboard the eco-houseboat of Johnson Gilbert.

Johnson Gilbert

Aboard the houseboat, Greg had some time to process his initial musical interactions and begin work on his composition, which will eventually serve as the climactic final scene of the film.

Greg listens to his recordings from the academy and begins work on his new composition

Greg plays violin from the balcony of the eco-houseboat in Alleppey, India

Following our stay on the houseboat, we met up with DJ Sekhar, who has a unique perspective on music. He plays dance music in a modern disco, but he also incorporates some of the elements of the Carnatic style into his original productions. After a few hot and muggy days on the houseboat it was nice to have a cold beer and listen to Greg jam out with some modern tunes. Greg walked into the club and after a few how-do-you-do’s he plugged in his electric violin and improvised some cool duets with the DJ.

Greg Walker, after improvising alongside DJ Sekhar in Kochin, India

Our next stop was Pakshipthalam, in Wayanad.

A King of a tribal colony near Wayanad, India

Greg explored the Cave of the Birds (should be called Cave of the Bats) and then we witnessed a performance by a tribal colony of some of their traditional dances, which incorporate singing, dancing, and music. After witnessing the raw power of the performance, we wondered what could possibly top it…

Cut to…

A Teyyam performer in Nileshwar, India

Teyyam performances really set the standard for mind-blowing sensory overload. The performances start out with the ceremonial detonation of some of the loudest fireworks I’ve ever heard. They are actually closer to the sound of a stick of dynamite. The performances can last hours, and have tremendous meaning hidden in the layers and layers of symbolism. I wont try to describe everything about Teyyam, but to summarize: The Teyyam performance is commissioned by a family (and the whole event is often similar to a family reunion) who gathers to witness the ceremony. The upper half of the performer assumes the role of a god, while the lower half remains human. During the elaborate performance, the performer may speak directly to members of the family or (as with the performance we recorded) they may also use complicated methods to try to predict the future of the family. The whole festival is an explosion of sight and sound, so it was easy pickings for some great footage.

Our next meeting was with Ashok Koshy, a multi-dimensional flute player who lives outside Kochi.

Ashok, the flute player

We settled into Ashok’s home for an entire day to film him and Greg and to absorb some of his creative energy. His grasp of the flute is truly magical and his playing was some of the best we heard on the trip. He and Greg had a lengthy discussion about music and philosophy and then the crew celebrated the conclusion of the production with a little champagne.

Greg and Ashok discuss music and life

The trip was a success, and over the next few weeks and months we’ll release some more material from the trip. I’m proud of the whole crew and I cant wait to start the editing process. There's some addition images on the Chuck Fryberger Films website, on the blog page.

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