By Rahul Desai
Over the last five years, I’ve made it a point to travel the world. To see new countries. To experience different cultures. To observe unfamiliar ways. To meet new people. Most of these trips have been inextricably linked to my love for the movies. I call them cinematic pilgrimages: Before Sunrise, Amadeus and Rockstar have taken me to Vienna and Prague; The Dark Knight to Chicago;Notting Hill to, well, Notting Hill (James Bond and Richard Curtis rom-coms to the rest of London); Amélie, Hugo and Midnight in Paris to Paris; La Dolce Vita, Angels and Demons and The Talented Mr. Ripley to Rome; Queen to Amsterdam; Victoria and Bridge Of Spies to Berlin; In Bruges to Bruges…the list is endless. These aren’t holidays or vacations; they’re tireless excursions without any destination. Just like the specific scenes from movies lead me to these lands, I’m eventually left with more specific scenes – and faces, always faces – from these lands as if they were moving pictures without a plot. As if they were conversations without a script.
Which is why Richie Mehta’s Google-powered ‘India In A Day’ made for a strangely intimate viewing experience. On October 10th, 2015, more than 16,000 Indians filmed their day – the brief being 24 hours in an evolving India – and submitted the footage to the director. I’ll admit I was wary of this gimmicky idea at first. It sounded like a laborious film-school editing experiment instead of a crowdsourcing project. Last week, I sunk into my seat with much trepidation before the screening.
But then, a boy’s voice took over the screen: “Hello guys, as you can see, this is my house. And no Wi-Fi at my house.” It was midnight, 10th October. I didn’t know this boy. I couldn’t see him. Yet here he was, shooting with a grainy cellphone camera, guiding me through a dark corridor, telling me about how three houses including his borrow the neighbour’s Wi-Fi connection. A country of brotherhood, he said. I smiled. I wanted to know more about this boy. Maybe speak to his neighbour, too. I imagined their precarious balcony positions; a story about them began to unravel in my mind. Instead I was whisked away into a moving car next; “The clock has struck 12, the beginning of my day,” said a tired but excited voice. I didn’t know this person either. This went on – the sun soon rose in at least twenty different shots from all over, in all colours and textures and frame sizes and environments. All those mornings from my expeditions came back to me in these rapid, fragmented, semi-structural cuts: the quiet times I’d sit with maps to plan my routes; the silence I’d process before jumping into alien territory; the people I didn’t know before they said hello; the introductions, the nervousness of the unknown. The first acts of my days.
During what was essentially an 88-minute montage of day-in-the-life-of moments, I kept touching my shoulder. I was subconsciously reaching for invisible straps of my backpack. My constant companion. My navigational therapist. Only, there was no backpack. With each passing shot, I yanked myself out from one world into another. I felt a familiar kind of greed and richness, trying to see and take in as much as possible, before tightening my straps, saying goodbye and moving on to my next stranger. I listened eagerly, knowing that I won’t remember all of them. But perhaps I’ll have changed a little, after being let into their little spaces. Perhaps I’ll have learned a little, results of which can never be measured in definitive doses.
“Adi, what is your name?” a man prompts his perplexed five-year-old son from behind the camera. I learn a little about goofy doting fathers here.
At one level, ‘Life In A Day’ is a collection of memories, a plot-less film with the shape-shifting protagonist changing faces at every corner. For instance, an old lady gets ready and leaves her modest hutment, and almost as if the baton of morning continuity is passed on, the next shot we see is of a farmer already on his way to work. And the next, of two young men taking us on their bike across Karnataka.
Yet, at another level, this film felt like the many faces – their mannerisms, their ruminations and their intonations – I often meet and forget by the next phase of the day. A life made up of being shunted from one life to another. Though it’s never about how many places I’ve been to, but how much of a place I feel. I remember Priya, the single mother in Delhi’s DDA colony, stealing a few quiet moments at her window. She smokes her cigarette and drinks her coffee, wondering if she would ever find a man who’d accept her ‘situation.’ I think about Nebo, the immigrant who married his best friend for citizenship of a nation better than his war-torn country. Priya is part of the film; Nebo, Bosnian by birth, was one of my Airbnb hosts in Berlin. Yet somehow, both of them belong to the same day – she is an afternoon, downbeat and introspective late into the second act; and he is the night, brave and optimistic about the future. They’re equally real. And yet, when I see the emotional face of a complete stranger visiting his dying brother on his birthday, I’m tearful. They’re real, too. They’re twilight, lingering agonizingly between two acts.
I know this film is primarily designed to demonstrate the vastness and variety of India. To show how identifying stories is perhaps more fulfilling than following them. To even serve as a cultural document, a nostalgic time capsule, for coming generations. Evolving, after all, is a hopeful term.
But, to me, this is life, as we know it – a free ticket to smiles and sighs tucked away beyond the physicality of globetrotting. And its most remarkable aspect is the soundtrack – bits of music made like glue to stick together broken pieces of existence. Each of them a tiny film, a short travelogue, an enduring reminder. Like the grand strings that play in my head on the flight back. Or the piano sounding out the final moments of my search for an elusive movie locale. This ensuing coherence makes me wonder if perhaps I was part of their day all along, and not vice versa. As a balmy evening, preferably – that could well belong to simultaneous little pilgrimages.
Watch the full film here: