Stick to Dreams

March 30, 2021

After 4 years of hard work, travel, persistence, crowd-funding and very emotionally volatile journey; I managed to finish my first independent film. Stick to Dreams is an observational documentary about Andrea Thumshirn and her dream to teach field hockey in rural India. I have been deeply interested in photography for past two decades and started my professional journey as a Sports Correspondent for NDTV in 2006. I became interested in the craft of film-making, especially Cinematography thanks to beautiful poetic images filmed by stalwarts like Santosh Sivan and Rajiv Menon .. but way back in 2006 making a film seemed like an inaccessible dream. A lot changed between next few years in terms of digital imaging technology and filmmaking was democratized.

At the same time, I was getting more and more comfortable with the dynamic process of TV News and making 100 second reports that would go on air every evening. I was given a chance to report on some big sports stories of international importance.. I was enjoying the whole process … But there was something missing. I was reporting on many issues quickly with facts and objectivity … However, I felt that it became a bit superficial.. less emotionally connected… I had no time to immerse myself into an environment and understand my story deeply. I had no scope to connect with my subjects at an emotional level.. Visuals played largely a supportive role to my narrative script.. I was more interested in the cinematic form of storytelling.. As a student of visual communication at IDC, IIT-Bombay I was introduced to designerly approach to filmmaking and the world of independent film-making opened for me.

Picking a story

My initial plan was to travel all around India and capture the magic of field hockey in all major hockey hubs in the country … From Punjab to Coorg and from Mumbai to Manipur. I felt it would be a colorful documentary with cultural diversity.. But I soon realized that there are two or three problems with this approach.. Firstly, it would be too big a project to make a debut film for a one-man crew.. secondly it would have been a very journalistic storyline.. something I definitely wanted to avoid.. thirdly, I wanted to make an entertaining film that mass audience can connect with and not a serious documentary only for the hockey fans. I decided to look for a human story which everyone could relate to.. Hockey was now a backdrop… I came across three interesting stories. Jude Felix, a former India captain had identified an orphaned child with hand amputated and was training him to become a goalkeeper… Andrew Enrich, a Spanish olympian quit his international career to start an academy in rural Andhra Pradesh.. and Andrea Thumshirn, a German hockey player had moved to rural Rajasthan to achieve empowerment through sports.

All the three stories were interesting.. I met Andrea in Mumbai in a small hotel in Bandra for the first time when she was bedridden due to severe back pain and she narrated her incredible story.. we connected instantly as friends.. She was keen to express, to articulate her point of view.. I did not want to make a typical TV style documentary with a VoiceOver in baritone and visuals to just overlay with some bites in between.. I wanted to use ethnographic direct cinema method.. Having a good rapport with my subject was absolutely essential for this and Andrea seemed to be a perfect candidate for this project.

Ethnographic approach to film-making

A trained ethnographer understands and analyzes a social process through immersive observations. I did not want to tell Andrea’s story.. I wanted to place my camera for Andrea and her people to narrate their own story.. I wanted to create an immersive experience for the viewer.. using camera angles and compositions that would transport the viewer into the sensory world of Andrea and her cultural milieu. I wanted my camera to capture normal, natural behaviours .. all this meant I had to spend a lot of time with Andrea… I could not have shot for 5 days and wrapped the shoot as per pre-decided screen play.. I had to live in her world and build a comfortable relationship based on mutual respect.. I had to live in the village.. Between 2014 to 2018 I spent about 3 months in Garh Himmat Singh in Dausa district. I remember taking Varsha (Andrea’s partner) to maternity hospital for checkups .. I remember driving to different villages to pick students for exams and dropping them back.

During our schedule in Germany, I lived with a German family who hosted Andrea’s kids.. All this was important to ensure that the camera and tripod became mentally invisible for my subjects.. But this approach has unique set of challenges! I had to do everything from carrying equipment, driving, recording audio, shooting videos, lining up interviews.. Going there with a large crew would have increased my production budget 20 times and everyone would have posed for the camera rather than allowing me to capture their natural behaviour.. It also meant I shot a lot… I have perhaps 20 hours of footage and I edited it down to a 45-minute film..

One man crew

I sorted the cinematography challenge by using a DSLR with tripod and a set of lenses that gave me variety of shots.. I was not afraid of shooting handheld since I was going to use on-the-go filmmaking style.. Capturing good sound was definitely a big challenge.. A national award-winning sound director friend gave me a very good tip.. I decided to use a directional microphone on my camera that allowed me to capture everything that was spoken in front of the camera and when I was not shooting, I used to collect ambient sounds using my Zoom H4n recorder… I was very sure that my idea of doing everything on my own was not supposed to extend to editing.. I was so close to everything that I definitely needed an independent editor to objectively streamline my story. However, Pradeepto Roy, a friend and an alumnus of FTII who was going to edit my film got an admit to a VFX program in Canada and had to leave.. But he came up with an innovative approach.. we used to discuss the timeline using Skype and I used to execute his edit decisions and inputs and this method really worked for my film.. I was only worried about one thing…

After shooting for 3 years, I was not sure of my storyline.. I did not want to make an abstract documentary which lacked storyline and felt like a collection of pretty images.. I was not sure what kind of narrative structure would work for this film.. I had learned about the three-act structure used in fiction films.. context setting… point of conflict and resolution.. I was apprehensive about using this structure for my film.. Luckily, I had a chance to meet Shri Sham Benegal who came to IIT-B as a chief guest for the convocation of my senior batch.. as a student volunteer helping dignitaries, I had a privilege to spend 20 minutes with him.. He had a simple tip.. identify a poignant moment in the social process you are documenting and see if it works as a point of conflict.. and the end should be about resolution/ non-resolution of the process.. This gave me much needed clarity on the storyline.

My Learnings

It is very natural for a journalist to go beyond 5 Ws and 1H of reporting and write an immersive book .. the inspiration comes from a story that compels you to express your point of view.. The process was exactly the same for me .. However, I did not learn film-making in a film school.. I am a product of a D-School.. My approach was to think like a designer and build a visual narrative through visual motifs that represented various elements of the social process. I was never fascinated by intricate studio lighting … The film was mostly shot in the golden hour … 2-3 hours after sunrise and 2-3 hours before sunset.. this helped me shoot without paraphernalia of lights and created a visual language with continuity .. it was also interesting to push the limits of my Canon EOS 5D mk III and shoot under tungsten light .. One habit I developed as an ethnographic researcher was to write elaborate fieldnotes.. something I continued doing even while shooting this film and it was immensely helpful for me to get the grasp of the story and understand the intrinsic meaning of every image I captured on my camera. I collaborated with a calligrapher and illustrator to design title lettering and publicity material and instead of briefing them about what I wanted, I showed them rough cuts and shared my fieldnotes with them.. in that sense what they created was based on an experiential brief.  

The key emotion in this story is hope .. it was interesting to see people from extremely contrasting cultures come together and fight for a common dream and grow in the process … enriching every single individual who participated in this cultural exchange .. it was also interesting to see how some human values remain common across the globe.. whether you live in a penthouse in Berlin or a dusty remote village in Rajasthan.