We sat down with co-directors of Flickering Lights, Anupama Srinivasan and Anirban Duttato discuss what they learned during this project, how they built meaningful relationships with the community of Tora and how they work together as a filmmaking duo.

When did you first come across Tora and what drew you to tell this story?

Anirban: We have a long association with that region of India, with Manipur and Nagaland. Since 2005, we’ve done many projects there including training young people in filmmaking and photography, etc. During one such visit, Anupama and I were there together, and we found out that – like many previous times – the government had promised people in the village that they would finally get electricity. We wanted to explore this process of so-called development, how it works, how it’s ‘delivered’ and how it changes or doesn’t change dynamics in the village.

Anupama: To give you some context about how Northeast India is generally represented in mainstream media, if and when it comes – and it’s normally very rare – it’s because there’s been some instance of violence. Another way is in travel shows in which there is a lot of exoticisation of communities such as the Naga community. As filmmakers, we’re very aware of this image. With our filmmaking, how do we totally shatter this existing representation and just relate to people as human beings? You’ll see there’s not one shot of the villagers doing traditional dance in their costume. They’re dressed just like you and me, working in the fields, dreaming of a better life for their children. For us, it was important to use this film as a bridge to a community which actually feels quite alienated from mainland India.


One thing that struck me is how comfortable and uninhibited the villagers are in front of the camera. How did you facilitate a level of trust between you as filmmakers and the community?

Anupama: The film was made over 3 to 4 years of off-and-on shooting. When we started, the electricity department told us it would take two months for light to come. So we’d imagined we’d shoot a little bit before electricity came and the film would be about what comes after. But then it transformed when the process itself became the story and the whole thing became about waiting. Along with the people in the village, we were also waiting and in that we were aligned.

One thing we decided to do was always go and stay in the village. We were allotted our own quarters: the whole crew would sleep in one room next to where the electricity guys were staying. We weren’t just going to shoot in the village and then going back to the comfort of running water and electricity in the nearby town. We could have done, but we wanted to live like everyone there, experience that for ourselves. Once people saw that, that was one way they started accepting us.

This was the first time people from mainland India had stayed in this kind of small village in Manipur for so many days. At first, it was a bit weird for them to be filmed so they were quite shy. But after a while they got used to our presence and understood we were there along with them and had no other agenda. We’ve kept those dialogues in the film where they refer to the filmmakers. And you can see a shift in the way they look at us throughout the film. We kept those references in to show how their acceptance (or not) of us was changing over time.

Logistically speaking, I can imagine filming in a village without power might have brought up some challenges. What were the main (if any) challenges you faced while making Flickering Lights?

Anirban: I wouldn’t say there was a lot of challenges. There were some difficulties, but the most beautiful part of it was that we were accepted in the village with open arms. We could go to any home that we wanted to. It’s an agrarian society so people get up very early and by 8:30/9am, they have what they call lunch, but it’s actually brunch. And they then have their dinner. At around 3pm, everybody has a cup of tea. Whenever we were in the village, wherever we were, we could just go in and they would invite us for a cup of tea. We were like any other person in the village. That was the biggest learning experience – that we could have a society where the boundaries of the house are very transparent. People can come in and out, doors are hardly locked. These were our takeaways and learnings.

Of course there were issues of charging batteries. We had 24 batteries for our camera because charging was an issue. We had a small generator which we would use because our villagers said they had difficulties seeing what they were eating at night because of those solar lights. So they asked us if we could switch on the generator when it was dinner time. But I think those were very minor, if at all, challenges. What we gained was far, far greater. To see a society which was very transparent, where money had a very small role to play. I think this is something we need to learn, to be more community-oriented, be more sharing and not see how rich or poor you are as an indicator of which class you belong to. It was pretty much a classless society.


You’ve just released Nocturnes, which is your second film together. Could you talk a bit about your collaborative filmmaking process?

Apunama: Anirban and I have been making films for 20 years. We had been doing our own work for many years but in 2015, we started collaborating. The main reason was to embark on a project that was more ambitious in terms of time and resources because we knew we’d have to stay outside in the village for many days on end. Filmmaking can often become a very difficult and lonely process if you embark on it alone. In a way we started because we thought this was something that would need two brains, two artists working together and supporting each other.

The main thing that helps us work together is a shared cinematic vision. We feel that the potential of cinema is so much more than telling a story. For us, the story is a thread that keeps the film going but actually what we’re getting at is much deeper. We want to give the audience an experience that can only be felt through visuals and sound. So we have a shared vision of what kind of cinema we want to make, which helps when we start on an endeavour like this feature doc.

In Flickering Lights, we had a lot of discussions around the visual language before we started shooting. We made very definitive choices, such as shooting the film with a 50mm lens. We’re both huge fans of the Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu. He not only shot with a 50mm lens but also, he kept the camera height about 3 feet above the ground which suited the characters in his films because they would sit on a tatami (a rectangular mat with floor little legs in traditional Japan) and in our village in Tora, people sat on those low stools which lent itself to that camera height. So in a way, this is our way of giving tribute to someone we admire greatly.

In post-production, we both have very different skills. I’m more interested in editing so I don’t mind going through our 360 hours of footage, and making cuts after cuts over years. Anirban loves working with sound, revisiting the location again and again so we can enrich the soundscape of the place and make you feel like you’re right there. We took this even further in Nocturnes, where we could really take the sound design to a much deeper level.

Anirban: We make films for the cinema. We want people to be transported to another world in a dark room. I hope that when people watch Flickering Lights, they’ll feel like they are with us in the village. And for that what is very important is patience. When you visit a person’s home, you sit there in their living room and try to have a conversation: you’re not in a hurry. We want our audience to make this journey to this village where they can stay with the people, go through their small joys, celebrate Christmas with them, see the first bulb that glows. The idea is to embed you in that space with the visuals and the sound.

This can only happen when I give you enough time to look at the image. When you look at an image for long enough, you make your own inferences. We want to give our audience the space to make their own inferences and narratives. For us, cinema is an interaction, which needs space and time. Temporality is very important for our film: how long do you hold the shot, how are you holding the shot. What are you hearing? In Nocturnes, we took it to another level.

Our work is always in conversation with each other. Here, you are embedded in this village in Northeast India. Our next film (Nocturnes) is in one of the neighbouring states, where we are in a forest looked after by two other Indigenous communities. There is an interaction between the insect world and the humans: we embed you in that forest. We always try to create that environment where audiences get transported to this world.

Flickering Lights is released at Bertha DocHouse on Fri 17 May 2024. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity