Part road movie, part spectacle, part human drama, Monsoon is a documentary exploration of chaos, creation and faith in the land of believers. The subject is monsoon, the incomparably vast seasonal weather system that permeates and unifies the immense and varied culture of India, shaping the conditions of existence for its billion-plus inhabitants.
Filmed across the Indian sub-continent and charting the huge system’s path as it surges toward and gradually engulfs every region of the country, Monsoon introduces us to a remarkable array of individuals whose lives are in different ways entwined with the phenomenon. There are the meteorologists, who seek to contain the monsoon within an explanatory net of scientific analysis and rational forecast; there is the neighborhood bookie who takes bets on the arrival of the rains; there are the farmers and fishermen, who depend on and contend with the system’s godlike, life-and-death caprices; there are the citizens of Mumbai, where the monsoon’s arrival is felt from the slums to the stock market to the dreamscapes of the Bollywood film; there are the nature conservationists who are concerned with the monsoon’s impact on the country’s endangered species; and there is the ordinary Indian family, for whom the annual deluge is part of a rhythmic cycle, at moments unfathomably cruel and joyously affirming.
A cinematic journey into the terrain where nature, science, belief and wonder converge in one of the most astonishing and breathtaking landscapes on earth, Monsoon is a film that captures the timelessness and rich human drama of our engagement with the natural world.
Monsoon was filmed over the course of the 2013 monsoon season using ultra high definition 4K Red Epic cameras, modified for extreme weather documentary shooting by Director of Photography Van Royko. Production began in south India, in the state of Kerala, where the monsoon first makes landfall. The production team, including Gunnarsson, Royko, location sound recordist Brice Picard, 'fixer' Amit Vachharanji and camera assistant Ari Gunnarsson, ‘surfed’ the monsoon from India’s southernmost point to its northeast corner in Assam, following the trajectory of the monsoon. Points in between included the Western Ghats, Goa, Mumbai, Pune, the Maharashtra drought region, Kolkata, Assam and Cherrapunji, the rainiest place on earth, in the state of Meghalaya -- ‘Place of the Clouds’. Production began in mid-May, two weeks before ‘onset’, and shot for 90 days, concluding in September, with the receding monsoon. Over 240 hours of 4K footage was captured. The film was edited in Toronto, from October, 2013 to May 2014, by legendary doc editor Nick Hector, whose credits include Alan King’s ‘Dying At Grace” and “Memory”, as well as Gunnarsson’s TIFF ‘People’s Choice Award’ winner, ‘Force of Nature’. 4K post was handled by Montreal’s Poste Moderne. The score was composed by Bombay Dub Orchestra’s Andrew T. MacKay, based on the Malhar ragas, and featuring some of the top Indian players and vocalists in Bombay and London. Sound-design and mix were executed by Montreal’s top sound team, Sylvain Bellemare and Bernard Gariépy Strobl in June/July, 2014.
An interview with MONSOON director Sturla Gunnarsson
What initially drew you to this story? What was it about India's monsoon that made you want to make a film about it?
'Monsoon' is my love letter to India. I've been romanced by the idea of monsoon since I can remember. I've travelled often and extensively throughout India, am married into a big Indian family and have long dreamed of experiencing the monsoon, so when (producer) Ina Fichman offered me the opportunity to make a film about it I jumped. I guess it's kind of personal on many levels. For one thing, I love weather, and I especially love big weather. Something about it brings me a feeling of mystery and awe that's as close to god as this non-believer will likely ever get. I've lived in India and made a film there (Such A Long Journey) and experienced how challenging and, on the face of it, impossible, everything can be there. Even a trip across town can be a whole-day affair. And despite this, in every photograph I've seen of myself in India, I have a big smile on my face. It's just something about the place, and especially the people, that makes me feel that, in spite of all the obstacles, things are possible. That sense of the possibility, of faith, is what drew me to this project. I saw in the monsoon an awful, beautiful, unfathomable phenomenon and wanted to both experience and meditate on it.
This is a visually stunning film, with sequences that immerse the viewer in the monsoon experience... how did you work with Van Royko to tell this story in such an engrossing way?
We wanted to make a highly cinematic film that captures the epic scale of the monsoon on the breathtaking Indian landscape, while maintaining an intimate sense of the humanity affected by it. All decisions were governed by those two criteria - the epic and the human.
In order to achieve maximum cinematic effect, we used Red Epic cameras which captured the images in ultra high definition 4K, which, in film terms, is roughly equivalent to 70mm. We utilized a full complement of lenses, from 14mm to 800mm, as opposed to the usual short zoom/long zoom doc combination. The combination of ultra high definition and ‘full metal jacket’ compliment of lenses led to a more cinematic approach to composition. Knowing that we were capturing such a detailed image allowed us to use wider shots, more tableaus and more formal compositions than we would usually use in a documentary. We felt that the spirit of the monsoon danced in the clouds and made extensive use of computer-controlled time-lapse photography, using the new Canon 1DC camera, which is one of the first DSLR cameras that captures 4K images.
That said, we were as interested in the intimate humanity on the landscape as we were in the landscape itself. To achieve the kind of documentary flexibility and nimbleness we were after, Van stripped the Red Epic (which is customarily used in more controlled studio settings) down to the bare bones - basically just the computer and the lenses - which allowed him to move freely and shoot the kind of hand-held style required in cinema-verite filmmaking. While shooting the verite, we tried to be very patient, situating ourselves in the fulcrum positions and allowing the action to come to us, rather than chasing it. This requires a fine balance of patience and intuition while being prepared to abandon pre-conceived plans as the situation dictated. And it requires the building of trust and intimacy with the subjects of the film.
We meet some unforgettable characters in Monsoon: Bishnu Shastri, the red-haired bookie who never seems to lose a weather bet, the desperate farmers whose land has been passed over by monsoon for years, 12-year-old Akhila Prasad, who's family is flooded right out of their home... what moments moved and surprised you most during the filming of these peoples' lives?
For me, the unifying characteristic of all the characters is their warmth and humanity, regardless of their circumstances. That said, Akhila is the one I love the most. Not only does her story form the emotional core of the film, but she's the one who first showed me the way into it.
I did a research trip 18 months before we began filming. I was deep in the Kerala backwaters in a small boat and got out to have a look around on the levee in front of her house. As I was getting my bearings, this sweet, assured, 12-year old girl walked up to me, looked me straight in the eye and asked, in perfect English, "where are you from?"
I answered, “Canada”, and she said it was exciting to meet someone from Canada. I asked where she learned to speak English. "School", she replied.
"Do you like monsoon?" "Yes, very much." "Why?" "Because monsoon is the beginning of school", she said. We talked a little more and I told her I'd be back in a year.
When we returned, eighteen months later, she remembered the exact date that we had met. I asked if she expected me to return. She smiled and shook her head. We were with her family at the beginning of the shoot, and at the end, when we witnessed their terrible losses and their faith in the face of them.
We have become friends and now communicate by email. They have rebuilt their house and she asks me to pray for her to have good results on her exams.
As we learn, India's economy revolves around the monsoon, for better and for worse... Can you tell me about this unique dependence that a billion people have with a weather pattern?
Nehru once said that ‘monsoon is the true finance minister of India’. It provides India with all of its annual fresh water supply. Everything they need to drink, for agriculture, for life comes from the monsoon. Historically, India was an agrarian economy so the importance of monsoon was elemental. Today, agriculture represents only about fifteen percent of India's GDP, so the impact of monsoon is not felt as directly as it was in the past, but it remains deeply rooted. Long-term IMD predictions of a good monsoon rally the stock market, as do the first rains in Bombay. Some of it is rational, some irrational, but it's deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. Public confidence and retail sales soar in a good monsoon, and decline in a poor one. The government plans its budget around it. Predictions of a poor monsoon result in money being set aside for grain purchase and famine relief. Predictions of rain surplus result in disaster and flood relief planning. The year we were filming, there was pressure on the government from the business community to increase interest rates and the government responded that they would make that determination - after the monsoon.
The film also explores the religious and spiritual history of monsoon... what did you learn about Indians' spiritual relationship with monsoon today?
India is a vast nation with over a billion inhabitants, speaking over thirty languages and hundreds of dialects, worshipping pretty much every religion on earth and hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of gods. What they have in common is that they are all believers. Their beliefs may differ fundamentally, but they all believe, and this feeling of the presence of god is for me the defining characteristic of India. It's a complicated theme for me to understand, as a non-believer, but the feeling is palpable and deeply moving. Monsoon season is a time when those feelings are in high relief. Monsoon is a powerful force, which governs the conditions of existence for all Indians and in that sense, has the characteristics of a god. That was the lens through which I looked at it. Our characters' relationship to the numinous quality of the monsoon gave me an understanding and appreciation of their faith.
There's an incredible scene where monsoon finally arrives in Mumbai, and we watch the whole city erupt with emotion... What was it like to witness this?
We were in the Western Ghats when we got word that the monsoon trough was on the move and would hit Bombay sooner than expected. We got in the van and drove eighteen hours straight, on some of the gnarliest roads I've ever experienced. We got to Bombay and headed down to Marine Drive, where there were thousands of people and a kind of carnival atmosphere. Old people, young people, lovers, vendors, musicians and beggars, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jains all strolling along the seawall watching as the monsoon clouds rolled in off the sea. The anticipation was palpable and the feeling was communal. The sense of one people, living in the same moment, experiencing the same elemental event. Lightening cut the sky and the monsoon rains arrived. Some people huddled under umbrellas, others got soaked in the warm baptism of rain and I felt this incredible sense of oneness with the thousands of people on the seawall.
On most shoots, you work around bad weather, but on Monsoon, you're in the middle of one of the largest and most disruptive weather events on earth... what were some of the challenges for you as a filmmaker?
Much of the filming took place in extreme weather, which we used a combination of high-tech/low-tech strategies to cope with. The cameras were protected by waterproof fabric rain-casings and we used a high-speed rain deflector in front of the lenses when possible. As glass is always a little cooler than the atmosphere, we kept the lenses wrapped in battery-powered electric blankets to minimize fogging. Probably our most important piece of technology was a large umbrella, strategically operated by my son, Ari, who was Van's assistant. They moved around as one unit and were remarkably in sync. With the waterproof casing, the rain deflector and the inclement weather, the single most important asset we had at our disposal was Van's eye and his highly evolved muscle-memory with the Red Epic. Somehow, in the midst of all this, he was able to focus, pull aperture, ramp the capture speed and compose stunning images. Another key member of the team was our sound-recordist, Brice Picard, who used a full battery of radio mikes, directional mikes and stereo mikes that allowed him to capture intimate dialogue in extreme conditions, while also capturing the rich, aural landscape.
The film transports the viewer to India's different regions: mountains, plains, desert, forests and coastline, as we watch them get transformed by the rains... What has stayed with you since filming Monsoon?
India is one of the most astonishing and breathtaking landscapes on earth. My strongest memory is not of one particular geographical location but rather that of a psychic place where nature, science, belief and wonder converge.
What would you like viewers to take away from the experience of Monsoon?
I'd like the audience to experience the beautiful/terrible spectacle of the monsoon, and to reflect on the sense of mystery and awe that it inspires.