And, Towards Happy Alleys, Sreemoyee Singh's debut non-fiction work based in Iran, unfolds with the intimacy of a journal.
A still from And, Towards Happy Alleys
Sreemoyee Singh chanced upon Iranian cinema like most people find love: fortuitously. In 2010, she was a student in Kolkata and, as any other 20-year-old, confused. Singh was a film scholar but her interest was oriented to do something more creative, with a deep-rooted passion for poetry. Her education was yet to reconcile with her vocation. “I was disillusioned when I enrolled in film studies,” the filmmaker shares. But everything fell into place when, as part of the course, she was introduced to Iranian cinema — fortuitously.
“When I watched Iranian films, it reaffirmed my faith in cinema,” she says. Singh watched the neorealist films by the architects of the Iranian new wave like Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and studied them in conjunction with the iconoclastic Persian poet Forugh Farrokhzad’s work. It made sense. Farrokhzad was one of the key literary figures in 20th century Iran. Her frank and bold writing was imbued with a distinct feminine subjectivity that several male filmmakers later borrowed in their work.
For Singh, the module subliminally brought together the two things she was seeking the most: love for poetry and the desire to do something creative. The confluence bore tangible results. She went on to do her PhD on the filmmakers who were exiled after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran — a decisive moment in history that ushered in new diktats on censorship. And, with her stipend money, she travelled to the place and trained her camera on the country she had only seen through borrowed lenses. The result is And, Towards Happy Alleys, her debut non-fiction work based in Iran that unfolds with the intimacy of a journal.
In the film, Singh assumes the position of a flâneuse. She walks about with a camera and observes her surroundings. But she also breaks the non-committal stance by actively interacting with people around her (filmmakers Panahi, Mohammad Shirvani make an appearance, as do human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh and other women), occupying public spaces and singing in a country where the act is banned for women. What emerges from this is a compassionate portrait of Iran bursting at the seams with female resistance that eventually erupted in 2022; an alternate narrative that counters the media peddled victim-villain rendering of the place. She fills the film with her voice overs, willingly posits herself in front of the camera and looks at the country from an interstitial position where she is a foreigner and yet as a woman, acutely attuned to the language of subjugation prevalent in the country. She is both the archiver and the archived. Singh is the storyteller and the protagonist of the story she has carefully tracked for four years (2015-2019).
And, Towards Happy Alleys is a lovechild of curiosity and intent that tonally feels like an extension of the very films it was inspired from. The film is dotted with moments which are reenactments of classics, brought together with such emotional nakedness that it compels one to look away while making it impossible to do so. But if it never becomes showy fan service it is because Singh approaches it from an informed position. On her first visit, she enrolled herself in an intensive Persian course in Tehran university. The fruits of her labour are evident in the film. People open up to her more willingly; at some point Panahi admits he does not give interviews but is making an exception for her. Looking back, the filmmaker concedes it was destined. “Everyone knew the story I wanted to tell, and in a way they wanted it too.”
The outing premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival in 2023 and since then has been part of several film festivals across the globe. In India, it premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival this year, followed by Dharamshala International Film Festival and more recently, it played at Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF). At the sidelines of the recently-concluded KIFF, she spoke to this correspondent about the makings of the documentary, the obstacles she had to overcome and if it is a good time to be a non-fiction maker in India.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What convinced you to travel to Iran to make the documentary?
There were two things happening — I was inspired by the filmmakers and I was inspired by Forough. The films depicted an inner-portrait of Iran that showcased resilience. It defied the way the place has been traditionally narrativised by Western media. Forough, on the other hand, was writing in the 1960s . She was one of the few Iranian women who did not use a (masculine) pen name, and wrote extensively about desires, female bodies and sexualities. I was 21 when I read her poems and felt if she can do it in Iran then I should at least try to take the leap.
Love and curiosity came before everything else. The desire to visit Iran came before that. My degree and the film were a means to reach Iran. Everyone asks me what preceded what and I do not know what to tell them. I was fuelled by the passion to meet the people and understand how they live in a place that leaves little room for dignity for living. How does one go on? This was in 2015, when things in India were also changing drastically.
Watching And, Towards Happy Alleys is reckoning with the merit of the genre of nonfiction. Several moments in the film unfold with such serendipity that they could not have been staged in a fictional setting. Were you certain from the outset that you wanted to helm a nonfiction?
For me, nonfiction is the act of picking up a camera and recording what is around you. It is about being in control. I didn’t think I could do anything in fiction because there was no training as such. I assisted Ranjan Palit (the four-time National Award winning cinematographer) which impacted me greatly and gave me the power to hold a camera. Besides, Iranian cinema is fiction but they are filmed as nonfiction. It is a blurry zone. It is one of the characteristics of new wave which is similar to Italian neorealism where you shoot with real light. The people in the film are not necessarily actors and things occur in real locations. In that sense, nonfiction came very naturally.
Logistically, too, it made sense. It was impossible to travel with a team in Iran. I knew that I had to do it myself. The whole idea was to keep myself safe, following the rules so that I don’t get caught for the wrong reason. Because I was a tourist, it was easier to switch on the camera in outdoor spaces, and shoot in a clandestine manner. If I had a crew, this would not have been possible. I knew I wanted to shoot interviews of the filmmakers and stories of the regular people. I had a camera, I knew about Iranian cinema and I had a sound recorder. The only way they could come together is through the simplest form of storytelling: documentary.
One of the most joyous bits about watching your film is witnessing Panahi interacting with people, gleefully holding the camera. They are all the more noteworthy because the filmmaker’s career has been mired with state-issued bans and crafted by navigating house arrests. How did you approach him and how was it documenting him?
When I visited Iran for the first time, I was very blatant in my approach. I would meet journalists and tell them that I have come from so far and they have to connect me with filmmakers. By the time I met Panahi, at least five people had told him that there is this Indian girl who has come all the way to meet him. Honestly, I had given up. My tickets were booked and everyone said he was not there. Then a week prior to me leaving Tehran, I got this text. It said, “Salaam Sreemoyee. Welcome to Tehran. Let’s meet tomorrow”. I had my final exam the next day. I went after that, carrying my books, camera and tripod. He gave me three full days. Over the course of the shooting, he became the friend and the guide who propelled the narrative forward. I hadn’t foreseen that.
Panahi has a 20-year ban on filmmaking. But he is so happy-go-lucky. I thought he’d be a serious, heavy-duty filmmaker. He was anything but that, and never made me feel like he was a celebrity. He is very mischievous (laughs). He provokes you and gets the better of you. When I went to his house for the first time, he asked me to pat the iguana at his door (fans of Panahi’s This Is Not a Film will get the reference) and said I had to befriend it.
When you meet him you also recognise the many ways he defies the system. He knows he cannot make films so he directs through us. For instance, I knew I would perhaps meet Aida Mohammadkhani (the child actor in Panahi’s 1995 film, The White Balloon) but there was no way I had envisioned it to transpire the way it did. Panahi asked her to cry, like she did in the film many years ago, and she did it again just by looking at him. Holding the camera at that moment, I became Panahi’s cinematographer. He finds people around him and uses them as vehicles to tell his stories. He also had this habit of constantly saying “cut” while being filmed. I told him, “Stop saying that, you know I will not cut.” I did not.
When Berlin happened, he was in prison. A part of me didn’t know how to convey the news to him. I told Nasreen (the award-winning lawyer who herself faced imprisonment and was later released in November this year) who told his wife. I know he knew it but I don’t know how he felt about it. But all of us agreed that he must be chuckling, thinking that he was in jail but he has a film out there.
Did your perception of Iran alter after visiting it?
We tend to associate regime with people. Even as a 25-year-old, the segregation was clear in my head. I knew there was this Islamic regime that I needed to be careful about. But I also knew the people there would be beautiful, desirous of resistance. A lot of it had to do with the fact that my initiation to Iran was through poetry and cinema.
Iran was everything I thought it would be. And the reason people there took me seriously was because this phenomenon had not happened before. No one had spoken to them in their language. We are used to the West or different parts of the world making films about us. We are supposed to speak to them in their language. Since I had taken the effort to learn the language, nobody treated me as a fangirl.
I have built lasting friendships there which is an upshot of making a documentary. It is not a one-way street. Unless you live with people whose stories you want to tell, there will be no trust. In the end, they should be wanting to tell the story through you. This is precisely what happened to me. When the protests broke out last year, the film was almost ready. I was pitching everywhere but got little money. Serendipitously, my friends from Iran called me and said, “Sreemoyee if you don’t tell our stories now then when will you? The world needs to know what is happening.” I just knew it was time. I went to a couple of pitching forums and soon, everything fell into place. Within three months the film was done. Berlinale accepted it in December and a week later, my PhD convocation happened.
Given the lack of homegrown funding opportunities for Indian documentarians, how demanding was the process of putting things together?
I went to Iran five times. The first time it was fully self-funded. After coming back, I started pitching to places like DocedgeKolkata, a singular incubation centre in Asia, Sheffield DocFest in England, DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in South Korea. I got very little money, which aided the later visits. I still need to raise money to pay everyone, even myself because I haven’t been paid.
At the pitching forums, it was difficult for people to wrap their heads around the documentary. They loved the guts of it but no forum believed that it could be done. Everyone asked me one question: Why was an Indian making a film on Iran? My point is: Why not? Why can’t I have empathy for people across the border? In Gaza, children are dying. You are not supposed to ask whose children?
The world is obsessed with people telling stories about their community. But my informed outsider position helped me to get to the stories we don’t hear about. Panahi admitted that he would not have opened up to any other Iranian person. Having said that, pitching forums also open up other opportunities. Some curator remembers you and that helps your film in some way.
Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’ Writing with Fire got an Oscar nomination in 2022 and Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes repeated the feat the next year; Kartiki Gonsalves’s The Elephant Whisperers won India's first Oscar in 2023. Internationally, Indian documentaries are being lauded at festival circuits. Would you say it's a good time to be making nonfiction in India?
It is a great time. Take Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched for instance. It is a political documentary and the fact that it found its audience through festivals and private screenings gives me a lot of hope. So does Sarvnik Kaur’s Against The Tide. They have set the ball rolling. People take Indian filmmakers seriously now which was not the case in 2015 when I was pitching. We struggled a lot.
But then, it also depends on the story. The reason it took me almost seven years to complete this film is because my story was different. It is a little niche — at least people perceive it like that. For me it is a universal story. But the market is obsessed with certain kinds of stories which lean more towards character-driven narratives. It gets confused if it is a more personal film or there are more characters. Things changed after Berlin picked it up. I hope people and the industry open up to unconventional forms of storytelling in documentaries.