Street Talk

Kaz Rahman

Kaz Rahman is an artist and filmmaker. His work has screened or been exhibited at venues such as Anthology Film Archives, National Film Board of Canada, Andy Warhol Museum, and The San Jose Museum of Art. His feature films Salaat (2010) and Deccani Souls (2012) have played across India and have been featured in The Times of India, The Hindu, and The Indian Express.  He has an MFA in Media Arts (writing/directing) from City College (CUNY) and is currently a faculty member in Film/Video at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

Documenting the Invisible: An interview with Kaz Rahman


Braddock Avenue Books: You’ve been trained as a visual artist and you’ve spent considerable time working in film/ video. These media are quite different from print. Would you describe your relationship to books and how you first became interested in them as inspirations for your work?  In fact, is “inspiration” the right word to use?

Kaz Rahman: I have always read a lot, from children’s storybooks to literature to poetry to essays . . . at the same time, writing has a strange relationship to cinema—every film begins on paper and yet the process of shooting it takes place in tangible locations with numerous cast and crew. The subtlety, nuance, and poetics of language in the screenplay have no bearing at all since the audience is in fact seeing the cinematic visualization of the written word; even in so-called straight adaptations dialogue needs to be reworked extensively.

I also think that to some extent every medium requires looking outside of that medium for ideas, sources, and “inspiration.”

BAB: One of your abiding interests concerns the way self-meditation engages with broader social and cultural investigations. Your film Deccani Souls (2012), which deals with cultural genocide and your personal history, is certainly a film that achieves that objective. It also has a direct link to Nickolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. When you read Gogol’s work, what attracted you? Was it the poet figure? The political message? The style or structure? Was it that “engagement” of the personal and political?

KR: It's an unfinished work—a strange story where an idea comes to life and then abruptly ends without any reason or resolution. For me it was a source of inspiration because of its open-endedness—it left open possibilities through this wandering, poetic structure and with this ghoulish character (Chichikov) as a kind of spiritual used car salesman. I was attracted by the metaphysical thread to the afterlife, the representation of a kind of purgatory . . .

BAB: Gogol’s novel has had a somewhat contentious history. Some interpreters have understood it as a critique of a society’s habits of mind whereas others have reveled in its surreal style. And some readers see both tendencies at work. But one quality everyone can agree on is that it’s a Russian novel. Could we talk about your relationship to place? You’ve studied and lived throughout the world—Toronto, New York, Budapest, Moscow, and of course Hyderabad, India, which is the central terrain of Deccani Souls.  In terms of the film, you began by looking for locations outside of the area where the historical events that inform the film actually occurred. What made you come back to that physical location? What made you overlook it to begin with? 

KR: I have visualized many scenes by living in and exploring the underside of city/landscape. In that regard the actual sensations of physical place are much more important to me than the writing about place because the visualization of space and character(s) comes first and writing it down in a script format comes afterwards. I read Gogol's novel way back in 1998 when I was living in Russia and the darkly comic purpose of “collecting souls” stuck with me through subsequent treatments/scripts over the following decade. I think the starting point for me from Gogol's novel was the idea of the “travelling dealer” through this surreal landscape.

The winter scenes in the film were in initial versions of the script, but the subject of Hyderabad and its history came much later when I had already been living there for a couple of years and realized that the events of 1948—when this Princely State was invaded and captured by the Indian Army in Operation Polo in a matter of days—and the bloody aftermath in the outlying districts were still haunting the seemingly prosperous and modernizing city. I had been aware of the history since my childhood but didn't realize that my film needed to be about that until I had literally soaked in the culture, atmosphere, locations, characters, and history of Hyderabad and realized I couldn't get away from it even if I wanted to.

BAB: In your film, you’ve included the real-life poet Siddiq—the name means “truthful”—who might be thought of as a spiritual descendant of Chichikov in Gogol’s novel. What appeals to you about this figure? More specifically, what creative opportunities did a figure like that offer?

KR: The poet Siddiq really lived the role and was familiar with the historical events of 1948. He wrote the poetry we hear at the end of the film and has a brooding charisma that helps set the tone of Deccani Souls. I was interested in reflecting the writer’s struggle to create in an environment of decaying splendor—and with the specter of Operation Polo and its aftermath looming large in both the locations and the words his grandfather wrote.

Siddiq’s character comes towards the events of 1948 from reading, writing and observing while the character of Babu comes towards these same events through detailed conversations that no one wants to have.  It is actually Babu who is loosely based on Gogol's Chichikov—but Babu’s character has a kind of charm and humor that is appealing in a different way and is mixed with the attention to detail and the anti-fashion of the Indian bureaucrat.  Instead of buying up the names of the dead serfs (Gogol’s novel) under the guise of a census collector, he offers a fee to the homeowner who signs away any potential reparations. The actor (Babu) gives an amazing performance and part of that was his real personality coming out. There is also a tender side to him (unlike Chichikov), which we see at the dinner party when he is fatherly in helping his son finish his food.  Tragically, Babu passed away before the film had been finished.

BAB: There is a considerable amount of “white space” in your films, places where the visual narrative is left to speak for itself. Salaat, for example has a great deal of this.  So does Deccani Souls, yet both works use this white space to develop strong narrative content. In Gogol’s novel, the detail—specific, concrete, quotidian—might be seen as a kind of white space as well, a place where we’re left alone with the stuff of existence. Did Gogol give you any suggestions for negotiating cinematic white space?  

KR: Negotiating some of the white space was very innate while other parts took a lot of time and deliberation in the editing process. I would rather say there is an influence from 1960's Italian/French cinema or 1990's Iranian cinema.

BAB: The literary world is increasingly interested in works of fiction that contain a mix of realistic and fantastical elements. A risk for the writer is that the fun of invention can overwhelm the moral purpose, as it did for certain of Gogol’s readers. Your film, like Gogol’s book, uses surreal elements to make a deeply moral point. You’ve talked, for example, about how the film is meant to address the danger of living in forgetfulness.  Did Gogol offer any guidance—or cautions—to you as you made Deccani Souls?

KR: Yes that is true; however, at the same time a moral purpose is not a style. In Deccani Souls the challenge was to not hit people over the head with the aftermath of Operation Polo but instead slowly descend into it. There is virtually no visual documentation of what happened, but there is the official government-sanctioned report, which is incredibly detailed, and of course eyewitness and oral accounts. I used only a small portion of the report and oral accounts. I could have used much more to drive home that moral purpose, but then where do you stop? The surreal tone is what holds the pieces together—I don't think a naturalistic approach could do justice to any massacre. The film is also about memory and dreams and how the two start to slide together . . . and time itself becomes malleable.