Intersecting Loneliness with Migration: An Interview with a Young Punjabi Film-maker
Hailing from Amritsar, Punjab, Shubham Sharma’s meticulously shot short film, Even Fake Flowers Have Scent On Happy Days (2020) about a smart young man, haunted by his loneliness and the past, decides to find solace in a tape recorder. And how that tape recorder becomes the friend he didn’t know he needed. Exploring the themes of loneliness, rootlessness, and migration through the splintered life of a young educated man, Shubham narrates a painfully intimate story without succumbing to the conventional gimmicky tone of short film form.
Shubham Sharma has made four short films. made 4 short films. His first film “Memoria” was officially selected in Berlin International Film Fest, New York International Independent Film Fest, and won as best experimental in Prague’s EuroKino Film Fest.
Can you tell me about the source of inspiration for the movie?
My initial inspiration was a short story by Murakami, The Kangaroo Communique. While I was trying to understand that character’s motives in it, I think I ended up far away from my initial thoughts. The idea for the protagonist became more autobiographical than I intended. Moreover, the main source of the inspiration was boiled down to this fear I felt at that time, of being stuck. As I came back to my hometown after a while, and noticed most of my friends and people around me has left the country. Then I started imagining a city without youth, and someone stuck in it, whose circumstances doesn’t allow him to reach where he wants to be. I think there are a lot of those people around us whose loneliness goes unnoticed.
I’d like to know more about your style, particularly the predilection for long static shots and maintaining a sort of objective distance to the subject
Me and Vaibhav, who did the camera work and also helped during the lengthy pre-production phase, were very much on the same page from the first day about the pacing and the limited movement of the camera. The film revolves around a character who is dealing with his loneliness in his own self-assured journey on a tight rope, which is the only way I could imagine someone dealing a reality they have no real control over. So, the film for me existed in how he behaved rather than what he said. Therefore, even when I was writing the script, opting for a close-up felt like invading without a motive. And that feeling of being boxed-in inside a house, made us agree on this aspect ratio and long static shots with no movement unless absolutely necessary. Just like the life in that city.
The narrative’s core theme of loneliness also makes a subtle commentary on Punjab’s migrant crisis. Can you tell us more about this social reality?
When it comes to the mainstream media’s representation of Punjab, its people, and their issues, the image presented is mostlyflamboyant. The reality of Punjab is in fact very similar to a lot of other states, especially with the lack of employment opportunities. Youngsters feel stuck as there are neither good work opportunities nor decent education structure, hence they decide to migrate; either to other states or other countries. Just in the past decade there is a record number of Punjab’s population moving and settling in Canada. Almost all of the people I know are either already there or are planning to. And what’s left behind is I believe this movie is about. There are people who are in-between all of this. Who cannot leave, but also can’t find a purpose to stay. Like the protagonist, who work in a store at a mall only because that’s where he’ll get paid most.
Your film is about a lonely, self-reflexive young man at crossroads in life; an individual whose emotions are in a state of flux. What pushed you to capture life in its flux?
I think a person will always remain at the crossroad, starting from the smallest of decision one has to make. While writing the screenplay I knew that I cannot confide in a single ending. In fact, the idea that I can’t do it actually became the solution. The decision that would he send the tape or not, proposed equal amount of relief and guilt. We might find people who know the answers to which way they’ll turn when the crossroads are presented. But I personally find it hard to assume, any moment before reaching that crossroad. As there might be a flower with a scent present there, to make me decide otherwise.
The film was shot at your home. Can you tell me the experience of exploring such an intimate as well as mundane space through the camera?
This is the second film I shot at home. Vaibhav spent time finding the right angles because I think it became a very interesting space when seen through the camera. It made the careless architecture work in our favor. Since this character resembled me under certain circumstances, it felt like the place where he could exist. Hence, financial constraints weren’t the only reason. The opening shot of him entering the house and camera following him and establishing the space was one of the first images I imagined, which became the foundation. This choice also gave my mother all the comfort she needed to play herself in the film.
The formal construction itself is the crucial aspect of your film-making style. Apart from setting up a static frame how did you know how and where to cut or make the transition? I’m asking this because the editing decision bestows an elegant flow to the narrative.
Honestly, we didn’t really make all those choices regarding the editing beforehand. In fact, the only thing we really cared about during the shooting was the continuity and the pacing. Editing was where I found myself completely paralyzed. I never thought my first cut would be around 50 mins long. And it took me one-and-a-half year and several editors to reach the final version. But once I started working with Aniruddh, most of my anxiety settled down. It’s not difficult to find an editor with skill, but it’s difficult to find an editor who understands the film and it’s pacing. Once we understood the pacing and its chronology, he made the cuts seem effortless. But I am glad I took this long to finish it. As it gave me some time to work on my perspective which led to the necessary decisions of letting go some of the unnecessary material.
The title implies one’s idea of ‘perception’. What do you think retains the power to change one’s perception of isolation and ennui? The idea of artistic expression or the mere idea of a ‘listener’?
The relationship between him [the protagonist] and the listener doesn’t seem as odd as one might imagine. He believes in the listener’s existence to an extent that he even controls our imagination. We don’t know if there is someone there, or the gender of the person or their preferences. We know nothing, just like him. Except the fact that that person knows English because of the note the store received. But other than that, it’s completely his imagination that creates a shape, if not the listener’s identity. Gradually, we see him getting comfortable with the listener with each passing scene. And the very formal tone transitions into such a deep conversational tone. Just like in any relationship; even when he casually mentions the thought that just occurs to him, pertainingto the film’s title. It’s the association of that scent to ‘happiness’ – which I’d like to believe – is the reason he makes that final decision.