An exciting new documentary that follows three young boys from Koti as they grapple with questions about religion and growing up
Farha Alam is a first time filmmaker who has spent the last two years researching and co-directing The Superstars of Koti (TSOK). The elegiac trailer of this feature- full of the kind of images that make you press pause again and again- had us wanting to know more about the film.
TSOK follows three young boys from a remote Himalayan village as they grapple with their relationship with the Mountain God and grow older over two crucial years.
We can’t wait to join Farha and co-director Anuj Adlakha as they delve deeper into the lives of these young boys .
The movie should release early next year. Until then, here is the trailer. Take a look, and read on as Farha talks about her passion project.
Could you tell us a little bit about the background to this story. Where did the inspiration for this film strike you? Are you from the region near Koti, or did you hear about this elsewhere?
The film is a triptych; 3 stories from diverse contexts rest on one tiny common thread as they come together and unwrap themselves. These stories are set on a layer of circumstances that serve as a background to the characters lives. If I had to give you an essence I’d say the film is about the way children invest in identities, hierarchies, friendships, and arguments.
None of us are from the region but my uncle who stays in Uttarakhand first mentioned this story to me. We were frivolously drawn by the idea of deitydom, rituals and a faraway culture but later what drove us was the idea of faith in children.
Koti is a very small village with gigantic grasslands, dense forests and after our first 2-3 months of shooting we knew almost all the children there. Right from the beginning we knew we wanted to tell a coming-of-age story in this unexplored territory, in the backdrop of an ancient culture. It helped that the boys opened up easily in front of the camera, leading to a frank-yet-intimate narrative.
Even in the five minute snippet I’ve seen of your film, it is apparent that the three young boys (the ‘superstars’) have very different personalities. How did they react to being filmed and to the entire experience?
They’re all very different, yes!
They were all very comfortable with the equipment and us. We gave them a short brief when we first arrived and for the next two years they just went along with the flow! Two of my characters, Devdass and Prakash live in the village and even though they were fascinated by the process in the beginning, they became more comfortable with it than Kuldeep, who lives in the city and has been introduced to filming and cameras before. Prakash was so inquisitive he used to try on each piece of equipment on his own! Kuldeep had a lot of inhibitions initially since he understood the extent of technology and was very hesitant with the camera. It took my co-director Anuj weeks to make him comfortable with the process.
The boys evolved emotionally with us tremendously. Each visit introduced to us a new trajectory of their lives, which also made it extremely challenging during the edit. The entire film is like a little epoch, a time where the characters transition literally from A to Z, giving the audience a sense of a play, a stage or a sketched story from the beginning till it ends. Because we realized that’s how children also are. And it was urgent to treat it that very way.
It is very difficult to film young children without becoming emotionally invested in them. How was the experience for you, and do you plan to stay in touch with them in some way?
I have a deep attachment for this age and had to hold myself back a number of times. The entire crew had to. One can’t even imagine the extent to which emotion can guide one’s pathetically strong ideals. We wanted to be sensitive to their stories, and didn’t want to invade their lives too much, because we knew we would part some day.
The whole experience was a strange mix of freedom and restriction, love-hate, gratitude and above all a sense of familiarity that we all left with. The city seldom gives us that. The children made the film happen and gave us all unsaid lessons in honesty and fierce innocence. That’s the most brilliant part of working with kids. They revolutionize you and your ethics for good. They’re fantastic teachers.
I am in touch with all of them! We talk once a month and we plan to visit soon, yes
Could you tell us a little bit about the working relationship between Anuj and you? How does a collaborative process work in something like direction, which can be a fairly individualistic endeavor at times?
I doubt any process for a craftsperson can be wholly individualistic. It all depends on how you think of recording what affects you. Anuj and I have a similar attitude but see things from different facets and textures. While filming, he let me take the lead since we both believe that has to be done with one pair of eyes. On the edit table his word took precedence. We’ve been collaborating since college and that has helped build a fundamental connect and comfort level with each other.
I’d love to hear a little bit about the process you had to go through to make this film, to get it produced, and ready for release as a young filmmaker.
I was absolutely sure I didn’t want to assist anyone after college, but would rather learn by experimenting on our own. In fact both of us believed that we were better off doing odd jobs than being on someone else’s set.
Yes, it gets a difficult when you start borrowing money without any responses from producers. But luckily Films Division got back to us, and we couldn’t be happier! A lot of help came in from our Jamia teachers, parents, friends and Taj, my musician. We planned the whole production schedule in flexible modules enabling us to go back to the region again and again.
Stitching a narrative was the most overwhelming part because that’s when we saw our film for the very first and the 100th time. I feel that everyone making their first film should edit on their own because you learn so much! It’s such a demanding process and you come out a new person; reformed, disciplined, patient and much more educated.
What’s next for the Superstars of Koti?
The Superstars of Koti will have its first screening in Koti itself on a cold wintery night in the village courtyard. We’re going to be applying to film festivals now and hope to start touring from next year. We’ve been told that it won’t be easy since we don’t know many festival programmers or distributors. Regardless of that, we want to take it to small towns, our own ancestral villages and some of our friend’s too.
Could you share your thoughts about documentary filmmaking vis a vis narrative filmmaking? How do you think we as an audience can support documentaries?
Firstly, I’d like to classify TSOK as resting on the borders of both, in terms of a storyline per se. Documentaries live with a massive burden of relaying urgent subjects with usually a passive story and that’s how we’ve been conditioned to appreciate them too. Fiction- which I’m tilted towards, cleverly appeals to the mundaneness that we live with and gives more than asks, which I believe can be one of the reasons of the tilted interest. So the ‘vis a vis’ is a very thin line for me and for the film. What’ve I tried here is to create something like those short stories we used to read in primary school where there was a beginning, middle and an end, almost unnoticeable. This leaves me to work on not only the representation of my subjects but also ensures that the audience travels along with the narrative. So I would say that my documentary is first and foremost a story.
With films like Katiyabaaz and Gulaabi Gang, we’re in an extremely eccentric phase and I couldn’t be happier. The audience seems to be walking towards this realm. Honestly, all craftspersons too should get away from city-tie ups and look inwards towards the mountains, small towns and the most unexplored territories.
Lastly, what is the last movie you watched- good or bad? What are some of your favourite films and filmmakers from recent years?
The last film I saw which I’d seen already was La Mala Educacion (Bad Education) by Pedro Almodovar, which I’m quite fond of. I actually want to mention a film that I absolutely can’t wait to watch- ‘Before the Last Curtain Falls’ by Thomas Wallner which is about stories of a group of transsexuals and drag queens in their sixties and seventies. One of my favourite documentary is the Israel-Palestine set Promises and in fiction, the Death Trilogy by Gonzales Innaritu.
Innaritu is almost a mentor in-spirit.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Farha. We can’t wait to hear more about The Superstars of Koti, and will be carrying another feature on the film closer to its release date.
All images property of The Superstars of Koti. Please contact Farha Alam or Anuj Adlakha if you would like to use them at thesuperstarsofkoti.com