How filmmaker Pablo Cesar's affinity for India has deepened over the years

Cesar's films were all shot on film, and he continues to use it even today

70-Pablo-Cesar Life rolls on: Pablo Cesar holding up his calling card, designed to resemble a 35mm film gauge | Nirmal Jovial

Pablo Cesar’s calling card is a work of beauty. It resembles a 35mm film gauge―appropriate, since the veteran Argentine filmmaker entered the world of cinema in the 1970s, when 35mm was the standard gauge and digital filmmaking did not exist. His pathbreaking films were all shot on film, and he continues to use it even today.

Last year, Pablo released his first feature-length documentary―Macongo, la Córdoba Africana.

Pablo, 61, was a jury member in the ‘international competition’ category at the recently concluded International Film Festival of Kerala. He started his film journey in 1975, when his stepbrother José Maria gifted him a Kodak Super 8 camera. With José’s support, he made his first short film in just months. “It was an eight-minute animation film named La Diversión Del Rey,” says Pablo.

In 1976, the military captured power in Argentina, essentially “stealing” Pablo’s adolescence (he lost the opportunity to enrol in film school), but not deterring his passion for filmmaking. He produced seven short films in 1977, overcoming the ban on filming on streets by turning to parks and holiday houses as alternative locations. At 14, his hunger for adventure had him sneaking into an Air France Boeing 747, capturing footage with his Super 8, and leaving undetected. The following week, he attempted a repeat of it with his schoolmates, but they were caught and detained for four hours.

Pablo lost his father when he was young. His mother, Martha Elena, chose not to remarry and devoted herself to taking care of Pablo and his younger brother Miguel. In many ways, Martha shaped his journey as a filmmaker. “I once created a short film titled The Machine (1977), about a robot spiralling out of control and hurting people. During a party at home, I asked all the guests to play characters who fall victim to the rogue robot,” says Pablo. The most memorable scene turned out to be an unscripted one. “I needed to show the machine falling from a height,” he says. “My mother, without hesitation, threw the dummy machine out the window [of our apartment], and it landed on top of a police car parked in the street. My mother had to put on an act to avert trouble.”

Pablo’s 2003 film Sangre―about a filmmaker seeking inspiration while dealing with a sick mother―depicts the deep emotional connection he had with his mother.

The experimental short Del Génesis (1980), which portrayed an apocalypse and a quest for a better world (a parable about Argentina’s yearning to break free from military dictatorship), was Pablo’s first award-winning work. In 1983, he produced his first feature film, De las caras del Espejo. Shot on a Super 8, it bagged multiple awards, including one for best photography.

The year also marked Argentina’s return to democracy. Pablo began learning Russian at the Argentine Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR. In 1985, De las caras del Espejo was showcased in Moscow and other European cities.

In 1989, Pablo was selected as a jury member of the Kélibia International Film Festival in Tunisia. For Pablo, Tunisia offered an entirely different cultural landscape. “I heard azaan for the first time in my life, and I rushed out of the hotel where I was staying. I thought it was an emergency call. It was only later that I found out that it was a beautiful call for prayer,” he says. Pablo’s discovery of Sufi culture, North African myths and mysticism marked a transformative moment in his career.

The following year, he signed a coproduction agreement with the Tunisian Federation of Filmmakers for producing Equinoccio, el jardín de las rosas (Equinox, the rose garden)―about five fables narrated by a young angel in five distinct towns. Equinoccio marked the first instance of a Latin American filmmaker directing an African coproduction in Africa. In the next three decades, Pablo was part of many coproductions that brought myths and beliefs in Benin, Mali, Angola, Namibia, Ethiopia and Morocco to the screen.

In 1994, his third feature, Fuego gris, was screened at the International Film Festival of India. It was during a dinner with filmmakers Pino Solanas of Argentina and Michelangelo Antonioni of Italy at the Taj Bengal in Calcutta that he discovered the location for his next feature, Unicornio, el jardín de las frutas (Unicorn, the fruit garden), “My original plan was to shoot it in Morocco, but Antonioni suggested that I shoot in India, explaining the vastness and diversity of the country,” says Pablo.

Unicornio (1996), shot in Rajasthan, became the first Indian-Argentinian coproduction. He collaborated with filmmaker Murali Nair to explore five distinct stories that had themes ranging from transsexualism to alchemy, slavery and the exploration of heaven and hell.

There was a two-decade hiatus before Pablo returned with his second Argentina-India coproduction. In 2018, he released Pensando en él (Thinking of Him), depicting the meeting between Rabindranath Tagore and Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo in 1924.

The gap does not imply that Pablo lost his connection with India; quite the opposite. His affinity for India deepened over the years, and he even learnt to play the sitar―a gift from R. Viswanathan, former Indian ambassador to Argentina and an occasional columnist for THE WEEK. “His only condition was that I should learn it,” Pablo says. “I learned it and, at a farewell gathering before his return to India, played the rag Khamaj on the sitar.”

Last year, Pablo released his first feature-length documentary―Macongo, la Córdoba Africana, on the systematic erasure of African cultures from Argentina’s collective consciousness. The documentary challenges prevailing narratives in Argentina about people whose ancestors were brought to Latin America as slaves. “Córdoba was a province that had more than 50 per cent Afro population around 1850,” says Pablo. “Even today, the province retains traces of African heritage in the names of towns like Macongo, Tulumba, Candonga, Cabinda and Cabalango.”