By Saibal Chatterjee
New Delhi, Sep 15 (PTI) Pushpendra Singh’s "Pearl of the Desert", an exquisitely crafted documentary about a 12-year-old Manganiyar caught between his community's fabled musical traditions and a promising world that lies beyond, is part of the 45th Toronto International Film Festival’s private screenings programme.
Represented by Taskovski Films Ltd., a London-based world sales and production company of independent documentary, "Pearl of the Desert" is an Indo-Korean venture that has played in IDFA Amsterdam, CPH: Dox in Copenhagen and Krakow Film Festival in Poland, among other events.
“It is in TIFF,” says Singh, "to look for distribution or broadcast in North and South American countries.”
The title stems from the name of the central character, Moti Khan Manganiyar, a boy who is acutely aware that the music he has inherited is his lifeblood.
"Pearl of the Desert" combines observational documentary techniques with scripted passages that are acted out by real-life people playing themselves.
“What I was trying to do is to take events or ideas from their own lives and allow them to present those in a musical form,” says the director. “Musicality is in their blood, so it comes naturally to them. I wanted to reflect that as a reality in a hybrid form of documentary.”
Initially, Singh wasn’t entirely sure his approach would yield the desired results.He says: “I was prepared to discard their enactments if they did not work, but I was very surprised. They delivered it in a way better than I had imagined.”
In addition to the stunning desert vistas that the film captures, the film, which is split into ten chapters that straddle a wide range of themes germane to Moti’s life and world, is embellished with the rich music of the Manganiyars.
A resident of a desert village in Rajasthan, Moti is ill-at-ease with his impoverished Muslim community’s age-old dependence on Rajput patronage. He wants to make a living off singing and playing instruments but is mindful of the pitfalls on the way. His elders warn him not to lose himself.
Singh reveals that Pearl of the Desert “has been bought by Arte France for broadcast in France and Germany”. He adds: “Later, in a short window, they will screen the film on their streaming service, too.
Wouldn’t he be looking for streaming opportunities on the subcontinent? “Yes, if a platform is willing to buy the film, that is a possibility.”
The elements – rain, wind, sunshine, nature’s many moods – play an important role in the music of the Manganiyars, as they do in all folk and classical forms of this land.
“In the desert,” says Singh, “the Manganiyars is still cut off from modern ways of entertainment. They, therefore, still look to the elements as something that is part of their daily lives, affecting them in many ways. They draw both inspiration and fear from them.”
When they are not singing, the Manganiyars seen in "Pearl of the Desert" talk about poetry, couplets and music in the course of their day-to-day conversation. The film conveys their innate affinity with rhythm in the very manner that the characters speak.
“Manganiyars recite poetry in chhand (rhyme), so I thought of treating the film as a musical and asking them to converse in chhand,” explains Singh.
“I hadn’t seen a documentary shot in the form of a musical, so the idea excited me. In the second schedule, we tried. It came so naturally to them that we decided to go ahead with it. And then people who saw the footage told me that is the way they speak in real life. So, in a Brechtian way, in a couple of scenes that I shot later, I asked them to converse naturally.” PTI CORR