Meet Savita Singh, the “Madam of the Camera”

Savita Singh’s Sonsi not only wins the National Award for Best Cinematography, it is also the Indian short film presented at the Oscars

If cinematography is the art of making the invisible visible, then Savita Singh has mastered it. His short film Soni is not only the winner of this year’s National Award for Best Cinematography, it is India’s entry for the Oscars in the short film category,

Savita, who comes from a farming family in Hisar and is the first female graduate from her village, has gradually become an ambassador for the country’s growing tribe of female filmmakers. With the support of her father, who works in a bank, Savita made a stint as a journalist in Delhi, then continued her studies at the Film and Television Institute of India, where she collaborated with her elder, Amit Dutta, on Kramasha, an experimental film that he made and that she shot for her thesis. The film, which created waves in the festival circuit, earned Savita its first national award and made Amit a name to be reckoned with in experimental cinema. Savita, meanwhile, moved to Mumbai and collaborated with Ram Gopal Varma on Phoonk and Prawal Raman on 404. But alongside, she continued to nurture her love for the avant-garde.

With Soni, she became a screenwriter-director. The film follows eight-year-old Nadi, who wanders somewhere between the conscious and the unconscious, to meet his shadow bird engraved in his dreams. A second character, the mysterious timekeeper, who has a clock inserted in his heart, infallibly follows. Each day upon arrival, the sleeping village wakes up. But one morning, neither the shadow bird nor the timekeeper arrives, and Nadi ventures alone into the deep and mysterious woods in search of them.

A still from Sonsi

The film looks like a fraternal twin of Kramasha, and Savita agrees. “Amit loved the movie. Soni begins with the plane of the same temple top, which is in the last plane of Kramasha.”Savita says the visual grammar of Kramasha is doomed to continue, but “the dream is a coincidence!” Edited excerpts from an interview:

What inspired Soni?

I have always found refuge in the cinema. I started watching movies at a very young age and I definitely felt at home watching movies that had a unique way of telling a story. The shape has always intrigued me. I was drawn to folklore, oral storytelling traditions, fantasy stories, science fiction, and fables. This idea had been germinating in my head for a very long time. In many ways, it is I who revisit my childhood and all the influences and collective memories of my childhood. So I woven my own fable of a timeless world, of a village where it never stops raining, where we will not see any human footprint, except for the four characters in the film.

It seems to be a mystical parable. The camera literally follows the timekeeper. How did you get to the form?

I call it a cinematic fable. My effort was to create an experiential and immersive film that transports everyone to a phase of their life where time moved slowly. I intuitively arrived at this form, where poetry, images, memory, melancholy, senses, morning dreams are explored through the experimentation of time and space. The references of my favorite authors, filmmakers, painters arrived beautifully. For example, the name of the bird sonsi comes from the female protagonist of Vinod Kumar’s film Shukla Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi. I struggled to come up with an appropriate name for the shadow bird until the day before the shoot. I wanted the name to be phonetic and not very deep and metaphorical. I was glad the name came organically and was able to pay my little tribute to Shukla ji, whose work had a big impact on me. Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema has always been very dear to me, and you will see the reflections of his language in my form.

Savita Singh with her national award

From the start, you went beyond the obvious. How did it happen?

I’ve always been drawn to form-defying movies, so I researched those kinds of stories. I had the chance to work with Amit Dutta, whose films created a new language in cinema and I am grateful to have been a part of this movement.

Tell us about the time you spent with Vilmos Zsigmond.

After graduating from the FTII, I was selected for the ‘Budapest Master Class’, the famous workshop for filmmakers. Vilmos was a calm, non-judgmental teacher, someone who encouraged everyone to learn from practice, hard work, and make their own mistakes. I remember very well that on the day of my shoot I had 39 film students telling me that their light meter was reading an error message because I had kept the lighting so low and some areas were so overexposed that the high ones lights were burned out far beyond what the film’s latitude could handle. I smiled and said it was by design. And Vilmos liked my stage and my lighting, but also said that our generation is always in a rush to break the rules. It took me a few years to understand this statement. He meant that it’s okay to break the rules, but it’s just as important to master the rules.

Have things changed for women practicing cinematography?

When i was shooting Fan in a small village of Konkan, every day the women of the village approached me and told me that they were so proud to see a woman “cameraman”. What struck me was that these women did not approach me with disbelief but with sheer pride. It was just as endearing when a set designer started calling me “camera lady” while filming. Hawaïzaada. And before I knew it, everyone on set, including the actors, called me “Camera Lady”.

How does it feel to be selected for the Oscars?

You can’t really say what works for a global audience. We recently won Best Picture at the Lady Filmmakers Film Festival in Los Angeles and the jury loved the film. It was amazing how the films crossed cultures and languages. When I got a call from Anand Varadraj, the director of the Bangalore International Short Film Festival, to tell me that we had won the award for best film, I had no idea that this victory would automatically qualify us as an Indian nomination for the Oscars. To be honest, it felt good. All artists are working for validation. It’s always nice to know that your movie speaks to people.

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About Monty S. Maynard

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