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Reworded: An interview with Anupama Srnivasan and Anirban Dutta revealed that devoting ample time to examine something can lead to further discoveries.
Reworded: An interview with Anupama Srnivasan and Anirban Dutta revealed that devoting ample time to examine something can lead to further discoveries.

Reworded: An interview with Anupama Srnivasan and Anirban Dutta revealed that devoting ample time to examine something can lead to further discoveries.

Last month, “Nocturnes” premiered at Sundance and traveled from the Himalayas to the Rockies, showcasing the captivating story of researcher Mansi Mungee and Bicki, a temporary employee from the indigenous Bugun community, as they study moths in the Eastern Himalayan forest. The film focuses on their shared fascination with moths and features stunning close-ups and ambient sounds of these winged creatures. Together, they return to their silvery white moth screen, a reflective surface that attracts moths for study in the forest.

The impressive skill displayed in the documentary was acknowledged at Sundance, earning the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Craft. In my opinion, “Nocturnes” also appeared to have similarities with two other Indian nature documentaries that had debuted at Sundance in recent years: “All That Breathes” (2022) by Shaunak Sen, which featured the Delhi-based kite rescue brothers, and “Against the Tide” (2023) by Sarvnik Kaur. I mentioned this to them during our conversation in Park City.

In 2024, “Nocturnes” was awarded the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Craft at Sundance. The film’s global distribution is handled by Dogwoof.

“We both attended the Asian Pitching Forum in Doclands, Kolkata,” stated co-director Anupama Srinivasan. Co-director Anirban Dutta jokingly remarked, “However, there is a clear contrast between our films. Our project serves as a tribute to nature, to what we have forsaken, and encourages people to reconnect with it.” Srinivasan also emphasized, “Additionally, we are placing importance on the preservation of moths.”

Initially, the pair focused on creating brief films that promoted awareness about the habitats of snow leopards in the western Himalayas as their main source of income. While dining at a local eatery, they coincidentally came across Mansi.

Srinivasan expressed in excitement how the woman explained her work and the beautiful forest. They were amazed by the idea of setting up a white screen and watching moths create patterns with light, comparing it to a cinematic experience. They then journeyed to the Eastern Himalayas, leaving behind the snow leopards and city of Delhi.

The team revisited the Himalayas multiple times after their initial trip in 2019. During these trips, they filmed footage, formed connections with the community, and were captivated by the moths. The weather conditions were unpredictable, just like the fleeting nature of the moths. They shared how they could only visit in September through October or April through May, as any other time would make it challenging to bring all their filming equipment due to unfavorable weather conditions. Even small changes in the weather, such as moisture on leaves, could determine whether certain moths would appear or not. Some shots, such as one featuring a wild Asian elephant, required several weeks to capture.

“The primary focus of the film is on the concept of waiting, as expressed by Mansi in the voiceover. It requires great patience and consistent effort every night in order to achieve success,” stated Srinavasan. “Furthermore, the role of sound greatly influences one’s perception,” added Dutta. “The more one listens, the more one can see – there is a clear connection between the two.”

Capturing the distinctive flapping of the moth in “Nocturnes” proved to be a highly intricate task. The pair highlighted the various types of microphones they utilized, such as clipped microphones on the moth screens, unidirectional mono microphones, and stereo microphones. In addition, Dutta had to adjust frequencies and incorporate foley during post-production to isolate and recreate specific sounds.

“We have been diligently working on creating a documentary for several years, and have lost count of the exact number of times. However, our focus has always been on capturing the true essence and perception of reality and the world. Our approach for filming “Nocturnes” was intentional in evoking a specific sense of time – the time of cinema. The story serves as a foundation for our project.”

“The main concept is focused on attention,” emphasized Dutta. “By devoting adequate time to observe something, you will uncover more.”

The film promotes the practice of observing things slowly, and both individuals shared their experiences of how their focus on the moth screen evolved over time. At first, Dutta found approaching the moth screen to be intimidating, but he noticed his perception changing with each subsequent look. Similarly, Srinavan’s initial reaction was one of amazement.

The speaker mentioned that she was unaware of the presence of moths on her hair and coat due to her focus on observing their movements and textures. Initially, she was drawn to the most attractive moths, but then became fascinated by their liveliness and interactions. She also noted that sometimes, there would only be a few moths, resulting in a blank moth screen. However, she learned to appreciate the beauty in each scenario.

As the two pointed out, honing attention is a process, and one that often requires collaboration. While Mansi and Bicki’s project unfolds on the silver screen, I asked Srinivasan and Dutta to reflect upon their own partnership behind-the-camera. They said play to their strengths. While Srinivasan wrote proposals and edited in post-production, Dutta would invest in the film’s sound design. What was most important to them, it seemed, was their trust in one another and their shared vision. 

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“According to Dutta, the audience is not the main concern. The most important aspect is whether or not the filmmaker is true to their process and creating the film they truly desire.” Srinivasan added, “As filmmakers, it is our responsibility to challenge the patience of our viewers. In a fast-paced world, our film forces you to slow down.”

In closing, I inquired about the possibility of returning to the Eastern Himalayas in the future. Dutta expressed, “While we are currently in Delhi, we constantly envision revisiting that area. We hope to maintain a lasting connection with that region.”

“I am a parent of two children and I strive to maintain a sense of hopefulness,” Dutta expressed. “It is crucial to me that my kids have a positive outlook on life. I do not want to create a film that portrays a bleak future for us. It is imperative for us to hold onto optimism. This film is centered around the theme of hope.”