Indian artists drive Virtual Reality vroom in cinema

    Adoor Gopalakrishnan donned the headset as he prepared himself to watch Right to Pray, India’s first Virtual Reality (VR) film directed by Khushboo Ranka at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. At the end of the four-minute film, a curious Gopalakrishnan, one of the most awarded filmmakers in India, turned around and asked the film’s producer Anand Gandhi: “What is the future of VR films?” (Also Read: Documentaries dominate 77th Cannes Film Festival)

    Maya: The Birth of a Superhero, a Virtual Reality installation created by Kolkata-born artist Poulomi Basu, was part of the inaugural immersive competition at the Cannes Film Festival last month

    Nearly a decade after TIFF became the first major festival to welcome VR films in a special five-film package called POP VR to celebrate the evolution of storytelling through innovative technology, the global entertainment industry has been able to answer many questions around the early skepticism that marked the arrival of immersive cinema.

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    At least seven major international film festivals in the world — South by Southwest festival in Texas, Sundance, Tribeca in New York, Venice, Red Sea festival in Jeddah, BFI London Film Festival and Cannes — today have an immersive category in official selection, reflecting the increasing influence of VR on contemporary cinema.

    Kusunda, an interactive work about the endangered Kusunda language of Nepal co-directed by Gayatri Parameswaran, a Berlin-based filmmaker born and raised in Mumbai’s Dombivli suburb

    Early Indian VR films

    Indian filmmakers are among the early practitioners of VR cinema who quickly realised the art’s ability to put people at the centre of a new frontier of perception, technology and creativity.

    The Mumbai-based Ranka (co-director of An Insignificant Man)’s Right to Pray, which portrays protests by women against a 450-year-old tradition that denied them entry to a temple in Trimbakeshwar in Maharashtra, was followed by more VR films like Supermen of Malegaon director Faiza Ahmad Khan’s The Cost of Coal, on environmental destruction by coal mining in Korba district of Chhattisgarh, and Caste is Not a Rumour by Naomi Shah and Pourush Turel, that focused on a real-life public flogging of four Dalit boys based on a rumour that they skinned a dead cow.

    “Virtual Reality has often been described as the ultimate empathy machine, allowing you to step into the shoes of others. For this reason, VR has been used by many documentary activists and NGOs to highlight social, humanitarian and environmental issues, serving as a powerful tool to embody the experiences of others,” Liz Rosenthal, Curator of the Venice film festival’s Venice Immersive programme, tells Hindustan Times.

    Right to Pray, India’s first Virtual Reality film directed by Mumbai-based Khushboo Ranka, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016

    Taking the next step

    If Right to Pray became part of the arrival of VR in the world of cinema eight years ago, the latest international film festival to include a VR category, the Cannes Film Festival, too had an Indian artist, Kolkata-born Poulomi Basu with her VR installation, Maya: The Birth of a Superhero, in its inaugural immersive competition last month.

    “Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for dream narratives that bend time and space along with embodiment, which is key,” explains the London-based Basu, who has co-written and co-directed the work with British artist CJ Clarke.

    “You can have very deep visceral individual experiences that can have a transformative effect. The bottom line is you can’t bring meaningful change in the world without changing yourself first,” she adds. The centre piece of Maya, which combines mixed reality and virtual reality to explore shame and stigma around menstruation, is a 30-minute VR narrative that takes off when the viewer touches a virtual tampon.

    The story of an immigrant Indian girl living in a tower hamlet in London bullied by her peers when she gets her first period in school, Maya turns the so-called impure blood into a tool for power, reflected in a mythical superhero who materialises to battle misconception. Game of Thrones actor Indira Varma narrates the story and also plays the superhero.

    A 15-minute version of Basu’s VR work won a Special Jury Award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last year. One of the eight VR works in the first-ever Cannes Immersive Competition, Maya had its world premiere at the South by Southwest festival in the US last year.

    “It’s important to remember we are in the era of spatial computing where virtual and physical spaces are blending. As an artist I make use of that to create cinematic immersive storytelling and experiences,” says Basu, an alumna of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.

    “We’re getting more mature, still very young, but getting more mature,” says Marc Lopato, co-founder Diversion Cinema, a VR space creator and immersive experiences distributor based in Paris, France, about the evolution of VR in cinema. “The technology is evolving, the production tools are evolving, but the creators and producers have gone through the trials and errors of the past years,” he adds.

    Virtual Reality docu-drama Child of Empire by artist-filmmaker Sparsh Ahuja and Iranian-British filmmaker Erfan Sadaati premiered in the New Frontier programme of Sundance festival in 2022

    Enabling the viewers

    Three years ago, at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, among its Red Sea Immersive competition section entries was Kusunda, an interactive work about the endangered Kusunda language of Nepal, co-directed by Gayatri Parameswaran, a Berlin-based filmmaker born and raised in Mumbai’s Dombivli suburb.

    Benefiting from VR’s strength in archiving an indigenous community’s past, Parameswaran’s work shows how a teenage girl from the Kusunda forest-dwelling community challenges herself to learn the language, spoken by only 150 people today, to save it from imminent death.

    “With virtual reality, audiences can now relive the past with an intensity not previously possible, enabling a powerful new way to experience historical testimonial by being embodied in space and time,” says Rosenthal, CEO and founder of London-based media innovation company Power to the Pixel.

    At the Sundance Film Festival two years ago, artist-filmmaker Sparsh Ahuja, who divides his time between Melbourne, Australia and New Delhi, and Iranian-British filmmaker Erfan Sadaati, premiered Child of Empire in the New Frontier programme. It went back in time to immerses viewers in one of the largest forced migrations in human history — the 1947 Partition of India.

    In Child of Empire, described as a VR docu-drama, two men from the Partition generation — Ishar Das Arora (voiced by Adil Hussain) who migrated from Pakistan to India, and Iqbaluddin Ahmed (voiced by Salman Shahid), who made the opposite journey — share childhood memories of their experiences while playing a board game.

    “Immersive storytelling has come a long way since 2014 when artists began experimenting with the launch of consumer headsets,” says Rosenthal. She adds, “In just 10 years, it has evolved from being an experimental form, hidden in the depths of pioneering university research departments, to creating works of art and entertainment that have wowed audiences at world-class festivals, performing arts venues, museums, galleries, and visitor attractions, and since the pandemic, on social virtual platforms.”

    “There is no lack of talent in VR in India, but it is quite difficult to create an intricate and polished work unless someone manages to tap into international funding,” says Goa-based Alap Parikh, technical director and lead developer of Maya: The Birth of a Superhero.

    After Kusunda, Parameswaran’s latest VR project being created at her Berlin-based NowHere Media, an Emmy and Peabody-nominated immersive studio, takes viewers on a journey through the rugged landscapes of Ladakh to highlight the efforts of local communities and conservationists to protect the endangered snow leopards. The mixed reality documentary, which has the working title Living with the Snow Leopards, uses the power of Extended Reality (XR) to bring viewers face to face with the majestic animal and the people who share its habitat.

    Gayatri Parameswaran’s new VR project is a mixed reality documentary that aims to engage viewers with the efforts to preserve the endangered snow leopards in Ladakh

    “Through interactive elements, viewers can engage with the environment, gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges and triumphs of conservation efforts in these remote areas. The documentary aims to foster a greater appreciation for the snow leopards and the delicate balance of their ecosystem, ultimately encouraging global support for their preservation,” says Parameswaran.

    Another interactive VR project, being developed in Goa by XR and Artificial Intelligence practitioner Avinash Kumar, is set in 2070 AD when a cyborg called Meenakshi is trying to recover a lost Indian art form.

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