On a Saturday morning in Chennai when the cyclonic weather played hide and seek, the rain fell in parts and the city was in slow mode, some 300 odd people at The Music Academy were treated to what must be one of the best films on Indian classical dance.
A film on India's top ranking dancer, Malavika Sarukkai.
When the 137-minutes long film ended and the lights came on, there was a round of applause and most people had very warm and adulatory words to say to the film maker Sumantra Ghosal and Bharatanatyam dancer Malavika who is based in Chennai.
'The Unseen Sequence' was made over two years and it stands out because it has been made by a man who did not know the dance before, it was shot 'live' and without trappings and it allows the dancer to share her journey. And its post production quality is high.
In many ways, it is a film that Ghosal did because the dance fascinated him when he first came to know Malavika's dance. He chose to shoot on location and in halls and he voices himself from start to end.
Setting aside a stereotype linear format, Ghosal begins with a rare dance performance of Malavika at the Lord Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu to mark her 40 years in dance and finds its way through the dancer's evolution.
It captures the inner thoughts of the dancer. Early days of learning in Bombay when the rasam from the Brahmin houses slowed down her climb to her guru's apartment, the stage when she moved away from the worries of life and immersed herself in dance, of the new discoveries she made while learning from abhinaya expert and guru Kalanidhi Naryanan and the stage when she moved from traditional themes to find new ones like from the experiences in Varanasi and the subsequent collaborations with dancer-guru Prof C. V. Chandrasekar.
The film is a delight on all fronts - visual, aural and in structure and despite being long, it deserves that time to document the journey of India's top artiste.
It makes uses of archival material and 'live' shoots and a host of interviews. And in order to address an audience that may be new to Bharatanatyam, it interweaves the key marks in the evolution of this dance form with images and quotes from dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan.
Ghosal, aware of the huge role that Malavika's mom, Saroja played in her dance and her career features her too; on a side-by-side interview and these are parts that lend a warm feel to this film.
The dance sections are chosen carefully. And the one on Mahishasura Mardini where the dancer thinks and choreos the challenge of a solo artiste visualising the play of many hands brought a huge round of applause.
Ghosal says they agreed not to bring in extra lights or have 'takes' on location. He used 4 cameras at recitals but Malavika says that brought additional pressure since she was aware that there were so many cameras recording her and there would not be any fresh takes.
"Shooting dance isn't the challenge. Editing it is," he says. How does one communicate the essence and place of a dance piece that is 20 minutes long but has to be shown in 2 minutes? Here again, Ghosal's commentary suffices.
He says modern technology helps to make a film visually strong and that he 'salvaged' much at the post production table, indicating the problems he had to encounter while filming 'live'.
Many films on dance and music, and the artistes who hold up the art are hagiographies or plainly linear. Malavika gets it right when she says that the film works because Ghosal got 'into' this art.
This is a film that should inspire other film makers to produce more films on our greats.