London-based director Sandhya Suri already had several acclaimed documentaries to her name—including I Is for India (2005) and Around India with a Movie Camera (2018)—when she decided to make her first foray into narrative filmmaking. Inspired by some of the stories she had encountered when speaking with women in Indian villages during research trips for her previous projects, she decided a short would be the best way to hone her craft and gain an understanding of the language of fiction storytelling.
In The Field (2018), Suri continues to delve into issues she explored in her nonfiction work, including traditional gender roles and the dynamics of relationships in rural India. The film tells the story of Lalla, a young married woman who leads a double life, meeting a lover for secret encounters by night, in the village’s last remaining corn field before it is harvested. Gorgeously captured at magic hour, the field itself becomes a character in the film, serving as a seductive, secluded place for the characters to meet as well as their source of income and sustenance.
With the film now playing on the Criterion Channel, I talked with Suri about the relationship between narrative and documentary, the complex logistics of finding the perfect crop for the shoot, and the methods she used to help the actors create a feeling of intimacy and authenticity.
Tell me a bit about your background and how you got started as a filmmaker.
I actually started in mathematics. I did a degree in it, but I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was known for being very nosy and wanting to travel into unfamiliar worlds. That was what attracted me to documentary, which is what I’ve worked in primarily. But at a certain point, there were stories I wanted to tell, particularly ones about tricky subject matter, that documentary just wasn’t going to allow me to do in the way that I wanted to, from the inside. So I wanted to start doing some fiction. I thought, I don’t know anything about making fiction, I don’t know if I enjoy it, I don’t know if I can do it. But I had this idea I’d been wanting to explore for a while, and I finished writing it and went about trying to get funding. And that became The Field.
Where did the kernel of that idea come from?
It had two sources. One was more of a documentary source, and one was much more of a dream source. I had been studying ideas around violence against women in India, and I’d traveled a lot to villages and spoken to lots of women. I remember speaking to the girls in those villages, and they would always make shy comments about “the fields” and joke about things that went on in them. That stuck in my brain. Later, I was at a sitar concert, and I had this image of these two people meeting in a cornfield at night. I started thinking about what would happen if that field, a place where a woman is sheltered with her lover, is also the place that feeds her.
The location is so beautiful and sensual. Where is it and how did you find it?
It was all filmed in one village, called Saharanpur, in Haryana state in northern India.
You know, some people say don’t work with animals and children, but I would really add crops to that. I had decided I needed this crop to be a certain type of corn. But when I started to find out about corn, I learned that by the time it’s ready to harvest it generally doesn’t look that hot.
Well, I did a huge crop casting. I traveled from the south of India to the north, looking at crops. I went to a seed institute and found all the seed batches for an evergreen type of corn that stays sexy-looking. But I didn’t just need to find the right crop for the right time of year. I also needed to figure out how to find a piece of land that was all owned by one farmer, because in the film, the field is the last remaining one in the village. I needed to know that there were no other fields in the surrounding area.
I found the most incredible man, without whom this film wouldn’t have been possible. “I don’t need any money,” he told me, “I have enough, just let us help you.” There’s a very small window of time in which the crop is ready to harvest, and I wanted to shoot that process, so he even harvested a couple of days early for us. We were waiting to time everything very specifically.
Did you have any visual references that you were using in the scenes set in the field?
My crew and I exchanged a few things back and forth. Films like Days of Heaven. The film moved gradually from being a documentary to being a dream, a heightened reality.
How did you cast your lead actor, Mia Maelzer?
I was trying to find a casting agent in India. But it was hard to find anyone who wanted to help with a short, and I didn’t know anything about how to make a fiction film. I have a few friends in the indie film circle in India, and one put me in touch with Mia and said she could be a helpful assistant. As soon as I met her and actually looked at her and listened to her speak, I just loved how animated she was—I felt that deeply.
Lots of women in India would understand this character, Lalla. She’s a young woman who has come from a small town and is trying to follow her dream, trying to make things work under quite difficult circumstances. Mia understood that immediately.
I’d been to the drama school, and I had seen a lot of casting tapes. In Bollywood, there’s a tradition of really sexy, famous actresses playing village girls, and they look ridiculous. You would never believe that these women who had clearly been raised on milk and meat could be Lalla. When I met Mia, I felt, through her physicality, that she could be—she’s wiry but sort of strong as well.
Before we went to the village, she decided to do a bit of prep. We went to visit some laborers, and she asked, “Can I cut the corn with you, so I know how to do it when we film?” She cut corn with those ladies for a day or two. They just wouldn’t believe she was an actress, because that’s not what they associated with actresses. “You’re small and you’re dark, like us,” they said.
She’s so compelling to watch.
She’s electrifying. She really is.
I read an interesting article online about how you created a safe space for Mia and the actor who plays her lover to feel intimate together, and how you had them record the dialogue in that love scene at a different time from the actual shoot.
It was an incredibly romantic night, the night we filmed that scene with them in the field. We were having dinner and then suddenly there was a huge wind—they call it the Loo in India—so we rushed to go film it. It got really cool, and it was magical, but I knew we might run out of time, and I didn’t want it to be rushed. Also, because we were shooting in a village, we wanted to be a bit discreet. The actors didn’t know each other that well, so to create the chemistry between them, I had them lie down together in a hotel room, with a sound recordist present, to record their dialogue for that scene. I wanted them to not be distracted from their intimacy.
Another memorable scene is the one that opens the film, which is set in a crowd. What’s the backstory behind that?
I knew I wanted a spectacle at the beginning of the film; I just wanted that energy. And I wanted to find our character amid the masses, and for the audience to learn what the story is very slowly. I wrote this scene in a big open fair. Years before I had made a documentary on the outskirts of Delhi where lots of Rajasthani folk artists and circus artists live. So I just asked those people to come out, and we set up a loudspeaker in a gurdwara, and we also got some guys to come with drums to beat out the news around the village about this spectacle that was going to take place. People came, but since it was a farming village, everyone was really busy. So in the middle of the shoot, when our Easyrig broke and there was a delay in filming, they started to say, “Well, this is cool and everything, but we’ve got to go, the crops are waiting . . .”
As someone who started in documentary, I always thought I wouldn’t be able to handle a challenging situation like that, where the adrenaline levels are really high. Documentary isn’t like that; it’s more of a quiet burn. But when we were shooting that scene, I realized, God, I love fiction! And we managed to pull it off by the skin of our teeth.