BY FR CARLOS LUIS SAC
Saujas Sunil Shetye is known for the short documentary film Tap Out: The Elusive Trade of Toddy Tapping in Goa (2023). He is a mass communication graduate from Don Bosco College, Panjim.
Based in Vasco, Saujas is a freelance videographer and photographer. Observant and obsessed with the media, Saujas is fascinated by films and considers them a powerful tool to narrate stories present in each of us.
The inspiration behind the film
The film that started as a college project went on to travel to and be featured in international festivals.
"My only goal was to finish it, get my marks and move on. But as I got more in-depth with the topic and the people around it, I decided to mould it further," says Saujas, recollecting the process.
He also says, "This simple mundane task that this toddy tapper did was suddenly awe-inspiring to me. That is when I decided I wanted his story to be told on a slightly bigger screen and received by a wider audience."
Saujas relects, "Our state's oldest tradition is dying. After much research and reading online, I realised the gravity of the toddy crisis in Goa."
"The research made me learn how toddy is extracted, and how the trees are supposed to be looked after and cared for. I wanted this project to make people aware of what is happening and educate them at the same time," he elaborates.
Two years of periodic shooting cut down to a 15-minute project is definitely making ripples among the audience.
Being eternally grateful and wanting to credit others, Saujas adds, "A close friend and partner Nitesh pitched the idea to me, and we later decided to research the topic and moved on to film it."
Narrating the process: from scripting and finding the cast to filming
After rudimentary research for the documentary film, the filmmakers decided to embark on a search for a real-time hero who would represent toddy tappers.
"The tedious process of finding a toddy tapper made us realise how bad the situation is. We did a lot of asking around, and in the end, a friend of mine pulled a contact out of nowhere. The man was difficult to find because he did not have a smartphone, he did not use social media and he did not use Instagram. From the day we met him, I was in awe of him. The kindest person you’ll meet."
Building a good rapport through constant and everyday visits with the toddy tapper, let them obtain important information in the process of filming the documentary.
Saujas, having gained a different perspective, says, "Some days we would strap a camera to his head, the footage we got was nerve-racking."
"I could finally see through his eyes the process of climbing a tree and collecting sap. I couldn't process that a man his age would climb trees of that height twice every single day with no safety. We shot for months together in the hot sun, and the rain," he goes on.
Reception of the documentary
In the film, we watch Venture’s struggles with the dying tradition of toddy tapping, and we see him coming to terms with the new generation. The film has been to many festivals.
But Saujas states, "I've only been present for one screening, which was in Goa itself at the Central Library. It was a jam-packed hall full of professional filmmakers. When they screened my film, it was a heart-warming experience to see all those people so attentively watching something I made. It was a non-Konkani crowd too."
He continues, "It was interesting to see how a simple story of a man climbing a tree captivated them. As the credits rolled, they clapped and that’s when I first felt that feeling of accomplishment. It was the highlight of the year for me, and I felt very proud of myself and my team. It’s something I will never forget."
Difficulties of making and promoting the documentary film
Independent filmmakers are not backed by big studios and do not have a big budget.
"We start with small cameras, even mobile phones, but we end up making something influential and lasting. I mainly wanted Goans to watch it since they would be most able to make a change when it comes to the toddy business,” says Saujas.
“Also, it will hit close to home when they watch it. When it comes to promoting the film, social media does a great job. I am thinking of new ways to promote it every day," muses Saujas.
"It would give me great joy if the toddy tappers receive some attention because of the film. It almost sounds too good to be true. It is a real prize to see one's film screened for film-loving audiences," says Saujas, aware of the task he has taken upon himself with the making of this documentary.
Toddy tapping scene in Goa and the film possibly eliciting change
Toddy tapping in Goa is on a steady decline because of the risk to life and lack of daily remuneration. The slow demise of the traditional occupation is recorded officially, showing just two toddy tappers in all of Vasco.
Being optimistic, Saujas states, "This short documentary most definitely can bring about a change, with the right people. I remember at the screening in Goa, a few Non-Goans were discussing how toddy is extracted, and an older Goan gentleman was explaining to them (pointing at the screen) what the process is like, all this while the film was playing.”
He adds, “It was nice to see people engaging in a conversation about toddy because of the film. The same way you and I are talking right now through this interview. We are talking about toddy tapping. I am happy the film is allowing people to open conversations about the subject. In today’s day and age, anything is possible with the media."
Saujas Sunil Shetye is a promising filmmaker that we need to watch out for as he has quite a few projects lined up, a short film in pre-production, and is conceptualising another documentary.
This time he plans to get a little up close and personal talking about human emotions, their complexities and how we are just incredible human beings.
He states that as an artist he is still figuring it out, "The quest never ends and mine has barely begun. The advice to anybody in the same tank is to keep swimming and keep moving. If you’re a filmmaker, shoot. If you're a photographer, click. If you're a writer, write. Never stop. Don't stay quiet, make noise – the right noise."
(Carlos Luis is a priest belonging to the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine) and is currently the mission secretary of the ABVM Province, Bangalore. He comments on literature and films that mirror life.)