Cannes 2024: Stepping up the XR game. Kolkata filmmaker Poulomi Basu’s ‘Maya’ in new Immersive Competition category

The blue fluid that aesthetically drips into a sanitary napkin is most likely the first lesson on menstruation that young people who grew up in the post-television era received. Under many layers of euphemisms, taboos, and norms of decency, the blood and pain that come with periods are hushed and hidden. This distance society demands from menstruating women is what Maya: The Birth of a Superhero, a new interactive Virtual Reality (VR) work or film, wants to breach. The viewer, with the help of a VR headset, enters a scarlet fantasy world where they confront tampons, female bodies and demons of pain.

Created by Kolkata-born artist and photographer Poulomi Basu and British filmmaker C.J. Clarke, Maya is one of the eight Extended Reality (XR) works competing in a new category, Immersive Competition, at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival. While films that use XR or immersive technologies have been a part of the festival before — in 2017, the festival featured Alejandro Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena, a seven-minute-long VR work — its promotion to the competition lineup signals that the film industry can no longer overlook the scope of this medium. This year’s selection was eclectic, ranging from an augmented reality (AR) work on civil war to a location-based VR project exploring loneliness, and an installation placing the user inside the human body.

Kolkata-born artist and photographer Poulomi Basu

Kolkata-born artist and photographer Poulomi Basu

British filmmaker C.J. Clarke

British filmmaker C.J. Clarke

Maya, a 33-minute English-French film, follows a young woman who goes from shame to empowerment when she encounters a superhero in her dream. Tapping into VR’s inherent ability to bend time and space and induce claustrophobia, Basu walks the viewer through the shame and isolation experienced by her protagonist, a South Asian girl living in London, who has just had her first period. (The character is voiced by British actor Charithra Chandran who played Edwina Sharma in the second season of Netflix series Bridgerton.)

Pushing the boundaries

“As an interdisciplinary artist, I move between mediums. For me, the tool or technology is not so important as the story. But in this case, the medium itself becomes agent provocateur,” says Basu. “The proximity of shame is so present and intimate in VR. This medium is also very suited for dream narratives. You are so close to it and that is not possible to achieve in any other medium. The audience is a participant in the storytelling.”

The erasure of the distance between subjects and the onlooker is, perhaps, the strongest aspect of XR. It transcends and expands the spatial limitations of traditional two-dimensional cinema, granting the audience a profoundly visceral and sensual experience. Originating in the 1960s, particularly with the invention of Sensorama by cinematographer Morton Heilig, immersive cinema is driven by a set of rapidly evolving technologies. It was well-absorbed into the gaming and entertainment industries, as well as the education sector and social activism. The United Nations began using VR almost a decade ago to create immersive films about refugee camps and crisis zones, dubbing the medium an “empathy machine”. While whether VR can consistently produce empathy is a matter of debate, the objective in all these cases is similar: to provide the viewer with a life-like experience of being in another place and in another person’s shoes.

In Maya, the place is a state of mind. “The feeling experienced in a situation such as getting your period for the first time in a classroom closely mirrors the trapped and isolated sensation of immersing oneself in a headset,” observes Alap Parikh, the project’s technical director, who recalls how the team produced Maya over three years: “In this medium, idea and technology are very closely intertwined. You learn some things only when you actually start creating the piece. As a result, plans and script change constantly, and also the technology itself, and sometimes this results in complete chaos.”

Cost-intensive venture

Both Parikh and Basu agree that XR works require substantial funding — “a deceptively large amount of funding for a very small work” — which is often the greatest hurdle for an artist working in this field. Setting up interactive exhibitions are expensive too, which is where high-profile carnivals such as the Cannes Film Festival come in. “The financial support the festival offers to set up the installation is pivotal,” says Basu. “Besides, being at Cannes, the most important film festival in the world, gives our stories the much-needed visibility.”

Maya will be released globally on Meta Quest on May 30, and the team is also planning museum and gallery exhibitions in various locations. This is an exception, as the distribution of interactive XR works is highly limited. “The global north has started to see a few companies that partner with venues and bring specialised knowledge to effectively manage the distribution of XR pieces. I hope this will come to India eventually,” says Parikh, who moved to Goa a few years ago after living and working in New York.

While interactive installations continue to be few and far between in India, the country saw a wave of VR filmmaking in the middle of the last decade, with news companies, new media studios, and mainstream film companies dabbling with the technology. “But it is now passé”, says Niraj Gera, a Mumbai-based sound designer who was part of the three-member team that created Jetlag (2014), one of India’s first VR films. “This is a rapidly evolving environment. Users demand more than 360-degree VR. Maybe you need to gamify it, explore the sonic possibilities.”

Avinash Kumar, an independent filmmaker and video game artist, notes that it is the niche nature of the medium, rather than infrastructure, that slows down its growth. “Headsets aren’t exorbitantly expensive any more. But globally, it remains a niche medium, used more in other industries than in art. In India, XR is employed in military and space research, by architects and educational institutions, more so than by artists. Grants from institutions and corporations remain the sole source of funds for these projects, which rely heavily on an international circuit of film festivals and galleries,” he laments.

The writer is a film critic and independent researcher.

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