#1053: Decolonizing the History of the India-Pakistan Partition with Embodied Stories of Forced Migration in VR with “Child of Empire”

The Child of Empire is an immersive story that tells the story of the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947, which is one of the largest forced migrations in human history. It uses puppet theatre-styled motion graphics in the beginning to provide a crash course of British colonialism in India, which sets the broader political context for tell the individual personal stories of a Hindu refugee who migrated from Pakistan to India, and a Muslim refugee who migrated from India to Pakistan. The piece uses the theatrical conceit of a modern day, fictionalized conversation between the Indian Hindu and Pakistani Muslim as they recount their verbatim and actual, embodied memories of their migration journey.

This project was originally going to be a more traditional, 360 video documentary produced by Project Dastaan where they were going to record video of ancestral homes of people who experienced the partition and have not been able to ever return to their ancestral homes. But the pandemic forced the project pivot to telling these stories via computer generated animations, which allowed them to use the more symbolic and poetic aspects of VR medium in focuses on just telling the migration stories of these two men.

By transporting the viewer into the direct and embodied experiences of what this India-Pakistan Partition felt like, it starts to tell this story in a much more decolonized way in contrast to how this history has been recounted by the perspective of the colonizers. The puppet theatre history primer at the beginning certainly points a lot of figures at Britain for the impacts of colonialism in sowing discord amongst religious factions, and the creators emphasized that they’re not trying to provide a comprehensive history for all of the influences (including the underlying religious disagreements that were indeed present). But rather, they were trying to provide as much context to the impacts of colonialism to set the broader context of the partition that helps orient the viewers into the embodied experiences of these two personal stories, which actually in the end have a lot more similarities than differences in terms of the traumatic impacts of this forced migration.

I had a chance to speak with the project co-creators Sparsh Ahuja and Erfan Saadati about their journey in producing this piece on January 24, 2022. We talked about their creative inspirations ranging from the beginning of the film Argo, Notes on Blindness, and Common Ground, and how they’re leveraging the more poetic aspects of the medium to tell the essence of the story of migration from these two different perspectives. The end result is a really powerful fusion of different genres and media that gives a much more embodied and decolonized take on this particular story.

The 75th Anniversary of the India-Pakistan Partition is coming up on 15 August 2022, and they’re planning on showing The Child of Empire at a number of museums in India, Pakistan, and the UK coming up in the second half of 2022.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of FIyar podcast. So continuing on in my coverage of The Sundance New Frontier 2022, today's episode is covering a piece called Child of Empire. So this is a piece that covers the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan, and it's a story of a forced migration. So it's refugees of both an Indian Hindu who's migrating from Pakistan to India and a Pakistani Muslim who's migrating from India to Pakistan. This is a project that originally started from Project Dastan, which is aiming to take people back into their original homes by a 360 video capture of where they grew up. But in the light of the pandemic, it actually catalyzed them to move into much more of a computer-generated and poetic depiction of the story of the forced migration. So the way that they do it is did a number of different interviews of lots of different perspectives of both of Indian Hindus and Pakistani Muslims and chose two main characters to have them have a fictionalized conversation but then recount their actual memories and then recreate the embodied experiences of this experience of migration from one country to the other. And it's a very poetic approach. But before they actually start into this story, they give a larger political context of the history of colonialism for hundreds of years, and they do it in a theatrical way of having these puppet theater animated 2D boards that is like a motion graphic that was kind of inspired by the film of Argo, of how they're able to quickly get you up to speed as to the complicated colonial history within the region. But that sets a larger political context to be able to tell these very personal stories. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of Voices of VR Podcast. So, this interview with Irfan and Sparsh happened on Monday, January 24th, 2021. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:01.733] Erfan Saadati: My name is Irfan Sadati. I've been working in 360 VR space since 2011. I guess we were like the first team to do 360 video in London. We were doing like filming stuff with like the original Ladybug, which was like 16 frames a second. And then around 2014, when the tech really caught up and the first gear came out, my previous company, Surround Vision, we started making social impact documentaries, 360 recorded, so like film stuff. A lot of work with charities like UN and Plan International. And in 2016, I made a documentary about the refugee crisis in Calais called In the Jungle. That was with National Theatre. And I guess that was really my debut breakout film. It got its premiere at Sheffield and then it made the rounds in the festivals. I left Surround Vision in 2018 and then sort of went freelance up until now that I joined Happy Finish, which is also like an AR, VR company. But about three years ago, I saw a post from Sparsh on Facebook about the project that he was undertaking at Oxford, which I let him delve into. Yeah, he was doing this really exciting initiative where he wanted to take his granddad back to his homeland. And I just saw it and I was like really impressed. And I was like, why don't we meet up and potentially work on a documentary together? And I guess that's a good transition to Sparsh.

[00:03:31.043] Sparsh Ahuja: Yeah, so this is my first film project. I've been, before that I was at university. So in terms of VR, I guess what we've been doing for the past three years, as Irfan said, is like interviewing people who migrated during the partition. And then because of visa guidelines and general trauma, a lot of these people can't visit their homes again. So we had this idea at university, a few friends and I, to reconnect them with their homes in 360 video. And I had just posted on a Facebook group looking for advice and maybe team members who wanted to volunteer. had the idea of potentially like making a film because a lot of the stuff we were recording was quite specific to the people who made that journey. And he thought the stories were quite powerful and could be made into something general for wider audiences to really dive into that period of history. And so, yeah, that's brought us here. And, you know, I was briefly working as a management consultant before, but I kind of fell in love with the filmmaking. So I quit that and now I'm just doing this full time.

[00:04:33.615] Kent Bye: Nice. And yeah, maybe you could just each briefly give a bit more context to your individual backgrounds and your journey into doing immersive storytelling.

[00:04:42.036] Sparsh Ahuja: I mean, I studied philosophy and politics, so very humanities background. For me, I feel like this project worked really well with Irfan and I, because Irfan had such a strong technical background with the creation, and I was quite invested in the stories, both on a personal basis, because my family made that migration, but I also studied South Asian politics and history as one of my majors at university. And so for me, I mean obviously learning a lot about immersive along the way and VR was chosen to give these participants the most like realistic way of seeing these places again, as opposed to just sending photos. But initially, this project wasn't really about VR for me at all. It was about my family's history. And as I said, it's my first immersive project. So I'm working on one more at the moment, which is like a musical experience. We're doing it for one of these Story Futures grants that have just come up, a musical experience in Quest. But this was my first project in immersive and in film in general.

[00:05:43.349] Erfan Saadati: I come from a more, well, I went to film school here in London, but my professional career has always been in VR, weirdly enough. Yeah. I mean, like originally when we did it, it was all brand work and very gimmicky, if I'm being honest. But I think when the gear, the Samsung gear came out, like, I guess the DK1 for many people was the one that was the game changer. But for me, when I tried the Samsung gear, and if I'm being honest, when I saw the first 360 video in that headset, it was like, wow, this is completely something else. It was never a case of the film world is going to change as the hype. used to be, but it was just like a whole different kind of storytelling, right? And like, there was a lot of unlearning to be done, like learning a new tool set. I think we took a lot of inspiration from like how theater storytellers work. And it was like sort of mixing that story, sort of like a stage production and the editing techniques that come with film and trying to develop this new tools. Thankfully, the VR community is very small and, well, they're very collaborative. And we're always together in this journey. And it's exciting to see what new artists are coming up with every year. Just like the concept of making a film completely in virtual reality, which is one of the other projects in Sundance, has been, yeah, it's a really cool journey that I think the whole industry has been on. I still think we have a lot to go. I used to use the example that, because we used to get a lot of criticism about VR, like when we first put the headset on people, it's like, oh, the quality is not great. The stories aren't great. But I used to always give the example of like, I used to put the photo of the George Millis, the rocket and moon, and then that and then Citizen Kane and then Life of Pi. It's almost like the journey that the cinema has been on in like the last hundred years. And I was just saying that we're not even at the George Mills level yet. So there's a long way to go until you get to justify your criticisms.

[00:07:46.708] Kent Bye: Yeah. And Sparsh, as you were talking about your philosophy, background and history and recounting of the impact of British colonialism on both India and Pakistan and that whole region. And there's a Kierkegaard quote that says life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. And I feel like there's something about how looking back into history and telling those stories It was striking to me was that oftentimes history is told by the victors. And so for me growing up in the United States, the view of world history that I got from my education was from that colonial assumption that wasn't from the people who were under colonial rule and hearing those alternative perspectives. And so I feel like there is something about how you recapped the history of India and Pakistan and that region of the impact of British colonial rule had really impacted these conflicts and then continued on into today. There was something about how this piece, it's setting that larger context and it's grounding that conflict into the personal stories. And so it's the collective, but then the personal, but that first sequence I think was really quite something to kind of, okay, here's the recapping for the last 400 years of history in this region and why we're here today into what is happening. And so that's something I haven't seen a lot within VR pieces or even within my primary school education of being able to get up to speed on a conflict. And so I'm just curious if you could talk about that process for you of taking, you know, from your background in philosophy and history and being able to use the medium of VR to quickly get folks up to speed as to what's happening there.

[00:09:21.179] Sparsh Ahuja: Yeah, I think that was one of the most interesting bits of the film to write, because the idea was to give viewers enough context to understand these personal stories. But in the same way that you said that history has been told by the victors, what we really, really wanted this story not to become about the politics of partition. And we wanted to keep the politics there just to contextualize these personal stories. But the focus was always on these two men and their own journeys they shared. So we didn't want to dwell a lot. And it was meant to be how brief could we do it without disrespecting the history, but also it was enough context to understand the story. So that was basically the brief. And our writer, Omi, who couldn't make this call, he did a fantastic job at summing up the key events in that history, which led to, you know, it's a lot to think through. Where do we start? Like, we started with the Mughals, but there was a lot more history that we missed out. And each of the individual dates, I remember sharing scripts with their fond and being like, well, yeah, I don't need to put a date here. Like, let's just get to the point. Like, come on, we've got to move quicker. One of the really interesting pieces of source material we used was the film Argo. where they quickly recapped and I'm not sure if I've been that film has had a lot of criticisms for historical inaccuracy, but just the style of the introduction was something we kind of borrowed from in terms of that sequence and changing style completely. And personally, what I think My favorite bit of the whole sequence is when the introduction carves out into that river of blood because it's almost like we've lulled the audience into this false sense of like security and the whole experience is going to take place as this puppet theater and you can just look around but essentially it's a 2D film and then suddenly it's like bam and you're like levitating. When I've shown my family that's had the most like oh my god like what's happening now kind of moment.

[00:11:10.043] Erfan Saadati: As an Iranian, I wouldn't have used Argo as the example. I would have said Watchmen, but yeah, it was a big influence.

[00:11:19.392] Kent Bye: Yeah. I think it could translate well into a 2D animated infographic, but yeah, I felt like that was able to set the context and tell the story in a way that I'd never heard it told before. So it was just interesting to hear how much the colonial impact was a part of this division that Before the colonial world, it was much more pluralistic and many different religions and perspectives. The fact that the British Film Institute was also a funder was also interesting, just because it's Britain accounting for the past if there's any other reflections of that, pointing the finger back at colonialization as a source of that conflict, it seems to be still relevant in terms of like those divisions haven't necessarily been resolved. But that seems to be a key part of this story is the differences between what's happening from the Hindus and the Muslims here in this story. And so I don't know if there's anything else to be said in terms of the larger dynamics. Like you said, you're not trying to get into the political aspects, but I'm just wondering if there's any other things to be said before we start to dive into the, you know, how that translates into the personal story.

[00:12:24.712] Sparsh Ahuja: So when we were writing that segment on the crash course in history, we borrowed heavily from some of the advisors that the project has been working on for a couple of years. We did a lot of research into the work of William de Rimpel, who's written a lot on the subcontinent. And he's been advising us for some time. And Yasmin Khan, who's another professor who we met at Oxford, who's written a lot on the partition. And then actually, when the film was complete, we did show it to William. And he said, oh, well, look, you can't just point the finger back at the British because it's much more nuanced than that. And something that we couldn't necessarily capture in two minutes. If we had more time, I guess the more accurate way to frame the whole experience would be that these communities had their differences. But specific policies that were implemented by the British aggravated these differences to the point where people started self-identifying with religious identity in a political way that wasn't so apparent before colonial rule. And it is true that the film in its current format does point the finger back at the British. But it's also important to understand, like you said, there's been a lot of literature and film made about the partition. And it tends to be from the colonial perspective, which is that we tried to rule over these savages, but they just couldn't get along and then they end up killing each other. And so if we We did make the creative decision that if we only had two minutes and we had to swing one way or the other, we would swing the way of telling the story that hasn't been told, even though the truth lies somewhere in the middle between the three perspectives. And if we had an hour documentary to make about the reasons and the road to partition, I mean, we'd spend the whole film doing that. And again, that wasn't, as I said, that wasn't the point of the film. So there is space for nuance in that telling, but I think it's almost like if the finger's being pointed at you four times, you point the finger back once and you kind of find like, a space in between that.

[00:14:14.170] Erfan Saadati: To be fair, I think we could have gone a lot more pointing finger if we wanted to, because we could have pulled quotes from Churchill that literally says these savages and whatnot. But I think that's exactly why we didn't, because we just wanted to give a taste. And then the second half of the film, or the majority of the film, I think we do address that. Although there's a few cheeky jokes about Elisa Yeboah's trains, and there's a few jokes about the colonial impact onto the lives, it is very much more about the two characters as opposed to the overarching... I mean, it's not just that the British invaded and stole everything that the country had to give, but it's also the manner that they exited, which you know, you can see it even today, like, you know, how the US has left Afghanistan, you know, like no plan has been made for after they leave. But yeah, again, I think me coming from an Iranian background and Sparsh not wanting to point too much fingers, we're keen to not make it too political, which I hope it does do that.

[00:15:17.700] Sparsh Ahuja: Yeah, I think also like, Colonialism, it was such an extractive force on the subcontinent that even like policies that were implemented in the spirit of codifying identities or assigning groups people actually ended up making people vote in terms of different political blocs. And then the manner in which the British left was so abrupt that people found themselves on the wrong side of the border where they didn't actually know where that border was. A lot of people lived in villages where they'd never seen a British officer in their lives. And so for them, the impact of colonialism was one day they woke up and actually like, you don't live in India anymore, you're in Pakistan and you've got to run across this border. So it was like the manner in which these policies were implemented was terrible and led to a lot of the massacres and mass migration and that kind of retribution. At the same time, we don't want to take away the agency of the Indians. At the time, all Indians, Hindustanis and Pakistanis who were fighting for their independence. And we didn't want to make it just about, well, the British messed up. Indians fought for their independence as well. And so that's why we really wanted to get to the personal stories, because that's like a bottom-up perspective that really hasn't been shared, because all of the Most of the literature on partition will focus on the characters of Mountbatten, Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru, the main politicians who were making those decisions, and we really wanted to give characters like my grandfather, their agency back and put their voice back into history.

[00:16:55.528] Kent Bye: Yeah, so with the partition that happened in 1947, you have the majority Hindus that are essentially taking over India and then a new country of Pakistan where the Muslims and if you've found yourself on the wrong side, then there's a one of the largest forced migrations in history, as you recount in your description. And so you're telling the story of a Hindu that lived in Pakistan, migrating into India, and then a Muslim who lived in India, migrating into Pakistan. And so maybe you could, from that frame of these individual stories of migration from these opposite perspectives, with the Hindu being majority and the Muslims being the minority in this context, how did you go about finding these individuals to be able to then recount their stories and then the process of if they were based upon these actual stories and if those people met and the conversation like maybe just talk about the process of how you were grounding these individual stories into what was end up into this piece of the Child of Empire.

[00:17:54.035] Sparsh Ahuja: So the Hindu story is my grandfather. So I had heard these stories growing up. And as I mentioned, like the project that we've been working on for the past three years is we had interviewed by the time this film was made, we interviewed over 40 people who had migrated in all forms and all ways and all different ethnic communities. And even like from Bangladesh and from North India, South India, all over the place. And people would message us on Instagram saying, look, one of my grandparents wants to see the ancestral home. We've been trying to get a visa for forever. Can you do it in VR for us? So finding people was not an issue because people really are desperate to see these places again. Picking these two characters was a challenge. And I'm sure Irfan can go into this in more detail, but we went through a lot of different stories trying to find experiences that were relatable to people who are not so familiar with the subject matter, and also to an extent represented the, I don't want to stereotype communities, but like national voices. We wanted to give each of these characters kind of becomes representative for their country in this film. And we wanted to make sure that their experiences were matched up to that common narrative. So we weren't misrepresenting their country stories. But what I will say, though, is it was incidental. We chose these stories because we thought they were really, really strong. But both of them were saved at partition by members of an opposite religion, which we used that in the conversation. These characters are never met in real life. The stories, the flashbacks that you experience in Child of Empire are verbatim from the interviews, but the conversation is fictionalized. And we use the interviews to kind of guess how they would respond to each other.

[00:19:34.561] Erfan Saadati: I think it's important to highlight that this film over the last three years has taken a lot of shapes and forms, and I think three scripts for it, by the time we got this final version. Originally we were planning to do it in 360 video, where it'd be more of a traditional documentary, where you have your interviews and then You get like some cutaways and then you get the reaction of the headset. But sort of COVID derailed us from that time. And I actually believe for the better, because what it allowed us to do is like take a step back and look at the script and approach it a bit more in an artistic sense, not that we took agency with their stories, because the stories of the characters are taken exactly from their interviews. But we took a little bit of inspiration from my filmmaking hero, Abbas Kirosamy, where we actually combined the lines of fiction and documentary in the sense that we put them in the same room and had this more poetic conversation, because we felt the story flowed a little better as a conversation, because One thing that I've done a lot in VR is like the sort of voiceover and then, you know, just voiceover, voiceover, shot, shot, shot. And it just kind of feels like you don't get that engaged in the conversation and then the shots can start blending into one another. But, you know, like having them talk to each other gave their voices a purpose, we felt. And actually, yeah, it helped. And I think Rami did a great job at making it flow nicely, be coherent and true to the story whilst being somewhat poetic as well. So yeah, I think the journey also forced us into this animation route, which allowed us for these bigger-than-life moments, which represented the partition a little better. And then one thing that we had to be very careful of is, telling their stories whilst not going into the gruesome detail that the interviews went into. Because, you know, like showing certain things that they had mentioned would have turned off viewers almost definitely. But also like, yeah, just being careful, like balancing that act between giving a hint of what they went through without putting off the viewers. Yeah, that was a fine line that we were walking.

[00:21:42.127] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's interesting to hear both from your experience of Child and Vampire, but also Kasunda and the day you wake up to the end of the world. All of them were originally planning on doing like volumetric videos or 360 videos. And then with the pandemic forced a change and shift into these more CGI styles, which I feel like has been in some ways a boon to the form of VR as a storytelling medium because it almost forces it to be more metaphoric or symbolic or to use the affordances of the computer-generated approach, which allows you more freedom to be able to symbolically tell the story through these spatial metaphors. especially when you think about the contrast between the two perspectives of the majority and the minority, and being able to contrast those two perspectives of what it was like to be in the majority and what it's like to be in the minority. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you were able to, through a storytelling mechanism, tell these contrasts between those two perspectives.

[00:22:35.654] Sparsh Ahuja: I think one of the things that I remember when we had made the decision to move to sixth off and doing it animated. One of the things we agreed on really quickly was that the benefit of using that and I think one of the films Dear Angelica does that really well and Battlestar is that with computer generated, you can give viewers a perspective that they would never have if it was a 360 video. So like putting, making viewers very little or sometimes making them very big or the levitation scene, like one of the creative freedoms that this offered was it wasn't just our story animated. It has a whole new creative toolkit and perspectives that you can use and really speaking to virtual reality because you can give people a perspective that they would never have in real life. So I think that was a real eye-opener in terms of what we could do and how we could play around with the experience.

[00:23:26.228] Erfan Saadati: From the, I guess from the majority and minority perspective, we do hint at at one point, I think the holy scene, Ishar is talking about how fun the events were, whereas when Iqbal is reflecting on it, he's like, well, actually, it's not as rosy as you remember it. But one thing that was very important to us from the start was to Actually, originally we were planning to have one child in the experience and like it to be made up of like three or four different stories. But eventually we came to the conclusion to just have the conversation between the two. But we still wanted to flow as like one coherent narrative. So like the journey is still one constant journey, but made up of these two people's stories. But yeah, because it was very important for us to show that they come from, they have their differences. But ultimately, the conclusion that the two come to is that, well, actually, our experiences weren't that different. And that sort of journey reflects both of the interviews that we had with the characters. You know, they started off saying, yeah, we were right and the partition had to happen. This is from Iqbal, the Pakistani survivor. You know, like it had to happen and they were wrong and more of us died. But then by the end of the interviews, almost all 40 interviews that we did, they came to the conclusion that irregardless of the political perspective, the lives that were lost and the horrors that were faced, that that shouldn't have happened. It could have been avoided. And sort of like they came to that sort of shared realization that, you know, they're both survivors, you know, it doesn't matter which side of the border they cross.

[00:24:56.448] Sparsh Ahuja: Also, it's important to understand historically here that if you look at the subcontinent as a whole, Muslims were a minority and Hindus were a majority. But when people migrated, they migrated because they were left as a minority in an area where there was a new majority. So my family was the only Hindu family in that whole area, which is why they moved out. And same with So when the partition was announced, the idea was that Muslim-majority regions would go to Pakistan and Hindu-majority regions would go to India. But the reality, of course, was that was really messy because people didn't just fall on the lines that the British had in mind. And so I don't think that it's as simple as, oh, this was a majority perspective, this was a minority perspective. There were minorities that stayed behind in their respective places because they were very elite minorities who kind of ruled over a particular area. And then there was majorities in areas like the Punjab who completely went from side to side. So it was about the feeling of being left as a minority in a new land, in a new border that you didn't necessarily know what religious demographic of that area would be. So two big cities, like Delhi was a Muslim-majority city before partition, and Karachi, which is over 95% Muslim now, was Hindu-majority, and it was basically a population swap. So it's not necessarily like a minority majority tale as much as a feeling of like insecurity and what was going to happen to you.

[00:26:26.426] Kent Bye: Yeah, what I find interesting about this piece is that it's taking me into, on the ground level, the experience of what it felt like to be in this moment in history, where there's a larger political context of these divisions that are coming from potentially the colonial rule, but tensions that were already there, but then catalyzed in this moment of saying, now all of a sudden you have to make this migration. and neighbors turning against each other and fighting and just being in that moment of that chaos and uncertainty and the migration that happened and giving just through the lens of telling it through the individual personal story to represent the larger stories that were happening there in that region and how something about the medium of VR to be able to go from the streets of a celebration into cut into people hiding out in a barn because they didn't feel safe. And so just the contrast between the different experiences of these big collective populations tie down into the personal stories of these two individuals. And I feel like the medium of VR is able to take me into that and give me a deeper understanding of that. And I guess that's a challenge of whenever you start to tell these stories is there's a simplification that happens when you collapse all this complexity down into an individual story, but still at the same time, trying to reflect these larger dynamics that were happening. So like you said, there's always going to be compression that happens when you try to condense down these things that could be an hour or longer documentary into a 15 to 25 minute immersive VR experience that is trying to get to the heart of the matter and to really distill down the essence of the experience. But I feel like there's a part of being embodied within these locations that we're able to overall tell this larger story. So I'd love to hear your process of working with the medium of VR to be able to create that experience that you were able to end up with, how you got to that point of knowing what the strengths of the medium of VR were that allowed you to do things that maybe haven't been done before in telling the story in other media.

[00:28:21.828] Erfan Saadati: Yeah, I mean, I think like the scenes, I guess, we knew what they were going to be more or less from the start, because the journeys are almost all of them are identical. You know, they went from their house to train almost always or sometimes by foot, they would escape their village. And then from there, they would go to a camp. So that was like that was sort of preselected for us. It was more about how we designed these spaces, because Again, I come from a film background, like we had to unlearn the sort of like, we want this shot, this shot, this shot, but rather create the environments that the user can navigate through. One of the first villages is actually my favorite place in the whole experience because you have like this sort of, we created in a way that it's not necessarily like quite historically accurate because Smarsh was on the case, but we set up like a mosque and a temple in the same scene to sort of represent that duality that the country was in before being torn apart. Even now there's still obviously Muslim population in India, but obviously the majority of them have gone over to Pakistan. But yeah, I guess like designing those spaces in a way that, first of all, the viewers can navigate through them, And there was like a couple of moments of interactivity throughout the experience. They are very subtle, like in the train scene, you can like navigate through. And I think that was also a great use of the interactivity, I guess, because you can pick up the lantern and turn on the light and actually navigate the place. Yeah, like it's weird for me because I don't have a benchmark to compare it because I've only worked in VR, like to tell stories. So it's been more like about refining that process more than how else would I tell the story in a traditional format.

[00:30:02.096] Sparsh Ahuja: Yeah, I think it's worth mentioning our animation, lead animator here, Stevo, who did a crazy job with those environments. I mean, he speaks a little bit about it in our artist video, but he had no familiarity with this material before he started working on this project. And I basically gave him a bunch of archive material and said, I want the village looking like this, and this is what a mosque should look like, and this is how people look. And yeah, he worked really, really hard to make it happen, especially some of those skyboxes that he's created to give that sense of vastness. And it's really impressive. So a lot of credit goes to him for the way those worlds are created.

[00:30:41.708] Erfan Saadati: Yeah, I think, you know, like with film, you can get a lot more artistic, I feel. I mean, like, not that you can't get artistic with VR, but you have to be a little bit more literal, I feel, you know. You know, the same way that film is more literal than like a photo or a painting, so is VR compared to film. So you're just like creating these worlds for the user to navigate as opposed to try to direct someone's attention to a certain event. Although there's obviously tricks, like at the start of the film, we really wanted people to get the history lesson so they don't feel out of the loop. That's why we created that sort of little theater. But for the rest of the experience, we wanted to make sure that I mean, there was a study like a while back that said like 90% of users don't look beyond what's in front of them. So we always have that back of our mind, but it was also important that the environment is compelling enough that the user wants to navigate around it as opposed to just sit there and not move.

[00:31:36.253] Kent Bye: Yeah. I'm wondering if you've had a chance to show this piece to anybody who either lived through the partition or just familiar with the history, what type of reactions from people who lived through this?

[00:31:48.398] Sparsh Ahuja: Yeah, so the Hindu story is a combination of my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandfather, who both made that journey. And so I showed my paternal grandfather, who is the train scene. And this is exactly what Irfan was hinting at earlier, where he was like, we had to tread that fine line between not turning viewers off the experience. But my paternal grandfather, after finishing the experience, he's like, you didn't show what I went through. I saw bodies being pulled apart. And so it's really quite gruesome, which he did share in his interview with us. And that was one reaction. On the other hand, we had, I've shown a lot of people in India who have just like kind of teared up almost. And it's a lot because people have been researching Partition for a long time. And I've now been researching for this film for interviewing people for that long. And you really need to like mentally separate yourself from the stories you're hearing because they're that traumatic. And so to then for some of these researchers who had advised us to be thrown into this world that they've spent a lot of time trying to distance themselves from and trying not to be affected by was really quite emotional. So I think we had like three or four people tear up while watching the experience, which was I mean, the goal wasn't to depress people, but it was having a very deep emotional impact. But I don't want to compare the events. I don't think you can compare world events like that in history. But I would say that the cultural importance of the partition to India and Pakistan is like the cultural importance of the Holocaust and World War II to Europe and Israel. And so to really transport people back into that time was quite emotional for them.

[00:33:23.705] Kent Bye: Yeah. When you think about moving forward, how do you hope a piece like this either lands or shifts the larger discussions? And if there's like a specific context under which that you expect this to be shown in museums or outreach campaigns, what happens next with this piece and what were some of the goals in terms of where you want to take it and what kind of impact and metrics for success for where you want this piece to go in the future?

[00:33:49.132] Sparsh Ahuja: So this year is actually the 75th anniversary of the partition. And so we have lined up a museum tour starting August, which will be the date of the anniversary. Quite, I wouldn't say surprisingly, but quite encouragingly, both museums in India and Pakistan have been very receptive, which doesn't tend to happen with material either like the Indians or the Pakistanis don't want it or vice versa. And also like museums in the UK. So come August, we'll be touring it around. We're currently still financing that tour. The venues have agreed. the money to take it around but that is the goal to really get it to the community because again it's the same problem in museums as it is in the film world that like a lot of the people whose stories are told are not the ones actually consuming that content so we really want to get it back out there.

[00:34:34.928] Erfan Saadati: For me, I think, because I'm Iranian, I'm not as close to the story as Sparsh is. And coming into it, I actually had more of a similar experience as you did, where I was like, wait, hold on, what? So it did serve as a history lesson, the whole experience. To say that after three years I fully understand it, it would be a lie because I bounced around between like, oh well they should have been in one country, but no actually they shouldn't have because the Pakistanis wanted a separate country. It's more of a like, here's a story that you haven't heard of before that actually is repeated over and over again everywhere that you see. I think it's very similar to pretty much everything that's happening around the Middle East. Yeah, it's like countless examples where even Africa has a lot of similar stories happening. So it's more like there are other stories out there, if you know what I mean. It's opening more of the Western eyes towards the tragedies of East, I guess, to some degree.

[00:35:32.639] Sparsh Ahuja: It's also considered so-called South Asian history, except this was part of Britain at the time. This all happened around the same time as World War II. Same with the Nakba in Palestine and the creation of Israel. And all of these events are kind of relegated to their history, except it isn't just my history. It's all of the UK's history. And it really needs to be taught in curriculums in the same way that World War II was taught, because that is still a remnant of colonization. a lot of these world matters are not treated as, well, we left, so it's got nothing to do with us anymore, but it still absolutely has everything to do with the UK.

[00:36:10.925] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. Like I said, the history being written by the victors and there's a lot of movements around decolonization and other perspectives that I think there's a lot of looking back at just even the stories that have been told and this constant reevaluation as you hear more and more voices. So I think this is definitely a part of that as a process, but As you were talking about taking these to museums, I think one of the things that normally happens at these film festivals is that you have like an installation and you're going in to help create this magic circle before you go into the experience and then thinking about how you come out of this experience. And so Normally, when you're going to a film festival, though, you're just talking about audiences from around the world, but because this is going to be shown in very specific contexts, I'm wondering if you've thought about how to onboard people into this experience and to bring people out, and if there's any specific aftercare, as an example, just like installation work to be able to help create this context before they go into an experience like this, because like you said, it can be triggering of a lot of these traumatic experiences that people may have lived through. And so, yeah, I'm just curious how you think about in this context, whether it's in India, whether it's in Pakistan or whether it's in the UK, if there are going to be specific ways of setting the context before people going to this or a common way to be able to have people transition into seeing this experience.

[00:37:27.605] Erfan Saadati: I don't think we've ever put that much thought into necessarily aftercare. Maybe like Sparsh can disagree, but I think in terms of the onboarding, we're planning to accompany and buy like art by South Asian artists in a similar topic. And I think there's like, three pieces of animation that were also happening alongside this project under the Project Aslan umbrella. And we're hoping that all of this content is presented to viewers in like a multimedia fashion. So like, you know, they'll get some context and it's just that this experience tells the story of two survivors, whereas like another animation tells the story of another survivor, you know. Again, it's to show like there's a lot of diverse stories, but they all like sort of point to the similar thing, which is that the suffering, you know, like you can't deny someone's experience if that makes any sense. But yeah, I don't know. I'm sure you have stuff to add.

[00:38:22.710] Sparsh Ahuja: The exciting thing is that we've recently won a grant from the Britain's Art and Humanities Research Council to have two researchers from SOAS, which is a research institute in London that focuses on colonial studies, to actually follow the tour and research, one, the way it impacts participants and generally how immersive media and the traditional animations differ in the impact on the participants. So there is an aftercare element and we have to be careful about the way this content can trigger people. there is a plan of like getting people to write out their thoughts after they come out and then compare how they felt before and after, and then use that to generally study immersive media. Yeah. So that's quite exciting. And there's going to be more news coming up about that soon.

[00:39:07.709] Kent Bye: Very cool. Well, just to start to wrap up here, I'm curious what each of you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling and what it might be able to enable.

[00:39:17.597] Erfan Saadati: I think saying stuff like it's going to replace cinema and stuff is just crazy because I don't want it to replace cinema. But I think it's adding another tool in the creative realms arsenal to tell different stories. I think it's a great tool for especially journalists. And documentary specifically, actually, because when you go to shoot a documentary, your main goal is to replicate your experience for people back home who can't be there, because you don't want to be too subjective, I guess. And I think VR is the next best thing to being there. Not only because, I don't know, I feel like also the artists that work in the medium are quite honest and also like having a story unfold in front of you as opposed to having like a voiceover telling you, oh, but this happened and that happened. It's very exciting in the sense that, yeah, again, it has to be the right story, I would say. And I guess like it's a great teleportation tool to see the worlds that you would never otherwise.

[00:40:21.678] Sparsh Ahuja: Yeah, I think for me, a lot of people who have shown this experience too, they've been using Immersive for the first time when they put on this experience. And that's been quite telling for me because I didn't think it would have this kind of impact. So I think there's a much bigger market out there that hasn't been explored. I actually use the word market. There's a lot more people who deserve to see this kind of content. And I just hope it becomes more accessible in the future.

[00:40:47.143] Erfan Saadati: definitely there is more financial incentive in the gaming world for it, but I definitely think there is a place for art for it. And I think the amazing experiences that we see year after year, and they only are getting exponentially better in terms of both style and techniques, too, that I always refer back to in terms of being great pieces of in VR are, well, the first one that I really loved was Notes on Blindness, because that gave me the perspective of someone that I could never even imagine having been in their shoes. And then another one was Common Ground by Darren Emerson. I don't know if you've seen that one, but I thought technically that was one of the coolest experiences I've seen because it used 360 video, which I still think it's a very cool medium. I think we've been quick to disregard it because it's a passive experience. But what Darren did with that was mix the reality of 360 experience with certain interactive moments to embody you into the film and the story. So I think that cut the balance quite right. I would definitely say there's more room in the documentary realm as opposed to fiction, but that's maybe because I haven't seen much good fictional stuff. I feel like you don't really You can't really do the same sort of character development that you can in film, I feel. It's less about getting into someone's psyche and it's more about exploring worlds, if that makes any sense.

[00:42:18.187] Kent Bye: Yeah, and talking to William Uricchio, who's a film historian, he's at MIT's Open Doc Lab, and he just mentioned that how documentary as a medium has often been at the forefront of a lot of these new communication media. So it's interesting to see how a lot of these pieces of VR, a lot of the innovations happening in the context of these documentary forms. So certainly there's games like Half-Life Alyx and other stuff like that, that's also doing the blending of agency and gaming and storytelling, but Yeah, in terms of character development and narrative, having it grounded in physical reality, I think there's a lot of inspiration there for how to take those events that have probably already been explored in other media and using the immersive technologies to be able to see how you can start to tell the stories in any way. So I definitely see that you've been able to achieve that here with Child of Empire and the story of Partition. So, yeah, I'm just curious if you have anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community.

[00:43:12.147] Erfan Saadati: Well, I guess like for people who are just getting into it, one thing that I think I benefited from when I started my journey into the immersive storytelling was there wasn't books out there. There was no, like as a community, we were figuring it all out. And this is everything from like the technical side, from like stitching 360 videos to shooting stuff, how to, how to shoot stuff, not to make people feel sick. I think my only advice would be to just like experiment with stuff, even There are certain rules that have been developed like don't move the camera like this so you don't make people feel sick. But if you think it's worth doing it, try it because it might not make people feel sick. Yeah, there's so much more to explore. I would just say take as many risks as possible.

[00:43:54.152] Kent Bye: Okay, great. Well, Irfan and Sparsh, thanks so much for taking time to be able to unpack a little bit more of the journey and context for Child of Empire. Like I said, I think it starts to tell this story in a really powerful way and introduce parts of this history that some people may not be aware of, or at least experience it in a way that's from this first person perspective and start to tell the story in a new way itself. So yeah, really powerful piece. And thanks for taking the time to unpack it a little bit here on the podcast. So thank you. Thank you. So that was Irfan Sadati. He's an Iranian-British director, producer, and screenwriter who's been working in the 360 VR space since 2011, as well as Barsha Hooja. He's a multimedia artist and the founder of a peace-building initiative called Project Destan, and this is his first film project. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, the very first introduction of this has got a very distinct aesthetic of you being in this room that has like a puppet theater type of aesthetic, but it's using layered 2D animated motion graphics that are telling the history of British colonialism within the context of India, and how that is helping to set the larger context of this partition, which was very much a political move and maybe not well completely thought out and actually very traumatic both for the Hindus and the Muslims who find themselves needing to migrate and this forced migration. This as a piece is actually I think kind of blending together different approaches and genres. It starts with this motion graphic, you know, trying to ramp you up into this big large history over many hundreds of years and very quickly do that. not focus too much on the politics of that, because as Sparsh said, that could have been just an entire documentary just to even cover all the nuances of that. And so, because this virtual reality piece has more of a poetic vibe, there is a lot of simplification in trying to get down to the essence of what the heart of the story that they're trying to tell. And they're doing that through the lens of these two characters, an Indian Hindu who's migrating from Pakistan to India, and then a Pakistani Muslim who's migrating from India to Pakistan. The very beginning just to start to differentiate between the majority and minority is the Hindus are having the religious celebration in the streets and then they cut to the Muslim who is the minority in certain contexts who are not enjoying the same type of exalted celebration that the Hindus are within the context of being the majority. But then, talking to Sparsh and Arfan, this context of the minority-majority actually collapses in some sense during this partition because a Hindu who is in Pakistan needing to migrate into India all of a sudden becomes the minority, and the Muslim who migrated from India to Pakistan is a minority. I think the heart of what they're trying to do is see the commonalities between these experiences of migration and being a refugee and the traumas that were experienced. In a lot of ways, this feels like an embodied poem of being able to put you into that first-person perspective as each of them are making their respective journeys and to see how there's actually more commonalities than differences. The way that they're telling the story, also, is very much relying upon this narrative that's coming from these two characters. Their process was to talk to lots of different people, over 40 different people or so, and to choose individual stories. Actually, in one case, it's a bit of a composite between the father and son. That's the relatives of Sparsh. And through these characters, what they're saying in terms of their memories are very much verbatim from their actual stories that they're telling. And then, at the same time, the conversations that are happening between the two characters is fictionalized in a way to be able to set a larger narrative arc that allows you to dive into these different personal stories. It's kind of blending various different genres. It has these fictionalized components, but it's also got these documentary components, but then it's being reconstructed within virtual reality and the CGI. Originally, it was going to do more of a 360 video, but it actually forced them to really explore the affordances of the medium in a way that they perhaps wouldn't have otherwise, which reminds me of different aspects of Kasunda and On the Morning You Wake to the End of the World. Both of them were in similar situations where they were going to do a much more straight-up volumetric capture of these different places, but we're forced to move into the more CGI. I think it's been catalyzing this exploration of what the affordances of the medium are when you start to do more poetic, metaphoric aspects. You know, things like levitating up at the camera or having a body morph into these words as it's dying and get this essence of their soul that's kind of floating away. Something that would be more difficult to do if you were just recording the physical reality and so in this virtual Symbolic representation you're able to get a little bit more of these poetic representations of the story Which I thought was actually quite interesting to see how they're able to tie all that together One of the things that I found a little bit confusing as I was watching the piece is because they do have these differences between the religion and different people, and they're going from one place to the next. And even as I watch it, sometimes they'll have you grounded within the context of a scene, and then they'll switch to the other speaker, and then they'll be talking about their experience, and then the context of the spatial representation that you're in is seamlessly blending together. And so, in some ways, they're trying to not make too many distinct differentiations between these two experiences and show more of the overlap. Sometimes it's difficult to track who's talking whose story, what their context is, where they're going from one place to the next, just because there's a lot of details to keep track of. I think that's serving their overall purpose of trying to see how these two stories are really quite similar. But at the same time, even as I'm watching it, as they switch just from the audio back and forth, sometimes it's difficult to track whose story you're talking about in the larger context of their situations. And so the virtual reality medium is quite interesting because they do allow you to have some interactions, very light interactions, like the very first scene when you're picking up and throwing the different colors as a part of the Hindu celebration. But then the next scene that you have some light level of interaction is that you're in the train scene and you're holding a light. And then the beginning, it's a white light and everything before the train has stopped and all the passengers are attacked and killed. Beaten up and as the original memories are going there's actually bodies being ripped apart and that was very gruesome and so rather than Explicitly depicting the level of gore that was happening in the actual memories There's more of a poetic interpretation of the light then turns red and then you are Shining it around and that's the only thing that you could see is these beat-up bodies that are sitting in the seats and so you get this sense that there's been a lot of death and trauma that just occurred but not having to be so explicit into that. So again, using not only the poetic interpretations of the medium, but also using the lighting and your interaction to be able to see how that is unfolding. I thought that was really well done. And overall, in this first person perspective of being able to embody you into these different experiences, it's a lot more about trying to pick these environments and building out these scenes that make you feel like you're immersed into these different places. And so Irfan, even though he's got a A film background his entire career has been working within virtual reality. One of the things he said was that in that film context, you're thinking about scenes and cutting the scenes, but within the immersive context, you're thinking about embodying people within these different immersive environments. From that space, being able to tell different aspects of those stories. So yeah, I think as I have watched this piece a number of times now, I'm just really focusing on how there's a certain poetry that happens with this type of embodied interpretations of some of these different scenes and trying to really distill it down to the essence of the context, but also the experience of this alienation and exile and the loss and grief and death and trauma that comes from being a refugee, being in exile and making this forced migration. And it's all within the larger context of this political context and political situation with colonialism that is set up with the very beginning of trying to establish all those relational dynamics that then allows you to be embodied within these experiences from a first-person perspective. really quite effective in how it's using the medium and maybe starting to tell the story in a way that is getting away from how a lot of these stories have been told in the past, which is very much from the colonialist perspective, and how a lot of those individual embodied experiences of what it felt like to go through this, I think, is starting to be translated more within the medium of VR, whereas you almost have a little bit more distance when you talk about the political aspects. It's just interesting to hear about how you can really cover more of the nuances of the political situation by other media. Say, an entire documentary where you're able to have different clips and different perspectives. But from this perspective, it's more from a decolonized perspective in the sense of, this is what it felt like for the people who were under the colonial rule, and this is their stories, and this is what they're taking away from that. I think the medium of VR is starting to do that in a way that is maybe uniquely different through how other media have perhaps told the story before. So that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you could become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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