Meet the Indian filmmaker who brought Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann’s love story to the big screen

Indian filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar talks candidly about what iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman meant to him, and why there should be more Indo-Swedish films made.

Meet the Indian filmmaker who brought Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann's love story to the big screen
Liv Ullmann and Dheeraj Akolkar at the 50th New York Film Festival. Photo: Rune H Trondsen, Producer, Liv & Ingmar

On July 14th, 2018, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman would have been a hundred years old. As the film industry and his fans commemorate his centennial anniversary, The Local contributor Rupali Mehra spoke to Indian filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar, who directed the film 'Liv & Ingmar' (2012) on one of Bergman's most complex relationships – that with his actor, muse and soulmate, Liv Ullmann.

You're a qualified architect who got into films. How did the idea of a film on Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, who many call his soulmate, come about?

I was working in India and at the house of a legendary filmmaker and producer, I found Liv Ullmann's book 'Changing'. I started reading it and was completely hooked. It was one of the most honest pieces of literature I had ever read. But as I was reading I got the feeling that there was a lot she had not written. There was a lot in between the spaces.

There is a memory Liv writes about – visiting Ingmar with their daughter at Fårö after their break-up. She comes to the house which he built for her, on the spot where he declared his love for her. She writes in the book that when she arrives, “a new woman is standing by the door and she looks happier than I was. Yet the house has the same curtains and the same furniture, she hasn't tried to remove me from there and I thank her for that.”

Then Liv is told, “we have organized the guest house for you”. Liv writes in the book, “for the first time I see my own house from the window of the guest house – nothing can hurt me anymore”.

Even as I am saying these words I can sense the pain in that line. But she is doing the right thing, being a friend. It tugged at my heart. 

Then in 2007 Bergman passed away.

At the time, I was studying in London, doing my Masters and watching a lot of Ullmann-Bergman films. When Bergman passed away, I was flipping through newspapers, trying to see what Liv had said about Ingmar's passing. But she had said nothing.

That evening, my film came to me, and I wrote it down as a poem that very moment, about their kind of togetherness and that was to become the film.

I know this sounds like a cliché, but I think the film chose me. Because this story had existed for 42 years in Scandinavia, and why did nobody else make it? This was deeper than just wanting to make a film.

That's how it all started.

Ullmann and Akolkar on the last day of shooting at Fårö island. Photo: Hallvard Brein, Cinematographer, Liv & Ingmar

Did you think you would get a response from Liv Ullman on a story so personal to her?

There has been a lot of cynicism about their relationship, but I was not interested in that cynicism. I was interested in the unspoken and the unsaid that I had sensed – something vital that connected them and kept them together through 42 years and 12 films.

I did expect a response from Liv. I was a struggling filmmaker and hope was all I had, honestly. But when she called – and I remember the date and time: It was February 23rd, 2008 and it was 2.30pm – I remember the phone ringing and I remember the voice saying, “This is Liv Ullmann.”

The reason I was stunned was  because Liv, for me, is excellence. Liv said: “If you find the support to put the film together, I will participate.”

Here was a famous actor, telling a very personal story of the love and turmoil between her and the iconic Ingmar Bergman – all this while being directed by a young Indian filmmaker. How did it all fall into place?

I have to say I owe the producers Rune Trondsen and Stein Roger Bull so much because they and their company NordicStories put so much faith behind me, an unknown filmmaker.

The second part of the equation was that it was all very human. People of ten to 12 different nationalities worked on this film and at the end, it is just a human experience.

At the same time, it was very overwhelming. When we were on location, in Bergman's house on Fårö, the door opened and Liv Ullmann walked in. It felt like it was happening in one of his films. 

Liv completed bared her heart, and at the end of the filming, we all bonded so beautifully. It is a friendship that continues to this date.

Ullmann in Bergman's theatre. She did the interview with her hand on his chair. Photo: Hallvard Brein

What do you think of Bergman as a person and as a filmmaker?

I feel as a person he was a child. He was this gigantic genius cinematically and in theatre, but I feel the reason he was able to tap into all of these emotions with such brutal honesty, is because there was a certain innocence to him.

Lack of love seemed to have marked him from his childhood. I saw  a documentary which showed Bergman talking about how he used to go to hug his mother and she used to push him away. In my mind this is a man who always felt abandoned. His films are so full of longing – of people who cannot belong! 

When I first met Liv in Norway, she had asked me why I wanted to make the film, and I said to her: “You are in the last frame of his last film. This is not a coincidence for a filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman.” Perhaps I am reading too much into this, perhaps I am a romantic, I don't know.

But I felt I was proven right when we found his letters (to Ullmann). They couldn't live together, perhaps because they were two headstrong individuals, but they couldn't live apart either. Liv and Ingmar were truly, painfully connected. I met the producers of 'Saraband', and they said to me that throughout Ingmar's last years he kept confiding in them that he wished he had married Liv, but it was too late then.

Bergman and Ullmann in 1977. Photo: Pressens Bild

You juxtaposed an interview with Liv Ullmann, the love letters of Ingmar and the films Ingmar and Liv did together. What made you choose this format? Were you influenced by Bergman's storytelling style?

Yes, absolutely. For example, there is a scene in 'The Passion of Anna' where Anna has a dream, and in that dream Bergman has used a sequence which he had shot for 'Shame'. I also loved this thought that Liv Ullmann as Marianne knocks on a door in 'Scenes From A Marriage' and 30 years later in the beginning of the film 'Saraband' the same Marianne comes in through another door.

I find it fascinating that time spent and films made together are like rooms of the same house – you can walk out of one and into another with effortless ease. If you ever go to Ingmar's house it feels like it is divided into chapters like in 'Scenes From A Marriage'. They are all intertwined, interconnected. Every great artist has constructed his/her own life into their work of art.

Earlier my film was supposed to be include many more people, but unfortunately it wasn't possible.Then I thought to myself, “instead of looking at this as a problem, why don't we turn it into strength? Why do we need anybody else? The story belongs to Liv and Ingmar, and Liv has agreed to participate.”

Then luckily we found those letters, so there was Ingmar talking as well – through them. His own words, in his own handwriting, are there. We also used Liv's autobiography 'Changing'; about which Ingmar says, “Liv's account is affectionately accurate”.

But our film is not about what happened. Our film is about memories – it is about remembering what happened. These are two different things. 

Shooting 'Scenes from a Marriage' with Erland Josephson, left, in 1972. Photo: Gunnar Lantz/SvD/TT

Your film was shot after Bergman had passed away. If he was around, do you think he would have agreed to be part of the documentary?

I think he would have agreed to be a part of it. A lot of Bergman scholars and people who know him would probably criticize me for saying this, but I feel he would have agreed because the complexity of love he had for Liv was not sensed by very many people.

Perhaps somebody from India, from a different continent and time zone had to come up and say, “but I see this love clearly and I want to celebrate it, in whatever form that you choose to talk about. Say it as you have experienced it.”

I wish I had met him because I had so much to ask him. Not just as a person, but as a filmmaker. His cinema is so unique, and that is because it is brutally honest, unashamedly personal, yet universal.

Liv says this on camera in our film, and I have felt it as well: I felt he was around when we made the film. If you go to his house, it is so alive with energy. 

Shooting in the National Theatre Oslo. Photo: Rune H Trondsen, Producer, Liv & Ingmar

Back in the day, there was a lot of exchange between Indian directors like Satyajit Ray and Bergman for example. Is there still an interest in Swedish filmmaking in India and vice versa today?

There has been a lot of effort. But I think a larger cultural exchange needs to take place in terms of collaborating on projects. For example, now I am putting together a film in Sweden; it is a Swedish story. There should be a lot more of that. The world has opened up so much, so we cannot and should not stay boxed in.

How about Swedish artists – painters, writers, filmmakers, poets, photographers – going for an Indian residency each year and Indian artists coming here to Sweden and the two sharing ideas and creating something together and apart? We can do so much more. 

What can both the Swedish and Indian film industry learn from each other?

I think Swedish cinema by and large is so close to real life, so honest and existential. Indian cinema could look at that, although I think it is already happening among some brilliant young filmmakers.

What Swedish cinema could learn from India, is perhaps the canvas and the diversity in Indian cinema that exists because of the extremes in the society, which you don't see much in Swedish cinema because the society is homogeneous in a way.

I am not a film scholar, I am a filmmaker. But I strongly feel that we must look at each other's differences, similarities which exist despite these differences, and the complexities that open up.

And do you think there is scope for Indo-Swedish collaborations, like your film for example?

There is immense Swedish and Indian talent. But there needs to be more access to each other to be able to collaborate. There need to be dedicated platforms, film labs, film financing initiatives. My experience is that people face the danger of only look inwards, not outwards. 

Are you working with any Swedish collaboration at the moment and in the near future?

One of my latest projects is a drama feature set in Northern Sweden. It is a true story involving a father, a son and a piano. It is a film that I intend to make in Swedish and English for home audiences in Sweden as well as international audiences.

I have made several trips to the North of Sweden and I believe that the beauty of the emptiness and silence in which this story is placed is very specific to that part of the world. It is based on my composer Stefan Nilsson's childhood days; it is his personal memories that we are adapting into a film. 

Rupali Mehra moved to Sweden from India in the spring of 2017. She is a former television anchor & senior editor. She now runs a communications consultancy and can be reached at [email protected]

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Opinion: Sweden and India – the many flavours of two thriving democracies

Rupali Mehra compares the flavours of Swedish elections to those in her home country India. Are there any similarities in the democratic process of the two countries?

Opinion: Sweden and India – the many flavours of two thriving democracies
Swedish voters look at election campaign posters in Södertälje. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

In India you don't need a pundit to tell you a political contender will soon be in your vicinity. You can feel them coming a mile away.

SUVs with loudspeakers, blaring slogans from a political party or playing patriotic Bollywood songs alternatively, precede the political procession that is to come.

Indian elections are not called the world's largest democratic exercise for nothing. While the numbers game is the obvious correlation – considering we are talking of 850 million eligible voters – the overwhelming scale of Indian election truly plays out on its streets.

Canvassing in India for the national elections has a festive fever around it. A heady, contagious festive fever that you cannot escape from. Every emotion is heightened; the cheers, the jeers, the anger and the joy; even fist fights and the hugs of bonhomie. And all of this plays out in the public domain.

Elections in a country of 1.3 billion, to choose 543 women and men as their executives, is similar to “a big fat Indian wedding”, as a journalist friend put it. Having covered three national elections over 15 years and several federal elections, I couldn't agree more. Only that it is a “big fat Indian wedding” of 850 million invitees and the infinite complexities that come with it.

READ ALSO: How to vote in the 2018 Swedish election (even if you're not a citizen)

Indian voters wave at Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally. Photo: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

Sitting 3,500 miles away in Sweden, I am witnessing another democratic exercise. An election that is similar in the mechanics, yet so different in its manifestation.

Sweden votes in less than 24 hours. But if you are new here or a visitor, you can't be faulted for thinking polls are a while away. “It doesn't feel like there is a national election on in Sweden,” remarks the journalist friend from India who finds herself in Stockholm in the midst of val, as elections are known here. The comment on the 'feel factor' is telling. Unless you regularly tune into televised political debates and the track the weekly opinion polls as the Swedes do, the atmosphere on the street feels like the tempo is just about building.

Canvassing and public engagement are far more nuanced than you see in India. Parties have designated areas to set up their counters, and volunteers gently approach you to discuss their manifesto. Even public speeches like those at Medborgarplatsen, with supporters wearing the party symbol loud and clear on their sleeve, caps and t-shirts, seem mild when compared to a candidate arriving in a helicopter to address supporters in India.

To a Swede who faces posters of political leaders at every second bus stop and tube station to work, and then arrives home to find their mail boxes filled with political pamphlets, the feeling can be overwhelming. Surely, there will be a sigh of relief when its all over. But for someone seeped in the technicolour of Indian elections, the Swedish polls appear monochromatic.

This, despite the fact that 2018 has been one of most hotly contested elections and the fight is predicted to go down to the wire.

ELECTION VOCABULARY: How to talk about politics like a Swede

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven meeting voters in Linköping the day before the election. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

To give the analogy of food, Indian elections are akin to a red hot Indian curry; each spoonful offers a burst of multiple flavours and spices. For some it is a treat. For others it is hard to stomach. In comparison Swedish food, although flavoursome, is more mellow. Similarly for the elections.

But first impressions aside, scratch the surface and one finds that several issues strike a similar cord among the people in both countries. The most obvious is immigration. Historically Sweden has had immigrants come in during the Baltic wars, the Afghan war, the Iranian revolution and even as far back as World War II. But the influx of 2015, largely from war-torn Syria, is the most volatile and polarised talking point of 2018. Similarly in India, immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh that has been a constant for decades, is now a hotly debated issue.

Politics on immigration aside, there are other bread and butter issues that citizens vote on. These are issues that affect citizens in their day to day life. Issues like housing, water, jobs and transport. According to the country's National Housing Board (Boverket) Sweden faces a housing shortage in 255 of its 290 municipalities. Buying a house in Stockholm or Gothenburg is out of reach for many. It is a similar story in India's financial capital Mumbai, where the per-square-foot prices compares with the world's most expensive cities. This even as the city has an inventory of half a million vacant houses, according to India's Economic Survey.

READ ALSO: Follow The Local's coverage of the 2018 Swedish election

Away from the big cities, towns and rural areas face similar issues of water, transport, schools and hospitals. While a taluk (a block of villages) in interior India could be struggling to get a school for their children, a locality in a Swedish countryside could be struggling to keep open a school for the lack of enough students. What differs is the complexion, scale and extremities.

One could argue that we are comparing apples to oranges here. But that is what democracies are all about. Different in flavour, yet similar in nature.

Rupali Mehra is a former television editor and anchor. She moved from India in the spring of 2017 and runs a communications company in Sweden. She can be reached at [email protected]