Amar Kaushik’s debut film, Aaba, was the only Indian project chosen in a competition section at this year’s Berlinale and it went on to win the Special Prize of Generation Kplus (a category for movies for children and young people) International Jury for Best Short Film.
The heart-warming story rooted in the simple, daily life of the Apatani tribe, an indigenous people of Arunachal Pradesh, revolves around an orphan girl whose grandfather is battling the terminal stages of lung cancer. The 22-minute short is shot entirely in a remote village of Ziro using local people as actors and part of the crew. We caught up with the director a few days back. Excerpts:
How was it getting such recognition at Berlinale?
Winning at Berlinale with my first film as a director is the biggest morale booster, but to be honest, I never expected the film to become this big!
I had no idea about the festival circuit before I made Aaba. I made a film, showed it to the right people and with their guidance I sent it to some of the festivals. I received reply from Berlinale saying that they have selected Aaba. While the feeling of being selected was still sinking in, the award got announced. It was the biggest surprise of my life.
How are you planning the journey of the film from here on?
Right now we are taking Aaba to various film festivals across the globe. These festivals are great platform to showcase a film and get the critics’ feedback.
Why do you think the film resonated so much with the international audience?
I am not sure what worked at Berlinale. I guess Aaba’s honesty and simplicity was able to strike the right chord with the audiences and the jury. I received great response from the audiences. After the screening, people actually came up to me and told me how the film left them emotionally moved and how they connected with the film at a very personal level. Interestingly, the best screening was the one organised for children. They had some very interesting views on my story.
How did you come up with the idea of the story?
Aaba explores how an impending death impacts a family. It is one of the stories my Mom told us. My parents were posted in the state for a long period of time. My mother was a teacher at government school and Aaba is based on an incident that happened with her.
What gave you this particular perspective about death?
I think death is one of the most mysterious subjects in the world. Waiting for death can be painful and seeing your loved one waiting for it can be even more unbearable. The story of someone wrapping up chapters of life and waiting for death to arrive left me amazed. When I narrated this story to my friends, they were overwhelmed. I knew this is a story that needs to reach a wider audience. And I knew that it is a story I would want take up as my debut.
You have been working in the industry for almost a decade now, why did you choose this subject and this format to make your debut?
I have been trying to make a feature film for some time. However, I realised that for most producers and actors, it is difficult to trust capabilities of a film maker whose work they have not seen. So, I decided to make a short film to grab some eyeballs.
I picked by the story from my mother, chose Arunchal Pradesh as I am in love with the state, found support in my producers Raj Kumar Gupta and Mitul Dikshit, formed a team that was a mix of technical geniuses and local experts, and put in some real hard work. And Aaba is the outcome of that. We really liked when we saw it and decided to take it to film festivals. And then it bagged an award at Berlinale. I guess all the hard work was worth it and I have managed to do what I initially aimed for…grab a few eyeballs!
How was it shooting at a place as remote as Ziro. Why did you choose that particular location?
Aaba is the story for Apatani – a tribe in Arunchal Pradesh and Ziro is the hub of Apatani tribe. Once I conceptualised the story, I was sure that the dialect and tribe will be Apatani. To make all authentic, I decided to shoot in Ziro too. Being a remote area, we did not have facilities available with us for the shoot but my team managed to pull off an amazing work.
What kind of difficulties did you face while shooting?
I wanted to make this film before rains. But it took me a more than a month to cast and find the perfect location what I wanted but by then climatic conditions went against us. So, the controlling the costs was a challenge. We also decided to pick locals to form our crew as taking people from Mumbai would have been an expensive affair. This proved to be slightly tough initially but my crew has left me surprised with their hard work and sincerity.
Why didn’t you opt for professional actor?
I think that would have been a mistake. The authenticity, the simplicity and the originality that ‘my non actor’ actors have added to the film, is something incredible. While writing and visualizing my film in my head, I had locals from Apatani tribe playing the characters. Aaba is their story, about their world, culture and customs. It’s about their simplicity and I endeavored to have that simplicity reflected in the film. So, doing it any other way didn’t make any sense to me. Any kind of a change or addition in that would have taken away the essence of the story.
What was the most challenging part about working with local people?
When we started from Mumbai, I knew I have a challenge in hand – shooting in an unfamiliar terrain. However, after I reached Arunachal Pradesh and started looking for the people, the real challenge began. While it was not difficult to find right faces, communication proved to be quite a task. Forget teaching them acting, we didn’t understand each other’s language. That’s when I realised that I had to be one of them to make them comfortable and start communicating with me with the help of a translator. So, I spent a month living with the locals in Ziro in their houses. I did this till the time they did not accept me as a part of their family and started initiating conversations with me. I consider this as one of my milestone moments in the journey of Aaba.
And you even used their language…
Aaba has minimum dialogues and whatever we have is in Apatani. I tried this just to keep everything very authentic in the film. I also knew my actors will not be comfortable talking in Hindi and if I had forced a new language upon them that would have impacted their performances.
How is the movie scene in the North-East?
Things are changing. There are some great talents coming from Arunchal Pradesh and there some good work happening too. For my film, I got support from local film makers Sange Dorji, Alison Welly and Hally Welly. I think local cinema is slowly catching up and headed towards an interesting phase. The states in this part of the country have some very interesting stories waiting to be told
What is your favourite memory of growing up in Arunachal Pradesh?
I have spent early days of my childhood in Arunachal Pradesh before relocating to Kanpur. Place where you have spent your childhood always remains special to you. I cherish every moment I spent in Arunachal Pradesh. The most fascinating part is living so close to the nature. I remember walking to school through narrow paths, climbing trees and sighting wild animals often! Growing up in a place like that introduced me to a lifestyle that’s focused on living in harmony with nature.
Also, I was always fascinated by the traditions and customs followed by the tribal people there, most of which the rest of India has zero idea about.
Tell us a bit about your background in cinema.
I am a science graduate and wanted to join the Air Force. Like most Indians, I had great interest in Cinema. My interest became stronger when I attended a NSD (National School of Drama) workshop in Kanpur. And before the workshop was over, I had made up my mind that I want to make movies.
Like most outsiders who come to Mumbai, I came to the city without much knowledge of how things work here. It didn’t help that I knew nobody in the industry. I had heard that here the success stories a few and chances of it not working out for you are far greater. So I was mentally prepared. I wanted to give it one shot – it will be great if it clicked otherwise I would pack my bags and go back to Kanpur.
I had no formal education in the field so the first thing I decided was to get myself enrolled for a filmmaking course. But all the institutes in Mumbai had by then closed their admissions for that year. So I went to Delhi and took up a course in Mass Communication instead where I got introduces to world cinema. After I came back to Mumbai, I started by interning at TV production houses. Slowly I got noticed and started getting work in movies. I have worked as assistant director, associate director and second unit director in several films including No One Killed Jessica (2007), Aamir (2008), and Go Goa Gone (2013). But, I always dreamt of making my own film. With Aaba that dream has become a reality. But I still have to pinch myself when I think about its journey!
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