Monday, June 22, 2015

The boy in the well

It was November 2013, and Avinash Arun was in Goa with a rough cut of Killa. The film, his first as director, had been selected for the National Film Development Corporation’s Work-in-Progress Labs, in which directors are advised on how to see their films through to fruition. One of the advisers was British film critic and long-time supporter of Indian cinema, Derek Malcolm. “People said different things; it’s a little long, it’s beautifully shot, there’s nothing in the film,” Arun recalled. “Derek, on the other hand, just said: ‘It will be very cold in Berlin in February’”.

It was very hot in Mumbai in mid-May when Arun told me this story. We were sitting in the Andheri office of Jar Pictures, the film’s producers. As Arun was to find out, it was indeed cold when he travelled to Germany to attend the Berlinale, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. The film had entered in the Generation Kplus category, which is dedicated to children’s films. It won the top prize, the Crystal Bear, awarded by a jury of 11-14-year-olds. Earlier this year, a considerably older panel declared Killa the Best Marathi Film at the National Film Awards.

A young boy (Archit Deodhar) and his mother (Amruta Subhash) arrive in this small seaside town. Still coming to terms with the death of his father, he has had to leave friends and family behind in Pune. Not unnaturally, he blames his mother for getting transferred. Yet, as the narrative quietly unwinds, we see him embrace his new surroundings and find a group of friends. There’s a sub-plot involving the mother that gives us a clue to why she keeps getting transferred, but Killa mostly sticks close to young Chinmay as he explores, fights, makes up, acts out; in short, behaves like any normal child.

Like many first-time film-makers before him, Arun mined his childhood for memories. His father had a government job, which meant that the family would relocate whenever he got a new posting. One particular stint early on in Arun’s life had a profound influence. When he was 3, his family moved to Murud, on the Konkan coast, for three years. “The film is about this introvert child who’s out of his comfort zone. It rains all the time, he has no friends. This was my experience.”

The film started to form in Arun’s head while he was studying at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. “Images from the time I was in Konkan would keep coming to me. After some time, I had to ask myself, why are all these things, I saw when I was very young, still following me? It was in trying to answer this question that Killa started taking shape.”

After graduating from FTII, Arun started working as a cameraperson on Hindi and Marathi films. His plan was “to work for a few years as a cinematographer, and if someone likes my idea and I find a producer, I can make my film.” While assisting Anil Mehta on Cocktail, Arun sought out a screenwriter named Tushar Paranjape, whom he knew from his FTII days. He narrated the idea that would become Killa, and asked him if he’d write the screenplay. When Paranjape agreed, Arun asked him to write a 40-page treatment and—sans producer or financier—wrote him a cheque for Rs.10,000.

The next piece fell into place on the shoot for Kai Po Che!, which Arun was again assisting on. The executive producer on that film was Ajay G. Rai of Jar Pictures, who happened to see Arun’s work on a short film by Gul Dharmani called Friday Night. The two of them got talking, and Rai mentioned that he was looking to produce a regional language film. He asked Arun if he knew of anyone with a promising idea. “Mere kaan khade ho gaye,” Arun said. He told Rai that he had this idea that kept haunting him, and began narrating an outline of Killa. Rai stopped him after 10 minutes, called his partner, Alan McAlex, and asked Arun to start again. Two days later, he got a call. He was going to be a director.

Arun decided to shoot the film himself (in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts), despite nearly everyone advising him against it. He wasn’t sure anyone else would be able to get the images in his head on to film. He was also convinced of the necessity of a protracted shooting schedule. Though the film took only 28 days to shoot, the production was stretched out over five months. “I wanted to wait for the right light, the right weather,” he says. “I wanted to have that difference. I wanted to have that feeling that time has passed.” The result is one of those rare films where changes in wind, light and scenery register with the force of emotions.

A curious and rewarding trend in modern Marathi cinema is the number of films about (though not always geared towards) children. Killa follows in the tradition of Shala, Balak-Palak and Fandry: its vision of childhood is clear-eyed and unsentimental, and there’s a darkness that offsets the charm of its young players (in particular, the irrepressible Parth Bhalerao as Chinmay’s friend Bandya). Arun didn’t include one of his darkest memories from the time, of being pushed into a well by another child. He was unhurt, but it triggered a fear of water in him, as well as a sense of betrayal that took a while to get over. This incident is transformed into the tremendous sequence at the fort (the titular killa), where Chinmay is left alone in a dark space, looking up at the light, the same way Arun must have been.

If you’re the kind who pays attention to film credits, you’ll see Arun’s name on screen a lot in the coming months. Killa will release in theatres on 26 June. The following month will see the release of two films he shot: Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, which recently picked up two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and his biggest project till date, the Tabu and Ajay Devgn-starrer Drishyam. “I didn’t plan all this,” he said. “If I’d thought about it, I don’t think I’d have been able to do it.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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