Interview: Achal Mishra, Filmmaker – Gamak Ghar

Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar premiered at 21st Mumbai International Film Festival and won the Manish Acharya Award for New Voices in Indian Cinema. The Maithili film, is a deeply personal work that tells the story of a family and the changing times through the ancestral home’s perspective. Originating from Achal’s own experiences, it is a very mature and artistic film. And Achal is only 23! So, to understand more about his craft, I connected with him and he was gracious enough to give this interview.

Was the use of different aspect ratios predefined during the scripting process, or is it something that developed over the making? And what exactly was your idea behind it?

Yes, it was already decided before we started shooting. Firstly, we wanted the three parts to feel very different from each other. The whole film is set in just one house, so apart from change in seasons and colours, we thought it’d be interesting to try different aspect ratios. As the shooting progressed, we realised it just fit perfectly. We wanted the first part to feel like a memory — like old photographs, and shooting in 4:3 helped us achieve that. The frames are almost always filled to the edge with people, and it reflects the lively state of the house. As we change to 16:9, there’s more negative space, and finally in the last part, with 2.39:1, you see the full breadth of the house, and the emptiness becomes more evident. 

What triggered you to tell the story from the home’s perspective? I’m aware it came from personal experiences, but why not from the people’s perspective?

I think it was very instinctive. It happened before I had started writing the script, when my co-writer Anubhav and I were bouncing off ideas. We were talking about different perspectives we could go with — a child’s, or multiple narratives, or maybe the house? And I think we stuck with the house, because I knew I wanted to make a film about a space across different points in time, and going with the house’s perspective felt both interesting and challenging. I remember the first thing I wrote in my diary that day: “House is the protagonist.” But then again, I think as a filmmaker, my perspective is definitely part of it too. It’s very subjective. Say my cousin were making the same film, with the same idea of telling it from the home’s perspective, his film would still be different from mine, because our memories and association with the house are different. 

The house

How did the process of making this film changed you, as a person and as a filmmaker? In short, what were your learnings?

As a person, I think the process has brought me closer to my culture, to which I always felt like an outsider. Through the process of researching, writing and then shooting, I got to learn a lot many things. Even my Maithili improved, I’d say. As a filmmaker, Gamak Ghar was my film school. I was working with a proper crew (however small it was) and proper equipments for lighting and sound for the first time. Most of the crew were from film schools, so I tried to be as organised as they were. Other than that, I think I realised how one shouldn’t always commit to the screenplay strictly, but use it as a foundation to build on during the shooting.

Any film or filmmaker whose work tremendously influenced you to make ‘Gamak Ghar’? The shot of a train from the maize fields as the 2010 segment begins, looked like a tribute to Satyajit Ray’s work.

For Gamak Ghar in particular, and in general too, I’ve been hugely influenced by the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Satyajit Ray has been an influence from very early on, his films turned me towards a different kind of cinema. In a way, what De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves did for Ray, Pather Panchali did for me. So it was only apt that I give him a tribute. 

As a filmmaker, you succeeded in making an extremely personal film and great piece of art. But don’t you have the urge for your film to be seen on the big screen by as many people as possible? And when you make a film in Maithili, to keep it close to life and authentic, aren’t you moving away from that?

That’s definitely a challenge. And mostly because the prevalent system is such. Maithili is an almost obscure language to so many people, even in India, but I wanted to stay true to the film I was making, and I couldn’t have done it any other way. And who doesn’t want to see their films play on the big screen? But at the same time, I also feel that a film’s reach shouldn’t be judged by it’s theatrical release. It is like books, you don’t expect everyone to read a book in the same week it is launched. Maybe someone who isn’t even born today, might watch Gamak Ghar twenty-thirty years later. Films, like books, don’t have an expiry date.  

With this, we come to the end of the interview. Click to listen to my thoughts on this beautiful film.

Achal, all the best for the film and all your future endeavours. Looking forward for many stories from you.

Gamak Ghar is going to be screened on 27th of November in Mumbai as a part of MAMI year round program. Watch the trailer of the film here:

Thoughts on Jallikattu – What distinguishes the hunter & the hunted?

Midway in Jallikattu, when a buffalo that escaped the slaughterhouse falls into a deep pit amidst a dense forest, Antony, takes credit for it and claims he has trapped the animal. It is apparent that he is not the one who did it, yet, he tries to take credit for that. Why, though? The answer is obvious – he is human. And, Lilo Jose Pellisary exhibits, if not study, more such traits and the chaotic human nature.

The film begins with the people, whom we’ll be witnessing in the narrative, waking up and opening their eyes. This is followed by a stretch with the hills and a day at the butcher’s shop. Editing is a craft that I’ve always found hard to talk about or even praise. One just cannot call editing of a film ‘good’. Because it is an unseen craft, unlike cinematography or music. 

Tip: If you ever read a review that says ‘Editing is good’ or in most cases – ‘Editing is crisp’; that ain’t an actual critic you are reading. Because editing cannot be simply called ‘good’ or ‘crisp’, it is a way too complicated craft to be described in one word.

The editing of this sequence, in particular, is very much in sync with the film that it looks like a great and peculiar fusion of an artist and music composer coming together to make a music video. With the sound design and editing going hand in hand, the opening sequence of Jallikattu is a reminder of the magic of this Audio-visual art form. And the credit goes to the editing.

Jallikattu, in my own terms, is an incident-based drama. Meaning, the whole film takes place around an event or incident. The incident sets the conflict, brings in the characters and drives the narrative to its endpoint or goal. In this case, as told, the buffalo running away from the slaughterhouse is the incident, and chasing down that buffalo and killing it is the goal. This simple plot adds in layers of subtext that talk about human nature.

Throughout the film, people roam around in hoards; the animal is all by itself. They are aggressive and hot-blooded to kill the animal. But every time they face the animal, the fear it strikes and their eventual failure to tame it is clearly visible. It is the human’s nature to brag about handling an eventuality that they come across and miserably failing to take control of the situation when actually facing it. We all have been there, haven’t we? Civilization is what distinguishes humans and animals, the hunters and the hunted, I believe. But the line that separates the animal and the humans slowly disappears as the narrative moves forward. A character even calls humans- two-legged beasts. This one line sums up the whole film. This even backed up with a physical altercation between two people, which essentially looks like two wild animals fighting. And this altercation happens in a forest, too.

In Jallikattu, the characters do not matter. They are just people, and there are hoards of them. If I had to define the characters, there is an animal, which is the protagonist and the human race, which is, you know what. Because all the humans in the film share the same characteristics, they are identifiable with each other more as a species than on an individual level. From the film’s perspective, they matter only as a species, as individuals, they don’t. The cinematography supports this aspect. There are very pointing the individuals. Very few. I can count the number of closeups I can recall, only two. Most of the shots are wide with dozens and dozens of people.

Jallikattu will make you think how barbaric humans can be, and the music reflects this aspect. When I saw ‘Acapella’ during the opening credits, I was curious. With the film exploring human behaviour, it took me a while to understand the significance of employing this particular style. And it is a very interesting choice. Perhaps, it is the first time I’m seeing in which the music, apart from underlining and elevating the emotion, reflects the themes of the film and talks about what the filmmaker is trying to convey. Brilliant choice.

There is a particular thing I wish they hadn’t done. While the film is something to be experienced and interpreted by the viewers, there is a scene where the ultimate motive of the film is visually conveyed in the very last scene. The film has done a terrific job in doing what it had to. Apart from engaging in the hunt for more than 96 minutes, it spoke a lot. I just wish they had not underlined it and said what they desired to achieve with the narrative. The message is clearly conveyed even with that underline’s exclusion. But if underlining adds value, I don’t mind it. I’m already more than satisfied.

Jallikattu is more than what appears to be. It demands a watch.

Jallikattu is a Malayalam language film by Lilo Jose Pellissery, and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer of the film right here: