He had been too young when it happened. But even 14 years later, he was unable to shed the trauma of that fateful night. In Rakesh Mehta’s short film Darpok the protagonist, Jogi, had helplessly watched his mother getting raped by a powerful politician and, ever since, he has lived with the trauma and the stigma of being called a coward by his entire village. “In the light of so many atrocities against women in India, I wanted to tell a story about what a boy might experience when something like this happens in front of him,” says Mehta, whose 23-minute film has been selected for the Cannes Short Film Corner and will be screened on the first day of the Cannes Film Festival, France, May 14.
Inspired by an incident that happened in Mehta’s childhood, Darpok is a fictional tale made in Punjabi with English subtitles, and is set in the villages of Amritsar and neighbouring Attari, in Punjab. The film is the result of a British co-production between Rosemilk Productions Ltd in the UK, and Mehta, which wanted to collaborate on an international feature project that would “suit the western audience”.
After meeting Jules Gladys, the producer, at the National Film Development Corporation Scriptwriters Lab in November 2013, Mehta started developing a script for a short film about a boy who decides to confront his traumatic past. He returns to his village in rural Punjab after 14 years to confront his mother’s aggressor and the film deals with the extent he is willing to go to redeem his honour.
“The producers wanted me to demonstrate how technically sound I was with a short film script and on that basis would decide our future collaborations. When I showed them this script, they liked it and we went ahead with the shooting in December last year,” says Mehta, who has earlier made films like Life Ki Toh Lag Gayi (2012), about the journey of four people struggling to survive in the city of Mumbai. His other work includes a short film Khuda Khushi (2010) about ritual sacrifices in the name of religion.
Darpok comprises unfamiliar faces in the cast except for the protagonist, Jogi, who is portrayed by TV actor Gautam Gulati from the serial Diya Aur Bati Hum. The other cast members include Mandeep Kaur as the mother, and Swarn Singh as the ageing rapist.
In the film, Jogi’s background is not fully extracted, and his profession remains unclear beyond the fact that he works abroad. “We could not show much about the characters’ back story in this film due to paucity of time. We have now got an agreement from the producers to develop this story into a feature film, with British actors and a slightly different plot,” says Mehta, who is also simultaneously co-writing an international feature film with Gladys.