WHAT happens to a family when it finds out that one of the members may not live very long? Does it bind them stronger? Or fragile from the knowledge, the unit finds itself on the brink? These questions consumed Amar Kaushik after his mother reminded him of a little girl from his school in Arunachal Pradesh. “On one of my trips back home, my mother asked me if I remember this girl whose grandfather came to collect her from school and she didn’t come back for a whole month. Her guardian after the death of her parents, the grandfather had been diagnosed with a disease that would not allow him to live for more than a few weeks. But he continues to live,” recounts Kaushik.
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The pursuit for the answers took the shape of his debut film, a short titled Aaba, which will premiere at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival next month. It has been selected in the Generation Kplus category of the festival.
The 20-minute short, maiden project by Raj Kumar Gupta’s production house Raapchik Films along with filmmaker Onir, is set in Arunachal Pradesh, a terrain familiar to Gupta. Born in Kanpur, the 33-year-old grew up in Arunachal, where his father worked as a forest ranger. While Kaushik moved back to Kanpur at the age of 12 and, later, Chandigarh, for education, he would keep going “home” so as to not lose touch with the world he had great memories of. “It’s a world I knew and loved. It felt right to set the story there,” says Kaushik, who has assisted Onir and worked as an associate with Gupta for the past eight years.
The story, he says, unfolds the way his mother told him, with the news of the grandfather’s impending death. How the little girl, her grandmother and her “aaba” handle it, forms the crux of the film.
The actors are all locals, selected by the crew after spending considerable time in the tribal area where the film is shot. Since the region has no form of theatre or local cinema, the selection process required spending time with the actors to see if they could fit into the characters. That Kaushik and the crew members didn’t know the local language and vice-versa made things more difficult.
The actors initially chosen to play the grandparents were not a real-life couple. But soon Kaushik realised that would not work. “They don’t touch another man’s wife,” explains the filmmaker. So he brought a couple on board. “They don’t speak much but they understand one another. There is a natural chemistry. For instance, if he is sitting around, she will get him something without his asking. Or, he will fix the dish antenna for her TV without her asking him to,” he points out.
Largely silent, the film has a smattering of the local dialect with English subtitles. The only time you hear Hindi or English, says Kaushik, is when songs play on the radio or the TV in the film. “Programming in the local language is very recent in the region. For many years, the only programming available was in Hindi or English, irrespective of whether the older generation understood these languages or not. They consumed it nevertheless, as their only source of entertainment. It’s an attempt to capture this aspect,” he explains.
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