Unlike boys his age, nine-year-old Amar Kaushik used to eagerly wait for the monthly trudge to buy groceries in Tinsukiya in Assam, four hours away from Medo in Arunachal Pradesh where they stayed. The video cassette parlour next door to the grocery store being the prized draw. “We would rent three-four cassettes at a time, and then return them on our next monthly trip. Chandni, Maine Pyaar Kiya and Naam are the earliest films I watched.
Films were the only source of entertainment in those days, and one cassette would last us a whole week — courtesy power cuts that lasted about 20 hours in a day. The plot of the film, and the anticipation, anxiety of what will happen next is what got me hooked to films,” says 34-year-old Amar Kaushik, whose directorial debut Aaba, was screened at the 5th Brahmaputra Valley Film festival in Guwahati recently. The film was the winner of the Special Jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival and also received the Rajat Kamal at this year’s National Film Awards.
Aaba, meaning grandfather, is set in a remote village of Arunachal Pradesh. It tells the story of an eight-year-old orphan girl, who lives with her ageing grandparents. The grandfather, the eponymous Aaba, “who smokes two-three packs a day”, is diagnosed with lung cancer. How the family deals with this news is the rest of the film. “My mother — whom I have named in the credits for the story — had shared this story with me. She had heard this during her stay in Arunachal Pradesh.
My father was a forest ranger in the state, so when I decided to make a film, I was like why not make something that is innate to me. Though I left Arunachal a long time back, I still dream of it. The place stays with you,” says Kaushik, an assistant director in Mumbai and has assisted on film such as No One Killed Jessica, Go Goa Gone and Aamir. He also assisted Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi on his Indian venture Between the Clouds.
The 22-minute-film, Aaba, has about five dialogues. “Silence is a way of life in that part of the country. As a child, I could hear the sound of my father’s scooter when he used to be about a mile away. That sound would push me to pick up my books and pretend to study,” says Kaushik, who graduated in science from Kanpur. He studied mass communications in Delhi and moved to Mumbai to live the dream in 2006.
Kaushik went back to Arunachal to shoot the film, where the project was encumbered by logistical and infrastructural problems. He recruited a local travel agent as the location manager and a local government official as the line producer. “I had based the film on the Apatani tribe, one of the 50 tribes in the state. The lead actors, who are in the early eighties, did not speak Hindi and I did not speak their language. Then a student was hired to help me translate and communicate with the crew,” says Kaushik.
He adds, “The film, at its core, for me, is a love story of sorts. Deep-rooted emotions hold the family together, though they don’t express it in the usual conventional way. I was really moved by the way these people don’t think of death as taboo. For most part in the film, the three protagonists are just waiting for the tragic event, without any added melodrama or a sense of tragedy.” On his return to Mumbai, Kaushik will get busy with his debut feature film. “It’s a thriller that I am working on,” he concludes.