The cacophony of a fish market — sounds of passing traffic, clanking of weighing scales and the cries of hawkers — precede the opening scene of Maacher Jhol, a 2D hand-drawn animated film. It is currently the toast of animated tinseltown after winning awards in the film festival circuit. In the scene itself, we see Lalit Ghosh, the protagonist, picking the best rohu to prepare the ubiquitous, but comforting maacher jhol or fish curry, a staple of Bengali cuisine.
“I was born and raised in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, and my mother used to teach in Bengal. She is half Bengali by her appropriation of the culture, hence I have a fair knowledge and understanding of Bengali culture,” says Abhishek Verma, the 28-year-old director, writer and animator of the film.
Maacher Jhol, a film of 12 minutes, revolves around Lalit who is making fish curry, even popping open a bottle of foreign wine. A shave from the corner barber is also a must for the day. All this as a treat for his father, who is visiting from Chandigarh. The father comes armed with photographs of eligible women for Lalit to settle down with. It’s then that Lalit confesses to his father that he is in love with a man. What follows is his father’s reaction and how he deals with the earth-shattering news. The animation is a throwback to the Doordarshan animations, with large eyes and haunting music.
The film won the best short film at Kashish Film Festival; best animated film award at the 10th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala and the City of Annecy Award for the best short film in Perspective category at the World Animation Festival.
Verma was brought up the conventional way and had a trajectory planned–school, engineering, a 9-5 job. After Class X, his family moved to Ranchi where Vividh Bharati, the national radio channel, happened. “I used to listen to programmes by Yunus Khan. He would interview a lot of people from the indie cinema circuit. I was hooked. I started watching a lot of films of Shyam Benegal, among others. After Class XII, I talked to my parents about filmmaking as a career but the stability of engineering won,” says Verma.
During his engineering days, Verma wrote a lot of one act plays and mime acts. He also gave the FTII entrance exam, and was waitlisted. “I enrolled in the postgraduate degree in communication and film design at IIT Bombay, and was introduced to animation. I never thought that I could draw, but my professors were convinced that my sketches were rooted and reflected emotions. It was a tedious two years. I remember this one sketch — a man jumping over the wall — I drew it about 400 times. But I think that’s what made me better,” says Verma. Maacher Jhol, has about 8,000 drawings — 12 drawings for one second each.
Verma’s first film, Chashni, based on an acid attack that occurred in 2014 in Mumbai, was made when he was studying at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. It won rave reviews and was selected in the competition category at the City of Annecy Award. Maacher Jhol is deeply personal. A close friend came out to him one evening. What struck Verma was the constant fear that his friend lived with. “It’s this fear of being ostracised that I did not understand. I had to address this issue in a film,” adds Verma. The film is made on a budget of Rs 6.5 lakh, a part of it was crowdfunded.
The sound by Shantanu Yennemaddi enhances the cinematic treat. There is a radio humming in the background — it switches from a recipe for maacher jhol to a song from Pyaasa. “I am glad this film is being received well. Awards don’t bring money, they bring honour and connections. With this being the first Annecy award in India, doors will open for others,” says the filmmaker. One thing that Verma regrets is not having done the maacher jhol in the film right. “I should have added a spoon of sugar in it as an ode to my Bengali non-roots,” he adds.
Verma’s next is another animated film on open defecation, Lukka Chuppi, for Films Division. A second film, Kitchen, looks at the patriarchal forces that make the kitchen a woman-only space.