January 19, 2021 8:50:13 pm
Tender emotions and innocence have the power to break the tyranny of harsh surroundings and societal biases. This is what director Ankit Kothari wanted to capture when he deliberated on how to adapt Bawa, a Marathi short story by Vyankatesh Madgulkar, for the screen. The Baroda-born director chose to set this story of a furtive friendship between Miri and outcast Suba in the arid landscape of Rann of Kutch.
Adapted as a Gujarati short film titled Paanchika (Five Pebbles), this opened the Indian Panorama (Non-Feature) category of International Film Festival of India (IFFI), 2021, on Sunday. Paanchika follows young Miri’s journey through mounds of salt crystals to deliver lunch to her father. Miri is followed by Suba, whose family has been ostracised by the villagers. Suba keeps her distance since they are not supposed to play together. Yet, their friendship finds ways of subverting social diktats.
“Society has its own rules and by adhering to them we are rewarded with validation. We in turn become the representation of the society for another individual. I was interested in exploring the individual will of my characters in spite of their age and how friendship brings out what they truly stand for,” Kothari says.
Since he didn’t have any other project in hand then, Kothari saw “time as a valuable resource” and dedicated around six months in finding the “perfect” location for Paanchika. Much to his disappointment, he found several parts of Rann of Kutch touristy while others not meeting his idea of aesthetics. He was searching for locations that would be different from what the audiences have already seen. His search came to an end when he came across salt pyramids near a village. “From the villagers, I understood that chemical factories would soon take those salt piles away. However, I was told if I waited for three-four months, there would be hundreds of such pyramids,” said Kothari. A fine arts graduate from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, he has been part of the film industry for over a decade and has worked on movies such as Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2007), Shanghai (2011), and Tumbbad (2018).
“We are so used to seeing snow on the screen. But seeing salt pyramids on the ground while the sky is brightly lit appealed to me aesthetically. I thought the characters would stand out in such a setting while everything else would be burnt out. With that, I thought of creating a certain discomfort in the visual,” Kothari said. This location that Kothari zeroed in for Paanchika – on the outskirts of Odu and Kharaghoda villages – has lots of history. “I saw nearly 80-year-old registers of salt workers in which women have signed their names. That shows they were educated. There is a railway track nearby that was used by trains to carrying salt during the British period,” says Kothari, who is now based in Ahmedabad.
The other challenging task before the director was to find the two central characters. “When children have been exposed to technology, it is difficult to find shyness in them. I wanted to evoke emotions such as sadness, anger, and doubt in the two central characters,” says Kothari who auditioned about 300 children. Finally, Kothari chose Aarti Thakore, 7, and Anjali Thakore, 9, to play the role of Miri and Suba, respectively. What helped his process is that his wife, who had turned producer of the film, established a rapport with the villagers and won their confidence. The film is shot by Kuldeep Mamania while Manan Bhatt edited it and Pritam Das took care of sound designing.
Soon Kothari realised, rehearsals with the young actors won’t work; it hampered their spontaneity. “As they say, there are no bad child actors; only bad directors. I had to think of unconventional ways during the shoot to get the desired reaction from them,” he says. The 22-day shoot was gruelling as they shot during the month of May and June in 2018 when the temperature hovered around 48 degrees.
After going through the roller-coaster ride of making his first short film, Kothari wants to once again shift his attention to making his feature film debut as a director. His feature script Dastaan-e-Awargi was earlier selected for Film Bazaar.
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