In his film Gamak Ghar, Achal takes a look at the house he grew away from. Born in Darbhanga, Achal spent his younger years moving through boarding schools. He later went on to study Film Studies at King’s College London but dropped out in the first year. He chose to spend more of his time at the British Film Institute watching, learning and unlearning from artists who he now borrows from. His debut film, Gamak Ghar had won the Manish Acharya Award for New Voices in Indian Cinema at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2019 with Star. The film is now also streaming on MUBI India.
Platform speaks to Achal about how the film came to be.
How did your interest in films develop? Did you always know you were going to make films?
It started in school, I was in Eleventh Grade, and I was into photography. One day, one of my teachers asked me if I could make a film, and we made one, for which we then got an award. Then, I thought, you know shayad film bana sakte hain (maybe I can make a film). Then I just made one more, and one more. I think that’s when it started. But I was still not watching films as such. The films I was watching were all these mainstream films. Then I remember this one filmmaker – Ashwin Kumar who came to our school around that time. He had come for a workshop and I was the one interviewing him for our school magazine. We asked him these questions, and then he took some names and those names just stuck with me. I was hearing them for the first time. Up until then I was only watching Nolan and Scorsese, and mostly Hollywood. He was talking about Alejandro Iñárritu, Iranian Cinema and Satyajit Ray. That is when I started watching a different kind of cinema. But what really changed was when I went to London. I went there to study Film Studies, but I dropped out after one year. But just being in London for that one year changed everything. I was in King’s College, and it is right in the centre of London. It is also right next to the British Film Institute. So, I was watching films almost every day. That is where I really encountered the filmmakers I love now, and who have taught me everything. It also made me unlearn a lot of things as well. I was also mostly watching Asian cinema. There were the Japanese masters - Yasujiro Ozu and Hirokazu Koreeda, Taiwani filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. And then I came back and decided to make films.
Gamak Ghar as a film perhaps shows how houses must feel hollow without people, and how in a way, people might feel hollow without houses. Why did you think it was important to explore the relationship between houses and their inhabitants?
The film actually started with the idea of space itself. The film for me was never about characters as such. The place where I have shot the film is very close to my place in Darbhanga, it is only fifteen minutes away. So, I used to go there often and festivals like Diwali or Chhat. But you know, sometimes I would just visit without any occasion. Bachpan se toh aadat this ki kisi occasion pe jaana hai (As a child, I was in the habit of visiting here on a special occasion) – either on Diwali or on Chhat or someone’s mundan. For all these occasions, the house used to be filled with people. There were people everywhere. But since the last two-three years, I’ve been making these impromptu visits. And that is when I noticed that except for these few occasions, the house used to be mostly empty. There would be an overgrowth of plants on the walls. There were things which were not repaired. And then Chhat and Diwali comes, and they cut the plants, and then the repairs are made. But it is only for those two-three days. Then again it was empty.
Also, I would like to talk about my grandfather first. At the same time as these visits, I came across my grandfather’s diary, and he passed away before my parents got married. So, he was a playwright and an actor. He wanted to get into films as well. But unfortunately, he passed away. He had started his own production house as well. And it was never as if bachpan se tumhay sab kuchh pata hai tumhaaray daada ji kay baaray mei (it was never as if right from childhood I knew everything about my grandfather). It is just that people sometimes give you little pieces of information – koi kabhi kuchh bata deta hai, kabhi kuchh bata deta hai (someone tells you something or the other every now and then). I’ve been putting this puzzle together for the last twenty years. And it was different at different stages as well. For instance, when I was in school, I wanted to be a writer. So, people would tell me that even Daada Ji used to write. People would tell me stories about him. Then when I wanted to make films, they would tell me – haan wo bhi aisay films banatay thay (even your grandfather used to make films). There was this place in Darbhanga, I was just shooting there and when I came home my grandmother would ask me, “Kahaan shoot kar rahay thay? (Where were you shooting?” and I said “Mabbi pe (at Mabbi, a neighborhood in Darbhanga), and she would say, “daada ji bhi wahin shoot kartay thay” (even your grandfather would shoot there). But even more than what people told me, I found out more through diaries. They were just lying abandoned in one corner. There were seven-eight diaries, covered in dust, wrapped in a red cloth. This is how it is in the film as well, I used the same diaries. And they don’t have much of writing, but these little anecdotes, and daily expenditures. There were also pictures. But through those diaries I suddenly became aware of this house which I’ve always seen as an empty house we visit once a year, but at one point in time, before I was born, it was a home, it was not just a house. This is how people lived. There diaries had records revealing on which day what vegetable or meat came into the house and for how much. That’s where it started, and that’s where the decision to stay with the story of the house came. For me, it was more important to capture this space at particular times where people are just coming and going. And I don’t think I have really explored the character’s relationship with the house as much as I could have. I would have done that if I were exploring the characters. The film is more from a distant perspective, so it is more observational.
Some of the frames in the film almost appear as if a photograph is in motion. The camera remains still, but the subject moves. (It is almost like sitting on your bed/chair and whiling away time staring at the world, and observing it). What was the reason behind shooting the film this way? What was it that these still and slow shots did that fast-paced shots couldn’t have?
When we had initially started conceptualizing the film, there was a friend of mine who was a co-writer with me. He was there in the beginning, and we were just bouncing off ideas and thinking what perspective we could go with. It could have been a child, it could have been a multi-narrative film with everyone’s varying perspective. But then I felt if I have to stay true to what made me want to make this film, I will have to go with the perspective of the house. And it also felt like an experiment, and that is probably why I wanted to do it. Otherwise, I would just know how the film would turn out. If you go with one character you know how the arc is going to be. You have to make a proper narrative. But having no character at all seemed like a challenge, and you have an inanimate thing – the house as a character itself. That’s where it started the feeling where it was as if the walls are watching. And I thought that would fit perfectly with how I was feeling about the house at that point in time. It was almost as if the house is there, the walls are there and people would just come and go. We chose to go with the slow shots for two reasons. For the pacing, I wanted the film to feel like the pace of the village. That is why I think this pace was a part of the writing as well as the editing. So, I worked on the rhythm of the take. When the film starts, it is moving slowly, it is like pre-lunch time, and you get an idea of things here and there. And then, the film sort of slows down. This is because after lunch you’re in sort of a slumber, a man in the frame just dozes off while reading the newspaper. And then it picks up pace in the evening at the celebration time. Then once again, the pace slows down at night – when everyone’s gone and there are these serious conversations happening. In the morning then it feels sullen and silent when everyone has just left. Further, in the film I tried to control the rhythm of the three parts itself. The first part has some long shots, but in the overall pacing it more fast paced than the other two parts. I’ve done this because for the second part I felt that people were not so connected to the place, and there’s this sensation of ennui. I wanted that feeling to be there, that they’re sitting idle and there isn’t something to engage with. In the last part, I actually sat with the caretaker. He is the same caretaker who is really the caretaker of the house. I would just sit with him near the gate, and I would just watch him. But there was just nothing to do. For hours and hours, you just sit by the fire. Sometimes, you just sit at the main entrance and look out smoking a beedi. And nothing was really happening. So, I wanted this to translate into the film as well. For the still shots, I think there are two reasons again. One is that we were going with the perspective of the house, and we wanted it to feel like the walls are watching. Secondly, we wanted the film to have this photographic feel, as if you’re looking at some old photographs. We also referenced a lot of my old family pictures for Costume, for Production Design, for Staging. Some scenes were actually created from the photographs. For instance, there is this one scene in the first part where in the evening, these women are helping each other with their sarees. That is actually a picture which I just asked them to recreate.
Your film makes a very interesting comment on the nature of migration, and perhaps how the present generation constantly finds itself in a flux between being rooted and rootless. How do you think the film is based on your own time and life?
Again, it wasn’t really a conscious decision. I was just making a film about my house and all these things have already been a part of it. So, I didn’t really have to consciously think that I have to send my uncle away from the village to show migration. I didn’t have to think and show kids who aren’t really connected with the house. All of it has already been a part of my life, my experience and my reality.
You’re a filmmaker who is an avid reader. In what way does literature walk you through the process of your filmmaking?
I don’t think it directly influences filmmaking as such. I mean, as a filmmaker I don’t really feel that filmmaking, or film should rely on literature as such. This has been going on for years. Many people think that a good script makes a good film, but I think film should realize that it is a language in itself. Some people who come from the tradition of theatre, they treat it differently. People who come from a writing background treat it differently. But what everyone should realize is that film is not just one of those things. I initially came from a photographer’s perspective, so I used to think that film is a visual medium. But I think I realized it is not. I also read somewhere that sometimes you give one thing more importance over the other. For instance. Sometimes you give more importance to color. I think Tarkovsky talks about how if you’re trying to affect your audience with the use of color, then you’re using a painter’s medium and not a filmmaker’s. It is not either of those things. In that way I don’t think literature should have a big influence on filmmaking as such. Even for me, the script was just a starting point. I didn’t strictly stick to it at all. A lot of things were improvised on the set. And another reason why we had to approach it that way was because I’ve been an outsider to that place. I was born there and by name I am a Maithil, but I am not because I moved to a boarding school when I was about nine years old. Even when I used to go back, I would always be this “Doctor Sahib ka ladka”. My cousins were more part of that village than I ever was. I wrote the script sitting in my Bombay flat. When I started filming, that was when I realized that there was a huge gap between the reality of the village, and my perceived reality of the village. I was also working with real people. If there were a lot of actors, then I would think that yes it could be adapted. But with real people, they know things in a much better way. They would tell me, aisay nahi hota hai (this is not how this is done), and the would come to me with questions and then I would realize there are more things as well. That’s when I realized that if we stick to the script, then the film wouldn’t turn out nice at all. That is when I started letting go, and let them do their own thing. I think through the process I learned so much more about the cultural events. There were lots of things like the ceremonies. And I would have had no idea about them had it not been for all the people. The people I had cast were not actors, they were real people who lived in that place. It wasn’t as if they had to perform. These were things they did every day. I think some of the things that I like about the film also came through this letting go. For instance, in the first part, it is night and there are these women sitting on the palang (bed) and talking, and there’s a nice joke in there where the elder bahu is talking to the daadi, and saying “aapki jo beti hai, aap unko saree de dena but humse chura kar matt dena. Hum toh aapki sabse bari bahun hain na? Humse pooch lena! Hum mana nahi karengay” (You can give a saree to your daughter, but don’t steal a saree from me to give to her. I am your eldest daughter-in-law, am I not? Ask me and then give to her, I won’t say no!) this was something I couldn’t have written at all because I am not familiar with the vernacular. Further, it was a house that was inside the village. We didn’t as such have any space for the actors. Everyone was in the house only. And it was the summer season. So, even though the uncles could sit anywhere, the women were just given a room with a fan. They would just all sit there, and talk and they became friends. At night, I would open Facebook and there would be a selfie of them. So, they were really bonding with each other. And sometimes, I would just go and see how they were talking. At night, when I was taking a shot I would tell them that jaisay aap log room mei kartay ho baat, waisay hi karna hai, kuchh aur nahi karna (you have to talk the same way you talk to each other in the room, just that, nothing more). And it took some time, but gradually they were comfortable. So, there were lots of scenes that I had written, but they didn’t work out well at all. I revoked them completely. But these scenes, they just happened on the set.
In one way, your film is an indulgence for an introvert. It remains inside the house, and sometimes takes walks to aam ka baag. What made you interested in exploring the experience of quotidian lives?
I think this came from the literature I was reading. I was reading Amit Chaudhuri and I have read all his books. I used to always think why is it that something like this cannot be done in cinema. It was already happening in literature. Why not in cinema? But I think while writing the film, I did not consciously think that I have to place quotidian incidents in the house. If I did, then it wouldn’t have been true enough. But I was very against the idea of going with a traditional story. Like I mentioned, I had a co-writer in the beginning. So, I wrote the first draft and then he was supposed to write the second draft. But he has a different approach to writing, which is more traditional. This would work in another scenario, but here, I think it came from such a personal space, I had lived in that house and he had not. Even though he is from Bihar, he is from Patna which is also culturally very different. And then, what he did in the second draft was that there were a lot more dialogues, and he wrote the grandmother’s character differently. Then I was thinking that I am writing a film about my house, and I’ve seen my grandmother a particular way, and I can’t see her in a new way just because he wants the script to be certain way. I think that’s where this came from. The first draft was kind of written in a stream of consciousness format, except it was a stream of memory. It was just a combination of what a day would seem like. It wasn’t as if that day actually happened, but I picked up things from what would happen on different days. Most of the memories are my own. Some are borrowed from my cousins.
What is next for you now? Are there some other films you are planning on working now?
I am trying to but right now I just want the dust to sort of settle. There are a lot of things that are happening. I am planning something in Darbhanga only with two other filmmakers who are also from Darbhanga. So, we might do an anthology as a feature film.
Text Muskan Nagpal