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Ssaurabh Tyagi: The ending of hatred must begin at home

The filmmaker talks about the genesis of his acclaimed short, Mazhabi Laddu, and why he sometimes felt as if humanity is dead.

Ssaurabh Tyagi

Ramna Walia

Ssaurabh Tyagi’s Mazhabi Laddu has been creating quite a buzz on the festival circuit. After winning the award at the Jagran film festival earlier this year, the film went on to win another award at the 5th Woodpecker International Film Festival (WIFF) in Delhi's Siri Fort.

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Set in Uttar Pradesh (UP), this 24-minute film tells the heartwarming story of Azeem, who is caught between his desire to eat the Hindu religious offering of a laddu and his strict parents who tell him such a gunah (crime, or sin) can be fatal.

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The film maps everyday encounters and stories from our backyards and resonated with the audience at WIFF, which greeted it with resounding applause.

We spoke to filmmaker Ssaurabh Tyagi about his film. Excerpts:

You have dealt with the very sensitive topic of religious divide, but this is also a subject that has been portrayed in cinema time and again. Usually one sees such a narrative constructed around an event, or against a political background, or a tale of loss and violence. You moved this narrative on a micro-scale, into the domestic space. What drew you to shift this scale and treatment?

I have lived my life in UP, Delhi and Bombay. I spent most of my childhood in UP and when I draw on experiences, I mostly think of my childhood small town, the village. That appeals to me.

A lot of people talk about telling out-of-the-box stories and I find that very strange. I actually want to tell in-the-box stories, or call it what you may — stories from my neighbourhood, stories that resonate with real life and experiences.

I am sure a chaiwala [tea vendor] has a lot of stories. He must be meeting a lot of characters; he experiences something interesting; in fact, perhaps, fantastic tales that we don’t know about! A film can be made on that subject as well, and a good film. Why not? Look at films like The Lunchbox (2013) or Masaan (2015).

So which stories or memories does this film draw upon? Did the issue emerge out of the story, or was it the other way around?

There is definitely a clear issue that one thinks about beforehand. It might just be the emotion that you want to evoke, details change. This story had toys, the father was supposed to be a tailor. Sometimes it is more critical to keep in mind what you want to say and if it comes out clearly enough in the film. It’s like a graph — one has to tweak it.

The original film was 40 minutes. At WIFF, I presented a compact 24 minute version for better pace. I like the light-hearted side of life. I can’t write cruel scenes. I won’t be able to do that. Forced drama is easier to create than to create fiction that conveys it in a subtle way.

And that comes across in the role of the child. Your film uses a child’s perspective to talk about these larger issues of family structures and hierarchy, social conditioning invoking big theological questions about gunah, for instance. What was it like to work on the child actor and to give him such a critical perspective in the film?

It is a film that also talks about poverty, it is about conditions at home. The child is a way to tell that story. The casting of this child is very interesting. He is Marathi and my film is entirely set in UP. He is from rural Maharashtra, in fact. Milan Luthria was making a film and the casting director and friend, Parag, was holding auditions and that is where I met this child. He didn’t fit their requirement for an upper-middle-class child. [But] his appearance stuck with me, he was standing out among all the other child actors in the room.

When I began working on the film, I decided to dig up his details and cast him. He has now won a number of awards for his acting in the film. His parents are very proud of him. His village is very happy as well. Hopefully, they get inspired to encourage their children to join theatre, perhaps.

You have worked with Sudhir Mishra, who is also the presenter of Mazhabi Laddu. You are also working with some other filmmakers from the Bombay film industry. What drew you to make Mazhabi Laddu as a short film, and not a feature length film?

For me there is no difference between a short film and a feature film. Some stories can be said in short and some need more complex storytelling. The process of filming for me is the same.

We often see that when people hear the word short film, they minimize it immediately. Even some filmmakers think we will use actors free, get basic camera and equipment.

If you want to make a film, one needs to first learn the art. I meet a lot of makers of short films and sometimes they just don’t know the basic technicalities of shooting — like they often focus on the camera and ignore sound. One needs to invest in films and filmmaking. Filmmaking is a way of thinking, but one has to learn it to make a good film.

In the case of your story and this film, despite being told that this story has been told many times, you decided to make it and it is resonating with the audience. We often hear about debates on intolerance, lynching, communal hatred in the news. Your film seems to give a backstory to these news stories and point to the household. Do you think your film speaks to today’s India?

I am happy to hear that the film has managed to convey this. My intention is that even if a few people understand that we can’t end things, people, we can only change things. We can’t get rid of either the Hindus or the Muslims. We need to end this hatred, but it must start at home.

I went to UP recently, and I have to admit people are spewing venom against each other, so much hatred. I heard things and felt as if humanity is dead. In fact, we don’t hear this everyday venom in the news. It’s in our heads. We grow up with it. We will keep fighting.

The nation starts at home. How will we change? Only education, exposure can change things. So films play an important role. And not one film, we need many.

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