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Interview Bengali

My stories reflect a part of me: Meal director Abhiroop Basu

An alumnus of Prague Film School, Abhiroop Basu elaborated on the design of the technical aspects of the film and shared his experience of working with the experienced Adil Hussain and the newcomer Avishek Jain.

Roushni Sarkar

Abhiroop Basu’s short film Meal had its world premiere in the Arizona International Short Film Festival on 9 April. Featuring Adil Hussain, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee and Avishek Jain, the film is also slated to be screened at the International Film Festival of South Asia Toronto, the 19th New York Indian Film Festival and the Romania Strip International Film Festival in the coming months. The film is also scheduled to be screened in Kolkata on 27 April.

The 11-minute film is well crafted and layered. It reveals the suffocating atmosphere of a household from which peace has escaped.

Meal review: An effectively crafted visual narrative to disturb the audience

An alumnus of Prague Film School, Basu elaborated on the design of the technical aspects of the film in an interview with Cinestaan.com and also shared his experience of working with the experienced Hussain and the newcomer Avishek Jain. Excerpts:

Why did you choose such a disturbing theme for a short film?

When I was studying in Prague Film School, one of my professors told me he could not teach how to make films but he could surely guide me with certain tips and one of them was, 'whatever films you make from now onwards, try to offer yourself in a plate.'

That suggestion has remained in my mind. Having been born in a middle-class family, we have to go through many chaotic environments. I have seen this kind of chaos very closely since my childhood.

After I came back from Prague, I decided to work on stories that could reflect a part of me and my experiences as well. Meal, in a sense, reflects a part of me growing up. I have not seen my family as a dysfunctional family, but I have seen that kind of household at very close quarters.

For example, I have seen some of my close relatives go through similar experiences of the young boy (Avishek Jain) in the short film. Also, I feel, in the environment around us and even if you open the newspaper or social media news feed, there is chaos everywhere. I wanted to bring the chaos in and outside a household through one family in this film.

I want to share one experience that inspired to me to make Meal. In my childhood, I used to always hear a couple fighting in the neighbouring family. They also had a kid with whom I used to play. But I could never hear his sound from the house. I saw the story from this perspective as well and hence the film is silent and there is no use of dialogue. I wanted to represent the film from his perspective. He doesn’t talk and there is a silence in his house that is killing.

Abhiroop Basu directing Arun Mukherjee in the film

The background ambient sound plays an important role in the film. How did you design that?

I have seen that Bengali cinema doesn’t really explore the area of sound. While I was in Prague, one of our professors asked a student to name his favourite film. He said Schindler's List (1993) and then the film was screened, but without sound. We got curious and then the professor explained the importance of sound in a film.

I never use music in my film. I think the ambience, if used in the right way, is enough. I also write a separate sound script and I read my script in my sound designer’s company. We did an interesting experiment while shooting the meal scene with Adil and Ratnabali in the film.

Before shooting, I had told Adil about the family from my childhood. For the experiment, we hired two actors and asked them to quarrel as we started shooting that particular scene. That was happening inside the film when the shoot was also happening. In the adjacent room, they were quarrelling while they [Adil, Ratnabali and Avishek] were eating their meal in their room. The climax was shot like that. Also, Adil and Ratnabalidi reacted to that fight, lending a meaning to their scene as well.

There were some deliberate frames in the film. For example, the frame showing two adjacent rooms — in one room Adil Hussain is restlessly moving and in another Arun Mukhopadhyay is sitting in a semi-paralysed state. What were the thoughts behind those compositions?

As there was no dialogue in the film, I tried to convey everything with mise en scène. There are a lot interesting aspects of mise en scène. If you observe the scene in which Adil is moving between two rooms, in the left room, the chappal is kept flipped. In Bengali households, there is a proverb that if chappals are not kept properly, there will be quarrels. We wanted to convey all these little details and elements without dialogues.

The house that you see in the film was actually under construction with a white wall. All the paint, furniture and utensils all have been curated by me and my team.

There is another frame in the film, in which in the right side there is a shabby and dirty bathroom beside which they are sitting and eating their meal. That shot defines the film and was written as the scene of acute lovelessness in the script.

I had written that phrase but spent one month to decode how to represent it through a single shot. We don’t want to see eating and shitting in one frame and that is precisely the situation of the house.

How was the experience of working with the actors?

Adil Hussain in the film

Initially, I would be thinking why was not I able to see what I had written in the script on the screen? But after I worked with Adil and also with Pankaj Tripathi in another short film of mine called Lali, I realized only actors of this stature can put out on screen what is written in the script. It was a huge leap for me as for the first time I could see what I had written.

First of all Adil is extremely humble and grounded. We had arranged for coolers for Adil and Ratnabalidi. But Adil said that he did not need the cooler as he wanted to sweat, because in his vision his character sweats a lot. He was without any footwear throughout the shoot.

We had different plans for the scene nearing the climax, in which Adil gets up from the chair and pushes himself backwards, but the shot did not go as we had planned. However, Adil did not flinch for a second, rather delivered the most spontaneous reaction. Though I am no one to say this, but in my opinion, he is a great actor.

How did you discover Avishek Jain?

Abhiroop Basu with Adil Hussain during the filming

I went to a group theatre in North Calcutta to look for a young actor. I was quite surprised to find that the boy doesn’t use a smartphone and doesn’t have accounts on Facebook or Instagram. He is 16 now and for the last 11 years, he has been participating in group theatre in various localities.

When I interacted with him initially, I found him shy and introverted. I was in doubt whether he would be able to understand the script at all.

I usually don’t do rehearsals, rather I spend time with the actors to know them more closely. Even before shooting Lali with Pankaj, I spent quite a few hours chatting with him, not about the film. I think, thus, a comfort zone is created which allows both the director and the actor to communicate with each other during the shoot.

However, I called Avishek with an intention to explain the script. But he surprised me with a monologue, written by him, which he felt, he would have said, if he had to speak in the film. I was quite amazed by this and he exactly portrayed all those unspoken thoughts through his expression and emotions in the film.

There are many long shots in the film, especially the first one that almost establishes the ground of the entire film.

It is kind of a voyeuristic way of looking at things. After watching the film, my professor said something very interesting. He felt as if he had mistakenly entered somebody’s house where he did not want stay for a long time.