The Miniaturist of Junagadh- A Beautiful Short Film
TC Interview with director Kaushal Oza
Kaushal Oza is a dedicated filmmaker who graduated from the FTII, Pune around ten years ago. Other than taking part in college plays, he did not have any background in filmmaking. But it gave him a perspective on aspects like acting, performance, narratives and so on.
So, along the way, he joined the FTII directly after his graduation in commerce and those became his formative years in cinema.
He talks about his recent film The Miniaturist of Junagadh which offers a powerful example in narrative story-telling, a period ambience within contemporary times and beautiful music not to talk about the performance of stellar performers.
What was the experience at FTII like?
The time in FTII became my formative years in cinema and all that it entailed such as exposure to different kinds of films and more importantly, I read a lot about films and anything related to films. We learnt a lot hands-on as we shot our films in the studio floors of the institute. My films travelled far and wide and so did I and this shaped my approach to cinema as a form of art and communication.
What other films did you make before this one?
I made two short films before this when I was studying at FTII. Of these, my first film was Vaishnava Janto To which won the National Award for the Best Short Film in 2010 for the Best Debut Director.
What was Vaishava Jana To about?
The time is India, 1944 and the setting is a village in Bombay Presidency (present day Gujarat). On a night when Mahatma Gandhi is visiting the village, Ba has an unexpected visitor - Pratap, a thief, has just shot a man and is seeking shelter. But the night has another predicament in store for Ba and Pratap. And as "Vaishnav Jan Toh..." is sung in a distant prayer meeting, Ba's own conviction in Gandhiji's message is put to test.
Which short story is this based on?
The name of the story is The Invisible Collection and the author is Stefan Zweig who was also the author and the film The Grand Budapest Hotel directed by Wes Anderson who pays a tribute to Zweig and also mentions his stories as the inspiration for the film. Stefan Zweig was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, Zweig was one of the most widely translated and most popular writers in the world. Zweig was raised in Vienna, Austria-Hungary.
What is the period, place and time setting of the film?
The film is set in 1947 which is set in the princely state of Junagadh and when Partition happened, the Prince of Junagadh decided to annex Junagadh to Pakistan. But he faced a lot of opposition from the newly formed Indian government and fled to Pakistan following which Junagadh was annexed to India.
Can you tell us the story in brief?
The ravages of Partition have compelled an old artist, Husyn Naqqash (Naseeruddin Shah), who is losing his vision, to sell his ancestral home in Western India and move with his family to Karachi, Pakistan. When Kishorilal, a stoic and stone-hearted man, who has bought the house, comes to know that Husyn is a well-known miniature painter and has an invaluable and rare miniature collection, he schemes to get hold of the collection. But all is not what it seems and there is a secret about the collection that Husyn's family is holding back. Not only from Kishorilal - but also from Husyn. The film was screened at the New York Indian Film Festival in June this year.
What inspired you to make this film?
There was this historical house in Mumbai belonging to my grandparents which was about to be pulled down and I wanted to shoot it to record the house for posterity - coloured it, more than 100 years old almost shot indoors. I wanted to shoot something In the ancestral house which would record the place I lived in. I started looking for a story that would fit into the house – but once I found this story by Stefan Zweig, we changed the arrangement, filled it up with different kinds of furniture, research – Nitin Zihani – Tumbad art director also. Once I began writing the story, it began to have a life of its own – the characters, the story, the timeline, the period, setting, props, and so on.
How did you manage to rope in such a wonderful star cast at such a low budget?
I was very fortunate to have been able to rope in Naseeruddin Shah, Raseeka Duggal, Padmavati Rao, Uday Chandra and Raj Arjun. These actors are very down-to-earth. They believed in the story and they truly felt that it was a film that ought to be made. They also knew it is a short film with a slim budget which would not take too much of their time and would not be able to pay well and they agreed without hesitation.
Since you chose ace actors for the film, how did you direct them?
Regardless of my actors’ standing and experience, I talk to them, discuss the story and the characters with them, as when you pitch the film to actors, you discuss the script and story with them so they already have a general idea of what to do and how to do it when they arrive on the sets.
As a director, you have an understanding of how they are registering things. But such ace actors, when they actually come on the sets with make-up and costume, they far exceed what you had expected of them. It is not just a question of focussing on the character but it is more about the actor’s understanding of what he/she is expected to do, and in this way, you develop a relationship with the actors concerned.
Sometimes, they know what nuances are needed in which scene much better than you do. Sometimes you need just to give them the parameters within which to play and then they do wonders. That is how I work.
I would always want to work with intelligent actors who bring in their own experience and interpretation to the character and to the film as a whole. I sometimes give them an idea of how everything is coming together on the editing table but in the end, it is they who bring life to a given scene and to the film.
The music is brilliant. What brief did you give to your music director?
I consider music as important to the film and as fundamental as the script and performances. I had loved the music that Chhavi Sodhani had done for a short film, and I had absolute faith in her ability to compose for this film. Initially we concentrated on only the melody and once we had a theme that touched us, we tried to have some silent spaces. Because the film has its own rhythm and pauses, and the feeling of silence even when the music was playing was essential. There are scenes dealing with the emptiness, of the house. And also a longing, and finally, the going away.
The film has a distinct Muslim period flavour. How did you manage it?
The dialogue based on Urdu-flavoured Hindi helped. Then my crew – the cinematographer (Kumar Saurabh) who has used lighting like a magician, the music director, the art director, and of course, the editor (Amit Malhrotra), helped enrich the film and give it its final shape.