“Without food nothing happens”

Abhishek Verma grew up in a vegetarian household in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. But he developed a taste for the fish curry – maacher jhol, by visiting his mother’s Bengali friends. And when it came time to making his first short animation film, after graduating from IIT, Mumbai’s Industrial Design Centre, Verma, 28 decided to focus on a young man – Lalit, who cooks the fish curry as he prepares to reveal his big secret to his father. “While I was writing the script I thought in India food is the most important part of our lives,” Verma says. “Without food nothing happens.”

Last month Verma’s 12-minute long animated film Maacher Jhol: The Fish Curry won the best short film award at the 8th Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. The film is now playing in competition in the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France.

Verma’s lovely animated film captures his love for the fish curry, with old world Bollywood charm, along with film’s young protagonist’s desire to come out as a gay man to his father. This is not the first time Verma has made an animated film around a social subject. Chasini - a five-minute long animated film he made while at IIT (it is available on YouTube) dealt with victims of acid attacks.

Verma spoke about the film before he left for the World Festival of Animated Films in Zagreb, Croatia. Edited excerpts from an interview…

How did the idea of making an animated film around the topic of coming out evolve?

This story is close to me. On the last day of IIT a friend came out to me. He was

drunk and he said “This is the last day of our friendship.” I wondered if he had done something. But he said he was gay. And I realized that this guy had been in the closet for so long and that coming out is such a difficult thing, especially to those close to you.

During my research I discovered people had tried different ways of coming out to their parents. Someone wrote a long letter. Another person showed a film, and then at the end pointing to a gay character said “This is me.” One person made a video and then couriered the pen drive to his mother.

But I thought combining food and coming out would be an interesting subject to tackle in a 12-minutes short film. I like maacher jhol since it is very simple to cook and all you need is rice to eat with it. Also it’s a dish you can make rather quickly. It’s not like chicken curry or biryani that take a lot more time.

What fish do you need for maacher jhol?

You can make it with rohu, katal or hilsa. But hilsa is very expensive in Delhi.

You have Lalit listening to the recipe on the radio as he cooks the dish and then old Hindi film songs start to play. I love that you set the film in Delhi, but yet you bring about the old world charm of a radio set.

I got interested in films because in 2004 after 10th standard I was sent to Ranchi (from Hazaribagh). I had no TV and no source of entertainment. I sold my books to buy a radio. And everything I know about Hindi films is by listening to Vividh Bharati. That is an important part of my life. My routine would be decided by the radio. I would eat my dinner after listening to Bhoole Bisre Geet. I couldn’t go out on Saturday afternoons, because Byomkesh Bakshi, the serial would be broadcast.

By then there were other FM stations no?

But Vividh Bharati was very special. The anchors were very personable. There was Yunis Khan and Shehnaz Akhtar. And the way they read the listeners’ letters…My mother is a schoolteacher and one of her colleagues Manjit Khasera worked part-time on the radio. I liked his voice. So I gave the name Manjit to the man who reads the maacher jhol recipe.

You play two of my favorite songs in the film – ‘Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki’ and ‘Jaane Woh Kaise’ from Pyasaa.

We approached Sa Re Ga Ma for the rights to the two songs. I told them I had very little money. But they came up with a price of Rs 3.75 lakhs for one song. I told them I was in no position to negotiate. Then I was advised by some musicians to recreate the song. We hired a singer, changed the lyrics slightly, distorted to 20%. We had to change the instruments. And we only wanted to use a few seconds.

You also show a little clip of Amitabh Bachchan from the film Kaalia.

There is a hair salon scene because the story is set in New Delhi. If you go to local salons they will be playing old Bollywood films, often with Amitabh Bachchan. I tired to get the rights to the Kaalia clip, but they quoted Rs. 2.75 lakhs for it.

How did you get the permission?

We used less than 20 seconds of the clip. Then we showed it playing within the TV. We avoided paying for the clip by showing it indirectly, that people in the salon are watching the film playing on TV. Plus the TV signal is distorted.

How did you raise money for the film?

When I started the project I had no money so I took a job of a design consultant for a company. And I raised money through crowd source funding. It was also my way to see that when I was raising money for this project, people should accept the idea of homosexuality. I wanted to see whether people were supporting the project, because they were my friends or because they also wanted to back a film with a gay theme.

Did anyone object to giving you money because your lead character in the film is gay?

No one had any objection.

You recently took the film to the Central Board of Film Certification. What was that experience like for you?

I was told the board was uncomfortable with the gay kiss between two male mermaids. They asked what I wanted to convey through the story and I told them that coming out was a very important aspect in the life a gay person. So eventually they gave the film a U/A certificate with no cut.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 3:28:33 PM |

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