Rosy-cheeked and cheeky children, a Garhwal village, and a mysterious old woman who preys on young ones—all the elements are in place for a bedtime story, but Batul Mukhtiar’s Kaphal (Wild Berries) is more than that. Among the titles showing at the upcoming Mumbai Film Festival (17-24 October), Kaphal is the sweet-hearted story of two brothers, Makar (Harish Rana) and Kamru (Pawan Negi), whose prank-filled routine is interrupted by the return of their father Kailash (Subrat Dutta) from the city. As Kailash tries to fit back into village life, the boys and their friends set out on an adventure to find Pagli Dadi, an alleged witch, and persuade her to make their father disappear.
Written by Mukhtiar and Vivek Shah, Kaphal might be produced by the Children’s Film Society India (CFSI) and aimed at children, but it works equally for their parents. The naturalistic performances by the children, none of whom has acted before, are memorable, as are the evocative locations in Garhwal, Uttarakhand. Woven around the knee-high antics of Makar, Kamru and their buddies is a web of grown-up concerns for the economy of the hilly region, the relationship between sons and fathers, a pro-environment message, and a plea for tolerance. Mukhtiar, a Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate, told Mint about the genesis of Kaphal and directing first-time actors. Edited excerpts.
Did ‘Kaphal’s’ story grow out of any real-life experiences?
I met Makar, a scooter mechanic, working on the roadside in Delhi, around 24 years ago. I suggested to him that he would do better business in Pune, which was the two-wheeler city. He moved there, and our friendship continued. He used to come and work with me on my student exercises at FTII as a spot boy. There were times when he bailed me out financially, paying my term fees. Through him, I knew his brothers, who also moved to Pune, looking for work. And I got glimpses of the life in his village in Garhwal, from where he came. The father’s story in the film of being falsely implicated in a theft case is borrowed from Makar’s life, as is his name. The rest is a sense of his and his brothers’ lives, their lives in the city, and the families they left behind.
I first saw their village seven-eight years ago, when I went to shoot in the region for my children’s film Lilkee. The visual image of the village stuck in my mind, and I wanted to make a film there. Besides this, one day a friend in a long-distance relationship told me her child had asked about her visiting father, “When will he go back?” After Lilkee, which is about a girl wanting to go to school, I also wanted to make a film about a child who does not want to go to school. These are the various strands that came together in the story of Kaphal.
Had any of the children in the movie acted before? How challenging was it for them to act naturally?
I had a strong image of the children running down the hilly paths, sometimes barefoot, sometimes with rubber slippers. The geography of the village and the forest determined that I would need children who could do this naturally, without fear. I was quite sure that I could cast only children from the village for the film. The physical space could only be negotiated by them.
We had a workshop for around 90 children from two-three nearby schools for a month. Over the month, the 90 children trickled down to 35. Out of which, we chose the five main children, and the others played the supporting cast.
None of the children has ever acted before. Most of them were so shy initially that they were not even able to speak their names out aloud without ducking their chins into their chests. The teacher-student relationship in the village schools is very formal and very strict. It is only once the children realized that I was not a teacher that they opened up.
Once they did that, they began to improvise like crazy, bringing their real-life situations and experiences to the fore. My assistant, Shoorveer Tyagi, was also a great help in this workshop, running with the children up and down the hills, to their homes, searching for kaphal, coming up with scenes every few minutes to work on.
The main children were finalized only 10 days before the shoot. Once they had learnt the lines thoroughly, our effort was to break their habit of reciting by rote, of making them understand the script, and their characters.
But finally, on the set, they took over, doing what came to them naturally. When I look at their performances now, I find they have done so much more than I told them to do, bringing their own understanding into play.
The film tackles several issues facing people living in the hilly states—migration, conservation, the lack of easy access to medical care and educational facilities. How important was it for you to weave these issues into a film aimed broadly at a young audience?
It is important for me to bring in several layers into a film, even if it is for children. I like leaving the children with something to think about, apart from the main story. To me, the story of the village, the difficulties of livelihood, the father’s pain, the issues of conservation, medical care and schooling are integral to the children’s story. I think children need to be aware of the complexities in the world, to make them more sensitive to worlds outside their own.
Did you also think of not making a children’s film, of directing the story at grown-ups?
While we spent a month doing the workshop with the children and prepping for sets, location, etc., the starkness of the location, and the sheer hardship of the villagers’ lives did tempt me to do the entire film with actors from the village, make it in a docu-fiction style. It would have been a different film.
But then I wanted to stick to the essence of my script, the simplicity, the hope, the magic, which I think a children’s film makes easier to follow.
However, I do think that Kaphal, the way it has turned out to be, is as much a film for grown-ups as it is for children. And I certainly hope that it will be seen by everyone, whatever their age.
Kaphal will be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival (17-24 October) at 3pm. For details, visit www.mumbaifilmfest.com.
10.15am, 19 October, Screen 3, BIG Metro and 20 October, Screen 4, Cinemax Versova.
3pm, 21 October, Screen 3, BIG Metro and 5.45pm 22 October, Cinemax Versova.
5.30pm, 21 October, BIG Metro and 8.15pm, 22 October, Cinemax Versova.