There is a hint of humour and nostalgia in Nila Madhab Panda’s tone as the filmmaker speaks about his childhood in a village in
Odisha’s Sonepur district. “Studies were never my cup of tea and I used to even fail in easier subjects like art. Who fails in art?” the Padma Shri Awardee asks with a chuckle.
What interested him instead was studying nature and people. “Being the youngest kid in a huge joint family, I was the only one who was always sent to run errands for everybody. You might as well say I was the labourer in the family (laughs). But I was also the one who knew their likes, dislikes and could read their minds.” While this understating of people inculcated in Panda a sense of responsibility towards his family, it also helped him master the art of storytelling when he left his village for Delhi to try his luck in filmmaking.
“A joint family is like a book, just like the Mahabharata, replete with characters of all shades. Every character has a story to tell and a range of emotions to exude – from anger, sadness, grief and envy to love, fear, joy and trust. These experiences in turn helped me shape the characters of my film,” says the 42-year-old.
The director of 70 films, documentaries and short films, Panda today is a critically acclaimed director, best known as somebody who leaves a message for society in his films. He was recently conferred the Padma Shri for his contribution to films.
But why films with a social message? “In the initial days of my career, all my efforts were channeled to provide for my family and earn a name for me and my state. But eventually I realised that success is not about buying myself a Mercedez Benz, but doing something for others too. And nothing can be a better medium than films to get your point across,” Panda says.
While his film I am Kalam, explored the theme of child labour, Jalpari was eloquent about the evil of female foeticide happening clandestinely in a dusty village of Haryana. His next Babloo Happy Hai looked at the issue of HIV/AIDS while his latest Kaun Kitne Paani Mein addressed the problem of water crisis in the country.
Even though his works are appreciated in film festivals, does it worry him that they are not commercial blockbusters? Panda shrugs. “It is not necessary that every film makes money. Even I love watching movies of Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan that are out and out entertaining. What matters to me is the fact that people who watch these movies are also the ones that watch those made by filmmakers like me. I was recently in Nagpur and an auto-rickshaw driver who dropped me at my hotel asked me ‘saab aap Kalam ke director ho na’. The gesture says it all,” he smiles.
Having a few projects on the anvil, Panda says one of them will be a thriller with a political angle.
Ask him about his Padma Shri and Panda giggles nervously. “It is an honour. But I must confide that every time I receive an award, it makes me nervous. It means I am still in the race and a lot is riding on my shoulders. In simpler words, it makes me more responsible towards my work,” he adds.
Bagging the Awards
The film maps the journey of Chhotu, a child labourer, from working in a dhaba to the threshold of a school. While the role earned, Harsh Mayar, who played it, a National Film Award, the film bagged 32 international awards
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