How do you make a film in a language you are not familiar with? Also, how do you make it for a budget of under—wait for it—Rs 1 lakh? A young Malayali filmmaker, Nithin Anil, has not just made his debut feature for a budget of Rs 60,000 but got to screen it at this year’s Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), where another Malayali filmmaker also showed up— Geetu Mohandas, with Moothon.
Listening to Nithin’s journey with his film, one feels he found the apt title for it—A Thing of Magic. The core idea of the film—of two kids being set off on a long journey by someone’s 3D glasses—came to him while volunteering for a rural development programme in Karnataka’s Anegundi village.
“I saw a bunch of kids playing and two of them were talking about a film they had seen. At that moment, it suddenly hit me: How far would they have to travel to see a film? It would be an insurmountable task. One would have to take a boat from Anegundi, cross to Hampi, walk quite a lot, reach a station and from there go to the city,” says Nithin, who initially didn’t plan to set the film in Maharasthra but somewhere else.
The whole thing gathered traction and structure when a friend’s relative called him to Maharashtra, suggesting that he stay there until he finds an ideal location. Nithin toured lots of villages until he settled on Arale, situated in the Satara district.
“This village gave off that raw, earthy vibe we were looking for. For someone who comes from a busy and crowded city like Kochi, Arale is a really quaint place relatively cut off from the rest of the world. You feel like the time has slowed down.”
The team didn’t set out with a proper script. Everything evolved as Nithin learned more about their culture.
“It was basically lots of notes in which I jotted down the story arc, character dialogues, behaviour, and so on. Also, I didn’t see the point in writing anything from my hometown because you run the risk of incorporating your culture into the script, thereby making it more difficult to place the story in a different place. Every detail was important—the walls of the homes, the gathering places, how people talk... things like that.”
Nithin cites the films of Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi as influences along with Dileesh Pothan from Malayalam cinema. He admires the boldness of Iranian filmmakers and feels that they are the best when it comes to capturing the true soul of a village.
“Take a film like Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s Home? We become acquainted with that village through a very small event. Similarly, our film is more about the characters in a village and the numerous layers of stories around them.”
The actors are played by the real natives, for whom cinema still remains a considerably alien hobby. As Nithin wanted the conversations to be raw and organic, he simply narrated to them a situation and asked them to “respond” to it. “It was difficult initially, but then it got easier,” he says.
Since Nithin doesn’t speak the language and had to rely on a translator to convey his instructions, things got a little tedious. “But everyone was so co-operative. They did everything possible to make the shoot go smoothly. They always tried to ensure that no unforeseen obstacles got in the way. And these are folks who still have black-and-white television sets at home. The only contemporary film they were familiar with is Sairat because it had done really well there.”
A Thing of Magic was shot by a five-member crew with a Panasonic GH-5 camera and a DIY rig. Asked if he was concerned about the quality of footage from a smaller digital camera being projected on to the big screen, Nithin says he wasn’t because he was inspired by Rima Das’ Village Rockstars.
“That’s a perfect example of a film which was more about the story than the kind of camera used. Of course, a minimum quality is required for the big screen, but Village Rockstars taught us that a film is much more than all that.”
Nithin says spending the money from his own pocket gave him the creative control he needed. “If you exclude the cost of DCP (Digital Cinema Package), the film’s budget comes to only Rs. 40,000,” he shares.
What’s even more interesting is the fact that Nithin got to see the final output only on the day of the screening. “I was worried, naturally, but barring some negligible technical errors which occurred during the filming, everything else came out fine.”
So will he do something like this again? “No,” he laughs. “Next time the budget won’t be this low. This was an experience for me. I know now what is doable and what is not. This was film school for a guy who had not made a film before. I got to learn a lot that they don’t teach you at film school, like the meaning of DCP, for instance. I’m hoping to compile the knowledge I’ve gained and write a book on the challenges of making a film under Rs 1 lakh. Who knows, somebody may be able to make a film with Rs 30,000 after reading it,” he signs off.