Meal: Abhiroop Basu on latest short starring Adil Hussain, and taking it to film festivals around the world
Abhiroop Basu’s Meal, starring Adil Hussain, won the Best Short Film award at the Ottawa Indian Film Festival Awards.
Earlier this month, Abhiroop Basu’s Meal, starring Adil Hussain, won the Best Short Film award at the Ottawa Indian Film Festival Awards. In August, this 11-minute film will be one of around 100 — selected from thousands of — entries to screen at the Oscar-qualifying Odense international Film Festival, Denmark.
In just over 10 minutes, the young Kolkata-based Abhiroop Basu sharply captures violence, conflict, drama and tragedy in Meal. The dialogue-less short features actors Hussain, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee and Arun Mukhopadhyay as members of a family navigating a war zone. Their home is strewn with knocked over furniture, filth, shattered glass. The parents of a teenage boy show visible signs of violence such as bruises and bandages. Television news playing in the background indicates that there is communal tension on the streets of Kolkata and warns students to leave ample time in order to reach on time for their Board exams. Sound and production design are as crucial in 25-year-old Basu’s storytelling as the smouldering performances by the actors.
After a world premiere at the Arizona International Short Film Festival, the film’s many festival entries include the New York Indian Film Festival and BRAC International Film Festival, Croatia 2019.
Basu says the challenge of telling a story is not about the length of the film but in deciding how much needs to be shown and how much can be communicated through the mise-en-scene. “When I finished the first draft, I even wanted the walls to communicate, the state of the walls, their colours to recall certain events of the past. The length just gives the narrative a sense of economy.”
The depiction, implication and possibility of violence, without actually showing it, ominously hangs in the air. And in the absence of dialogue, the soundscape also juxtaposes the internal with the external chaos and conflict. Basu explains his process. “I wanted to create an atmosphere or environment of claustrophobia and tension without actually showing any of it. I took the most mundane activities in a typical Bengali household and juxtaposed it with external chaos and violence. It's that contrast and also the fact that nothing really happens in the first 8-9 minutes, and the anticipation of something creates an uncomfortable space for the audience. My professor from film school described it in the best possible way. He said, ‘It feels that I have entered someone else's living room by mistake, but I don't want to be here.’"
Basu and his sound designer Aakash Ghosal didn't use stock ambience but recorded live sounds. “I wanted to create that very colony-based middle class Kolkata locality. In a film without any dialogue, you almost always tend to overdo it with sound. So we had to be careful. To create silence is very difficult and we went back time and again and stayed back for hours in the shooting location to absorb and observe every tiny detail. Just to give you an example, if you listen carefully, you will hear the sound of conch shell and ulu dhwani coming from the adjacent flat juxtaposed with urine of the old man falling on the ground — a thematic tool I have used throughout the film which basically says God is dead. He is not here today.”
Similarly, look out for the details in the production design. Nothing is there by accident. For example, the over-turned slippers in the second scene capture the common belief in Bengali households that a pair of upturned slippers will lead to friction between family members. “In one shot somewhere in the middle, you see a filthy bathroom and the dining table side-by-side in the frame. To me, that particular shot defines the whole film,” says Basu, whose next film is a longer piece called Laali, starring Pankaj Tripathi. He’s also working on his first feature. “But before that, I wish to do this crazy short which I have written keeping Shefali Shah in mind. It's about a woman who lives with a donkey in an under-construction apartment.”
Like many short filmmakers, Basu believes that in the absence of avenues for theatrical release or marketing budgets, film festivals give their work legs to travel and reach a wider audience. And access to an international film community opens access-ways to resources desperately needed by independent filmmakers.
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