Gunjaa: Exposing The Harsh Realities of Rural India
Debutant Writer-Director Mrinal Dev’s film Gunjaa sheds light on the everyday difficulties that plague rural India, touching upon topics such as poverty, casteism and the education of girls. In this conversation, Mrinal elaborates on the experience of working with child actors, the importance of conducting workshops with them before the camera rolls, and other intricacies surrounding the making of this Bhojpuri film.
Please tell us a little bit about how the idea of Gunjaa came about.
The idea of Gunjaa came to my mind around two years back. I was shooting an independent film in the interiors of a village in Bihar, and that was where I saw a person making a wooden bier. His children were just sitting around and looking at him make it. That’s when the idea initially struck me and I later developed it into a script within two days. But it took more than six months to reach the final draft.
What is the basic premise of the storyline, and the various themes it tackles? What drew you towards these themes?
It’s about a small girl named Gunjaa who belongs to a family considered to be of a backward caste, and she wants to go to school and study. Gunjaa’s parents don’t have much money to enroll her in school; her father earns his living by making handmade wooden biers (funeral stretchers). Gunjaa knows the financial situation of her family, and prays to God that people would die, so that her father would earn money by selling his biers.
See, the story is a regional one, and many themes and elements naturally come into play, such as education for girls, poverty, child rights and casteism, which are still prevalent in many of our villages. People from this caste (who make the funeral bier) still don’t have the right to sit with other people who’re considered higher up in the caste system. They aren’t allowed to go inside the common village temple. They’re still being treated as Acchoot (untouchables) in various villages of India, which I sensed when I visited the interiors of some villages – casteism is still very inherent. Even a four-year-child is very familiar with who belongs to his caste and who doesn’t.
Share with us your previous experiences in filmmaking. How is this film different?
Gunjaa is my debut film as a writer-director. I have previously worked as an assistant director for a regional independent film, a feature film and a short film Moi Marjaani that was directed by Anubhuti Kashyap, and produced by Anurag Kashyap Films. Other than that, I have also written a few infotainment episodes for the DD Vigyan channel.
Though I had many stories and ideas, I chose to start with Gunjaa because it has regional content and is based in the interiors of a village. So I decided to make it in Bhojpuri. As far as I knew, at the time, there had been no such ‘children’s short film’ in Bhojpuri. So I spoke to my friend Ravi R. Tiwari (who also worked as Executive Producer for Gunjaa) and decided to shoot this film in his village, Kusahi in the Rohtas district of Bihar where Bhojpuri is spoken. Besides that, since my childhood I have had friends from several parts of Bhojpuri-speaking areas that helped me write the dialogues for Gunjaa. I think all of these things contribute to making the film slightly different.
What were the briefs you gave your actors and how did you get the best performance out of them?
I went to my hometown Patna for the audition, and came to know about an organization called Kilkari Bal Bhawan, which provides training in theatre, dance, music, painting etc. to children from lower middle-class families. I went there, organized an audition, and found my leading child actress Ishu Kumari, who played the character of Gunjaa. I found another brilliant child actress Chandani Kumari, who played Gunjaa’s friend, Radha, in the film. It was my first film, and I was a bit nervous about working with child actors since I didn’t have experience of working with them before. After their selection, I took them through a workshop of my own, every day for a couple of weeks. On the other hand, I got theatre actors Sanjana Shah and Yashwardhan Singh from Patna to play the roles of Gunjaa’s mother and father, respectively. Everyone participated in the workshop.
Please tell us about the other research/preparation that went into the making of this film.
I hadn’t done any research for Gunjaa besides simply observing people and their mannerisms. While conducting the workshop for the child actors, I’d go through the lanes and areas of Patna where people from backward castes lived. I’d just pass by and notice their body language, dressing sense, eating style etc.
Any memorable or interesting anecdote from the shoot that you’d like to share with our readers? Which was your favorite scene to shoot, personally?
There was a small scene in which two village people are talking. Both of them were non-actors and I took their rehearsal just a few minutes before shooting. They performed well but when the camera was rolling one of the men jumbled the one-line dialogue more than twenty times. We laughed a lot, but he ended up giving his best after nineteen takes.
Each and every scene of the film was personally a delight to shoot. But still, I think I like the scene when Gunjaa comes and prays to God to make people die.
What were some of the challenges you faced during production, and how did you overcome them?
We faced several challenges both before and during shoot. I had initially decided for the colour and weather of our film to be warm. The day we reached on location, it started raining, which went on for two days. We didn’t have any crew with too much experience; most of them were teenagers from Patna, and were working for the first time. Apart from that, we didn’t really have much of a budget and it was our first home production under our newly formed banner Pratima Pictures. The producers were none other than my parents Pratima Lal and Kanhaiya Lal. We got delayed due to the rain, but things went smoothly once the sun was out again. Another thing that happened was that after barely three days of shoot, one of the main characters of the film backed out. This delayed the shoot by one more day as the substitute actor had to come all the way from Patna to the village. But somehow, we managed to cross all the hurdles to have this film see the light of day.
Gunjaa has already received many awards and much critical acclaim. What are your expectations from Indian cinema-goers once the film is released?
It would be a miracle to see our short film released in theatres! As we all know, in India there are no such proposals or criteria for releasing a short film unless and until it is made under some big reputed banner or with the support of a big director or production house. But I’d like to mention that wherever our film went – in terms of festivals – it has been truly enjoyed by the audience of each and every class. And they were really moved by Ishu’s performance.
We’ve heard a lot about how your film is an ‘eye-opener’. Please elaborate on whether you agree, and why.
I generally tend to deny this ‘eye-opener’ tag. I feel like people’s attention spans aren’t exactly what they used to be, and while my film might move them momentarily, they might be quick to see another film and move on. It isn’t their fault though, because this is a big game, and there is an information overload today where viewers are constantly being bombarded by different media.
The fact is, there are still some villages in our country where girls are not able to go to school due to various reasons, casteism still exists and extreme backward caste people are still limited in their rights in a lot of ways. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (The Education for All Movement) has been introduced years back but children are not getting its real benefits, not even their basic rights.
What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I completed two feature film scripts a few months back. While one is a youth-based story the other is a children’s film. I am now looking for producers. Let’s see what works out.