The film gives out a very important message of acceptance – Mrityunjay Devvrat
“My expectations from this film commercially are that it gives out a social message,” says director, Mrityunjay Devvrat as he speaks to Pandolin about his debut directorial venture, Children of War. On the eve of its release, he shares the intention behind narrating this story, the emotions associated with it and what sets it apart from other Hindi films.
What inspired you to make Children of War? What kind of research went into making this film?
I had read a book called ‘The Unfinished Memoirs’ by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Those were actually words taken out of Sheikh Rahman’s diary, reformulated and put in the form of a book. That is how I was introduced to the history and birth of Bangladesh. I have a close association with Bangladesh having spent my childhood there. Also, the book itself gave us so many smaller stories, so much human emotion and drama, that we decided to research a little more. My wife and I researched the whole thing and found that there were a lot of other stories associated to the period of ‘71. And the facts were really shocking. The ’71 genocide had happened, the Pakistani army had raped about six hundred thousand women and killed about three million people. But none of the information from this genocide was made available. That lead us to the question of ‘why’ and that is where the real research started.
All this was done with American money that was being siphoned into Pakistan to help fight off the Russians. The Cold War was on and the Soviet Union was expanding, threatening to take over Afghanistan. So money was given to Pakistan to push them back. But with that money the same thing was being done in Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan. Here the suppression and the attacks on the culture, resulted in a revolt and that is how Bangladesh was born. So the human stories were really compelling, six hundred thousand rapes in nine months is far worse than anything that Hitler could do at any given period during the Holocaust. Their logic of using rape as a weapon of war was very shocking to say the least. And we thought that we should try to bring this story out to the people, tell them a little bit about history and about our neighbours.
Did you’ll also speak with people who experienced this first hand?
We first set up a research team and gathered whatever material we could. Our research followed a very specific pattern of gaining knowledge from one source and then moving on. So we got our hands on some books that have been banned, got video footage, news archives and so on. Post that we used various contacts to get in touch with people who had fought in the war of ’71. After all it was the Indian army that defeated the Pakistanis. So we spoke to people who had served in that war, historians and a few victims as well. Children who were born of these Pakistani soldiers, whose mothers and they themselves, have not been accepted into society; who are as Bangladeshi as anybody else. Their story, their emotions, all of it formed our research. And it hasn’t stopped. Even now while we are releasing it, a new fact comes and stares us in the face and the research keeps going on as there is so much to learn about that time. We can’t possibly put it all in one film.
Why was the shoot of the film shifted from Bengal? Have you’ll largely shot on real locations or sets?
We couldn’t shoot in Bengal because they have a lot of union politics involved. We were misled into believing that we could shoot in a particular area but later got to know that we couldn’t. So we did not shoot there. But the landscape is still very authentic to Bangladesh. We shot in about 36 different locations including Nainital, Delhi etc. Our entire team likes shooting in natural environments and not inside closed studios as it gives a larger sense and brings a grander picture to the screen. So we have done as much as possible in natural settings. There were some extensive sets built, for example, if we had to create a military cantonment, we did it in a natural setting that would look real to the place.
How did the title ‘The Bastard Child’ come into being? Why was it then changed to Children of War?
I am still pissed off about that. I don’t feel that the original title would hurt any sensibilities. Because the word ‘bastard’ has been contorted by our society to be used in a particular manner, it is not necessarily a foul word. Any child who is born out of wedlock is a bastard. By censoring such a title, they are giving out the wrong message to society, saying that it’s ok for you to think that ‘bastard’ is a foul word. But it is not. The idea of the title was to re-introduce this word into society. If even two people from every show had walked out and said that ‘bastard’ is a word we will start using differently, our job would have been done. As filmmakers there is a moral responsibility that we should undertake, of giving something back to the society. And we were trying to do that, get acceptance for those children of war, born to women who were raped by the Pakistani soldiers. But unfortunately, the Censor Board did not see it in that way.
What was the visual treatment that you have adopted to convey the story? How have you handled the narrative that moves between three stories?
The movie is very dark but we haven’t done that intentionally. The intention was to create magical visuals, which I think we have been successful in doing. I have shown the movie to several critics and a lot of people who have loved the visuals. We have managed to take larger than life pictures and yet keep them real, true to life. The colors are very natural; the movie will not look ‘dhinchak’ like the commercial films with glittery lights and unreal skin. The visual treatment is very different and has something that very few Hindi movies have. In terms of concept also, the visual treatment is unique. The movie follows three stories all together and the screenplay has been divided to keep you interested through all of them. It develops various angles of how you could look at the genocide through three different eyes. One is through a woman’s perspective; the other is through the eyes of a literate journalist while the third is through a villager’s point of view. The main hero and the main story remain the same, which is the genocide and the story of acceptance. The other things revolve around that main central plot. The treatment is very different so it will take time for the audience to get used to it. I am not saying that you watch the movie 2-3 times to increase ticket sales for me. But you have to see it from the point of view of one of the victims, see it from the point of view of humanity, which is when you will truly understand what is happening on screen.
The film has some scenes that are emotionally challenging to shoot. How did you prepare yourself and the actors for such scenes?
I’m doing this for the first time, so everything was equally challenging for me. Shooting a rape scene was as difficult as a scene where someone is crying or talking. That was preparation enough, because you go thinking that I have to be the best today and everyday. You are not preparing yourself for one scene in particular but you look at the larger picture, that’s how I approached it. That style of your approach gets carried into the minutest and easiest of shots and translates into some of the most complicated shots also. It’s like an actor who has to truly believe in his character for it to look real on screen. Similarly I think that a director should believe in his script and the moral of the story, the final message, has to come out with every shot of the film.
In terms of casting, did you visualize the actors while writing the characters? How was the experience of working with veterans like Victor Banerjee and the late Farooq Sheikh?
It happened with a few actors but didn’t happen with some characters. For example, when this character called Bhitika was penned down, we knew exactly at that moment that Tillotama Shome has to play this character. But otherwise the credit for the casting goes to Soumya (Producer) who has worked hard on getting the right faces for the characters. And she was very adamant about the fact that they should be authentic Bengalis. In our film Bengalis are played by Bengalis and a Punjabi plays the Pakistan Punjabi. So Pavan Malhotra plays a Pakistani Army officer while Indraneil Sengupta plays a Bengali journalist. In this way too we have tried to keep it real and as authentic as possible.
The experience of working with all the actors was awesome. It was a dream come true, firstly to make a film and then to be able to direct actors like these in your first movie. Victor Banerjee has been directed by Roman Polanski and Satyajit Ray. Everyone knows about Farooq Sir, he was a great actor and great person to be around. It was a great learning experience.
How have you dealt with budgetary constraints while making the film? Was it easy to get producers on board?
Getting producers on board was very difficult because most of them want an item number in your movie, which I wasn’t going to put. It became easy for us because when we set out to make this film, we really believed that art should influence commerce and not the other way round. We didn’t really go fishing for producers because we had saved for years to make a movie and also got help from family, friends, crowd funding and various other sources where our creative freedom would not be taken away from us. So we stuck to the belief that there is an audience for cinema that gives out a message. And that belief kept fuelling us on. But yes, it is a hugely difficult subject to shoot in the kind of budgets that we had. We did our best in whatever amount that we could manage and tried to make things look as authentic as possible.
What are your expectations from this film – socially and commercially?
My expectations from this film commercially are that it gives out a social message. There is no commercial aspect to this. The film gives out a very important message of acceptance. Today there has to be a more inclusive society which allows people from various religions, segments, parents, even if you are a bastard, to come and live together and help each other grow as human beings. This is not something that has happened only in Bangladesh; people have been facing oppression all over. It just so happened that we picked the subject of ’71 in Bangladesh. I just want the audience to watch and support the film. It will definitely teach them a piece of history that has been hidden from them and if even a small percentage of the audience starts believing that we need to accept more than reject, I will be very happy. It will also be a huge boost to independent cinema in the country as we are doing everything ourselves, without any big names or studios and have managed to reach here. And I have a great team with me, who believe that we can change cinema for the better in this country.
Any other projects in the pipeline?
We are working on a huge project that is going to take off as soon as this film releases. It is another very meaningful subject, bringing out the emotions and plight of people in a certain area of this world that is also very connected to us. It’s a tie-up with a Hollywood studio and is going to be a worldwide release.