“I have enjoyed making children’s films, because I think that they afford one the luxury of creating hope and magic even in situations where they may be none,” says filmmaker Batul Mukhtiar who won the prestigious Swarna Kamal for Best Children’s Film for her movie Kaphal-Wild Berries at the recently announced 61st National Film Awards. Batul has earlier directed a documentary feature 150 Seconds Ago which travelled to many prestigious festivals across the world. Kaphal is her second children’s film, the first being Lilkee directed in 2007.

In this freewheeling chat with Pandolin, Batul speaks about her passion for children’s cinema, the inspiration behind Kaphal, the making of this simple yet compelling tale and a lot more.

Batul Mukhtiar

A cliched question, but how does it feel to have won the National Award? Was it anticipated?

I feel overwhelmed, very satisfied, that the National Award came at the end of a long, sometimes arduous journey in making this film. No, I was not expecting the award, because I have seen some very good films at different festivals this year, and I knew the competition was tough.

Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? Please tell us about your journey.

I always wanted to be a writer. Books and films were my staple diet as a child, and it would be hard to say which I loved more. Even as a child, I watched 1-3 films a week. After my graduation in history, I drifted into doing odd jobs in Pune, sometimes helping out in an ad campaign, sometimes with a corporate film. Then, I got an offer to act in a student diploma film at FTII. After that, I acted in several student exercises for a few years, until I decided one day that I too could get into FTII. I was sure that I did not want to be an actor, I found it too painful to follow other people’s instructions, and preferred that I would give my own. Hence, I chose to study Film Direction. Over the years, I have worked as an associate on several documentary projects for international TV channels. Besides this, I have made some docu-shorts, a docu-feature, and Kaphal is my second children’s film.

What was the inspiration behind Kaphal? Why a children’s film?

Kaphal came together from many different strands of thought. I had visited this village in Garhwal for the shoot of my first children’s film Lilkee. The visual of the children running up and down the hills, barefoot or with rubber slippers, fascinated me. The difficulties of life in the village particularly for the women and children, the reality of livelihood, also came together with a sense of freedom the children had as they roamed the forests and hills freely, without too much adult supervision. There was also the thought that while the notion of a family is all right, in reality, it can sometimes be tough work to keep it going.

I have enjoyed making children’s films, because I think that they afford one the luxury of creating hope, magic even in situations where they may be none. In adult narrative, one may not be able to overlook harsh realities that easily.

Every title has a story of its own. What is the story behind choosing Kaphal and what does it stand for?

The title Kaphal came much after the story was written. But when I heard of the berry, it seemed to symbolize so much that is there in the story, the wildness, the freedom, the sweetness of things, which are not always materially significant, and also the environment, which is one of the important issues in the film.

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On the one side, Kaphal is a children’s film and yet it deals with several serious issues. How have you pieced it all together?

I think I find it easy to talk to children, to relate to them. And at heart, I am a teacher. I like telling children about lives, which may be different from their own, worlds that are different from their own. I also believe that children have a great capacity to understand different issues, which may not necessarily be within their own experience, and I think it is important to give them a sense of these issues, to get them to start thinking on where they stand on these.

Where has the film been shot? What camera did you’ll use?

The film has been shot around Swari village, in the Rudraprayag district of Garhwal. Swari, Ghimtoli, Kanakchauri, Kartikeyaswami temple. We have shot the film on Super 16, with an Arri camera.

How did your association with Vivek Shah who has co-written and shot the film happen? What was the key thought behind determining the look of the film?

Vivek Shah and I have worked together as cameraman and director since our student days at FTII. He has shot almost all my work. He also has a keen sense of drama and script, and I find him a very, very good sounding board for my scripts, someone who can not only listen and criticize, but also take the script ahead in other directions than my own.

The look of the film was completely determined by the terrain and the lifestyle of the village itself. We spent almost two months at the location before the shoot, working with the children, working with the villagers. Vivek created the sets, trained the villagers in different aspects of film production, so that we could employ as many people as possible from the village itself. As we worked there, we realized that what worked for the film was an extremely simple look, allowing the space to speak for itself. Vivek made sure that the space itself, the location was explored in every possible frame, so that you get a sense of the life there, determined by the terrain.

How did you go about casting actors for the film? What characteristics were you looking at?

We did a month long workshop with school children in the village. We had tied up with a school that gave us their space for rehearsals, and we sent out notices to all the parents asking to send their children for the workshop if they were interested. On day  one, we had 90 children, 45 of whom dropped out on the first day itself, as they had been forced by their parents to attend. Of the remaining, 35 children stayed with us right till the end of the shoot. We selected the main five children in the last 10 days of the workshop, and then continued working with them, specifically with the script.

I was looking at screen presence, a sense of personality, and also how they all looked and worked with each other as a group.

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Was there a specific reason for choosing local kids over professional actors? How easy or challenging was it to mould these kids into your characters? Also was it easy to convince them and their families?

Because the terrain was such an important part of my film, I was sure I had to use the village kids, as I could not risk taking any children from a town or city, and expect them to run around the hills. It was extremely difficult to make these children ready to act, in the first place, leave alone moulding them into characters. Most of the children in the village are shy of authority figures, and it took a while to break their barrier of treating me as they would a teacher. Secondly, their culture and the education system does not really encourage them to articulate what they feel or think, and hence getting them to learn how to express emotions was in itself a huge experience, for them and me. They also had a set pattern of reciting by rote, which needed to be worked on. But once these barriers had been broken, I did not have to mould the children at all. In fact the story is so close to what they all experience in some way or the other, that it was easy for them to become the characters.

Since the children had come to the workshop with their parents’ permission, and the end-result of it being a film was already known, we did not have to do anything special to convince the families. In fact, we had to handle the selection of the five main kids as opposed to the others quite delicately.

What was the most challenging aspect of this film?

Definitely, the terrain. Since the village has no infrastructure, the crew had to live in Rudraprayag. We had to travel one and a half hours by jeep to reach the village. After that, we would have to trek anywhere between half an hour to three hours with equipment for different locations. Plus the continuous trekking involved during the day, while shifting set-ups. Besides this, the weather was very unpredictable. Almost every afternoon, it rained, or became cloudy. So our window to shoot was very limited. Another aspect is the village itself. One has to tread quite carefully over issues of caste, egos, and just plain consideration of not becoming a nuisance to their day-to-day lives.

Kids are a reasonably demanding audience to please. What has your experience been? What according to you works well with them?

My experience with both my films has been that kids like and latch on to the strangest of things within the film, nothing that you had planned or anticipated. Also, I find that children don’t necessarily enjoy things that are predetermined as appropriate to their age group. My earlier film Lilkee was slotted for 8-12 year olds, but parents of 5-year olds have told me their children watch the film again and again. I think what works best with children are funny lines; at least that’s what I like to think, because they work best with me.

Many children’s film these days are made keeping adults in mind rather than kids. What are your views on this? What do you think of the growth and future of children’s films? 

I think children’s films are made keeping adults in mind, because we still don’t have any value for children’s films in the Indian scenario. Parents don’t specifically take their children to watch a children’s film, unless it is some big Hollywood product. And most of the viewing in cinemas or television is determined by what the parents want to watch, since entertainment is still a family outing.

I strongly believe that children’s films need to be actively promoted by the government, to take them beyond the film festival circuit. I was at the International Children’s Film Festival of India, Hyderabad, last year, and I saw thousands of children, with no prior experience of world cinema, enjoying all kinds of films, even subtitled ones, and asking intelligent questions at the end of these, to the filmmakers. The commercial market is never going to have place for different kinds of cinema. This can happen only if the government promotes it, makes it compulsory for cinema halls to show one children’s film a week. They have done this with Marathi cinema, and this has revived the industry, they are able to make really good films.

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In your opinion how significant is the role of film festivals in taking a film to its audience and getting it the needed recognition? 

If it is a children’s film festival, yes, they play an important role in taking the film to an international audience, and more importantly, they expose children to films and stories from all over the world. I think that more than the recognition they bring the film, they give the film a life of its own. But certainly, I don’t think it is enough. The outreach should be much, much more.

Funding very often is a challenge for these films. How did the association with CFSI happen and was it easy to convince them to produce your film? What is their criteria involved for producing a project?

CFSI is a good organization for funding children’s films. They have a budget to make at least 3-4 films a year. You have to submit a two page story which is read by a Script Committee, of 7-15 people, filmmakers, writers, educationalists. If they like the story, they ask you to submit a script, which again has to be approved by the Script Committee. The sad part is that CFSI has no infrastructure to promote the films in the way they should be, once they are made.

CFSI tied up with PVR cinemas to release 3 movies on book-a-show basis. How was the response? How did this initiative give an impetus to the reach of the film? 

I am not sure how far this has gone. I think CFSI had a couple of shows of one of the films, but I have not heard of many more. There were a lot of enquiries that came to me personally, but again, as I mentioned, CFSI really does not have the infrastructure to promote and market the films. And this is something that the Ministry of I&B really need to address.

Kaphal has been received well across film festivals. What are the future plans for the film? 

The film has participated in the 15th Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), the 18th International Children’s Film Festival India where I won the Golden Elephant for Best Director – Live Action, 37th Goteborg International Film Festival in Sweden and 9th Gorakhpur Film Festival. It is going to participate in the 54th Zlin International Film Festival for Children and Youth in Czechoslovakia.

If I had the authority to do it, I would like to travel as much as possible with the film, show it in different schools, colleges, NGOs, corporate houses, housing societies. As much as I like making children’s films, I also enjoy showing films to children. I wish there was a money-making revenue model to do this, and the screening spaces to do this.

Any other projects that you are currently working on?

I am working on a feature film script and mulling over a couple of other ideas. All of which is going to take some time, before I can talk about it.

[toggle_simple title=”Synopsis” width=”Width of toggle box”]

Makar and Kamru live in a small village in Garhwal. All the men in the village work in the city. Makar’s friends’ fathers visit the village regularly, with gifts for the family. But Makar and Kamru have not seen their father for 5 years.

When he does come home, Makar and Kamru find that not only has he not brought them any gifts, he scolds them regularly, and disciplines them too much.

Makar’s friends, Bupi and Pusu convince him that his father may be an imposter. They plan to get rid of their father, through a magic potion from a witch in the forest, Pagli Dadi (Mad Granny). But instead they meet Pagli Dadi’s granddaughter, Ghungra who takes them for a merry ride.

On the way, the boys learn many lessons, including that people are not always what they seem, and magic may work in unpredictable ways.

More about the film:

Blog: http://kaphal.wordpress.com/

FB page: https://www.facebook.com/kaphal