We are grossly insensitive about our children – Amitabha Singh
Having shot renowned films like Khosla Ka Ghosla, The Good Road and the award-winning Chillar Party, Cinematographer and Producer Amitabha Singh has ventured into filmmaking with the kid’s film, Shortcut Safari. The film revolves around a group of school kids who get stuck in the jungle and how the experience opens them about the importance of environment and other values of life.
Being a cinematographer, was direction a natural progression?
We could say that but it is not a decision that is conscious or time bound. Each specialization in filmmaking is so deep and intense that one could continue to grow within the space. But at the same time all of us have stories and would like to tell them. Films are primarily mediums of storytelling. It is subject to a whole number of factors coming together. It is a capital intensive, collaborative form of expression. I have been producing films since 2003-04, as I felt that the production space needed huge amount of reinventing (at that time). For me the choices are as much environmental as they are of my own free will. It has not been a meticulously planned career move.
What was the inspiration that led to Shortcut Safari? Was conveying a message key to this story?
I have multiple interests in making films/telling stories and one of the primary interests is a happy healthy co-existential way of life. I would definitely be working for films that carry a message. While engaging with a film, the most important thing for me is, ‘what is it all about’ and ‘how will it become a positive entity in this universe’.
I am very fond of children. The idea was in my system for quite some time and when all the factors came together, this idea took form of the film.
Why choose a kids film for your debut?
We are grossly insensitive about our children. Our understanding and engagement with the child world is getting minimal. Now we are increasingly engaging with machines and a whole lot of our actions and behavior is being integrated into a mechanized world. You can sit on your laptop 24/7 and still remain enormously engaged. So then what will you devote to a child? We are getting isolated from our roles and responsibilities towards children. Hence a kid’s film. Kids are extremely close to my heart and I connect very well with them.
How would you describe the entire making experience of Shortcut Safari?
Creatively it has been an immensely satisfying journey that made me grow manifold in a span of two years. There has been an immense learning of the craft (filmmaking) as well. I love producing films and like every film, Shortcut Safari had its own share of ups and downs. Being an independent film it is always extremely challenging to put it together, especially a kid’s film.
Did you face any challenges during the writing process? What was the kind of research involved?
One very important element in the film is a Clouded Leopard, an endangered species now reduced to some regions in the Himalayas and North East. The film talks about wildlife and species getting increasingly endangered. Putting all these creative thoughts together we decided to talk about wildlife through the Clouded Leopard. A lot of research was involved in understanding the animal. Most of my research was through live interactions. I interacted with forest officials who gave their insights as 95 percent of the story is staged in a forest. We shot the film in Ahwa, which is in the Dang district in Gujarat, and I spent a lot of time interacting with the local people as well. There was hardly any text reference. We definitely had a big challenge technically because the Clouded Leopard had to be generated using CG. I discussed it with my friends, Munjal and Tilak of Graphiti Multimedia, who took it up as a challenge. We have interactive scenes with the leopard so it was even more challenging but I’m extremely happy with the results.
How did your association with Jimmy Shergill happen? Did you have him in mind while drafting the role or were other actors considered too?
The character is that of a scientist who is a bit of a rebel. When I was writing the character, I initially thought of a much elderly gentleman and actors like Boman Irani and Anupam Kher were top of my mind. But in the process of finalizing the story and foreseeing the way it was heading, there was a very clear intuition that the character needs to be younger. Having a grandfather-like figure was getting into a predictable zone. I felt that that the core concept (environment conservation) that this character is talking about would reach far deeper if it comes from an elder brother or uncle. So the idea was to get Jimmy as a figure who is in a realm of immense inspiration but no preaching.
Jimmy is the only person whom I approached and he understood the premise of the story and where it is headed. Jimmy and I spoke about the story, the intent, a whole lot of other concepts but we never spoke about a particular scene. When the scene was given to him, Jimmy conceptually understood what would go into it. My role was only to give him a direction and let everything else be articulated by him. And he brought in so much to the film that I had never even imagined.
How did you go about choosing the child artists? What method did you adopt to connect with them?
All the kids were chosen from the same school, as it was logistically convenient. We had to convince only one authority and take permissions only from one source. The way we went about casting them was very innovative. We didn’t tell the kids that we were there to cast for a film and just observed them playing and in their leisure time. We had already written the characters and so we started identifying children as per the characters. We then shortlisted them and went into a 4-week workshop and by the end of it we had our child cast in place.
Children today are increasingly intuitive and intelligent so I was very sure that they would be able to perform for the camera. But one of the key things we were looking for was their endurance because we were going to shoot in forests and circumstances that wouldn’t be comfortable. So whether the kids could endure that was a deciding factor. Their sense of being part of a group, whether they take instructions, their temperament etc. were what we were looking for, not their acting skills as they are all natural actors. I would speak to the kids about ideas and notions relate to the story but never did we speak of a specific scene or action. They did what they interpreted of the situation and how they would engage in that kind of a circumstance.
In terms of visual imagery, what was your brief to Cinematographer, Mrinal Desai?
We had to cast a forest in the film, which has been the single most crucial decision since it is the biggest player in the story. We eventually landed in the forests of Dang. The idea was that once the children reach the forest, they reach a place that is almost magical, so we needed a forest like that. I was looking at a forest that doesn’t come across as oppressive or a negative character in any way. We looked at many forests in Gujarat, since the kids were from Ahmedabad and I wanted to stay within their home territory. In the film, there is a journey that happens within the forest, so we needed a forest that had several personalities – a forest that is just off the road to a forest that becomes slightly deeper to a patch where the leopard can be shown resting and so on.
I only like to jam with my team on concepts and ideas. Post that it is the individual’s method of expression. Filmmaking for me is a very organic collaboration of imaginations, visions and inspirations.
Did you not wish to shoot your own film? Why did you choose Mrinal for this project?
I’ve been a cinematographer all along and respect the director for being a director. The idea is that we build together and if I collaborate with a cinematographer I will build from his/her insights. I have always had a very inclusive way of looking at things. You need to team up in a manner that works best for the vision of the film. I have known Mrinal for a long time and we had a lot of common factors between us. We lost touch for a while but formally connected after a gap of around 8 years. But when I decided to make a film like this, Mrinal was on the top of my mind. He was gracious enough to take up the challenge.
Where is Shortcut Safari headed?
The film has played at The National Children’s Film Festival and the 4th Kolkata International Children’s Film Festival, where we received a phenomenal response from our child audiences. Both the festivals were primarily targeted at children and the take home that has come from them has been very inspiring. We are very keen on a theatrical release and are looking at a horizon of end of April or beginning of May, coinciding with the academic calendar.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
Currently all my concentration is on this film but whenever the next project happens it will also be around kids.