Features / Moving Image

Exploring the advent of LGBT cinema in India with animated short Maacher Jhol

To celebrate the recent verdict on Section 377, we chat with filmmaker Abhishek Verma about his 2D animated short film Maacher Jhol that's making the LGBT community proud.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 23 August

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Amidst the smells of Maacher Jhol (fish curry) being cooked, the protagonist of the film confronts his sexuality

28-year-old Lalit Ghosh decides to come out to his parents. He prepares his father's favourite fish curry and reveals his sexuality, which triggers a sequence of events in both of their lives.

That is the pretext of Maacher Jhol, the animated short film by Abhishek Verma. The film creates an intriguing atmosphere for the Bengali protagonist to come out to his father amidst the aromatic smell of cooking and the radio playing in the background. Not only is it one of the only animated films on homosexuality from India, it is also the first 2D animation short, and one that has made it to over 100 international film festivals in a year. With the recent verdict in India, decriminalising homosexuality, the film celebrates choice and acceptance of one’s sexuality in a new light.

We speak to the film’s director about his foray into animation and the need for more empathy towards the LGBT community.

Design Fabric (DF): What was going on in your life when you started working on Maacher Jhol?

Abhishek Verma (AV): I was completing my Masters in Design program at Industrial Design Centre (IDC), Mumbai, for which we had to make two films. I had finished my first film Chasni on acid attack victims and was considering doing a political satire as the second. I was new to cinema and just getting the hang of filmmaking and writing narratives. A very close friend confided in me that he was gay during this phase of my life. I could never have gauged his truth because of my preconceived notions. There’s also the fact that in Bollywood, gays are portrayed as being effeminate, which isn’t the reality. People are just people. It was a big deal as I realised that he’d been in the closet for 25 years; that’s a long time to hide yourself.

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Bhupen Kakkar and his heavy characters were a big reference point for the film's aesthetic

Around the same time, I was fortunate to meet Shyam Benegal at my college festival. I asked him how he chose a film’s subject, and he replied, “The story is always around you, you just have to find it and make it yours. Don’t go with something too far from you or you won’t do justice to it or enjoy the journey of creation.” He recalled how in his film Welcome to Sajjanpur, there is only one educated man in the village who writes everybody’s letters. Shyam’s office peon would bring him monthly love letters from his wife and ask him to read them out to him. When Shyam asked him how his wife could read or write, he told him about the man who writers the letter. And that’s how the character of that film came about.

These two incidents made me decide to change the film completely and focus on showing what it means to be gay in India and about the LGBT community. It’s all about two people being in love.

DF: Maacher Jhol is India's first 2D animated short film on homosexuality. How was it plunging into a new medium and being a pioneer in the genre?

AV: I went to Animafest Zagreb, one of the biggest animation festivals in the world for my film Chasni, and it exposed me to the concept of personal expression. In European and Canadian animation, there’s an inner monologue about what’s going on in the artist’s life, which is shown on screen. They use only pencils and create wobbling effects by making one image thrice, which makes it look organic. My training in 2D animation at IDC and experiments with drawings using a lightbox also helped me understand how movement works in this medium. If you use 3D for such stories, it would feel too mechanical. So for Maacher Jhol, opting for 2D felt natural because everything is distorted and inconsistent.

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Abhishek spent nearly a year drawing thousands of frames by hand

DF: But 2D means hand drawing thousands of frames and bringing it to life. Was it a slow and gruelling process?

AV: It was so time-consuming that I had to leave my job as a design consultant to dedicate time to my film. To get the wobbling effect that’s in the film takes a lot of effort because you’re not just drawing the same image thrice but first making a rough sketch, then cleaning it up, then improving line quality, then filling it with an opaque layer, followed by colour and texture. Everything has to be done manually, after which you move on to post-production work and add tones like the brown nostalgic filter I used using softwares like TVPaint Animation.

I wrote the script in November, 2015, and did a crowdfunding campaign for the film on Ketto and raised Rs 2.5 lakhs. I received a grant for Rs 1 lakh from Jamuura, and Matchbox.Co also came on board to support the film. By February, 2016, I had completed about five and a half minutes of the 12-minute film. But for some reason, I didn’t like it anymore because I wasn’t happy with the line quality. I left the film for a few months and couldn’t get myself to draw a single frame. Eventually, I went and met Prof. Alka Hingorani in college and told her about the situation. She recalled that in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney didn’t like the line quality either, and made the entire feature film from scratch! That inspired me to start afresh and give it everything. I wasted my 3000+ drawings till then and started the process all over again. Prof. Shilpa Ranade was also there to inspire me throughout and asked me to complete the film with patience.

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Maacher Jhol depicts vulnerability in a positive light through its wobbly 2D animation effects

DF: Did you have certain visual references or inspirations that inspired the film’s aesthetic?

AV: Bhupen Kakkar was a big reference point because his characters are heavy.There were many inspirations behind the drawings, like Jogen Chaudhury, Amedeo Modigliani and Nalini Malani. The filmmakers whose style inspired me included Gitanjali Rao and her film Printed Rainbow, Ruth Lingford, Julia Pott, Dahee Jeong’s Man on the Chair and finally, Yumi Jung, whose film Dust Kid inspired me a lot.

DF: I love the use of music and how it adds layers to the film. Given how sound is used in the film, was there a personal connection to the music and the radio?

AV: In class 11, my dream was to become a lyricist. We didn’t have a television back then and I sold my books to buy a radio. There is a radio station Vividh Bharath in Mumbai, which had amazing hosts like Yunus Khan and Mamta Singh who presented very descriptive narratives about who wrote the songs and what it’s about. At that time, the radio was my friend, my life.

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Through its subtle imagery, the film brings out what it means to be gay in India

In the film, the radio becomes a layer of the narration and spells out what Lalit is doing and feeling in the form of a cooking show that gives him the recipe to cook Maacher Jhol.

With the music, I initially used the song Suhani Raat Dhak Chuki from Dulari. But after realising that copyrights were involved, I collaborated with some musicians and had new songs composed and recorded for the film. The original music fits perfectly with the film.

DF: You bring out a traditional Indian family’s reaction towards a child being gay in an unhindered manner. What's the message you want to give your audience through the film?

AV: I wanted to show that acceptance doesn’t come in a single moment, and that it takes time for people to understand certain realities. I have not taken any judgment or stand for either side.

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The film was screened in over 100 international film festivals

The intent was to give more time and be patient with the father because he’s from a different generation. He comes to his son with marriage proposals for women and his son is coming out to him. So he will have to understand and enquire about what this means. It then becomes a personal journey. I wanted to show his vulnerability as well as Lalit’s. Even so, I consciously tried to show a positive connotation, where instead of telling his wife about his son being gay, the father says that he cooked really well. So it’s not entirely bleak. Any conversation I had put into the film would have felt final, so I left it open-ended. Love is all, people are people.

Love is everything, people are people. That’s the only way to life. There are so many people around us. Why breed hate or pass judgment on anyone?

DF: Has the film met your expectations?

AV: Yes, I've screened the film in over a 100 international festivals. It was the fourth Indian film to get selected and win a Special Award at the Annecy International Film Festival. It won the National Award in 2017 in the Best Animation Film category and an Official Selection at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, 2018, and went to Kashish, India’s biggest LGBT film festival. People seem to like the story and what it stands for.

DF: What are you working on next?

AV: I’m working on an animated film called Kitchen, which looks at the patriarchal forces that make a kitchen a woman-only space. I was a Young India fellow and worked on a paper which quantified a data estimation that women spent 13 years of their life in the kitchen on average. The film aims to look at this aspect.

It was my dream to do something for the animation industry in film for India, especially this kind of storytelling for which there is no scope currently. That is the problem; people learning animation from the top schools like IDC, NID or Srishti should not go join other sectors. There’s lots of grants and opportunities available for animators to complete their films. We have to learn to write well and entertain people while educating them. But making small films won’t attract international support, we need high quality films for the masses. That is the future I hope to see in India.

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