In his debut film, Gamak Ghar (village house) that premiered at MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and is currently streaming on Mubi India, Achal Mishra tells the story of his ancestral house in Madhopur, Bihar. The Maithili film, through a period of two decades and three generations, looks at the changes in the family through birth and death, grief and festivities and captures the idea of home, set in his ancestral house that was built in the 1950s.
23-year-old Mishra had an interest in filmmaking right from the time he was in school. One of his teachers helped him get a job on Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar as an intern assistant director just after school as a 17-year-old. It was a chance meeting with director Ashvin Kumar while working for his school (Genesis Global School, Noida) magazine that he discovered some masters of world cinema. “Till then, I was watching mostly the mainstream films by Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and the likes,” he says. But, Kumar spoke of Alejandro González Iñárritu, a lot of Iranian filmmakers and even Satyajit Ray, who Mishra hadn’t watched till then. “I started watching the films and realised that there are films like these too,” he laughs.
The next round of discovery happened during his Film Studies course in London’s King’s College School. He dropped out in a year from the course after realising that it was more about studying theory, history and analysis of films. “I enjoyed studying but I didn’t enjoy writing the 10-page essays. At the end of the day, I wanted to make films. It was too academic,” he says. However, in that one year, he watched a lot of films at the British Film Institute (BFI) that was adjacent to his college and that helped him grow and develop a language he wanted to use in his films.
Over a long conversation on a sultry afternoon in Goa in the pre-COVID-19 days, Mishra took us through the journey of the film that had won plaudits from everyone, including Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, much to the young director’s surprise. Edited excerpts:
What led to the making of Gamak Ghar?
I wanted to do something in that house but wasn’t sure what. I always used to think that I would make something there. It came from the kind of cinema I was watching, the literature I was reading. Cinema would be the films by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda and literature would be Amit Chaudhuri, Amitava Ghosh. But I made an impromptu visit to the house. I was used to seeing the house only during the festivals, once or twice a year either during Chhath Puja or a family function.
During those times, the house used to be like the other houses—a lot of people inhabiting the space, not just from the family but other relatives and friends too. The impromptu visits, however, made me realise that the house remains like a ruin almost through the year—overgrown plants, wrecked walls and a lot of such things. It used to be put in order only when all of us visited. At the same time, there was this empty space behind our house. It had always been empty, a short route for us to go to the river, or for us kids to play cricket.
Suddenly, that space had four houses coming up—two were already built and two were being built. Earlier, all the houses in the village used to look alike, but in the time I made these visits (2017-18), the older structure were brought down and two-storey buildings were built. Even if some of the old structures stayed, parallel to it new houses were built while the older one was locked up. My family members too were talking of renovation. That’s when I felt that I should make something before the transition happens, may be a short film.
So, the idea started with a short film?
Yes. But I wasn’t sure if I could do it now given my age. I thought I would need more time to be ready for a feature film. I sat with my co-writer and started bouncing off ideas. One of the neighbours in the village had just passed away. I didn’t go there, but my driver was there through the rituals till the last day, for 13 days. I was just inquisitive and was asking him many questions. From those conversations and the idea of time, birth and death, a three-part narrative came about. That’s when I realised that this could only be a feature film. I approached it in that way, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to make a feature but I will make three short films.
The house, I understand, was already in bad shape when you started working on the film. The film, however, begins when the house is still in a good condition. Did you shoot the film in a reverse order?
No, we followed the timeline as in the film—1998, 2010 and 2018. It’s logical to think that since the house was worn out naturally, it’s good to go with the last part first. But it felt natural to follow the timeline of the film. I also like working in a linear way. Had I gone in a reverse order, I am not sure how things would have panned out. I wasn’t sure if the non-actors would have understood it properly. I had written the script properly.
But, while shooting the first part, a lot of things didn’t work with the actors. So, for the second part, I made changes in the script according to them. Another thing that happened was that of the four houses that were being built behind our house, one was exactly behind. For the first part in June, the new structure wasn’t visible. By the time, we started shooting the second part in November, the house had a double story. It kind of worked beautifully for the film as it showed the changes that happened in the 12-year period. In reality, the changes happened in only over five months.
The film is very autobiographical…
The foundation of the film is very personal. The space is mine; the family is based on my own family. But it is a fictionalised version of it. The first part, especially, is completely from memory. The second and third part, the trajectory of each character is fictional.
Your grandfather, Kedar Nath Mishra, a writer himself, plays an important part in the narrative too.
grandfather’s. For the role, I had cast one of my childhood tutors who was really happy to play the role in his post-retirement life. By the time, the schedule for his part came and I sent someone to his house with the dates, I was informed he has passed away. It felt like a very weird premonition and I finally didn’t do that scene.
The film required authenticity in terms of actors, people who could speak Maithili and also understand the life. Was it difficult in terms of casting?
That was the most time-consuming process. A lot of people thought the film would have dance and songs like in Bhojpuri films and turned down outright. But then things gradually worked. A couple of actors I knew from before, like the uncle who plays the doctor and his wife. They are the fictionalised version of my parents. I approached the local theatre groups as well, but that wasn’t easy either. But, I fortunately met Satyendra Jha through my production manager (Parth Saurabh, also a filmmaker), who is an actor, radio artiste and also a professor of Maithili. It turned out to be of great help as he helped me write the dialogues as well, besides the many inputs he gave me for the story.
I had also put up a post online for the casting. But everyone wanted to be a hero. I would get pictures with guys posing with guns and the likes. I could only get one person from that, who plays the choti chachi. I got to meet Abhinav Jha through a friend (one of the cousins), an actor from Giridih in Jharkhand. He was good but he too had to learn Maithili for the film. Then, for the grandmother, it was difficult because there are only a few options in that age bracket. But, everywhere I went, people suggested Mira Jha, a radio artiste, who had to be trained completely for acting in the film. The person playing chote chacha (Chandra Mohan Mishra) works at my parents’ clinic. I knew him and saw him fit the part, but he was reluctant and required a lot of convincing.
Also, I had imagined each of the characters in a certain way because the story is too personal and of my family, so I was looking for those particular traits. For that reason, I couldn’t finalise anyone to play the part of Badi Chachi. Also, in a small place like my village, there are a lot of restrictions. I wanted a few women (folk) singers to come for one of the initial scenes of a birth being celebrated and they turned it down by saying that they could travel to another city, but couldn’t go to another tola (street) in the village. I had Chandra Mohan ji’s wife in mind for that part, but was apprehensive for this reason. But she agreed.
Since you were so attached to the story, did it pose a challenge?
It happened a lot. It happened with my co-writer as well, who was there only till the second draft. I wrote the first draft and he was supposed to write the second draft. He had a very different approach, slightly more traditional sort – having a narrative arc, establishing a character… It would work in another scenario, but here I felt I was too stuck with the idea that it’s my family, my people, my house and only I know it how it is. He comes from Patna too, but culturally it is so different. I was very adamant also that I don’t want a narrative or an arc. This, I think, came from reading Amit Chaudhuri. Nothing happens in his books and yet so much happens. After reading him for the first time, I got so obsessed that I read everything he has written. At one point, one of my friends even suggested adapting one of his books. But that would have defeated the entire purpose because it had to come from my own personal space.
Very subtly, the film touches upon a lot of issues. Like in one scene the existent patriarchy is exposed when one of the cousins orders his wife around. You don’t go deeper into any of the issues though…
My intentions at large weren’t about those things. But again, all of that happens in the film is a part of my experienced reality. Not just patriarchy, the film raises a lot of other issues and none of them have been intentionally put. The film makes a strong statement about migration. But it wasn’t because I wanted to show migration that I sent one of the uncles to Delhi. It happened in reality and I experienced it. That, of course, is about migration but the approach is different. It was the same with the cousin and the wife; I have seen it countless times. It was just an observation. I could have gone either way, but my intention was always to make a portrait of the village house.
In the process, did you discover things?
I was never a part of that life. I studied in boarding schools since I was nine. When I visited, I was always that sehar se aayaa hua doctor sahab ka ladka. But this whole process changed that a lot. I spent so much time there. Now, everyone in the village knows me. I learnt a lot of nuances about the culture too. Early on, I had realised that if I have to make a film, which has all the cultural elements intact, I can’t get it wrong. But, even after my research, I felt a gap because I hadn’t lived in the village as such. I wrote the script living in my Mumbai flat.
There was this gap in the reality of the village and my perceived reality of the village. The only way that could be filled was by giving the actors enough room to do what they knew. I couldn’t have told them that this is how you do chatthiyaar [baby shower], or do the feast in this way. I relied on them. It was sort of letting go. Even my Maithili improved. Now, when my mom watches the film, she asks me how I know certain words [laughs]. It’s been a learning curve for sure and it has brought me closer to my roots.
Confirming for the first time an official involvement of the United Arab Emirates in the I…