‘Gamak Ghar’ director Achal Mishra: The film brought me closer to my roots

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.

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