'Life Is All About Contrast': Abhishek Verma On His Animation Short 'Maacher Jhol'!

By Nita Deshmukh. Posted on November 30, 2015

Indian animation has sadly come to be identified with Chota Bheem & Mighty Raju. Despite having a huge pool of talented animators & a long history of folk art, we haven't really explored the medium to create something uniquely homegrown. The Japanese are a great example of a nation that took the art form & developed a truly unique style & sensibility around it.

Animators like Gitanjali Rao, Soumitra Ranade & Shilpa Ranade have been working for years on changing this scenario. A young crop of animators from schools like NID & IIT-IDC are also following in their footsteps. Abhishek Verma is one such animator.

With a post-graduation in Film & Animation from Industrial Design Center, IIT Bombay, he is man on a mission. A mission to promote animation as a source of earnest storytelling. He has a special interest in experimental narrative & likes to work with different styles of animation. His first animated short film, Chasni, narrated the story of an acid-attack survivor and garnered awards at multiple festivals across the world. He's back with another project, Maacher Jhol, another short film, this time on the challenge of 'coming-out' that homosexuals face in our society.

We've been tracking his work & journey for some time now. Maacher Jhol also won the inaugural Jamuura Grant. The filmmaker recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the short film. We spoke to Abhishek about his journey thus far, his first short film, Maacher Jhol, on animation & why he decided to crowdfund this project. Published below are excerpts from the interview.

On His Early Years:

I was born & brought up in a lower middle class nuclear family at Hazaribagh, a town district in Jharkhand. Despite the  financial crunch, my parents provided me the best education that was available at that time. My mother and I both continued our educations in parallel. While I was finishing my high school, she was trying to complete her bachelors degree. Fortunately my childhood had a mix of academics and other co-curricular activities. I always had a fascination for drawing, art & craft. Luckily, my high School (St Xavier's) had excellent courses on art & crafts and it introduced me to several forms of art, from pencil to paint, paper to wood cutting & miniature carpentry. The other major influencing factor was that my father had practiced his hands on jewellery design long back.

I sold my science books to buy a radio and this changed my entire world. After that my whole day was composed of Vividh Bharati. The programs I remember were direct interviews of directors and actors. It was called Aaj Ke Fankaar and Sargam Ke Sitare. We also used to watch films & TV serials on Doordarshan. All of this made me think that I want to go to Bombay and write films. Which is what I am trying to do and will surely do soon.

I used to watch all the Bollywood films in local theaters back to back. Morning to matinee to evening shows. I somehow completed my 12th so I could get admission for the Bachelors program. My bachelors is in engineering and post-grad in film & animation from Industrial Design Center, IIT Bombay. During engineering I joined the theater club of my college and started writing one act plays, skits & street plays. I wrote & directed 3 one acts, 5-6 skits & 2 street plays.

Of course it would be unfair to not mention Prof. Shilpa Ranade & Prof. Alka Hingorani, who taught me how to see cinema & how to define a story. Without them, it would have been impossible for me to sustain and achieve what I am trying to do now.

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On His Inspirations:

When I was in IIT, I was lucky to meet Shyam Benegal. While he was having his lunch, I was waiting for a chance to ask some of the questions I had in my mind. I waited for him for 45 minutes. He then finally called me and said, "Ask whatever you want".  At that moment, I was trying to learn more about cinema as a medium. We spoke about his films Manthan, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Well done Abba  and Welcome to Sajjanpur.  We discussed different genres of filmmaking and his attempt of  storytelling in contemporary fashion. To tell you the truth, even I don't know why I asked these questions. However his answers were inspiring and insightful.

I still remember his words. He said, “Abhishek, when I was young, I read a lot about the problems and situations that people face in their day to day life. I was even criticized for reading this kind of work. But for me it was very important to meet these people, to hear them and to tell their stories with honesty".

I find inspiration in all sorts of things that are around me. I am fascinated by the films I love. It could be the narrative, colour, light, character, or any sequence in the film. The list is too big to be listed here.

I am also inspired by people and their interactions with each other.

On Maacher Jhol:

Themes of both my films have impacted me personally on an emotional level. So I have attempted to tell these stories in the form of animation. For Maacher Johl, I wanted to tell a serious story using 2D animation as medium.

In college, I had made a film called Us Baar (animation short film) related to homosexuality as a part of  my final year animation film project. I never let that film out to audience because I thought it was not the story which I wanted to convey.  Later on, I teamed up with Jayesh Bhosale & convinced him that we can rewrite the film and make it into a better film. At the same time, a very close friend of mine came out and spoke about his sexual identity.  I realized  how difficult it is to remain inside the closet for so many years.  There are several questions like, what if a person doesn't find acceptance within his/her family, friends & society. All these things are hidden and it's very important to put out an instance before everybody to introspect.

In very simple terms, people come out in several ways before their closed ones just to seek their own identity. So in our film there is a situation where the protagonist confronts his father by cooking for him, his  favorite dish, the fish curry, Maacher Jhol. We named the film over a dish because personally I love cooking. For me cooking and cinema are almost the same. In both of them, the output leaves a taste behind & it depends on viewer/ person who tastes it.

We also want to show our culture through food. Even for a simple dish we prepare it with great efforts, mixing several ingredients carefully.  In Maacher Jhol we serve spicy food with white rice. Colour wise it is dark orange with white and taste-wise its spicy. So we find a perfect balance in the dish. Life is all about contrast.

On The Writing Process:

We worked on it as a simple sequence of events without any metaphors or abstraction while scripting. A person wants to come out. We were very clear about the characters we want to use in the film and we just fleshed it out in detail through their traits, profession, likes/dislikes, family, location and other details. Once the background story was ready for all the characters, it was the time to form a narrative. We stuck to a simple linear narrative. When we were confident about the narrative line, it was the time to think of animation & how it will bring beauty and make the impossible possible.

In the end, we went through our characters again and worked on rough sound design so that we could head into the pitch & production.

On Crowdfunding The Film:

I was very clear from the beginning that if I want to make this film, I will crowdfund it. It's all about acceptance. Why should someone hide his/her identity and live in this world. As a storyteller the least I want to do is to raise this question. I was confident because of my first film Chasni, where I'd created a similar narrative & it was well-accepted.

To make sure I reach everybody, I need to have money, support and motivation. Crowdfunding is awesome because with one contribution you not only get money for the film, but it also gives you huge confidence to continue further. Best part about it is that I'm reaching out to everybody. Communicating to large groups. Putting up my questions to people directly. Appealing for introspection! Another point was 2D animation. In the west, animation deals with very serious problems and has a large audience, not only kids but adults too. I've wondered why this can't be done in India? I want to create awareness about this too.

This film will be completely independent and made with sheer passion for storytelling. We need to have money to keep up the investment on logistics, compensation for the artists & whole team who are working on it from last 4 months, so that the film reaches everyone. I want it to get a large platform for exhibition.

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On The Animation Technique He's Using In Maacher Jhol:

The 2D hand-drawn animation is a complex medium but has a strong appeal. 1 sec of animation involves 8-12 drawings and that too coloured. So for a minute of animation it needs 500 drawings to run and appear as a moving image. The film Maacher Jhol is 11 min 30 secs, so there will be around 5000 drawings needed to create a moving frame.

In live-action there are actors who portray the characters, whereas in animation, the animator lives the life of a character for several days so that he/she can portray the emotions of the character. It requires a different level of dedication.

Behind every action of animation there are many frames rejected which don't work properly or do not convey proper emotions. For every shot developed there are minimum 8 layers of work created in frames which finally makes it possible.

It follows a lot of mix-media approach. Like the background is made in ink & then scanned. The scanned image is taken digitally into the animation software where characters are moved and tested. After the characters are ready we work on shadows & highlights to make that character appear in a real world. Another layer is created using visual effects to add wind, air, fire and other variables separately.

It ends when the composite background, characters & FX are all in sync. Then the sound design and edit proceeds to the production. It is a complex but extremely beautiful process.

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On His Learnings From Chasni And Maacher Jhol:

I learnt how teams work. Chasni was my individual college project so it was wholly completed by me except for the sound design. But Maacher Jhol has a huge team working including Jayesh, Mushi, Sarath, Suyog and the team from Jamuura. We are still on strict deadlines. We believe & depend on each other in the most reliable manner. The best thing was writing the thing again to come up with the story in the simplest manner we could. Getting feedback and varied opinions coming from different kinds of people was also amazing. We've learnt about acceptance and decision making.

What's Next:

The rough cut of the  film is ready with scratch sound. Now it is heading into the animation production pipeline. We will be drawing each frame for the film and colouring it. It highly depends on the way our crowdfunding campaign works. If the film does well at festivals and everything works out well, we will think further about the distribution. We are still figuring out channels for taking the film to audiences after the film is completed.


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