By Anees Aref.
The germination of the idea comes from the house [on location]…. It’s also my hometown, that village, and I’d been photographing that landscape for the last five, six years. I think [the film] came from the photography that I was doing of that landscape across different seasons.
The Village House (Gamak Ghar), an Indian film written, produced, directed, and edited by Achal Mishra and filmed in Achal’s hometown language of Maithili, provides an intimate window into the life of a house in a rural countryside village, following the comings and goings of its family inhabitants from 1998 to 2019. Told in three chapters, the film casts a spell as presents us with the simple details of village life, from family feasts, to men playing cards, women cooking meals, a group gathering around the television set to watch a famous star’s movie. Time seems to flow freely from moment to moment as we jump from 1998 to 2010 to 2019. The house is essentially the central character, aging and taking on the effects of time as the family members do. I talked recently with Achal about this magical quality and how the film’s style is of a school that has been dubbed “slow cinema” in some quarters.
I watched the movie late at night…it seemed to have a magical quality, it’s very easy to get lost in it. Time seems to flow freely with this story. I was surprised when it ended, even though it’s only an hour and a half, it went by like it was nothing. It’s a unique story, a unique approach. It’s a family and a house that are both central characters and intertwined in a way. What got you to make this film and present this story?
This goes back to December of 2017. The house you see in the film is actually our own extra house in the village. Nobody lives there, but we used to visit it once or twice a year, for different festivals or some occasion, like you see in the film. But, in December 2017 what was happening was most of the houses were being renovated in our village. And there were early plans that ours was going to be made into a double-story, into a more modern structure. I thought let’s shoot something here, maybe a short film, that’s where it started. The whole idea was that I’ll be preserving the house in some form, by making a film there. But the idea that it was going to be about the house, that was not there in the beginning. We just thought it would be the setting for some other story. The germination of the idea comes from the house [on location]. We thought let’s try and do something around that [the house]. It’s also my hometown, that village, and I’d been photographing that landscape for the last five, six years, so the seasonal bit that’s there in the film. I think that came from the photography that I was doing of that landscape across different seasons. So, in that way, I started writing it, and most of it came from my own childhood experiences that I had had in that house. And I went around interviewing my relatives, my family members, about their memories and associations of the house, and that’s how the whole beginning part, the first bit that you see in the film, the 1998 bit, that’s how that was written. And then I went on building it fictionally, what goes ahead in the narrative.
The quality you talked about earlier, one of our inspirations and one of the films that gave me confidence to go ahead with this sort of narrative was A Ghost Story, the American film from 2017, by David Lowery. Apart from that, because I made it at such an age, I had a lot of influences and inspirations, I guess. I think I was 21 when I was writing it and shooting it. A lot of the Asian cinema, especially the new Taiwanese cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, and then Hirokazu Kore-eda from Japan. These are the influences that shaped the film into what it is today.
The film evokes so many filmmakers. The guys you brought up are very contemporary, but I was even thinking the distant past. I was thinking of India’s Satyajit Ray, the simple storytelling, the characters, the rural countryside, village setting. In terms of the rhythm and style of the film, Japan’s Yasujiru Ozu. I was wondering if they influenced you?
Both of them. Obviously, being an Indian, Satyajit Ray’s cinema is like the first one I encountered when I wanted to make films. Pather Panjali, his first film, is definitely a film I keep going back to. And in our film also, there’s a little homage to Pather Panjali. Basically, in that film, there are these white tall, grasses, and a train goes past them. Those tall white grasses are very particular to the state of Bengal, where Ray was from, and Bihar, where I’m from. So, we did a small shot in the middle when the period changes from 98’ to 2010, so there’s a field of those tall grasses and there’s a tree and a train that goes past.
I thought that shot was stunning, beautiful.
And definitely Ozu as well. I learned so much in terms of narrative and compositions from Ozu, by watching so many of his films. And there was one film in particular I kept going back to, especially before making Gamak, is Early Summer. Because Early Summer also deals with this big family, and there’s not one single narrative overtaking the others. There are all these tiny narratives happening at the same time, because Ozu also deals with these seasonal changes and things like that. And the other filmmakers I spoke of earlier are also coming from that same school, of Ozu. Hou Hsiao-Hsien learned things from Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda learned things from Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Recently, Paul Schrader jokingly calls this style “slow cinema”, but he means it in a good way. He talks about some of the Taiwanese [filmmakers] you mentioned, some of the Iranian filmmakers, and even the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. I know you’re early in your career, but do you consider yourself of this school?
I think it’s more of a retrospect thing, because only once when I’m done making a film do I see where it’s sitting in that scheme of things. After [Gamak Ghar] I realized, there are still influences in place, but when I was making my second film, while shooting we were completely free from all that, but once we were done then we tried to see “let’s see where this is, and how different is it”. While shooting, the only conscious thing was to try and make it different from my first film, because I don’t want to enforce a style. If there is something which is going to be my style, it will come organically. But I’m still not sure about Paul Schrader’s circle (in Transcendental Style). I agree with most of it, but I’m still not sure about a couple of filmmakers placed here and there.
The story and the characters feel very closely observed, very personal. You’ve already said that it’s literally your house that you visit, so it can’t get much more personal than that. The house seems to age over time, I’m sure that’s not by accident. You’re trying to reflect the passage of time for the characters, but also the house?
Yeah, that was the idea obviously. The condition of the house before shooting is how you see it in the end, actually in ruins. So, we had to completely deck it up, paint the walls, and repair everything to first shoot the beginning part. We planted tiny trees and flowers…and made it nice like it used to be back in time, and then we started aging it. We had a 2, 3-month gap between each shoot to age the house in that time. We used to change the walls with different techniques, throw mud on the walls, cut down trees, things like that. There was also a color scheme we tried to follow. The first part you see had warmer colors… greens, yellows, reds, and oranges. When you move to the second part, there are more tones of blues, there’s violet, blue, and navy, indigo, all that. The last part doesn’t really have much of a color, mostly greys and browns.
The film gets slower as it progresses. In the beginning when lots of things are happening, the shots cut more quickly than they do later in the film.”
Like I said, you get lost in the movie. Even your visual compositions, your editing, characters will go in and out of a room but the camera will continue to rest there, for that extra moment. It’s almost like you take an extra breath, as a viewer. It’s a movie that feels at rest somehow, the way you tell the story. By leaving the camera that extra moment. That’s the thinking behind that, to not cut that second sooner?
There were a couple things at work. In the beginning, we were shooting in a way that I have more footage to play with in the edit, because I was editing myself. Whenever we were shooting, I would ask the cinematographer to keep rolling an extra five seconds, every time. Especially in the beginning bit, I was trying to slow down, because I used to live in a city, and everyone else used to live in the city, and they used to all gather around at that house. So whenever we went there were no phone networks, nothing, so it felt like time had slowed down in a way. So, the idea was to translate that into film language in some way. In a way, the film gets slower as it progresses. In the beginning when lots of things are happening, the shots cut more quickly than they do later in the film.
[Also], we were mostly working with non-actors. Some of them are my relatives, some are from the village, some are people I’ve known over the years and I’ve cast them to basically play a version of themselves. It got quite tricky in the beginning. When the shoot began, they all met each other. There were acting issues because most of these actors were not able to perform, especially the written dialogue. Then I started playing around that, when I wrote the second bit (the 2010), I started writing it based on the actors that I cast. I wasn’t writing the whole things, I was just giving what the conversation was going to be and improvising with them. So when I was editing, I cut down dialogue, and used the quite moments of those shots… so there was also that.
So the actors forced your hand.
There was also another reason. I feel like very much an outsider in that village space, in that world. Because I’ve grown up in a city, I’ve lived outside of my hometown most of my life. And in India as you know, there are so many languages. Hindi is the most commonly spoken, in north India at least. So, we never spoke Maithili when I was a kid, which was supposed to be my mother tongue, but it became Hindi over time. I’ve been very distant from that culture for a long time, I was in different boarding schools around India. So, this film was like my return to roots in a way…In the process I also realized the dialogue I was writing, as a city boy, doesn’t have the reality of what the actual conversations were like. I realized my own shortcomings in the process, and that’s also why I started relying on these people more. They actually live here, and more aware of these experiences I’m trying to write about.
That makes sense because most of the scenes are built around a situation. The guys are playing cards at the beginning during the family feast, the ladies are preparing a meal, everybody’s gathered watching that Salman Khan movie on TV. You don’t really need scripted dialogue. And speaking of that food, that food looked very good. I’m assuming you had some good cooks in the cast.
This film is clearly not a Bollywood movie. How popular, or what’s the reaction to films like yours? Is it outside the Bollywood studios, are you making it independently?
It’s definitely out of Bollywood and it’s independent completely. We actually had a fairly good response, for a film like this, which doesn’t have any actors which are known or even narratively mainstream in a way. Also the language we realized is quite a challenging factor in distributing the film. Because most of these streaming platforms, like Netflix or Amazon Prime, they were not even aware of the language Maithili. This is what we were hearing at the time, it was quite surprising. It released on Mubi for the first time. Mubi is happy to show good cinema, but it doesn’t pay very much. Theatrical release is still a very far reach. Unlike in the U.S. or U.K. where there are also smaller arthouse theaters, we don’t have that here in India. There are only big franchise multiplexes, where you can’t really afford to release a small film like ours.
Would you ever consider making a Bollywood film, musical or not? I’m curious what you would do with the material.
(Smiling) I’m not too sure, at this point in my life.
Would you like to discuss your new movie Dhuin?
There was this friend of mine who plays a tiny part in The Village House who comes in the last bit, named Prashand, who does theater in my hometown. One day he comes to tell me, because we were working on something, that he won’t be able to come the next day because he has to take his father for a job. He was feeling very strongly about whatever was happening at that point, because he also wanted to move out from that city to go to Bombay to act, and do films, and his family wasn’t doing well. His retired father, when this job finally comes, my friend takes his father on a bike in the winter, and that image of the father and son going for that job in a different city on a winter morning stayed with me. And I felt we should do something about this, with this idea, this image. There was a theme and a four-member crew, I wrote something in like ten days, a five-page script. It was during the lockdown, and being a filmmaker, you just want to make films out there. I mean I don’t enjoy the writing as much as the filming process. So it was a long time after the lockdown, and just three of us, the lead actor, cinematographer, and I went from Bombay back to my hometown and started shooting. We weren’t thinking too much about what we were really doing, we were not thinking of it as our “second” film. We were free to improvise, no schedules binding us down, it was completely independent.
Anees Aref is a writer on film, history, and politics based in the Los Angeles area who has published abroad as well as in the United States.