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‘Gamak Ghar’: Making of a Maithili film

Achal Mishra’s first feature, a rare film in Maithili, observes an ancestral house and its residents over a long spell of time

The camera almost seems to be eavesdropping on a real family.
The camera almost seems to be eavesdropping on a real family.

After months of lockdown, we have attained a level of familiarity with our homes we didn’t know was possible. This makes it a great time for Achal Mishra’s debut feature, which looks revealingly and patiently at a house in a village called Madhopur in Bihar, to turn up on Mubi.

The house in Gamak Ghar belongs to Mishra’s grandmother. Though his parents lived in Darbhanga, they would visit Madhopur—just 10 minutes away—for family functions. Still, Mishra wasn’t overly attached to the place growing up. But one day, in 2017, he found a diary belonging to his grandfather (a similar thing happens in the film). He had never met him, but it stirred something in Mishra. Around the same time, his mother brought up the idea of renovating the house. Mishra realized that he wanted to preserve the house in some way and started batting around ideas for a script.

Gamak Ghar is set in three different time periods. “I wanted to see the progression of time," Mishra says of the three-part structure. “More than that, I wanted to see that house in different seasons." He had been photographing Darbhanga for years and had become attuned to the different colours that greeted him when he visited in summer, monsoon and winter.

Mishra put out ads online for actors, though these didn’t always have the desired effect. “I used to get people posing with guns—wanting to be a hero," he says. He ended up using a mix of actors and non-professionals.

The film doesn’t have anything resembling a “performance". It’s as if the camera is eavesdropping on a real family as they go about their lives. Mishra’s unobtrusive technique furthers this impression: lots of static camera shots, at a remove from the action.

This is a rare film in Maithili, a language with scant cinematic representation. Mishra speaks it, but not fluently enough to write authentic dialogue, so he took the help of a local professor. When he started shooting, he realized something was off. He felt like he was “imposing dialogues on people who are more real than what I have written them to be". So he tossed out large parts of the script, asked actors to converse as they normally would, and rewrote until the film felt organic.

Because of the stillness of so many scenes, the film’s production design and photography are inseparable. As a preparatory exercise, Mishra would visit the village and photograph the locations—this became the final storyboards. When Avni Goyal joined as production designer, she took on the process of ageing the house.

Mishra hit on a way for the film itself to look different over time. He filmed each period in a different aspect ratio: 1998 in boxy 4:3, 2010 in 16:9 and 2019 in Cinemascope. It’s the closest Gamak Ghar comes to a big arthouse gesture and Mishra was a little hesitant. Still, he felt it fit the narrative. “Since 4:3 is squarish, you have people close together, the frame is always filled. That is how family photographs are. When you are seeing the first part, it’s a memory that’s being shown to you." The shift to 16:9 and Cinemascope brings with it more negative space, which was in tune with the emptiness of the house once its owners died or built their lives elsewhere.

Gamak Ghar premiered at the 2019 Mumbai Film Festival. Mishra had shown the film to family members but it was only after the premiere that his parents realized their son had made something special. Though he never thought much about filming in his native place and language, he admits it was nice when people told him, “We have never seen our part of the country like this on film." There’s a wealth of specific customs and details captured, but many scenes should strike a chord with viewers anywhere in India—like the morning ritual of an extended family touching feet and accepting prasad, shown here in a minute-long shot that unfolds like a piece of choreography.

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