Animation for grown ups
Somnath Pal's animated short is a personal document of grief
Like Chaitanya Tamhane’s directorial debut feature Court, which turned the genre of a courtroom drama on its head, a new short film he has produced, Death Of A Father, subverts our expectations of animation films.
The 10-minute film, written and directed by Somnath Pal and produced by Tamhane, released on YouTube last week under the banner of Royal Stag Barrel Select Large Short Films. In it, we accompany Babu, the protagonist, through the rituals, and their logistics, after his father’s death. It is a poetic document of grief at a point in life when there is no time to grieve. We see Babu getting tonsured, selecting the photograph to be framed for the prayer meet, taking a call on whether the mourning should be a three-day affair. It is a sensitive, serious subject, and by choosing to tell such a story through animation, Tamhane and Pal seem to be saying something about the medium itself.
“I don’t think its potential has been tapped. Generally animation is meant as content for kids, especially in India; we don’t consider it for adult narrative fiction," says Tamhane.
Tamhane has known Pal, an animation artist, for eight years; he designed the poster for his short film Six Strands and was one of the production designers of Court. Death Of A Father is Pal’s first film, and a deeply personal one. In one scene, Babu’s father, gaunt and bed-ridden, appears in his dreams—as though, burdened otherwise with duties and his inability to voice his grief, it is the only time he gets to process the magnitude of it all. These images have a stark clinical quality. In an email interview, Pal says he drew from memories of his father’s last days, his later visits to the hospital for research, and referenced two photographs by Malaysian photographer Ahmad Yusin of his brother fighting cancer in hospital.
Pal’s animation style is painstaking: He says he draws each frame by hand and “incorporates subtle changes in them to create the illusion of movement"—or traditional animation. And one of the film’s delights is the depiction of the little details of Lucknow, where it is set: the father’s old trunk and its contents, which include a book on Indian miniatures, or insects buzzing under a street light on a wintry night. While illustrating the city, Pal says he “was keen on exploring spaces beyond the obvious Mughal architecture, but wanted to stay true to the heart of the region. The painted backgrounds helped me create intrigue and wonder, accentuating the local quirks."
Babu is a lot like Pal, although he says the film isn’t autobiographical—they are both Bengalis from Lucknow, they share the same voice (Pal has given Babu’s voice) and surname. A lot, except perhaps Babu’s most striking feature: his big, lumbering physicality. He is a curious creature of animation—his disproportionately thin feet are exaggerated to the point of appearing “unreal". But he is also the purest manifestation of the creator’s vision of his character.