TNT Exclusive | Meet Assam’s National Award Winning filmmaker Rukshana Tabassum
By Dipankar Sarkar | May 30, 2018
Rukshana Tabassum's National Film award-winning short film 'The Cake Story' (2017) presents the viewer with a vibrant bonding in the father-son relationship with great dexterity and humour. Born in Nagaon, Assam, the TV direction alumnus from the Film and Television Institute of India is also a Bharatanatyam dancer and painter. Here is an excerpt from an interview with the filmmaker.
TNT- The idea of your short film has germinated from your memories with your grandmother. So, how did you mold the idea of setting up the milieu of the film in Mumbai?
Rukshana : The inspiration for the cake story doesn't belong to one particular incident but can be described as many memories from childhood and reflections as an adult weaved together. During the last few years of her life my granny was losing her memory rapidly and communicating with her was like solving a riddle. She could not remember most of the names and would describe people and places through various vivid personal memory associations. It so happened that one day mum and I had stepped out for some work and left granny with her caretaker who had a slight hearing and speech disorder. When we returned we found the two of them eating some sweets out of a fancy box. When asked where did the box of sweets come from none of them could tell anything clearly. The caretaker kept saying the man was tall and had a sharp nose and granny kept telling that he is her friend's son who lived near the lamp post next to the pond she went fishing as a young girl. My mother made a couple of phone calls to solve the riddle of this gentleman and finally gave up. Much later we got to know who it was when the gentleman called himself to check on us. And yes his mother and granny were friends who did go fishing when they were young. Soon such ambiguous stories became a part of our household. The adults didn't pay much heed to her anymore because it was time-consuming to solve the riddles so they chose to ignore. But for us the younger lot we had ample of time to listen, believe and be a part of the world she was creating through her memories.
Many years later when I started assisting my mother in her school what fascinated me was the way the little children would choose certain memories and associations while communicating. They were as vivid and amusing just like my granny's. As a young girl, it didn't take time for me to realize how childhood and old age has so many similarities. And now as an adult when I see my parents grow old this has become even more apparent. And this intrigued me to tell a story that revolved around this theme.
The plot and the setting for the story came from my observation how with the advent of technology, smartphones and google maps the scope of human interaction is reducing day by day, especially in the urban space. I warmed up to use google maps post demonetization when I had no choice but to self-drive around the city due to lack of enough cash to pay autos and taxis. While I felt a sense of empowerment and independence using the maps I missed stopping multiple times to ask people I met on the way for directions. I realized how I loved the little interactions because they only meant more stories. I recalled how wrong directions had led me to interesting places, interesting people, and memorable adventures.
It wasn't very difficult to explore the father-son relationship in the urban setting since the basic 'rasas' and 'bhavas' involved remain the same since they are universal. All I did was to adapt my characters to the urban setting and make them react appropriately to their environment.
TNT : The cast of the film comprises of three actors, of varying age differences, occupying most of the screen space of the film. Share your experience of working with them?
Rukshana: Ballu Panchal the child artist in my film is an extremely intelligent actor. He had done a lot of ads and was very comfortable in front of the camera by the time I met him. My only worry was if he would be able to pull off the scenes with the long dialogues. However, it didn't take us long to realize how well he fitted the role. During the workshops I was amazed at the questions he asked me to understand the character and the scenes He always wanted to know what happened before and after a scene.
Working with Vinay was like attending a masterclass for all of us. He helped us see the character is new light through his performance. In fact, there were a lot of things that I picked up and incorporated in the script after the workshops we did with Vinay and Ballu. He also gave us some brilliant script notes before we went on the floor. So working with him was very enriching and memorable.
When I met Kishore Pradhan sir for the first time I was wondering if it would beok to put him through all the stress of shooting outdoors in the summer heat due to his age. But after talking to him for some time I was convinced that no one else can replace him. What I liked about him the most is his childlike curiosity to know about the story and the character. Kishore sir is a very professional and disciplined actor and expected the youngsters to practice the same on set. I and my team learned a lot from him. He also has a great sense of humour that kept us entertained.
TNT: The relationship between the father & son is portrayed with a subtle touch of innocence, playfulness, and responsibility. How did you keep that balance while directing the actors?
Rukshana: I had worked on the script extensively before going on the floor. There are very few things that were improvised on set. So the balance between the characters was created on paper first and replicated on screen. I also picked up a lot of things during the workshops from each character and made it a part of the film while shooting. So while directing the actors I just kept in mind what was required for the story to translate well on screen.
TNT: The film is shot in various location across Mumbai. How did you manage to fit the locales within the narrative framework of the film?
Rukshana: I am fascinated with everything that is old and decaying. After shifting to Mumbai I used to take the local train to Churchgate every Sunday and spend the day visiting galleries around Kala Ghoda and walking around the marine drive. I would spend hours looking at the old art deco buildings and reading up about their history and thinking of the glorious years the city must have witnessed in the past. Besides this going to old Parsi bakeries was also a part of my Sunday rituals where I would just sit in a corner and often watch people – young and old enjoying their bun maska and chai. It was during one of this trip to what we call the 'town side of Mumbai' the idea for this film had germinated and I decided to write it. So including these locales where I shot the film got weaved into the story very organically.
Once the story was written I revisited these spaces and identified nooks and corners that invoked a childlike excitement in me. And thus the gorgeous pillars in Horniman circle, the fountains in Hiranandani Powai, the cartoons painted on the graffiti wall block, Rhythm House and the iconic Kala Ghoda Wall with the colorful horse all became a part of the visual narrative for the film. The locations were an integral part of the film while scripting and the real challenge was to get shoot permissions.
TNT: How did you get a green signal from CFSI for making the film?
Rukshana: I had submitted the concept of the film to CFSI following the guidelines on the website 2 years before the film went on the floor. The initial approval took about 8-9 months since they were waiting for the appointment of their new chairman. Post the concept was approved I shared my script with the Script Committee of the organization which a is a body that comprises of accomplished creative people from various fields. After a couple of months, I was called for a narration once the committee had approved the script. I went for two rounds of narrations with the committee members post which we had discussions on the story, scenes characters, and treatment at length. There were a couple of changes that were suggested and once the changes were incorporated the script was greenlit on a creative level. The next step was to submit a detailed budget on the basis of which the Production Department and the Chairman finally did the final greenlighting.
TNT: The duration of the film is around twenty-eight minutes. Don't you think the film could be shortened?
Rukshana: This length works for me. And based on the reaction of children who have seen this film I would not want to shorten it further.
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