Making a short film is the rite of passage for many new filmmakers. However, Mohan Das who won his Best Director Award for a short film, has ventured into this segment to tackle some serious issues that lack commercial viability in the medium of features. While his "Open the Door" celebrates the birth of the girl child, "Pragaash" which is a docu-feature highlights the Kashmir of today and is set against the backdrop of the only girl band that was banned from performing. His latest "Muafinaama" or "The Atonement" is inspired by the numerous child abandonment cases in Kashmir in recent times. Sipping coffee in this rainy weather in the comforts of his home, Mohan Das bares his heart out in an exclusive chat with Films & TV World.
Films & TV World: What is Muafinaama all about?
Mohan Das: The Indian Kashmiri society is essentially patriarchal and gives preference to male child. A story with a message to end discriminations against the girl child, Muafinaama or The Atonement is inspired by the numerous child abandonment cases in Kashmir in recent times. It also looks at dilemmas and repentance of the protagonist after he fails to save the abandoned child. The movie is about a Kashmiri Pandit guy who falls in love with a Kashmiri Muslim girl and struggles to get her. The film also holds a parallel story line about this increasing menace of child abandonment especially of girl child which is a serious issue.
It was in February while shooting for my docu-feature Pragaash in Srinagar that I came across various news of child abandonment. While four new born babies were found abandoned in January at valley’s lone child specialty, GB Pant Hospital, in another case a three day old baby girl was found abandoned near bathroom of the hospital on January 17. On January 28, a baby girl born at Hajni Sumbal was admitted at GB Pant for treatment and later abandoned by the family. Three babies were abandoned in February at Lal Ded and GB Pant hospital. Last year, nearly half-a-dozen new born babies, mostly girls, were abandoned in Srinagar. Jammu & Kashmir also recorded a huge decline in sex ratio in the 2011 census. The menace of girl abandonment was growing by the fold.
These news clubbed with me receiving the Best Director Award for my film “Open the Door” that celebrates the birth of the girl child, disturbed me a lot. I wanted to bring this subject to the notice of all. As a filmmaker, I can only spread the message through the medium of films. This led me to scripting the story of Muafinaama.
But child abandonment cases are not only relegated to Kashmir. Why do you think it happens?
I agree, Kashmir is not the lone state in cases of child abandonment. Abandonment of children happens all over the world. It’s not a problem that’s unique to India or Kashmir. The reasons for abandonment are different - an unwed mother fearing social stigma abandons her child; but majorly it is couples not wanting a girl child abandon their child. Even sociologists blame materialism, gender discrimination and moral degradation for the increasing menace of baby abandonment. It might come as a shocking revelation: The recent Justice Verma Committee report reveals that 60,000 children are abandoned every year in India. UNICEF, on the other side, pegs the number at a whopping 11 million of which 70% are girls. With no law as such with punitive provisions for abandonment, it has been growing over the years.
Child abandonment is punishable under section 317 of India’s Penal Code. But, I guess there should be more stringent punitive provision to stop parents from abandoning their children. But majorly, we need to change our attitude towards the girl child and I think, only this can deter one from taking such a ghastly step as abandoning their child only cos she is a girl. At the same time, the welfare of such abandoned childrens should be of “paramount” consideration. Once a child is abandoned, the child has to be given for adoption and for that all the legal formalities for adoption in the government machinery have to be eased and processed faster.
You preferred casting people from the valley itself.
I filmed the entire part in Kashmir and signed most of the actors from the valley. Except for the lead actor Sandesh Gour and Abhilash Panwar who is playing his elder brother, all my actors are from the valley as we wanted to give an authentic touch to the story. Umer Khan - the winner of Milay Sur - Kashmir’s singing reality show is also playing a special role in the movie. He has also lent his voice to the title song “Allah mujhe muaaf kar’ which is beautifully composed by Saurabh Chatterjee. Penned by Prabhat Mishra, the song brings out the pathos of the lead actor and his repentance on being unable to save the girl child. Produced by Lashyaban Kashyap and Mahua Mohan jointly, leading the female cast is Turfat-ul-Ain, and is supported by Firdous Khan, Azaad Shah, Said Ishtaq and Jahan Zeb in pivotal roles.
How do you intend to take this issue forward?
I have planned to take the film to various film festivals across the globe and also showcase the film in various Indian film festivals; and also at Kashmir especially. We have already sent it to the Cyprus International Film Festival and the Corinthian International Film Festival at Greece as well to many other festivals. We have also been invited to the Cinéphile 2014 with our film. We are also planning to have private screenings at theaters and as well club it with other short films and give it a theatrical release.
What next on the anvil?
Right now, I am working towards completion of my feature film Kuch Alagsa which is an anthology of five short films strung together - albeit in a feature film format. Once that is done, I am planning to do a commercial flick on the lines of Fukrey and Fugly. Tentatively titled Bhopal 2 Bangkok, it will be an out and out comic caper but none of the comedy comes from the characters being clever. Rather, the actors will be reacting to something, as opposed to the characters just saying something witty. And given the seriousness of the moment, these will make the situation comic.
Any advices to short film makers as you have served as jury on many a film festivals, and also a festival director.
There are no hard-and-fast rules as to what makes a good short film - as an award-winner in one viewer's eyes will be a dull cliché in another's. However, having said that, always try to get new ideas; new thoughts and sometimes even a stupid idea that can create magic when worked honestly at it. A good way of avoiding clichéd ideas is to watch lots of other short films and come up with an idea that’s completely original. Once done, bound it with a super strong script, add a dose of good acting, high production values, keep it crisp, have a strong beginning, avoid repetition and punchline twists, and if possible, add exciting new techniques & style. I guess, this will make even an average plot intriguing and make it stand out from the crowd.
Hope Muafinaama makes a big noise and gets the government machinery to look further in this issue of child abandonment and draft some new laws. We wish you all the best in your venture.