Our hope at the Oscars

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 21.02.05
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It is India?s only presence and hope at the 77th Academy Awards. From a country dominated by three-hour-long blockbusters, it?s a 15-minute short film that has bagged the sole nomination at the Oscars this year. Little Terrorist ? that has been nominated in the Best Short Film (live action) category ? also creates history in Indian cinema by being the first short to have a theatrical release across the country. Director, producer, writer and editor of Little Terrorist, Ashvin Kumar , speaks to Smita Roy Chowdhury about the film and its prospects at the grand ceremony.

• You must be thrilled at your second film bagging an Oscar nomination. What, according to you, helped the film reach this far?

I think it?s the topicality of the subject of the film that?s the strong point. It talks about terrorism and human relationships surrounding it. Also, the protagonist of the film is a child and this gives an extra sensitivity to the subject. Apart from this, the fact that it has bagged quite a few other awards at international film festivals worked in its favour. Little Terrorist has won the first prize at the Montreal World Film Festival and Tehran International Film Festival, best film awards at Manhattan Film Festival and Flanders Film Festival. It has been accepted by 20 film festivals, including nominations at the European Academy Awards.

While making the film did you think it would make it to the Oscars?

I didn?t know that it would reach the Oscars, but I felt the film would get somewhere and bag a few international awards. I came to know about the nomination when I received a call from the Academy while I was in Goa in the first week of December for the IFFI.

What is Little Terrorist all about?

The film is based on a true story. In 2003, a 12-year-old Pakistani boy crossed the Indo-Pak border by mistake. Our then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, amidst much fanfare, restored the boy to his family in Pakistan. Little Terrorist is the story of Jamal, a 10-year-old Muslim Pakistani who mistakenly crosses the border between India and Pakistan, finding an unusual ally in a Hindu Brahmin, Bhola. Indian soldiers descend on Bhola?s village, searching for the ?terrorist? who crossed over. His niece Rani insists they can?t let a Muslim into their Hindu home. With Bhola and Rani grappling with the consequences of harbouring a Pakistani and their deep-set prejudice against Muslims, Jamal?s only hope is the humanity shared by a people separated by artificial boundaries.

• None of the actors in the film are professionals. How did you deal with that?

I think that?s my forte as a director ? my ability to make people emote. This film has no stars. Salim, the protagonist of the film, is a street-child from the Salaam Baalak Trust (which was established by Mira Nair after the success of Salaam Bombay). Sushil Sharma, who plays Bhola, works as a clerk in the Delhi Electrical Supply Company and Megnaa Mehtaa (Rani) is a student of Vasant Valley School in New Delhi. I had to draw out the actors in them.

Ashvin Kumar

Where was the film shot?

We were working on a shoestring budget and the crew was assembled by my company Alipur Films in London via shootingpeople.org (an Internet recruitment website). All crew members worked free of cost and travelled to India on their own expenses. An exciting shoot began with the crew welcoming New Year 2004 at a tented camp in the middle of the Rajasthan desert. The crew had to contend with freezing mornings and nights, a remote location and logistical nightmares. But it proved to be an unforgettable experience for all involved.

In what manner do you plan to screen the film for the Indian audience?

Little Terrorist is the first Indian short film that will have a full theatrical release across the country. We have tied up with Shringar Films for the release, which also has broadcast and home video rights for the film. While the distributors were expecting only 10 prints for the whole country, we were all surprised that they managed to book 10 prints in Mumbai alone and other territories are being booked thick and fast. I sincerely hope it works for the distributors because it?s going to bring many aspiring film-makers out of the woodwork. I would love to see a time when shorts, as in the West, become a rites of passage for every aspiring film-maker here in India where such opportunities are restricted to the family-run Bollywood industry.

What kind of films would you like to make? Are commercial potboilers on your agenda?

No, I will never make Bollywood blockbusters. I want to make films at the international level with Indian subjects. If Little Terrorist wins at the Oscars, I will make many more international movies and full-length feature films, not shorts. And I always enjoy doing films with themes and messages.

What are your future projects?

My next film is a Hindi thriller called The Forest, which has Irrfan in the lead. It?s a film with a strong message for conservation and is set in the jungles of India. It is being co-produced in collaboration with Dreyfuss/James Productions. My first short film Road To Ladakh is being expanded into a feature film and the shooting for that will begin in summer. I am also working as a producer of a DVD entitled Adventures In Shorts, which is a compilation of my short films plus three half-hour documentaries about their making and one about the Cannes Film Festival.