Jhalki Interview with director, Brahmanand S Siingh

How did it all of this start? When did you write the story? How did the production start? What took so long to start the project after having the story?

All filmmakers should live with their stories for at least ten years. The making of Jhalki is a long story. It goes back to many years. Prakash Jha and I had written the story in it's skeletal form, known more as a treatment. It was selected by the UK Film Council among their top ten shortlisted ones and I could senses little bit of it's International relevance when Nick Marston of Curtis Brown, London and on the selection panel at the UK film Council spoke at length why he calls stories like these (then called just 'A Different Childhood'), but didn't take it much seriously. At some point, I started doing the screenplay, then got Kamlesh Kunti Singh, a very fine writer, to do two or three drafts and the story seemed to be picking up. 

Soon, after about three drafts, it started looking a wonderful story when the element of the folk story entered our imagination. But with Kamlesh, in two or three drafts, with all his brilliance, it became a very surrealistic journey ... with the screenplay spreading into 200 pages and looked like a 100 days shoot material and way away from the original thought. That was I had had to pull it back to its original spirit and in the next three drafts, it started looking a little more towards what we had set out to achieve. Then, with my associate, Tanvi's entry on the project, we did many drafts, each one being chiseled more and more. Finally, with a few more associates towards the shoot, it went through many more layers of addition and deletion. With the passage of time, it got shortlisted and selected in various ways by NFDC's Film Bazaar, Strategic Partners, Atlantic Film Festival, Halifax in Canada, Sundance Script Lab and so on, with inputs and feedback from over 40 key people who knows World Cinema and its contours over a period of 7-8 active years of work on it. Many of them, they would readily put it in the category of films like Central Station and City of Gods. That went on becoming very encouraging. Throughout it all, we bounced the script with Kailash Satyarthi, who had supported the film idea right from the beginning and always was positive that it will get made one day.

That, in short, is the long story of its journey. A few times it came close to being made and then something or the other would come in way. Finally, OMG came along and said let's do it and it took off. But I guess, that's how it is. I feel every film has its own karmic backlog and has its own journey of making. It's been a great learning experience.


What were the casting challenges of getting the lead child actors? How was it to cast for Kailash Satyarthi?

Jhalki had to be a firebrand 11 year old, pre-puberty girl, so that was a big challenge ... To find someone who could carry the film on her fragile shoulders. Each time we would shortlist a few of them and a few years would pass by, they would grow up. A little less but almost the same was the case with the young boy. Finally, we went on a rampage, when the film was to be done, looking for appropriate face and fire in Mumbai as well as through our casting director, to areas like UP and Bihar, where the characters belong to get the local flavor. We must have shortlisted over 50, narrowed down to some 15 and finally took 4 of them through a 2-week workshop. We were thrilled with the final results. 

Kailash Satyarthi's was a different case. Ideally, we would have wanted him to act himself, but then acting and the takes and retakes is a tall task ... Especially when you have to do it in 45-48 degrees. Again Karmas changed ... Over a few years from KK to Manoj Bajpai to Boman Irani. The best part was, when we approached Boman, one of the first things he said, is that 'I am not bothered about my position in the film ... I just want to do this film, period.' That was very touching, and even later the way he carried it all, it was an amazing spirit to see and note.  


Tell us something about Aarti and Goraksh,both in front of camera and between the shots. How joyful or challenging was it to work with kids?

They are both amazing actors. Both of them, in less than 3-4 days of shoot, were maintaining their own continuity like the seasoned actors and were incredibly fast in taking instruction and understanding the need of the takes. That they survived the heat and the make up for six weeks was no mean achievement. They won everyone's heart in the unit. And I feel. Both of them have a great future ahead. They are both natural actors. They think, they understand, they internalize, they improvise ... What more can a director ask for from two kids aged around 10 and 8!!!

It was challenging no doubt because you had to communicate to them in way different from the grown up actors. But it was a great pleasure to see them switch off from mischief, especially Goraksh, who is mischievous little nut, and switch on to the character he was playing.  


How was the experience with such fine actors like Boman, Tanishtha, Sanjay Suri, Divya?

You said it ... They are fine actors. And to add to it, also wonderful human beings. So it was out and out a pleasure of having good actors to understand the need of the role, their position in the story and I bribe the characteristics of the role they were doing and then improvising or sticking to the script, depending on when we chose to give them that freedom and when not, they delivered the best. Whether it was Boman and Divya and Sanjay and Tanishtha, they were a pleasure. So were actors who came from big mixed backgrounds of cinema, television and theater ... actors like Joy Sengupta and Akhilendra Mishra, Bachan Pachera and Govind Namdev, in their own very contrasting styles, gave wonderful performances. Same is true even with those with the likes of Vikram and Sanchita. 


This story is of 90s. What measures were taken to give it a 90s look?

Thankfully, we didn't have to do too much. But yes, things like characters not having cellphones or the bus stop Chauraha having film posters of that era and certain precautions in the village in terms of the clothes they wore. Though we could not do much with the cell phone numbers on poster adverts of tuition classes etc. But then it was late nineties that the film is placed in and it's not much of a period film in that sense. The idea of the film is far more important than all these put together. I would say, we could put in 80 percent precaution and efforts to have the late 90s bit but also missed out on 20 percent, otherwise the budget would have hit the roof!! 


Why sync sound?

Actually, all small budget films, regional films always had sync sound. All of Ray's films were sync sound because of budget reasons. In between, people had started using dubbing as an easy solution. But then it lost out on the naturalness of the real situation, pitch, performance, everything. From Lagaan, again, sync sound became fashionable and a big thing. For me, sync sound is the only way to go, with maybe 10% left for dubbing ... only if the natural recording has been an impossible one to retain or there are any major performance with the dialogues. 


What measures were taken to make the language sound authentic? How easy or challenging it was?

It was challenging. But we did let it loosen up a little bit towards a Bihari Hindi rather than an orthodox Bhojpuri! After all, it needs to be understood by the viewers and we were not making a Bhojpuri film. It was needed as long as the girl is in the village but the moment she comes to the town, it becomes a mix of her native tongue and Bihari Hindi because that's the way people actually speak in the belt. 


How did you and your team cope up with the heat?

Ah!! Now you touch upon a raw nerve!! It was 45-48 degrees throughout and we were ending up long hours everyday. We were on nimbu Pani, bel ka sharbata and what not every few hours and water throughout!! We would have our head and body covered as much as we could so often since in addition to heat, there was also dust. Especially when we were shooting on roads, or the brick factory etc (add 3 degrees more to the overall temperature of the day). But amazing the way the entire team would cope with the heat and grime. There were smiles on most of the faces, despite of the heat and we always had something or the other to smile about and laugh at!! Everyday, every hour was a new adventure!! But yes, we were fortunate, no one fell ill, other than a few minor hiccups but that that too barely more than a few hours or a day at the most. 


Many have said that the overall energy on the set was very cool. How did you manage to keep your team and yourself so calm in such heat?

Yes it was quite cool!! That was the only way to counter the heat outside I guess! But on a serious note, I feel, people who were there were more or less of the peaceful mentality and the understanding kinds, especially when explained that losing your cool on every damn thing is like drinking poison and thinking that other will die. Never has there been much benefit by being hot headed. It gives the hot heard person an illusion that he is in control but it is actually just the reverse. Show one person who will tell you he loves to work only when he is shouted at. There are many ways to rectify things and get great results. Shouting and losing your temper is the least effective one!! 


Real locations; Last minute hurdles; Local support and opposition … Why Mirzapur?

Well, we selected Mirzapur because of many reasons. Firstly, because it housed the maximum carpet factories in one small town. Added to that, we had people who were known and had welcomed offering support (many of which happened and many didn't). Last minute hurdles started coming from one interview that one of our lead casts gave and mentioned that it is a film against carpet factories. Thereafter, the entire Carpet Association always withdrew their confirmed bookings and had to spend a lot of time that the film is about the girl's search for her brother and it is not for or against carpet factory but it is about awareness for abolishing child labor, wherever it exists, in whatever form it does, in its 200 million worldwide number and that it was based in the 90s not today!! 

It was a big hurdle, no doubt, to look, for new location for a shoot next day, shift schedules etc. But at the end of it all, we managed it well. Two people who deserve unending appreciation for this is my co-director, Tanvi Jain and Line Producer, Neeraj Gohil! There were nights when all of us slept for just 4 hours and Neeraj none at all because he was busy sorting out yet another hurdle that had come up!! It was an everyday affair!! 

Whichever day, we didn’t face it, it seemed some fun is missing!! But we finished everything as per the overall plan and pretty much with everything that we had set out to achieve. 


"Hopping on the train track” scene. How challenging it was. The film has many dream sequences. How have you woven dream, folklore and reality together to tell your story?

That was a dangerous one. We shot it on railway tracks at night of what is one of the busiest railway routes in the country! Every 5 minutes there is a train passing by! We had to appoint our own sambhas to keep guard and inform us the moment train was visible. In between, we practiced and lit the entire section and shot. That too with kids who were like half asleep at 3 am! Finally, with the daybreak, we winded up!! One of the most chilling experiences ... Dangerous but achieved with extra brownie points!! Yes the film has a few dream sequences ... It's a psychological insight into the Jhalki's fears and aspirations and states of mind. And then there is another kind of dream, the folk story ... So in a way, it is a very layered film of interpretation, inspiration and allusions, but all of it told in a mainstream, popular format of adventure and search!! 


What is your personal connection with the story or this project? What kept you going for so long to make this film?

It's just the love for the cause of lost childhood. It troubles me anywhere, even in proper homes where, under parental tyranny, children never get a right to their childhood. This was a beautiful story and with a special cause to be addressed for over 200 millions children worldwide. Our anthem song, written by Jhankar, sung by Shankar Mahadevan and composed by Sandesh Shandilya, is a befitting one about the value that we must attach to each and every childhood! It is such a beautiful phase of life and I think we are all party to a crime, if children don't get and a free and unfettered and unburdened childhood!!