‘I wanted to express my anguish as a minority’

Written by Asad Ali

Published: July 4, 2018 12:03:31 am

Ajitpal Singh Sports film caste Ajitpal Singh (left); a still from Rammat Gammat

Ajitpal Singh’s directorial debut, Rammat-Gammat, an 18-minute film in Gujarati, got its world premiere at the prestigious Oberhausen International Short Film Festival this year, where it also won a Special Mention. It will also be screened at three upcoming international festivals, including Busan Children’s Festival (South Korea) and Stony Brook Film Festival (US). Excerpts from an interview:

What inspired the film and why did you choose football to be the leitmotif over other sports?
My years of growing up — and living out — the anti-Sikh sentiments in the country during the 1980s, and being called a terrorist just because I am a Sikh inspired the film. In Rammat Gammat, Bhushan comes from a lower caste and goes through similar discrimination purely due to the accident of birth. I was a far better football player than many in my school in Gujarat’s Sabarmati, and yet when it came to team selection, I was always selected but never allowed to actually play the matches. I wanted to express my anguish as a minority — being good and yet not getting the opportunities to play. Yogi Singha (the co-writer) wrote about football and we never changed it to any other popular sport because no other sport is as beautiful.

There’s a scene where Bhushan and Avinash are going home and Bhushan stops to eat food off a plate kept by the roadside. Is there a context to it?
The primary purpose was to show how one kid won’t hesitate in disturbing social norms — the site is affected by black magic — because he’s hungry; while the other kid is afraid of eating at such a place. Avinash gets to eat enough at home, but Bhushan is always hungry. At the same time, all the reasons that Bhushan has to break such social norms and eat the “black-magic food” off the street are because he is from a lower caste.

What informed your decision to cast actual players over professional child-actors in the film?
From the beginning, we were clear that we wanted footballers whom we can teach acting and not actors whom we would need to teach football. We didn’t want to take actors and then struggle to get that body language right. Once we knew we would shoot in Gujarat, our casting director (Mauli Singh) left for Gujarat and discovered a vibrant football culture there. She shortlisted 15 footballers and we did a seven-day theatre workshop. This is how we found Avinash and Bhushan. When it comes to child actors from Mumbai or Ahmedabad, they all act in advertisements, television shows and Bollywood with a contrived sense of cuteness — we wanted none of that.

Our sports films tend to not talk about caste. What do you have to say about Indian sports films when it comes to caste/class themes?
Not just sports films but in general, Indian films don’t really deal with caste/class in a complex manner. Either they are so overboard with the issue that storytelling and characters become a vehicle for the director to give a loud message, or class-caste is reduced to make the upper-caste hero look like an objective gentleman. I don’t remember a sports film from India that explored caste/class with a desire to understand what privilege really means.

When it comes to exploring the world of children and their friendships, regional cinema seems more evolved — be it Killa or Kaaka Muttai — while mainstream adult friendship can’t get beyond the Dil Chahta Hai frame. How connected are the big names of Bollywood with the world around them?

They live in a bubble completely disconnected from the world but they do have the remote control to decide what we can or cannot watch. Unless someone takes away that remote, we will continue to have third-class films, and will bask in the rare, fleeting glory of a Lunchbox, Masaan or Newton.

How aware were the kids of the subtext of your film?
The thing with kids is that they just know. They understand gestures, physical contact and emotions much better than adults. Once you create an illusion of reality, it becomes real for them and they don’t act, they express what they feel. So we didn’t have elaborate discussions with the kids, we just made them comfortable with the camera.

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