Every few years, there comes a film which imitates life so closely that it almost feels real. Set in the Konkan belt of Maharashtra, told through the eyes of a fatherless boy grappling with life in a new environment, Avinash Arun’s Killa is one such film. The sound of waves, the cackle of leaves, the whisper of winds, the flash of running feet, the breath of fighting children, the suffocation in silence, the loss of a loved one—the film bristles with moments that resonate even after the story ends. For those of us growing up in the 90s, there are Camlin pencils and rectangular school bags with colourful monster motifs to relate to. For those of us in big cities, there are the small joys of living in a small town to experience vicariously. Killa is a heartfelt dose of nostalgia served by the seaside, through a bunch of school kids thick as thieves. In a beautiful transition scene where the mother and son silently eat their dinner seated on the bare floor of a new home, the film fearlessly drives home the point that life, mostly, is mundane. Unlike most films these days, specially those churned out by the Hindi film industry, the experience of watching Killa stays with you long after you leave the cinema hall.
Not surprisingly, the film has already bagged a National Award, a Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and is on its way to becoming a cinema classic that will live beyond its life at the box office. “Tickets are being sold in black in places like Satara and Sangli,” director Avinash Arun reveals with a slight but proud grin. Sitting behind his office desk, dressed in a plain white shirt and jeans, with a sling bag strapped across his chest, Arun looks as young as any recent film school graduate. His body language is candid, his words raw and honest, and his dreams much bigger than what he’s already achieved.
Arun isn’t exactly counting, but his debut film made on a budget of Rs 2 crore, has already grossed almost Rs 8.5 crore within three weeks of release. “It’s reaching pockets of the country I never thought it would,” says he, “That’s the real achievement for me. Killa is not the typical Marathi audience kind of film. People from all over are appreciating it, and that means I have been able to communicate regardless of the language and the genre the film is made in.”
Largely autobiographical, the film is a string of poignant moments from Arun’s own life. As a child, he travelled to various little towns of Maharashtra since his father was in a government job. Like protagonist Chinmay Kale, he confesses to having felt the pain of separation from his home and friends too often to even remember. “I was born in Solapur and I grew up around the Sahyadri mountains,” he says. “As a kid, every time I’d move from one place to another I’d feel that I’d never see my friends again. There were no means of communication then, no WhatsApp, no mobile phones. Only letters. I used to feel I won’t remember their names, their faces, their voices. And it’s true. I don’t remember them. What I do remember, are the times I spent with them.”
All artists draw from experience, but what’s surprising about his style is that the moments are so authentic that you can barely tell what’s fiction and what’s real. “When my mother saw the film, she couldn’t fathom how I was able to translate my past so well into the film. My childhood friends say the same. It’s just that as a kid you are so sensitive to things around you that certain moments get imprinted on your mind.” Arun saw cinematic value in life moments that would be a blur to most of us. “Once I was coming back from a friend’s house passing through a lane running parallel to the sea. The street lights went off and all I could hear were the sounds of the sea. It was like someone was calling out to me. I haven’t experienced fear like that in my life. I was pushed into a well when I was four. There is a scene in the film where one of the kids attaches an earthworm to a hook and catches a dead snake. That has happened to me. These are experiences that never left me.”
The soundscape of the film goes a long way towards building its realistic atmosphere. Arun, who started off as an assistant cinematographer with the Hindi film Cocktail (2012), made this his own film’s biggest strength. “There’s an opening shot in the film where Chinmay just stands looking deep into the sea. I thought of the sound of that scene first,” he says. “Visuals are the outer structure, the appearance of the film. But sound is the soul. That is why sound is so ambiguous too. Visual jo saamne hai wohi dikhata hai (what’s in front is what you see), but you can travel with sound. When we start listening more, it changes our perspective on everything. It takes us to a metaphysical level.”
Subconsciously, Avinash was recording moments of his life ever since he was eight. By then, he was sold on cinema as his life’s passion. All thanks to a large dose of movie watching during his growing up years. Every time he moved to a new city or town, he’d take refuge in films. He remembers watching Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee movies with his father who religiously introduced him to some of the best cinema of his time. At the age of 15, he went and stood outside the gate of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), pleading to be let in. “Films made me feel less displaced. Wherever I went the movies remained the same.”
Arun was FTII’s youngest, perhaps most enthusiastic unofficial student. “I knew I couldn’t start my course which was for postgraduates for another five years, but I was hungry to learn the process. My first shoot was as a spot boy for a local Marathi number. That day, I knew what I did not want to do,” he says with a smile. Between the age of 15 and 20 he had already assisted filmmakers of six different batches within the Institute on over 20 diploma films. “Main toh wahi pada rehta thha. (I would always be around there.) I wouldn’t say a word, all I would l do was listen.” He held a camera for the first time while assisting director Umesh Kulkarni on his diploma film Girni. “Manoj Lobo, who was a cinematographer, gave me the camera on day four of shooting. When I looked through that viewfinder, I said to myself, ‘Ab toh yehi karna hai (This is what I will do)’. The challenge was to show the world what those four corners of a frame couldn’t capture.”
While other kids his age were busy living lives of reckless teenage, Arun was studying how to make a frame look larger than life. Killa almost seems an ode to the childhood he chose to let go of so soon. Was he reliving it through the film? “In a way, yes. I told a story that’s close to my heart. And most of these stories lie in my childhood. They are honest and unpretentious. That’s why they are also very moving,” he says.
It’s a path many Marathi filmmakers have chosen to take in the past few years. From Vihir (2010) to Shala (2011) to Fandry (2013) and now Killa, these films have children or young adults speaking to the audience in a way grown-ups never can. The coming-of-age theme has not just resonated with the filmmakers, but also with an audience looking for virtues often lost in the noisy and convoluted themes that dominate cinema these days. “Our childhood becomes the basis of how we are shaped as human beings. When you want to make an honest and truthful story, most of them lie within our bachpan (childhood). Fortunately, all these young people making films in the last few years are not borrowing ideas but telling their own unique story,” says director Umesh Kulkarni, whose National Award winning film Vihir (‘The Well’) tells the story of a child dealing with the loss of his cousin.
Most of these stories are told through children, but they are not children’s films. Kulkarni expounds, “Killa is not a children’s film, and neither is Vihir. It’s about loss, about change, about our existence in modern times where we constantly have to re-mould ourselves and become a new person. The nostalgia these films offer is priceless. When these themes are addressed through kids, the stories become so much more relatable.”
It was the 2004 film Shwaas (‘Breath’), about a little boy and his grandfather, that brought children back at the helm of stories in Marathi cinema. There were other works like Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar’s Dahavi Fa (‘Tenth F’, 2002) and Amol Palekar’s Kairee (‘The Raw Mango’, 1999) that had stories of childhood, but it was Shwaas which spoke a language with a universal appeal. Says Palekar, “Shwaas came at a time when the multiplex culture was thriving. It reached a lot more people than many films that preceded it. Moments between the kid and his grandfather tugged at the heart. You can never create such potent moments in a story without kids.”
Writer and actor Girish Kulkarni, who played the part of an uncle in Vihir, believes that the coming-of-age theme is the best tool for a filmmaker to look inwards and understand what has been left behind. Films based on young lives aren’t easy to write. “Children look at life differently,” says Kulkarni, “They don’t judge. Their interpretation of freedom and escape are different. Most of these stories are exploring the inner intuitions of a human being, which are strongest as a child.”
Marathi filmmakers have opened up a whole new possibility of dealing with strong and relevant themes through young minds. A lot like Iranian cinema, which has strong subjects explored primarily through child protagonists, there seems to be a new wave of Marathi cinema that highlights broader issues this way. The film Fandry speaks about the brutal caste system in our country, while Shala traverses the sexuality of young adults. These films are testament to the fact that age has little to do with portraying mature ideas.
Nagraj Manjule, poet and the director of Fandry, says, “There are so many films made for adults, but their EQ is plain zero. Nobody had ever spoken about the caste divide in our country primarily through the lives of children before Fandry. I am now able to tell this story because I have reflected upon it from my past. I don’t understand my present well enough to speak about it, so I take shelter in my past. Plus, I believe children and women are very complex subjects too. So it’s a challenge.”
This, however, is just the beginning of a movement that looks here to stay. For Arun, whose film has now become a benchmark in many ways, the box office success of such films opens up a whole new world. “My next film is a fantasy fiction around what kind of childhood we are going to give our coming generation. It’s going to talk a lot about parenting. We don’t have time for our kids, so we buy them iPads. We don’t realise it, but we are stealing the poetry away from their lives. We are teaching them to be insensitive, which is very disturbing. We keep them from experiences, in the name of protecting them, but that’s stealing away so much from their lives.”
These ideas may seem idealistic to those who make movies purely to set the box office ringing, but Arun is sure there’s no other path he would tread. Today as he awaits the release of two of his biggest films as a cinematographer, Masaan and Drishyam, he is grappling with a few things. The fight for autonomy at his beloved FTII, the struggle to protect himself from people who would tempt him to go mainstream, the need for some solitude so he can dig a little deeper into his past. Sometimes he wishes he could pack up and leave, just for a bit. “When you’re alone, you feel longing, and that’s when you feel love. I learnt this when I was eight,” he concludes with a smile.