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The water that ran for 15 years

Director Girish Malik’s debut film, Jal, has won most critics over. The filmmaker speaks to Kareena Gianani about why it took him 15 years to make the film and on refusing to be slotted in the ‘masala’ or ‘arty’ camps of directors

When he was a child, director Girish Malik was “a monkey on a tin roof” in the eyes of his father, jumping from one thing to another.

A still from the film, 'Jal'
A still from the film, 'Jal'

In a family which prided itself on churning out competitive IAS officers by the dozen, Malik was the non-conformist simply by the virtue of indecision.

Director Girish Malik
Director Girish Malik. Pic/Nimesh Dave

He loved too many things at the same time and was passionate about gymnastics when his father, a teacher with an MA in Mathematics, would have preferred a cricket-loving progeny.

Malik is no less a dreamer today. He walks in to the suburban hotel we decide to meet at, and, within minutes, the conversation steers to twists of faith and about how the smallest of stories can change the world in seconds. Having said that, Malik is a fan of big things — he likes working with big ideas, sweeping landscapes and layered stories. It seems fitting then, that his directorial debut, Jal, is shot in perhaps the most polychromatic terrain in the country — Kachchh. The film is about water paucity and the ways in which the lives of a water diviner can cross with a Russian ornithologist.

Malik smiles when asked about why it took him 15 years to get Jal to the theatres. “I shot for the film for three-and-a-half years, but I had been thinking of it for over a decade. I got the original idea after travelling across the length and breadth of this country but I was acting, directing and writing for television then.” After the saas-bahu onslaught on Indian television, Malik decided it was time to hang up his boots. After writing and directing acclaimed shows such as Rishtey, Banegi Apni Baat and Parampara, family dramas, Malik decided, were best left to others. “That’s when I began thinking of Jal seriously, but was again swept in the tide of directing advertising commercials.” Here, for special effect, Malik lowers his voice and, in a baritone, utters the punch line of a medical drug commercial.

“Jal is about issues of water paucity, but I have not set out to preach,” he clarifies, as if he has been asked this frequently. Malik says he believes in cinema which is critical, provoking and (he doesn’t use ‘but’) thoroughly entertaining. It’s not the ‘arty’ versus ‘masala’ camp for him, and this very decision, he feels, has been a tricky burden to carry. Last year, Jal toured several international festivals and earned much respect. The highest praise for the film came at the Busan International Film Festival, where it was India’s sole entry. “In spite of the praise, I don’t think we have shaken off preconceived notions about what our cinema ‘should be’.

Abroad, some people feel the film is not European enough (why should it be?); in India, some felt it wasn’t for the masses and would do well only internationally. My reply to these cinemagoers is - why do you need so much validation? Why don’t you decide it for yourself?”

Filming Jal, says Malik, was the most exhausting decision of his life yet, but something he is eager to repeat. “I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I’d be emotionally bruised at the end of every day over the past three-and-a-half-years. While I was shooting, I was struggling for funds, and later, publicising and releasing the film proved immensely difficult. I’d be smiling and chatting away with people, but my mind just wouldn’t focus. I am glad it is over, and now I can approach future projects with some important experience I gained over Jal.” Which would be? “Don’t give a damn about people who are out to slot your cinema. Create your own genre and never, ever let them tell you it is not possible,” smiles Malik.

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