Paanchika (Five pebbles) is a heart-warming film about friendship between two seven-year-old girls, Miri and Suba, who snatch moments of playtime with each other. The games they play are not on the computer; they are not even board games like Ludo or Snakes and Ladders. Nor do they play in a park. Five, coloured, salt crystals are the only toys they have; while the slides, they climb on and come slithering down, are salt pyramids in the wind-blown, stark terrain of Little Rann of Kutch.
A short, 14-minute film by 36-year-old Ankit Kothari, Paanchika will be the opening film of the Indian Panorama (non-feature) section of International Film Festival of India (IFFI) that will take place from 16-24 January, 2021. To be screened physically at the venue in Goa, at 12 noon on 17 January, the Shreya Kapadia-produced film has been adapted from a short story, Bawa, by Vyankatesh Madgulkar.
Suba is from a family that has been ostracised by their village, so Miri’s mother threatens her with burial under a salt mountain if she mingles with ‘the devil’s daughter’. The scene is steeped in irony as you wonder how caste or class can play such a significant role in a direly-poverty-stricken life that plays itself out from a stack of bricks, passing as a hovel, standing, alone, in the middle of nowhere. Forget what other villagers will say if Miri transgresses social norms, there is not even a crow here to witness her transgression. And yet, caste differences matter.
It is Miri’s job to walk across an unfriendly terrain to deliver lunch to her father. As she struggles over the hard, salt-pebbled ground in a pair of out-sized, tattered slippers, Suba follows, at a distance, bare-feet. What unfolds, during this tough trek, is a tale of compassion between two innocent children. Seeing Suba’s feet hurting, Miri leaves her slippers behind so Suba can wear them. When Miri is terrified with the noise of the wind roaring between the sand dunes, Suba tries to drown out the sound by chanting Ram, Ram, Ram loudly. The trick works. Miri repeats the words and forgets the wind in her ears. Later, after taking a few licks, Miri leaves behind the ice lolly her father has given her, for Suba. In turn, Suba leaves her pebbles next to Miri’s pebbles to complete a circle of five. The film ends with Suba singing merrily about the seasons…ice lolly for summer, a sweater for winter and an umbrella for the monsoon. There are ways to combat the rigours of the seasons. And there are ways to skirt around adult prejudices and strictures…Without conversing, or coming within touching distance, the two children express empathy and love for one another.
Except for the mother’s ranting, there is no dialogue in the film. But there are sounds that speak louder than words…the hard crunch of salt under the children’s feet, the eerie whistle of the wind and the cheery sound of the ice-lolly seller’s bicycle bell.
Apart from telling sounds, the film is narrated through a montage of canvas-like frames resembling mono-chromed landscape paintings on which the artist applies a few brush-strokes of colour…the translucent, salt pebbles in blue, yellow, pink; the glistening orange and yellow of the ice lolly and the worn-out clothes of the two girls. Director Kothari, who graduated from Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda, brings the vision of a painter to the medium of cinema.
And, having assisted unconventional filmmakers for over ten years, he has selected a technical team that is differently-honed, who could execute his vision to perfection: cinematographer Kuldeep Mamania who captured the stark yet striking beauty of Little Rann, Pritam Das who designed the sound, a key component of this film, Siddharth Meer who did the colour correction, again a crucial element, Manan Bhatt who edited the film into 14-minute capsule; and of course, the two little girls whose expressions said it all.
The Quint spoke to Kothari about the challenges of making the film.
“I chose this barren landscape and shot it when the sun was directly above us, in 48 degrees temperature, in May-June 2018,” recounts Kothari. “Typically, shooting in top light is not an aesthetic choice, but my cinematographer decided to do this to increase the harshness we aspired for visually, wanting, as we were, to contrast the innocence and kindness of the little girls with the landscape".
“To maintain the consistency of top light we could shoot only for three hours in a day. So, we spent 22 days in scorching heat, with the harsh glare of the sunlight reflecting back from the salt on the ground, constantly battling dehydration and sunburn”, he added.
While ice-packs were used to cool the camera, a constant supply of ice golas cooled the crew, which included the little Agariya girls who were selected from the neighbouring villages. This posed another challenge. While Anjali and Aarti looked their roles and were familiar with the terrain, making them face the camera with the right expressions and right angles was another thing altogether.
That Kothari succeeded in making the untrained village kids look convincing as Miri and Suba is a mark of his directorial skills. “I am content with the outcome,” ends Kothari, happy that his film is being screened at various international festivals.
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