Kaushal Oza is an independent filmmaker from India and a two-time winner of the prestigious National Film Award. His recent short film The Miniaturist of Junagadh (2021) won the Best Actor Award at IFFSA Toronto 2021. I recently spoke with Oza about his filmmaking journey and creative process for The Miniaturist of Junagadh.
Dipankar Sarkar: When did you decide to pursue a career in filmmaking?
Kaushal Oza: I studied commerce and law in Mumbai, and while I was in college, I hardly attended any classes. I was a part of the drama society in my college, and we used to participate in inter-collegiate plays. I had a natural inclination towards storytelling, and I knew that I wanted to be a writer of some sort. But I was not very sure what I wanted to do in terms of writing. In 2002, when I joined the law college, as students we were all looking for a traditional career. But I was not interested in studying law. I was looking to get a degree to fall back upon. But soon I realized that whether or not I succeed as a writer, I am not going to pursue a career in law. So, I quit my law college and finished my BCom. I continued doing plays, and it was during this time I decided that I want to direct — not necessarily plays but probably films because my imagination was more visual. Whenever I got the opportunity to direct a play, I thought about how to make it into a visual experience. So, it was at that time when I decided to get enrolled in a course in filmmaking after completing my graduation.
DS: Why did you decide to join the Film and Television Institute of India?
KO: There were not many film schools in India. As far as I remember, Mumbai had three mass media courses. At that time, studying cinema was not looked upon as something like education. But we had heard about the FTII, Pune in the media, etc. And one knew that big stalwarts of Indian cinema like Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, etc. are alumni of the film institute. After I visited the film institute, my mind was pretty much made up that this is the place where I wanted to study.
DS: Was it a fruitful decision?
KO: Absolutely. It was the most formative and crucial decision of my life. I neither knew anything about filmmaking nor I was exposed to film criticism or world cinema. I did not study or understand cinema like a lot of my batchmates who had a background in mass media. If not for the film institute, I would not be able to learn filmmaking and make the kind of friendships that I made with my batchmates. While working with them, I have learned how to make films. There are a couple of other things that have also formed me as a person as well as influenced my stories. One of them is books and the other is travel. Once I joined the film institute, these doors opened to me. There is a library at the institute where I used to read a lot. And since my short films participated at various film festivals around the world, I was able to travel to a lot of countries and experience different cultures. All these experiences have shaped my worldview, which was necessary as a filmmaker. So, it was not only fruitful but also a very significant decision in my life.
DS: The three short films that you have directed, including The Miniaturist of Junagadh, are adapted from short stories. Did the world of literature shape your cinematic sensibilities?
KO: I think you can say that. While I read, especially fiction, I always imagine it playing out scene by scene, shot by shot in my mind. Adaptation from literature has never been my agenda to read books. Literature has also helped me otherwise as a filmmaker. For example, reading Shakespeare teaches you a lot about screenwriting. Even reading non-fiction will help you to understand and interpret different simultaneous realities. For example, if you are reading history, you will understand that there are a lot of different perspectives playing out at the same time, which is a little bit like Rashomon. So, reading books has also given me that perspective.
DS: What attracts you to adapt a particular story for your films?
KO: I read books because I like to read. I do not read to look for material to make my short films. Sometimes, when you read something, it stays with you for a long time. It moves something inside you and you start relating it to the world that you are living in. And suddenly you discover that what the writer has said is not only particular to the story but also very universal. Perhaps that is what makes the story live in your heart for such a long time after you have read it. Then you go over it again and again and look at it from different angles. Then, at some point, you feel that there is something else which you might also add to the story and translate it into the language of cinema and make it equally effective.
DS: In all of your films, the background score plays an integral role to enhance the emotions of the narrative. So, in the course of making films, how has your choice of music evolved leading up to The Miniaturist of Junagadh?
KO: I have been very passionate and enthusiastic about music since my very first film. Making music is one of the reasons why I want to make films. Having worked on the background scores of my few short films, now I get more involved in the process. Music is always part of my imagination even when I am writing. So, while I am writing, I am also making space for music. I am not only thinking about the film in terms of visuals but also the sound and the emotion music is supposed to convey. So thinking about music has never been so difficult. But over the past few films, I have come to learn more about the use of sound. Earlier, I used to think more about the use of visuals and music in my films. I passively took part in the process of sound design. Now I am more aware of how to use sound and as well as music for giving a complete aural experience in my films. Also, what I feel is that casting and choosing the music director of your film are quite similar, just like [how] you will not cast someone who can’t act unless they fit the part and inhabit that character. Similarly, the music director you bring on board is also a very crucial decision. Both of them will bring a kind of interpretation to your film, which is going to be very powerful as well as very personal.
DS: Your recent short film The Miniaturist of Junagadh is based on a short story by the German writer Stefan Zweig. What were the challenges to adapt the story and set it during the partition of India?
KO: Initially, I was not very sure if I should set The Miniaturist of Junagadh during the partition because it did not easily translate. The short story is set in the post-WWI inflation time in Germany and the havoc it has brought on the middle-class people of the society. So, this whole idea of ethnic conflict and violence between communities in my film, due to the partition, is not so much there in the story. Though the story of [The Miniaturist of Junagadh] is not violent. So, at first, it was not very clear to me whether I should adapt this story and set it during the partition. It was only after I had formed an idea of the story without writing it [that] I gave a narration to my batchmates, and they were moved by it. It was then when I realized that the short film does lend itself to a telling during the partition. There were a few lacunae in my story that my batchmates helped me to fill up. Once I started writing the script, with the partition in the backdrop, a lot of themes opened up that were not there in the original story, like the loss of home and the idea of community and how they come up together. Thus, the partition became a very fertile ground for the events and themes in [The Miniaturist of Junagadh].
DS: What were the key decisions you took regarding the production design for The Miniaturist of Junagadh?
KO: Firstly, you need to have a good art director. Nitin Zihani Choudhary, the art director of [The Miniaturist of Junagadh] has also worked in the critically acclaimed Hindi feature film Tumbbad. He won a Filmfare Award for the same film. I feel research is the easy part, especially now when we have access to so many films, photo archives on Google, etc. But the biggest challenge in the film was to make choices. As [The Miniaturist of Junagadh] begins, Kishorilal (Raj Arjun) visits the house of these people who are about to leave the country by evening. So, every item in their house is packed in boxes, trunks and suitcases. We do not see the lived house at all but an empty house with walls. When I started doing the shot division and started visiting the location, I realized that if we have a house that is already quite bare, it will be strawn of all the emotional connection that the characters will have with the props. So, we decided to make a proper lived house and made the first part of the story play out in the house where people have lived for generations. And once we have seen that, only then we can feel the loss of home that Husyn is experiencing. So, key decisions like this, which you perhaps cannot google, are very important for the production design. In this context, my production designer and cinematographer Kumar Saurabh aka Santa helped me a lot. Santa came up with the idea of chandeliers that used to be there in the 1940s that were hung with a pulley and how you could lower them down and light the lamps, etc. So, ideas like this kept on adding. That is how we created an authentic, emotional and immersive experience in [The Miniaturist of Junagadh], or at least that was the attempt.
DS: As The Miniaturist of Junagadh begins, Kishorilal is depicted as a business-minded and astute individual. But later in the film, his behavior changes. Why is it so?
KO: To be honest, when I began writing the screenplay, I did not have much insight into Kishorilal’s character. I was trying to understand the mind of someone like Kishorilal who would like to profit from someone else’s misery at a time like partition. But once I put him into that situation, I [told] myself that this man also has a certain moral compass. This man too has some human values to himself. I also asked myself if there was something that could move him enough to react out of the character he is projecting — something that would connect him with the values before he became broken, before he learned that the world was all about being selfish and cornering as much profit as you can. I wanted him to stay true to what he wanted and also made him question the new situations he keeps facing. And then it led me to an end, which is not the end in the short story by Stefan Zweig. The short story finishes much earlier. So, I kept on following Kishorilal and asking him to make difficult choices. This is how the character revealed itself to the viewers as well as myself. I discovered him as I went on through the writing process.
DS: As a narrative tool, you have used off-screen narration twice. What is the reason for the creative choice in The Miniaturist of Junagadh?
KO: I would say it was more of a challenge than a choice. The original story heavily relies on this kind of narrative tool. So, when I decided to make a short film and chose this structure, I discovered this huge challenge of telling a story within a story. If I choose to do it through a voiceover — or, as you call it, an off-screen narration — it is sometimes frowned upon and not considered as an affecting way of telling a story. But I felt it was the most organic thing, and it came most naturally to the script. So, I made peace with it and embraced the choice. I took it up as a challenge and tried to make it as interesting as possible.
DS: Lastly, the dialogues of The Miniaturist of Junagadh beautifully blend language and conversations that cover philosophy and emotions. Could you share the process?
KO: This was the first time I collaborated with someone to write dialogues for my short film. I generally shun away from any kind of dialogue or philosophy that explicitly says what the film is about or what the character is feeling. But this time, I was writing about an artist from an era that had a certain flourish to the language. There was poetry in the way in which one expressed [themself]. Since I am comfortable writing in English, I wrote the dialogues with the kind of poetry and rhythm that I would like them to speak. Then I started working with Aslam Parvez, who is a fantastic writer and has written a lot of [theatre productions]. He embraced this idea of philosophy and poetry in the dialogue, which I usually run away from. And since it was already present in my English dialogue, I could no longer shy away from it. So, once I started working with him, there came a point where I realized that this was the natural expression of this script and its characters to have this kind of flavor in speaking.
In 2021, The Miniaturist of Junagadh screened at the New York Indian Film Festival, IFFCincy, the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart and the Bangalore International Short Film Festival.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.