Reel life: A dirge for a home and humanity

Kaushal Oza’s short film, The Miniaturist of Junagarh, is adapted from Stefan Zweig’s novella, ‘Die Unsichtbare Sammlung’. However, initially he wasn’t conscious of the possibility of a film in Zweig

Reel life: A dirge for a home and humanity
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Namrata Joshi

Kaushal Oza’s short film, The Miniaturist of Junagarh, is adapted from Stefan Zweig’s novella, ‘Die Unsichtbare Sammlung’. However, initially he wasn’t conscious of the possibility of a film in Zweig. It was the profound grief for the imminent loss of his own maternal home in Borivli that sparked the idea. The book and his own reality fused together to create the story that is set during the Partition and is also a lament for a forfeited home.

“The house where I grew up was being razed to the ground to make way for a housing complex. I wanted to shoot something in it as a slice of memory, to remember how it was in later years,” recollects Oza. He wrote the film, while parallelly reading Zweig.

About an ageing miniature painter Husyn Naqqash (Naseeruddin Shah), who is forced to sell his ancestral home in India to move with his wife (Padmavati Rao) and daughter Noor (Rasika Dugal) to Karachi, Pakistan, the film is also about an entire culture and a way of life—stitched delicately with the threads of mausiqi (music) and musawwari (painting, art)—facing extinction.

“Somewhere along the way, my home no longer remained the reason for the film’s existence. The theme changed and became all about a set of values getting destroyed,” says Oza. Although the film is set in 1947, it is this element that lends it a larger resonance and contemporary relevance. It speaks about our times. “It was not a conscious decision to do so but the loss I was feeling for an old bungalow also reflected and became a metaphor for the loss in the country at large. How we are bringing down tolerance and becoming more and more intolerant and dogmatic,” says Oza.

As he points out in his director’s statement, home acquired a philosophical meaning. “I, like my many liberal compatriots, was robbed of the secular heritage India's founding fathers had bequeathed us,” he writes.

“It is not just his home that is being taken away from him [Husyn], but also his art. The art of Indian miniature paintings is a confluence of Islamic and Hindu traditions and is a testament to the true heights the human spirit can scale, when minds, cultures, and religions, assimilate. It is through this art that Husyn speaks to his tormentors; and in his own way, breaks free of the tyranny of lines, be they borders or religious divides,” writes Oza in his director’s statement.

Kishorilal (Raj Arjun) is a personification of the fundamentalist forces. The kind who calls his Muslim taangewala “Aurangzeb ki aulaad”, threatening to send him to Pakistan. He is the man who doesn’t just buy Husyn’s house but also wants all its priceless objects, including the miniature collection. But a gradual interaction with Husyn makes some of the old-worldly decency rub off on him as well. We see him thaw and display an unforeseen gesture replete with humanity.

It’s surprising that you still manage to nurse hope in the middle of utter cynicism and disillusionment, I tell Oza. “When hope gets assaulted you must hold on to the ideal. You must strive even more for the better times and stand up for the cherished values every passing day. You cannot go gentle into the night,” he says.

His protagonist Husyn is an eternal optimist too, sure that he would return home to India when the political game of chess between Jinnah and Patel gets over. “The Miniaturist of Junagadh, although rooted in India's difficult past, speaks to the world of today - a world ravaged by religious, ethnic, xenophobic and racist violence. It is a film about a lost art, shot in my own ancestral house before it is torn down. It is at once a lament, and at once, like in Husyn's final act of bridging cultures, a prayer of hope,” Oza elaborates in his statement.

Reel life: A dirge for a home and humanity
Reel life: A dirge for a home and humanity

He has a strong cast to bring the seismic churn of 1947 alive on screen. Surprisingly, for him, casting was the easiest thing about making the film. All the actors agreed almost immediately. “Naseer liked the ethos of the film. But it took a ride all the way from Bandra to Juhu for the fact to hit upon me,” laughs Oza. Shah even used his own costume in the shoot—a shervani, cap and mojdi that he had specially got made in Karachi for a play.

Oza’s being a Gujarati home, the Junagarh ambience was not hard to recreate in Mumbai. “I wanted that 40s era but not something lost in research,” says Oza of the costumes, camera and production design. “Dry details don’t interest me. I look out for expressive frames,” he says.

“I love the way every element of filmmaking merges in his work. He is a very strong voice in filmmaking,” says his co-producer Ranjan Singh.

A graduate in film direction from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Oza won the national award for the best debut director in the shorts category in 2010 with his first film, Vaishnav Jan Toh. His second film, Afterglow, won the national award for the best short film on family values in 2013. His films have been showcased and feted in several international film festivals. The Miniaturist of Junagarh was shot just before the lockdown and the postproduction happened during the pandemic. It did the rounds of the film festivals last year and will be streaming on Large Short Films from May 25.

Coming up next is Oza’s first full-length feature film, an indie being produced by Singh, that he hopes to begin shooting in the second half of the year. Called Little Thomas, it is a slice of life comedy about a seven-year-old boy growing up in the Fontainhas area of Panjim, called the Latin Quarter of Goa, in the early 90s. “It’s about how a child looks at his parents,” says Singh. “It is about how his innocence brings a family together,” says Oza in what feels like it would be another tale of hope amid strife.