Odia director Nila speaks about dreams, climate and a deserted coastal village

Nila Madhab Panda

Young film maker Nila Madhab Panda made a fabulous entry into the world of feature films, 11 years ago, directing the much acclaimed movie I Am Kalam. The Hindi movie which narrated the story of a young boy who idolized former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam for inspiring him to dream had won many awards. In 2010, Kerala Chalachitra Film Society had honored Nila with Aravindan award for debut director. His movie had won many admirers at the IFFK too.

Nila’s latest movie Kalira Atita – Yesterday’s Past has won this year’s national award for best movie in Odia. The director, who has so far been making movies in Hindi, has done Kalira Atita in his mother tongue. Climate change and the significance of education have been some of the prominent themes in Nila’s movies. He had also made many documentaries since 2001. After I Am Kalam, Nila has made around six movies in Hindi including Jalpari: The Dessert Mermaid, Kadvi Hawa and Halka. In 2016, the country honored Nila with the prestigious Padmashri award.

Kalira Atita discusses the impact of climate change in the coastal hamlets of Odisha. Meanwhile, Nila Madhab and his team are busy preparing for the screening of the movie at the international film festival in Prague. In a candid interview, Nila Madhab speaks about his experiences, new movie, regional films including in Odisha and also about Malayalam films.

Odisha to Delhi

“For someone who hails from a remote village in Odisha, making it to the movies was something that was beyond dreams. I was born and brought up in a small village called Dashrajpur on the banks of the Mahanadi River. In my childhood, there weren’t many televisions in the village. There were just two televisions in the locality and one of them was owned by my relative. The villagers, especially the kids would go to these homes, in groups, to watch the television. Though I have moved to Delhi, my roots still lie in that village,” says Nila.

Poster of the movie

Nila says he travels back home to his village occasionally to relax and refresh by enjoying the beautiful breeze and the unadulterated nature. As he was part of a joint family, Nila grew up listening to lots of unique stories from his elders. He says those stories and legends have actually helped him be a master story teller. “As most people in our country are familiar with such stories that depict the Indian culture, it isn’t very difficult to become a film maker. All you need is determination and perseverance. I wasn’t a studious person. As a kid, I wasn’t interested in listening to something for more than 5 minutes. However, I would somehow pass the exams. Seeing my lack of interest in studies, my family used to say that they would pull me out of school and make me work at the fields. Farming is something that I love a lot,” smiles Nila.

Actor Pritobhash Tripati

Though not very interested in academics, Nila managed to secure a college degree. During that time, a person from his village was studying at the reputed Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. This inspired Nila as he thought movies were the best medium to narrate stories. Soon, he began dreaming about being a film maker. He was determined to become a director even if he had to wait for years. He kept telling himself that he would surely make a movie. Nila says he still has that determination when he plans to direct a film. He hardly worries about lack of money or funds when he has a story in mind. Once Nila is impressed by a theme or a story, he would be completely immersed in the thoughts of it. He worked as a camera attendant when he first came to Delhi. Then he became the director’s assistant and soon began making documentary films. Now, Nila is one of the most sought after young directors in Indian cinema.

Kalira Atita and the shore

The poster of Kalira Atita that has already grabbed attention has the protagonist Gunu sitting over a hand pump in the middle of the ocean. “In 2005, I was shocked seeing a picture that appeared in the first page of a prominent national daily. It was the picture of a bore well hand pump rising from the sea. My investigations about it became a documentary called Climate’s First Orphans. It narrates what happened in the Satavaya region in Odisha when parts of the village were gulped by the sea. It shows the helplessness and vulnerability of a people who had suddenly lost everything. The elders at the village pointed to the sea and mourned that there were homes where they grew up. While, the youngsters spoke about how their schools had vanished. Everything turned into one big ocean. Years later, in 2018, I went there again. Though the villagers have been relocated their struggles still continue,” notes Nila.

Nila says the hand pump on which Gunu sits in the film’s poster was not made for the movie. When he went to the village in 2005, the villagers used to take water from this hand pump.

Then, the pump was right in the center of the hamlet. Now, the pump is surrounded by sea water. “Can you imagine the uneasiness standing at a place which has been deserted by its inhabitants? I have shown it as a place in Odisha, but it could happen anywhere. However, we hardly pay any attention to such issues. Scientists and environmental activists have been speaking about climate change and the ill effects of it for such a long time. I have the medium of cinema with me. I use that medium to tell what I need to tell,” Nila explains.

Nila and his crew reached the location for the filming of Kalira Atita without having a proper script. Though the director had a structure in his mind, he hadn’t written it down. The crew had decided not to film with a pre written script as their aim was to shoot everything organically.

However, it was not an easy task as the film crew had to brave difficult terrains and lack of proper facilities. They had to carry the filming equipments, tents, food and water for ten kilometers through the dusty village roads where motor vehicles won’t run. They even had to cross rivers and ponds that were infested with crocodiles. Gunu lived a colorful and optimistic life once. However, now, the sea has taken everything except his life. Actor Pitobash Tripati essays the role of Gunu in Kalira Atita. Interestingly, he is the only character in the movie. It took around 15 – 20 days to complete the filming of Kalira Atita. Nila says the movie got its real form on the editing table. It took months to complete the editing and make it into a fully fledged feature film.

A still from Nila’s latest movie Kalira Atita – Yesterday’s Past

Odiya and Malayalam movies

Nila says Malayalam cinema has been giving fabulous contributions to the Indian cinema since ages. He also credits Tamil and Telugu industries for maintaining a unique identity of their own.

Even the Marati movies are showing signs of transition. The film maker says he tries to watch Malayalam movies as much as possible. “I have watched most films directed by Adoor Goplakrishnan. I studied cinema watching the movies of Adoor, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. So, I deem them as my teachers. I try to watch the movies made by new people too,” says the director.

“Some great movies have been made in Odia. However, we do not have many good movies lately. But, it is hopeful that youngsters are making an effort to come up with unique themes. I would say Odia cinema too is in transition. Odia language is giving amazing contributions in the field of documentary. I am sure that we would do well in feature films too. The government is trying to support the industry. It must be noted that the government is investing in projects like

the Kalinga Studio. This could bring a positive change in the industry. Though a few cinema theaters in Odisha were reopened amid pandemic restrictions, the audience had limited entry.

The theaters might open completely when the pandemic situation subsides a bit,” hopes Nila.

Latest movie, Family

Nila is currently discussing a thriller web series for a prominent OTT platform. His wife Barnali Rath is a fashion designer. She has designed the costumes for Nila’s movies. Their only son has completed plus two and plans to enroll for a fashion designing course.

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