Combining his father’s deep-rooted memories of caste-based discrimination and his own witness to incidents of racism in Australia, Girish Makwana dissects the reality of human nature and discovers that behind all the colour lies an area of darkness. The Colour of Darkness, Makwana’s film, premieres on August 21 in Melbourne as part of the Indian Film Festival 2016.
Girish Makwana grew up in Nadiad, a town tucked between Baroda and Ahmedabad, a place where his search for identity took roots. Affected by Polio at one-and-half years of age, Makwana realised his life was very different to everyone else’s. As a child he was often picked and bullied while playing with his peers. Indeed he was growing into an angry young boy till his parents, who were both teachers, came to his rescue. His mother taught him the love for books and his father introduced him to music. They would go on to change his life. “Books and music conquered me, they built my characteristics and I started looking for my identity,” says Makwana, who has made his first film The Colour of Darkness to be premiered on August 21 as part of the Indian Film Festival 2016. It is an aspirational film, a part of his journey in his quest for identity.
But first let’s take a peek into Makwana’s initial years. He grew up wanting to be an artist – a filmmaker, a musician or a writer. After studying Microbiology, he sought admission at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune but without any luck. So he applied for drama studies at MS University in Baroda which again got rejected because of his polio, he rues. In the end he completed his Bachelors and Masters in music. In 1988-89, Makwana was the first Indian student to be awarded a scholarship for a PhD project on musical composition of the tabla by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. His aim was to produce an electronic version of the Tabla Tarang, a rare and neglected percussion instrument. But in 2002, with a change of government in Gujarat, the scholarship was cancelled and he went back to India.
As luck would have it, upon reaching India Makwana got the opportunity to go to Europe on a musical tour as a professional musician. For a year, he was performing in countries such as Germany, Poland, Finland, to name a few.
“Destiny again brought me back to Australia after that,” he smiles. Back in Australia by 2004 again, Makwana’s musical journey flourished. He was playing in numerous concerts and in 2007 even formed his own band Tihai3 comprising his friends Nicolas Buff on the saxophone and Saby Bhattacharya on the sarod. Playing classical Indian music, the group has met with tremendous appreciation. But to cut a long story short, despite the success on the musical front Makwana felt something was still missing. “I wanted to do something better, I always had an urge to do that extra something. I always kept thinking of that one great break in life.”
So he took up two studies at RMIT – a Diploma of Screen and Media and Masters of Creative Media (Film &TV). He made three short films, a 5-minute film titled A Musical Journey (2010), another 5-minute film called The Gift (2011) and a 30-minute documentary on his own musical group Tihai3 in 2010.
The idea for his first major film The Colour of Darkness was born around 2009. It was also the year when news of Indian students being alleged targets of racism in Australia hit the headlines. Over discussions Makwana had with his father on the incidents ensuing in the country, he discovered his own family had been victims of racism in India. And this is how the story pans out. The year was 1965. Makwana’s family belonged to the weaving community considered the untouchables or lower caste. The norm those days was to serve the Thakurs or landed class during any rituals no matter what profession one was into. These included fetching wood and doing all kinds of menial jobs whenever the occasion demanded. Any defiance meant severe punishment.
Having completed his BA (Bachelor of Arts) and LLB (Bachelor of Law) Makwana’s father was the first educated person of his village. His mother too was educated, therefore, both fought for their rights not to take part in slavery. But it had its repercussions. One night a group of hooligans attacked the locality in which they lived and Makwana’s family had to flee their homes in the middle of the night. Not one to sit still, Makwana’s father worked with the media and the politicians of the time whereby a compromise was met.
Given this backdrop, Makwana’s father told him, “Indians cannot criticise racism. Our nation is on the top as far as discrimination is concerned. Do we have the right to preach lessons of anti-racism and equality to others when casteism (discrimination based on caste), provincialism, gender discrimination and religious discrimination, still have deep roots in India?”
It is this story of his father juxtaposed with the incidents in Australia that inspired Makwana to make his film. It took him three months to write his script. The name, he says, is significant as Colour of Darkness in fact points to the heart of darkness found in each person irrespective of where he is born. “India has 29 states, 22 major languages and 1800 dialects, Australia is made up of 189 nationalities of different ethnic races and backgrounds, both are colourful countries but underneath the colour lie so much darkness,” explains Makwana.
In exploring this realm of darkness, Makwana has tried to touch not just the racial bias but deftly woven issues of culture and identity with children who are born here. The main protagonist in his film is a girl born to a South Indian father and a white Australian mother. While she looks every bit like an Indian, her thinking and approach to life is very Australian and she feels a disconnect with India. But when as a journalist she is sent on an assignment to report on the attack of an Indian student, her chance meeting and interview of an Indian student changes her whole perception of India and Indians. She begins by asking the student if he ever felt discriminated at which he replies, “I was born discriminated.” Ironically this sows a seed of interest in her. The young man’s life is a flashback on the life of his father. “The girl’s journey is the audience’s journey as she gets sucked into his story, gets interested in India and ultimately falls in love. In turn, she wants to find out more about her father’s background and ethnicity and her own roots.” Fittingly enough, Makwana has endeavoured to blend and weave both the cultures of India and Australia.
Interestingly, the girl is played by Vidya Makhan, whose grandfather a dhobi (washerman) immigrated to South Africa. Makhan’s family eventually migrated to Australia from South Africa. “It took me two-and-half years to find the girl for the role,” reveals Makwana, adding, “Vidya is multi-talented, a musician and a power house.”
Made on a budget of 3 million AUD, it took Makwana all of six years to complete the film. “It took me six years because it is my first film. The first thing, no one believes me,” he laughs. “First of all you need money for this project, along with money you need talent and no one is going to come for free. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect. As a filmmaker, as an artist I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned.” Even the posters for the films have been hand painted, that’s the level of perfection and uniqueness, Makwana aims at.
Eighty per cent of the film’s language is English, 20 per cent is Gujarati and there are four Hindi songs that form part of the background music. A great deal of work has also gone into the musical score of the film. The four songs were introduced to trace the protagonist’s journey of rediscovering her roots. Apart from the film’s script, direction, the song lyrics and musical score belongs to Makwana. He has used the once popular string orchestra of Mumbai (who are almost defunct now due to the onslaught of computer and other technologies invading the music industry) and also from Melbourne. The music was made in four destinations – Mumbai, Melbourne, the US and finally programmed in the high end studio of New Zealand with Dolby Stereo and the works.
Is there any message in this film? “No. Personally when you try to give message to people, it does not work. We are used to the Ramayana and Mahabharata culture where we look for lesson in every story; we are habituated to lecturing and giving advice. But real cinema makes you think. You ask yourself questions… My aim is to unveil the truth behind the story.”
Makwana says he has sacrificed everything to make this film. Along the way, there were lots of ups and downs. “You have to be strong within yourself, there were lots of pressures and I met all sorts of people – the bad the good the ugly. But I never felt that I should give up and because of my determination a lot of people joined me, even those who did not believe in my dream. The team that I have built today are a product of my determination. They showed blind faith in me, which was my plus point.”
Surprisingly, the film has been kept a secret save a few in the production team who have been privy to the final product. Asked if he is worried about the film’s outcome, Makwana says, “I have no tension or pressure because I know my product well. I have faith in my story, my work and I work very hard. People may like it or not like it but I would like to see their reaction, that is the most important thing. If people don’t react or recognise what you have made then as a creative person I know something is wrong with me and my product. But you can’t make everyone happy, every individual is an artist and they look from their own perspective. But yes I am excited like a little child.”
Finally, has he at least solved his quest for identity now with the completion of the film? “See the wise man says you can never get rid or kill your desire. It is something that never ends.” It is a question that has a sway of emotions for Makwana. The quest for identity is something that goes beyond the Colour of Darkness.
By Indira Laisram