For his first short film Aaba, Amar Kaushik returned home. In the 22-minute short, Kaushik hired an 87-year-old local farmer Dani Randa from Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh to play the titular character Aaba. “I grew up in Arunachal Pradesh and am familiar with the local tribal communities of the region,” the 33-year-old director said. “Taking actors from Mumbai would have ruined my story.”

Aaba is about a farmer (Dani Randa), who lives with his wife (Dani Chunya) and granddaughter (Sunku) in Ziro. He is diagnosed with lung cancer and has only a few days to live. He decides to dig his own grave, but an unexpected event pushes the story towards a startling climax. Kaushik’s short will be screened in the Generation Kplus competition section at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival on February 11.

Kaushik has been living in Mumbai since 2007. He worked as an assistant director with Raj Kumar Gupta (Aamir, No One Killed Jessica, Ghanchakkar) and Onir (Sorry Bhai, I Am, Shab), who are the two co-producers of Aaba.

Dani Randa in Aaba.

A short story narrated by Kaushik’s mother inspired the basic plot structure. “My mother is a teacher and she once told me a story about a little girl in her school who took a month’s leave to visit her ailing grandfather,” Kaushik said. “What struck me about the story was that the doctor had given her grandfather a month to live, so the little girl and her family were milling around him, waiting for his death. I was intrigued by how the little girl deals with the situation and I wanted to explore the subject through her eyes.”

Relying on non-actors and sparse dialogue, Kaushik narrates the moving story through beautiful visuals. “I wanted to depict the state of mind of my characters and not their language,” he said. “We took wide shots of the characters walking around in the first day of the shoot so that I would not have to persuade them to act.”

Sunku in Aaba.

Finding his actors was not as tough as training them to act in unusual scenes. “I could not tell my actors the entire story before we began filming because the plot involves a character digging his own grave and doing so is considered taboo in the Apatani tribe,” Kaushik said. He spent two months in the village, scouting for locations and a local crew. He lived in Randa’s house for a month to make him comfortable with the filming process, since both Randa and his wife Chunya had never faced the camera before.

“Sunku was the only one who really wanted to act,” Kaushik said. Sunku is Randa’s real-life granddaughter. She helped Kaushik establish a bond with his octogenarian actors when communication was a problem. “My actors were sweet, naïve people and I did feel at times if I am taking advantage of their simplicity, but eventually by the end of the film, they had understood what the story is and they were not offended by it because it is removed from their own reality,” he said.

After he returns from Berlin, Kaushik wants to show Aaba to his actors, who have not seen the final film. “Their expressions will be worth more,” he said.

Amar Kaushik.