A man in his mid-thirties is meticulously cooking his father’s favourite meal on a rainy afternoon. As he tosses pieces of the freshwater rohu fish into a pan of oil, the fish comes to life and metamorphoses into a merman.

Abhishek Verma’s animated short film Machher Jhol explores themes of sexual identity and acceptance through food. “People come out in many different ways,” Verma told Scroll.in. “Some of them include writing a 16-page letter, making a self video and showing people films like Brokeback Mountain and revealing their sexuality towards the end of the film. But we picked food to tell this story as it is a task of effort.”

Machher Jhol has been sent to many film festivals, including Annecy and Kerala. There is more to the elaborate recipe shown in the film. “The fish has plenty of symbols and significance,” Verma said.

Machher Jhol (2017).
Machher Jhol (2017).

A film and animation student from the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, Verma finished the short film after graduating. The idea had come to him during his final year, when his best friend came out to him. “It was a very different feeling at the moment,” he said. “I was just guessing how difficult it was for a person to conceal his identity for so long. It made me think about the highly judgemental society, where one has to keep their identity a secret.”

Using hand-drawn animation, Verma created over 8,000 drawings. A minimum of 8-12 drawings went into each second to enable smooth animation. “When I started the process, I animated the opening six minutes of the film,” Verma said. “But I didn’t like the line quality, so I discarded around three thousands of the drawings and drew again for better quality. It happens.”

Verma’s expertise in the medium was also evident in his first short film, Chasni, a brilliant monologue about an acid attack victim.

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Chasni (2014).

Portraying emotions through a two-dimensional medium was harder than expected, Verma said. “With each scene there is a certain energy to be placed in a character,” he said. In between generating the idea and creating the visuals, he would act out the scenes from the film.

Machher Jhol is based loosely on Verma’s student film Us Baar, in which a gay man waits endlessly for his partner to show up. “I didn’t do proper justice to the story, animation and styling,” Verma said. “So I decided to make something good, strong, layered and in narrative.” Verma joined hands with his friend Jayesh Bhosle to co-write Machher Jhol, adding a dash of food to the concept.

The short film was produced by grants from Jamuura Films and crowdfunding. While convincing people about the film’s theme was easy, getting them to believe in the technique was testing. “Hand-drawn animation is not popular in India,” Verma said. “And I didn’t have any strong reference to back the medium except for a few very films like Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow. Moreover my film doesn’t involve actors or big names.”