It is easier to get a bottle of Pipsi, a local and cheap cola drink, than water in the bone-dry village of Rakh in Maharashtra. And yet, eight-year-old Chaani and her friend Baalu manage to store some of the precious liquid in a bottle to grow a fish.
After listening to the story of king Satyavrat and the fish from the Mahabharata, the children become convinced that a fish alone will save Chaani’s dying mother. The village doctor has pronounced that she has only three months to live.
“The streams have all dried up,” Chaani tells Baalu. “Where will we find our fish?”
Eventually, they manage to find a fish and name it after their favourite drink, Pipsi. But will Pipsi save the day?
Directed by Rohan Deshpande and produced by Vidhi Kasliwal, the Marathi-language Pipsi deals with grave matters related to life and death, myth and reality and fact and fiction and leaves it to two incredibly determined eight-year-olds to make sense of them. The two children, performed brilliantly by Maithili Patwardhan and Sahil Joshi, give the movie their all. Pipsi has been screened at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-18) in the children’s cinema section Half Ticket.
Although Deshpande conceptualised Pipsi with writer Saurabh Bhave, he left the production halfway for reasons that Kasliwal doesn’t want to discuss. She did, however, chart the journey of the film from the page to the screen.
“The germ of the idea for the film came from the discussions that Rohan and Saurabh had as friends,” Kasliwal said. “Both come from smaller villages in Maharashtra and they are familiar with such a story and setting. They wanted to do something that involved drought and children. When they came to me with the idea, I instantly loved it. It had the promise of childhood and was so aspirational. I feel that as makers we have a responsibility to give hope to people.”
The initial story idea did not extend beyond two pages. “Initially, what we had was a story about a mother, a daughter and a fish that the daughter wants to use to save the mother,” Kasliwal said. “Gradually, we began discussing the layers that we wanted to put into the film: how much of the friendship should we touch upon, how deep do we want to get into it, how much of the issues of the adults do we go into etc. We were very sure we wanted to keep it from the point of view of children.”
The experience of drought is central to Pipsi. The cracked and parched earth is the terrain on which the two children grapple with farmer suicides, agricultural distress and debt. The movie was shot at Arni, a village in Yavatmal district.
“It was constant process of collaboration and brainstorming,” Kasliwal said. “For instance, we worked out the climax only at the edit stage. We were thinking how we should we end it – should there be rain, should there be death, should they abandon their beliefs. In the end, we decided to go with an ending that is interpretative – one which allows everyone to interpret it in their way because that is how life is.”
The child actors who deliver stunning performances were the first and the last to audition for the roles. “We were lucky that the first children we auditioned were Sahil and Maithili,” Kasliwal said. “When you give children a script, they take everything so sincerely. They knew each other’s lines as well. They would come up with a lot of nuances or actions they needed to do. They brought their naturalness into the film. They became great friends as well, entertaining each other between shots.”
Preparing children for a movie that handles suicide, drought and death isn’t easy. “We took workshops with them,” Kasliwal said. “Both come from different backgrounds – Sahil comes from a village near Pune whereas Maithili is from Bombay. So we had to handle each differently. Sometimes when you are in a smaller town or village, though your external exposure may not be as much, I think you get used to harsher realities really quickly. I think this idea is somewhere an underlying layer of the film as well. A lot of people who have watched the film wondered about why the children aren’t reacting to the suicides as much as they should. Is it because they are ignorant about it or is it because they are used to it? It is both and you can read it either way.”