“I wanted to narrate a story that was real”
Tarun Jain’s Kaala, a film on racism, makes its way to the Oscars. The filmmaker gives an insight into the ideation, research and filming process
A young boy from Nigeria, Bryan, moves to Delhi to pursue his education – just like any other student. Unaware of the danger looming overhead, he goes about exploring life in the new city – only to face the wrath of racism one fateful night.
This is what Tarun Jain’s short film Kaala is about. The film has been screened at 35 film festivals all over the world, won top awards at Cinequest Film and VR Festival, San Jose USA, and now has been directly qualified for the Oscars to compete for the nominations.
Jain, an award winning filmmaker based in Delhi, has been involved with filmmaking for over a decade now. He shares with Patriot what went behind the making of Kaala. Excerpts:
What motivated and inspired you to make a film on racism in India? Was there any specific incident (related to the crimes committed against Africans in Delhi) which helped you develop the story?
Most of my films are inspired by what I have seen, experienced or observed in my many years of living and growing up in Delhi. I have been following the news on the attacks on Africans in Delhi during 2016 & 2017. Every now and then, there were reports of disturbing incidents that grabbed my attention.
Videos of Africans being beaten brutally in the public were going viral and with time the numbers of such incidents grew. It appeared as if one incident was pumping more such incidents. Nobody took the time to speculate, and only judgements were passed. I began to questions what was so disconnecting about an African that brought out the worst in us? Why the same was not the case with other foreigners? Why their colour was their certificate of character and not them?
There was one incident of a family who accused an African of eating their kid up. Lately, the kid turned out to be an addict, but the story does not end here. The family later claimed that the same African was supplying drugs to the kid. There was also another incident of a young African teacher named Olivier who was killed over a small argument with an auto driver. It was his birthday that night. I could sense that assaulting an African was lesser crime in our country and I decided to work on my story.
The motivations that I drew from these was we often end up assuming something as true and never make the time to understand, question its authenticity or dig deeper to find what the truth really is. We have preconceived notions about places, people, food, religion and so on. Everything around us is judged. My attention was to challenge such thoughts and break away from such stereotyping.
Kaala is probably the first time an Indian film deals with the topic of the atrocities against African students in the capital. Since this is an unexplored issue on screen, did you feel any added pressure while depicting such a sensitive issue?
I’m happy that Kaala was able to tell the stories of extreme atrocities that many suffered in the hands of colour prejudices. Yes, we felt the pressure, but it was something I would say I knew I would have to deal with and it somehow prepared me as I moved ahead with my script. My intention was to narrate a story that was real. It is a sensitive issue and we understand that when you pick such stories, you are also trying to be the voice of many who remains unheard. We knew the impact it would make on people’s life and we wanted to be there for them in our own way of conveying it through cinema.
What was your research process for the film?
I had a very rigorous research process for this film. We have spent about six months meeting people from all walks of life. It was not easy for us to access the lives of the people who had experienced racism, or lost members of their family and friends – although we had no choice but to make them revisit their dreadful experiences.
We also got in touch with many students from various universities in Delhi, Noida, Bangalore, Jaipur to understand their point-of-view and take on racism. It was pretty sad to find how their parents had saved money to send them here and now they can’t move back to their native land or to some other country, because the money has already been paid and they have no choice but to stay here and finish their studies. One striking thing was the situation was same with almost every other student figured out in their initial months that this place is not for them.
Your film’s protagonist Jude Boman Tony shares similarities with his character in the film. How did he land up playing the part? Also, what was the ice-breaking process like with him?
When we started talking to Jude, we told him about the many incidents that took place and he was able to connect with it the most. Also, there were rounds of audition for the role and we found Jude the most suitable looking with his naive face and beautiful smile. Although, we didn’t see the actor in him yet, and so we decided to spend more time with him, to get to know him better and also see it for ourselves why he could be our Bryan. And this was the challenge. We told him we are looking for someone who understands why this story needs to be represented and how that can only happen once we have someone who understands the importance of his role. Jude took time to get back, but when he did, he was there completely.
Please tell us a little about the filming process. And, what was the experience like?
Most of the parts played in the film were performed by first-timers on screen. So, we had a lot of tests, rehearsals, workshops. Since the film is very intense, we worked around with the cast in a way that their equations come out on screen naturally and this was a lot of work for us, but it panned out well.
We were lucky to have found such amazing, talented members as our team. The experience was of course not a cake walk. We shot in the coldest time of winters in Delhi in the midst of a jungle, amid the crowd in the busy pub area of Hauz Khas. It was challenging and very tedious. We shot non-stop for five nights straight. At one time, our bodies gave up, but our minds were still working, focussed.
You’ve mentioned earlier that you want to start a dialogue on racism through your film. After receiving honours at several film festivals, what plans do you have for Kaala?
We are looking at more festivals to screen our films. Mainly the South Asian film festivals, festivals in the continent of Africa where our film hasn’t been screened much. It’s a global issue and we understand that it will penetrate even further if we don’t address it now. After the brutal cold blooded murder of George Floyd, people have come out on streets raising their opinions and standing against racism. This shows we care; we just need a much louder voice to support us. We are also aiming at reaching out to various platforms where racism could be debated. We are also looking at screening in schools, colleges, universities, and private institutes, multinational companies as part of their diversity and inclusion programmes.
Lastly, what’s your take on the deep-rooted racism and colorism that often appears in Indian films (be it through songs or casual racist remarks), especially in Bollywood?
I think it represents the mindsets and that is the result of what we have been fed for so many centuries. We still can’t get over with the white skin and our love for fairness creams, and how we begin to look at a white foreigner as someone good and at an African as someone bad. It’s sickening to see how immediately we draw our conclusions about people without even understanding their culture, their preferences and so on.
To eradicate the issue of racial prejudices, we have to consciously make decisions. We must question before doing anything. Sometimes, we don’t analyse that how our decisions today may impact us gravely tomorrow. I think as a film fraternity, we need to understand our responsibility as a maker — who has a long lasting impression on many who watches or sometimes worships someone’s work. I think by doing so responsibly, we can certainly make a difference. After all, films speak the language of people and inspire many.
(Cover Image: A still from Kaala //Credit: Tarun Jain)