Filmmaker Abhishek Verma cooks up a storm with ‘The Fish Curry’

Filmmaker Abhishek Verma of 'The Fish Curry' talks about the similarities of cooking and film-making, and finding happiness in the little props.
'The Fish Curry' (‘Maacher Jhol’) captures a day in the life of Lalit Ghosh. Lalit is about to come out, and a special occasion calls for a special dish – maacher jhol, a Bengali-style fish curry. It is his father's favourite. There is something about the film's sepia tones and the old Hindi tunes that fill me with immense nostalgia - like maacher jhol on a cold, rainy day. Abhishek Verma made this short for his close friend who only came out to him at the end of their time in university. He talked to me about the similarities of cooking and film-making, and finding happiness in the little props.
Animator Abhishek Verma. Photo by Oinam Anand.
I’m Bengali, so, maacher jhol immediately caught my attention. So, why the fish curry? You can say my mom is like half-Bengali. She knows Bengali. Many of her friends are Bengali. She is vegetarian, so, she doesn’t cook or eat maacher jhol. But she has never forbidden me. So, I used to go to my Bengali friends’ house and eat when I was growing up. Hence, I have a deep connection with dishes like alu posto and maacher jhol. Another reason I made it about the fish curry was because I talked to many people who came out to their parents. And they had many different stories about how they came out. Somebody wrote a letter, somebody made a video, somebody sent a pen-drive, somebody showed a film, and so on. So, in that context I wanted something very cultural and very Indian. And that is good food with good spices. Then I thought about fish curry. You can’t compare anything in this world with maacher jhol. So, why not have a person come out with this food? That was my take as a filmmaker. If you listen to the Bengali language, or Bengali music like Rabindrasangeet - it is all so smooth, right? Everything is rounded. So, the food is like that as well. And fish has many symbols and connotations that you can play with. In the film, we had to show certain scenes that were very important - like two men kissing. If you put it directly, even in India there are people who will object to it. But if you turn them into fish (mermen) and make it symbolic, things work. That worked for the Indian censor board. They said okay, these are just cartoons. [Laughs] They were not offended and they didn't make cuts. In ‘Chasni’ (‘The Sugar Syrup’), you were exploring acid-attacks through the protagonist trying to make tea. And in this movie, you are talking about homosexuality through the protagonist cooking fish curry. So, what makes you use food to tell a story? For me, cinema and food are basically the same. Because when you make a movie, you write something, then you get into pre-production, production. But you don’t know the output. It always depends on the audience. Suppose I cook for somebody, I know that I will like it. Because I have put in a lot of effort and I know my ingredients. But ultimately, it will be judged by the people who are eating - or watching the film. Lalit listens to the radio like you did growing up. So, is your sketch of the characters’ day-to-day life based on your day-to-day life?  Yeah, so, the radio or the television was a big advancement in my time. Even when the first landline came to our house, it was special. Anything you buy for a home, it has some meaning, some utility. With utility in Indian homes, there comes happiness. In the film, I painted a similar portrait of the little things. A radio, a painting, or even cooking gives one happiness. You’ll see in the film that the father is still using the basic phone. There are many paintings that have been used. When Lalit and his father are talking, behind them there is the painting 'King Alphonso' by Jean-Michel Basquiat. I love his drawings so I thought of paying homage. These are just expressions of myself in the little details.

'The Fish Curry' will be screened as part of the Iris Prize Shorts Programme 4.