Birju, a short narrative by Heeraz Marfatia won the second prize at the coveted Berlin International Film Festival, 2003. Marfatia, who debuts with this film, is also assisting Hollywood director Roland Joffe in the Vivek Oberoi-Aishwarya Rai starrer, The Invaders.
Ever since he made Birju, the accolades have been flowing in by the dozen. Over the course of the year, Birju has been selected for more than 30 international film festivals around the world, including the San Francisco International Film Festival, San Paulo International Short Film Festival, Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and Mill Valley International Film Festival 2002. The film has also won awards at the Big Bear International Film Festival, Telluride Independent Film Festival and the New York Film Expo.
Carla Meyer from the San Francisco Chronicle describes Birju as 'lovely and lyrical... a truly accomplished first film.'
It tells the story of a day in the life of Birju, a four-year-old village boy. The film took shape in the director's mind when he was faced with the task of making his first film for his Master of Fine Arts programme. He had been developing two separate ideas throughout the semester -- a documentary and an image of a little boy running. Inspired by the streets of Pushkar for the second idea, Marfatia decided to shoot Birju in its narrow, winding alleys. Having visited the Pushkar Mela in childhood, he has fond memories of the place.
The difficult part was procuring finance for the film. And that is where goodwill came handy. Marfatia could not afford to buy film stock for his 35 mm film, so he relied on the generosity of filmmakers and cinematographers in Mumbai to spare a can or two. Ten filmmakers including Tinnu Anand, Shyam Benegal, Subhash Ghai and Vidhu Vinod Chopra and cinematographers like Kiran Deohans, Vikas Sivaraman and Barun Mukherjee made the film possible. Kodak India lent a helping hand. Tinnu Anand and Govind Swarup were also were instrumental in the making of the film. In fact, Marfatia and his team worked out of Anand's office.
Manmohan Shetty's Adlabs processed the negative without a charge. All the shooting equipment was also almost free, thanks to the people Marfatia had previously worked with.
Finding a boy to play Birju posed another challenge. "I had made up my mind to use non-actors for my film," says Marfatia. "I wanted to have the local people playing filmi versions of themselves. I saw Vijju [the boy who plays Birju] trying to hide behind someone in the marketplace in Pushkar. When Vijju started to run away from me, I instinctively ran after him, chased him into his house and met his family, who agreed reluctantly to let their four-and-a-half year old act in a film."
Marfatia, who intends making a full-length commercial venture after Birju, says the film was the realisation of a lifelong dream. "With Birju, I tried to discover a child's world. To explore how a child thinks, what intrigues and distracts him. I was interested in portraying a child set free from an adult's company -- to create a character who has a visceral connection with the world. Through this character, I wanted to achieve a desultory, meandering pace for the film.
"Pushkar, where the film is shot, was my biggest inspiration. I live close by and have seen it morph into its current shape over the years. I use it like a character in the film. It's hard to pin the place down -- it is a holy place, where a Salvodor Dali boutique and the only Lord Brahma temple in the world co-exist. The entire town is vegetarian and has a variety of cafés, like the Pink Floyd Café. Traditional Hindus live with marijuana-worshipping foreigners. It's a murky terrain to negotiate. Pushkar is not only visually vibrant, but also has the tangles of a touristy place around it. Finding Birju and then shooting my film in Pushkar have been two of my biggest highs. This award, of course, is the icing on the cake."