The one that did not make the cut

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GLORIA Stuart coined the phrase ‘A women’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets’ as part of the dialogue in the 11-time Academy Award winning romantic disaster film, Titanic. While it was used as a means to validate the events in her life, it generally applies to those of the fairer gender who manage to keep their emotions to the minimal in dealing or having dealt with harrowing life situations.

In Liar’s Dice, directed by Geetu Mohandas, the phrase applies to Kamala, the protagonist in the 103-minute film. Her ocean of secrets is the mystery of why her husband, Harud, had lost touch with her after moving to a big city. Worry and anxiety are apparent on her face, further underlined by the constant checking of her mobile phone to see if, by some miracle, Harud had replied to one of the million text messages she incessantly sent to him over the span of five months. Despite many remarks from her village women folk that her husband was either dead or had left her to start a new family, Kamala, who is played by Geethanjali Thapa, 26, is more than determined to find the answers herself.

The film centres on her story — the tale of a young mother and her audacious three-year-old daughter Manya, who leave their home in a small village on the mountains of the India-China border called Chitkul in search of Harud. Their search leads them to New Delhi and it is during this journey that Kamala is exposed to life’s cruel realities, from the moment she leaves her serene village.

One of the few key scenes is when they meet Nawazuddin, or Nawaz, who seems to be going in the same direction. There is an underlying love story — one that is born out of the need to survive. As the story progresses, it is clear that Nawaz is a character that dwells mostly in the grey — either playing the role of a protector or the ever-ready opportunist. Nawaz and Manya are the only characters using real names.

Blessed with flawless almond-skin, Thapa, who is from Nepal, said connecting with her character was not difficult.

“I think as a woman, though one may not have a clear idea of what motherhood is really about, maternal emotions come naturally from the moment you hold a child. Other than that, Kamala is in love with her husband and the film is about relationships, more than anything else.

“We went to the village ahead of the shooting schedule. That helped me understand the essence of the character because I was able to observe the culture, the daily routines of the women in the village and learn things like how to spin a yarn so I could blend in,” she told ‘live it!’ in an exclusive interview.

Once Thapa was able to understand the core of her character and formed a bond with Manya, she was able to depict Kamala both as a mother and a woman. Her main concern during the journey was the safety of Manya and the little girl’s pet, a billy goat.

Thapa observed how the village women of Chitkul had strong personalities, thus inspiring the character for her role, especially after Nawaz was introduced in the plot. Her interaction with Nawaz showed clear progression from being distrustful of him in the beginning to completely relying on him at the end.

“While Nawaz proved to be harmless to Kamala and Manya, he was a stranger and just because he saved me from the humiliation of being raped or saved the goat from abandonment or because he had given me his shoes once mine gave out, as a mother, I cannot use these paltry instances as reasons to trust him. He is still a stranger,” Thapa explained of Kamala’s stand.

In role, Nawaz is an army deserter who is on the run. His military training gives him leverage to adapt to any situation that comes his way. Hence his opportunistic take on life, since leaving the service. A drifter by circumstances, Nawaz’s character communicates with actions rather than words and speaks only out of necessity. He blows hot and cold and it is easy to understand why he behaves the way he does when the film comes to its end.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui shares how it was difficult to play the character.

“It was not a black and white character and usually, this kind of people have unpredictable temperament. It was hard going back and forth as the nice guy and then as the survivor because I am not like that in real life. But because we hear stories like this all the time, to some extent, I had an idea of how I wanted to portray this particular army deserter and of course, I played off Kamala’s reactions.”

Admitting that he couldn’t say no to be part of this “brilliant story,” the 40-year-old Indian actor who has starred in some of Bollywood’s major films like Black Friday (2004) with Kay Kay Menon and Pavan Malhotra, and New York (2009) alongside John Abraham and Katrina Kaif, notes how fundamentally survivors like Nawaz were edgy and while there may be emotions involved, the ultimate goal is to survive against all odds.

“Sometimes, I really love Kamala and sometimes I detach. My character may be thinking about making Kamala and Manya his family but also how to provide for them should he decide to do so. This is why he doesn’t tell Kamala the truth about Harud but assimilates Harud. The character is constantly thinking and changing and the ending of the movie is a cliff-hanger. It is up to the audience to decipher how the characters end up.”

Both Thapa and Nawaz hope that when people watch Liar’s Dice, they will be compelled to have a little more compassion towards migrants and go the extra mile and ensure that the well-being of the community is everyone’s responsibility, not just the employers’.

Migrants or not, they are people and we are all citizens of the world, the actors said. And of course the age-old phrase ‘If this migrant was your loved one, would you be so nonchalant about their death?’ should apply and that alone should convict us to speak up against this atrocity. Further, the movie demands the audience to deal with issues such as migrant labourers and human exploitation involved in migrating to cities and the horrible realities about the social issues that plague India.

The independent film beat thousands to be selected as India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Picture nomination at the 87th Academy Awards, or the Oscars, which takes place today at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, US. Unfortunately, as the Jan 15 nominations were announced, Liar’s Dice did not make the cut.

Nevertheless, Liar’s Dice was accorded a special jury award at Sofia International Film Festival and at the 61st National Film Awards in India in early December, it bagged the Best Actress and Best Cinematography titles.

The film made its first appearance at the Mumbai Film Festival in October 2013, and had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014. It was also screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2014.

The small but passionate team behind the film appreciates the honour to have been nominated for the coveted golden statue.

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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on February 23, 2015.