A born storyteller

His brand of cinema is as fresh as the smell of the earth after the rains. Reflecting the rustic reality of India and drawing unique insights from his life, the films of director Nila Madhab Panda like I Am Kalam and Kadvi Hawa have been widely appreciated across the globe. Looking back, the humble film-maker from Odisha is grateful to the simple world he grew up in, which fostered in him a desire to tell stories. Shuttling between Mumbai and Delhi, Nila often spends time in Odisha even now to stay connected to his roots.

“I grew up in Western Odisha. My village, which meant everything to me, was across the Mahanadi river. I am really lucky to have grown up in simpler times when I could just stand still and witness nature all around me. That’s why all my films are connected to nature because I feel that’s the base of every human being and every civilisation,” says the Padma Shri winner. Not too good at academics as a kid, Nila says he was a “born storyteller”. “Well, every Indian is. We all grow up listening to stories told by our dadas and nanis. But nowadays, these stories are posted on social media!” he exclaims.

With a message

His films are entertaining and relevant at the same time. While he started off his journey on the big screen with I Am Kalam, his second film Jalpari received the MIP Junior Award at Cannes. Post this, he went on to dabble with a variety of genres with films like Babloo Happy Hai Kaun Kitney Paani Mein and more recently, Kadvi Hawa, a film based on climate change that starred acclaimed actors like Sanjay Mishra, Ranvir Shorey and Tillotama Shome, and received rave reviews.

However, he considers his latest project Halkaa, which will hit the big screens soon, as the “most important film of my career.” A heart-warming take on a slum child’s dreams and aspirations and the problems he faces every day like defecating openly in the public, Halkaa stars child actor Tathastu along with Ranvir Shorey and Paoli Dam.

“The movie was shot in a slum in Delhi and the entire experience was really memorable for me as I had never seen a slum before in my life,” recalls Nila. “Indian slums have been shown as the dirtiest in the world but we don’t realise how beautiful these slums actually are. The people who live in them are equally beautiful too,” gushes the director about the film which recently won an award at its world premiere at the Festival International du Film Pour Enfants de Montréal (FIFEM) in Montreal, Canada.

From the roots

Nila is open to making commercial films too, depending on how good the story is. “My stories come from the people I meet. And every film, even a commercial one like Rowdy Rathore, is social because it comes from the society.”

As someone who has also worked in television and on documentaries (his feature-length documentary God’s Own People on Lord Jagannath Nabakalebara, narrated by Amitabh Bachchan, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016), Nila is open to new mediums too, like web series. “With the rapid growth of the digital world, I thought cinema would die. But I am pleasantly surprised to see it doing well.”

Although he is heartened to see a huge number of people appreciating films, Nila feels that the film festival culture in India has a long way to go. “Film festivals are a great place to be in. But India still has a lot to catch up on. One place that amazed me with its film culture recently was Kerala. I was in Thiruvananthapuram for an event and was stunned to see people coming from as far as 200 km to watch films. The place has a different culture of sorts, which makes cinema reach out to all — after all, that’s what a film should do, right? Address the problems of the society.”

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