Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Emerging Filmmakers: In Conversation with 'Leeches' director Payal Sethi

After an award-winning debut, writer-director and co-founder of FilmKaravan [which has supported projects like Superman of Malegaon, Sita Sings the Blues] Payal Sethi is all set to kick off shooting her second film, Leeches. The New-York bred filmmaker began her career under the tutelage of veteran director Mira Nair. She assisted on films as varied as The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, before directing her first short, Grant St. Shaving Co., which won her recognition at film festivals abroad. Payal speaks to me about her upcoming film, her journey into film-making, what appeals to her about short films and more!

Tell us about your film, Leeches. What drew you towards the subject? 

Leeches is a fictional tale based on the myriad stories of one-day brides that I came across while living in Hyderabad. The female protagonist, Raisa, is a young, fiesty girl of sixteen, the eldest daughter of four to a single mother. When she learns that her innocent little sister has been promised in marriage to an old man in exchange for money, she decides to protect her by taking her place. Except, she's not a virgin anymore and the suitor in question has paid for a virgin bride. Her quest to restore her virginity leads her to discover a forgotten old wives' trick, but the ensuing consequences are devastating in ways that she could never have imagined.

After delving deep into the subject of contract marriage, my co-writer & I realized we didn't want to tell yet another story of child marriage. We were drawn to the idea of a young girl, powerless but for her virginity, who tries to get the better of this well oiled system of sham marriage. We explored this idea towards a shocking conclusion, which becomes the twist in the tale.

Where are you right now in the project?

At the moment, we are raising funds to make the film through Wishberry and have successfully cleared our production budget of INR 6 Lakhs (USD 10,000) in just 15 days. We have 23 days left to raise an additional INR 5 Lakhs, which goes towards post-production, paying our cast & crew, and bringing down my Director of Photography from New York, who shot my last film. We have also started the casting process & done a preliminary recce in Hyderabad for locations. Meanwhile, I am looking to bring on board an excellent production designer in the next few weeks.

Anyone, anywhere in the world can contribute to this project on Wishberry and believe me when I say, every little bit matters. In India, we offer cash & cheque pick-ups from your doorstep, so I hope that people who want to become funders and were deterred by the credit card option will take action. We only have 23 days left for this campaign. 

When do you plan to begin shooting?

We begin shooting this film in September. My goal before we begin production is to reach a wider audience through the campaign. As we now know, crowd-funding is a great audience builder. This story deserves to get out and I would encourage anyone who wants to support our film to check out the page. Anybody can get involved for any amount, however small. Rewards start at US $4/INR 250. Ultimately, it is the show of hands that will matter.

You went the traditional way to fund your first film/short. It was backed by Mira Nair. Why did you choose to crowd-fund this one?

Actually, we crowd-funded the post-production of my first film as well, through Fiscal Sponsorship, which we received through Fractured Atlas. We just didn't know it was crowd-funding back then. Mira was one of the first to pitch in, and with an incredibly generous contribution. Her support to Grant St. Shaving Co. was wonderful, on so many levels. [You can watch her short film here].

What got you interested in films? 

I always wanted to write, but my interest in Creative Writing, which I started to pursue at Vassar College during my undergraduate years, was replaced with writing for films after a fortuitous lecture on Film History & Theory during my sophomore year. It was in those lectures and screenings that I discovered the desire to write films & eventually, to direct them. Then, during my Junior Year I went off campus to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts & pursued the 16mm Sight & Sound program, which put a Krasnogorsk (camera), lots of black & white 16mm film, & a Steenbeck into my hands.

After film school, I started working with Mira Nair as her assistant, and slowly grew through the ranks of Mirabai Films, over four lovely years. I had declined admission to the Columbia MFA to work with her, because the Dean at the time assured me it would be the best film school for me. He was very right.

Looking back, I realize, this was so much more than a job. It was an education gained while peeking over the shoulder of one of the finest filmmakers of our time.

After Mirabai Films, I became a freelance AD, working on a friend Soman Chainani's thesis film, and then Karan Johar's Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. In the US, being an AD is a professional career track, unlike in India where it's a stepping stone to directing. For about two years after KANK, I worked on some incredible film festivals, including Tribeca, IFP, Hamptons & the NY Indian Film Festival, in various capacities, from programmer to industry manager. The exposure to current films from all over the world was an immersion that cemented my passion for film-making.

What appeals to you about short films as a medium? Do you plan to make Leeches into a full-length feature?

Short films are self-contained – they are abbreviated, but intense. They are not small versions of feature films, and the narrative path can be quite different, if needed. I enjoy exploring certain ideas as short film, while other ideas are better suited to a feature treatment. Leeches is a complete film & will probably end up being around 20 minutes. However, there are several stories of girls just like Raisa – heartbreaking stories that unveil a set of human emotions that I find disturbing & fascinating, in the way that a horror story can be. So yes, I am certainly thinking about a feature.

Who is the audience that you think this film will engage?

This is not a documentary or a social-issue film in the sense that I use sham marriage merely as the backdrop for a story about a young girl & her fierce love for her sister. But since this is no ordinary girl her actions drive the plot towards strange & unpredictable outcomes, and the climax, well, I hope you will watch the film & see for yourself.

Promoting indies by prominent mainstream names, helps get the word out. Ship of Theseus, for instance, had Kiran Rao supporting it. Do you plan to get someone involved with your film at any point?

Why not? The right partner can bring visibility to this film and one of my goals is to spread awareness about this particular practice -  legalized prostitution under the guise of marriage - to as many people as possible, through a story that above all, engages its audience. I wouldn't name names simply because support is given when there is a connection. If I manage to make a connection with a 'persona' through this film's story it would, of course, be great to work with them on this together. I'd love to see that happen organically.

A film-maker who inspires you the most?

I could never pick just one, because there are aspects of each person's film-making technique that inspire me. Here are some, in no particular order. Mira Nair, Cristian Mungiu, Asghar Farhadi, Pedro Almodovar, Emir Kusturica, Jeunet & Caro. I could go on and on.

What next? What kind of films are you looking to make in the future?

My path has been a joyful potpourri up to this point. I have written, directed & produced a personal short film in New York. I have also written two feature scripts: a surreal dramedy about a mother & daughter in Ooty as they traverse the tricky path of a regional beauty pageant; and a wildlife crime thriller, which was developed under Asia Society's New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters. Leeches, which relies heavily on realism, is my second film as writer, director & producer. I can only wish the road ahead continues to be just as unpredictable & enjoyable.

Leeches in 3 minutes:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

In Conversation with Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan

From being the star kid, you're slowly becoming one of the most bankable actors in Bollywood. How has the experience been so far? 

Alia: This is something I've wanted to do ever since I was a child. It wasn't because my parents were actors. It has always been in me to want to be an actor. You can call it genes cause my father's father was a filmmaker, father's mother was an actor, my dad is a director, my mother and sister are both actors, so it does run in the family but I also work towards it a lot. I make sure the choices I make are different and at the same time entertaining and substantial.

What's your earliest childhood memory when it comes to films?

Alia: I recall sitting in front of the TV in my shorts and a gunjee. We had a small silver TV back then. I was watching Karishma (Kapoor) and Govinda (it has to be one of Varun's dad's films), dancing in the garden, and then on the road, and then in the bedroom, and I was just wondering how they were doing it, how quickly they were changing clothes, and why are they dancing on the road? Why isn't anyone stopping them? (laughs). And my first feeling was wow, I want to be there. I didn't know who I wanted to play - Karishma Or Govinda (laughs) I just knew I wanted to be there. That was my fondest first memory of knowing or realizing this was it. And from there on, my fondness just grew to a point where when I saw Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I cut my hair 'cause Kajol had short hair.

Do you take advice from your parents? 
Alia: I take my own decisions when it comes to choosing films. I go with my instinct and if there's anyone I will need to talk to, it will be Karan (Johar).  

Varun: Not really. I think once I've chosen the role, and if my dad knows the character, he gives me a few references from the past that I can use, but I never take advice on choosing a film. 

This is your second outing together and your onscreen chemistry is quite palpable in HSKD. How comfortable are the two of you otherwise? 

Alia: We've known each other before we were anybody, before we were actors. So that ways we share a very special relationship. We've never lost touch. We just became better friends but doing this film together was not because we were such good friends but because we both really believe in the story and love our characters. The characters in the film share a love-hate relationship, which is pretty much our equation in real life. 

Any fun, memorable moments on the sets? 

Varun: I remember in Chandigarh, after we had wound up for the day, Shashank (director) had asked me to stay back to shoot a scene. There was this rope with which I was supposed to climb three floors. And he had scheduled this for five in the morning. I wondered why. Alia had already packed up for the day. It was freezing. I could barely move. Somehow, I eventually managed. To my utter shock, when we saw the film, the scene had been removed (laughs).

Alia: We were shooting in Delhi for a scene outside the Delhi University, where we were supposed to eat kulche chole. It was a montage cut for the song Samjhawan. And I was so busy eating that I almost forgot the camera was rolling. I think it is one of my favorite moments. It's come out so natural 'cause we were genuinely enjoying ourselves, eating and playing pranks on each other.   

A director you'd like to work with? 

Alia: Ayan Mukherjee

How do you take to criticism?

Alia: I think if one can accept praise, one should also accept criticism. Even if you don't believe in the criticism, you have a motivation to prove somebody wrong and that's the best feeling in the world, because that gives you the most drive.  

What does success mean to you?

Varun: Audience's love.  

Do you fear competition? Who is your biggest competition?

Alia: Without competition, there's no fun. Honestly, your biggest competition is with the last film you've done. If it is a hit, you try to make a bigger hit or at least as good as the first. Ninety percent of the time, the competition is with yourself and of course, looking at other people do good work, good films and make the right choices also inspires you to do the same. 

Varun: I second what she's said. I once told Hrithik how amazingly well he dances and acts, and he told me that the fact that you can see it in me and get inspired, means there's something of it within you. I think someone's success should always inspire you to believe that you can achieve it too. 

Of all your films, which has been the most special?

Alia: Each film, each experience gives you something different. It's tough to pick one. It's like having to choose between your kids. But I definitely feel each film changes you as a person and that process started for me with HighwayThat has been my biggest changeover as a person and as an actor. While all films are very close to my heart, Highway remains exceptionally special. 

Varun, would you do an adult comedy if offered? 

Honestly, I would have a lot of apprehension for the fact that Student of The Year and Main Tera Hero have brought along young fan following, most of who are children. I wouldn't want to disappoint them. May be I'd have done it earlier but not now.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya (2014) - Review

Unlike so many remakes and rehashes (many of which only make you squirm) of Bollywood's most loved films, this modern-day spin to the classic DDLJ has a charm, a soul of its own. A cracker of a love story with a sparkling chemistry between the leads, Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya entertains all along. It revives happy memories of all those filmi love stories we've grown up watching (and fancied) over the years. If you're a sucker for Bollywood films, how can you miss this one!

Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt win you over with their honest, unbridled performances. Humpty Sharma is no hero. He plays the boy-next-door, who woos his girl and her family, with an affectionate innocence and is unlike any other character we've seen in a long time. While Highway helped Alia Bhatt show her range as an actor (after she could've unapologetically been forgotten post a film like SOTY), 2 States and Humpty... let her prove her versatility even in the commercial genre. As Kavya, she effuses genuine verve and just the right amount of sass and spunk. It's one thing to get the right kind of opportunities (even if you come from a filmi background) and quite another to play your cards right. The world is her oyster. I hope she continues to surprise. 

The interesting part about Humpty... is while it's an out-and-out commercial film, our actors don't play it loud or hammy. Supporting characters are not mere props in the film. Humpty's friends (Sahil Vaid and Gaurav Pandey) evoke the loudest laughs. Ashutosh Rana, playing Alia's father, balances the stern and the skeptical with convincing ease. 

Except the borrowed 'Saturday' and the amazingly redone 'Samjhawan' (originally sung by Rahet Fateh Ali Khan), the music is mostly forgettable.

I won't be surprised to see Humpty... turn out the top grosser of the year. Have you seen the film? How did you like it? Let's talk in the comments below. You can also connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.