UMA DA CUNHA
Fri, Sept 5, 2014
Two films old. Her debut feature Amu had a world premiere at the Berlinale 2005. Then Toronto, Los Angeles and a lot elsewhere, awards all the way. Her second, Margarita, With A Straw, is also being world premiered at TIFF 2014. Next, to Busan and the BFI London – with others waiting.
What makes Shonali Bose the kind of filmmaker that she is? You have only to know her work or the lady herself. Humanity calls irresistibly for her understanding and skills.
Writer, producer, director Shonali Bose talks to Uma da Cunha
How did you get drawn to film?
Complete chance. In school and college in Delhi, I was driven by the need for social justice. And I loved being on stage. I did street plays on issues. Then, tragedy struck. My mother died due to hospital negligence in Mumbai. I felt so angry I needed get far away. I got a scholarship in Columbia University for a Ph.D. But it was too conservative about India and the Third World, so I quit after my Masters. Around this time I acted in an NYU student film. I found it so exciting, I took a course in film direction there. Good fortune got me a full scholarship to the UCLA Film School. Within a month, when I made my first 2-minute film on 16mm, I knew I had my vocation. Later at a premiere of Amu, I told my mentors how sad I was to leave History, Political Science and activism. They replied, “Who said you have?”
What drew you particularly about the two feature films you have directed?
Both came out of deep personal experiences. Amu brings out the truth of the 1984 genocide against the Sikhs, personified in an Indian-American girl in search of her roots. I was 19 when it happened and I joined the relief camps. On graduating from film school in 1997, I felt compelled to write about it in a way that would hit people the way it hit me.
And did it?
I didn’t expect the standing ovation from a 1,000-strong audience when Amu screened in Berlin. Or that the stalwarts in the Indian film industry would love and support the film. Or the film’s two National Awards, Best Film/ Best Direction. And I certainly didn’t expect the A certificate the censors gave, considering that there was no sex and violence. They said, “Why should young people know a history that’s better buried and forgotten?” I’m fighting for a U/A certificate for the release in a few months on satellite channels on the genocide’s 30th anniversary.
What about Margarita, With A Straw?
My inspiration for that was my sister Malini. We were sitting in a London pub. I asked her what she wanted to do for her 40th birthday. She said, with a rare clarity in her speech, “I want to have sex!” The thought stayed with me. It was an aspect of disability I hadn’t ever considered.
Has the kind of person you are shaped your trajectory as a filmmaker?
Yes. But good activist intentions should not emerge as preachy and stop being good cinema. Ultimately, it’s all about craft. I have tried to be rigorous about that. I spend a full two years on research and writing. I write a minimum of 20 drafts of my screenplay, and then re-write some more. I workshop my actors intensely and insist on at least 2 weeks rehearsal time. With Margarita, the lead had to give me a three-month commitment. Kalki is one of those rare actors who appreciated that.
The other key thing which has helped me be a good director is - motherhood! My films are very performance driven. The trust I need to get my actors to be absolutely naked and honest is akin to a mother- child relationship. You also need to be without ego, be patient and nurturing to get the best out of your crew and cast. Attributes I learnt from my children!
And then, the inevitable question. What advice to emerging filmmakers?
For the kind of cinema I make, which won’t compromise with the ‘market’, I advise an alternative income. Also practise meditation and yoga - it helps you stay in the moment and also calm when all hell breaks loose! Remember -- it's just a film. Not real life.
But don’t give up. Both my films are on extremely difficult subjects that financiers shy away from. But the first has won audience hearts everywhere. And I am confident of Margarita. I feel that Indian audiences want fresh cinema. If you’re not passionate about making films, choose something else. If you are, then, there’s nothing like this roller coaster. Films are a unique legacy you can leave to many future generations.