Recently concluded Toronto International Film Fest (TIFF 2014) had an Indian Director Megha Ramaswamy's short film NewBorns. It was quoted by many as being the best film in the section, and our team got a chance to interact with the fascinating director. Here she talks about her influences, her creative process, her views on Bollywood, short films and her future projects.
1) Hello Megha, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where do you come from and how were you drawn to this medium?
I was born in Delhi and brought up in Pune. An only child to parents who had to make up for the lack of a sibling via stories! I did my Masters in communication studies and film then went to attend the one-year course in screenwriting at FTII..Summed it up with a fellowship to Firenze where I studied some film and art history. I grew up in Pune in a house on a hill surrounded by forests. As a kid I wanted to be an explorer and discover things… film is the only medium where one is constantly exploring, discovering, creating make believe worlds so I stuck on to initial goals as an explorer I guess!
2) Can you tell us about the key directors, artists and philosophers whose work influence you?
(in no particular order!) Louis Malle, Wim Wenders, Marcel Proust, Anand Patwardhan, P.Sainath… Marina Abramović, Charles & Ray Eames, Bill Cunningham, Ira Glass, Yayoi Kusama, Michel Houllebecq, Loretta Lux, Susan Sontag, Annie Liebowitz ,Bill Cunningham, Brilliante Mendoza, Mira Nair,Catherine Brillliat, Jeffery Eugenedes, Virginia Woolf, Carol Ann Duffy, Gulzaar Saab, Tamara de Lemepicka, David Pearce, Richard Dawkins, Roald Dahl, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Adrienne Riche, Neutral Milk Hotel, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Farida Khanum & some more.
3) Newborns rejects a journalistic-narrative for a more subjective, free-associative approach. Why did you hit on this being the best way to make the film and how did you arrive at it?
The challenge behind creating the specific design of the film was to capture a complex reality and transmit it to the realm of a viewer’s ideas of identity and justice.The ide was for the subjects themselves to simulate their reality. The natural channels for this thought-stream to flow through monologues and rhymes in the film, written and performed by the them, aided by the natural sounds of the urban cityscape. To involve the survivors as co-authors.
A core aspect of the visual design of the Newborns is the cinematic conception of the Gaze, to engage with it only after taking into account, the myriad sociological, creative and psychological aspects of how one can interpret it, then transferring the essence to the medium of film. The effect is a visual diffusion of the instantaneous stigma that the survivors are subjected to, a thousand times a day. Of staring and gazing, in the standard Indian public sphere, with a multitude of crowds among its notorious flurry of chaotic activity.
Today, the problem this throws up would be easy to rectify, if not for certain current realities.
4) The film is not really about a crime but about the protection of an identity from a crime and from any other tags that an outsider
brings to Lakshmi. Is that one of the possible readings of the film?
Absolutely …As scarred survivors of violence, the participants have come to define themselves in restrictive stereotypes, mostly assigned by outsiders. The film attempts a re-scripting of this narrative. A search for this new language is as significant a part of the film as the final expression itself.
5) Lots of filmmakers after making their short, face the challenge of finding an audience for it. How was your journey and experience of being in TIFF? The acid attack crime is much more common in India than in rest of the world (or is it?). How did the international audience receive it? What are the next steps with the film?
It was inspiring & enriching to see the audience; the critics & fellow film makers react so passionately towards the film. It’s so important for documentaries to travel & find audiences who will get involved, ask questions & educate themselves.
When a packed theatre clapped and toasted to the spirit of acid violence survivors-somewhere I felt we were onto something special. Also to be premiering in competition with Claire Denise (who I'm a huge admirer of FYI) was an honor, of sorts!
The next step is to weave a bigger picture out of our musings & to actively partake and design more outreach campaigns like the travelling "spot of shame" initiative that took off in Jan this year.
To add to that acid violence happens world over but is especially rampant in India,Pakistan,Bangladesh & Cambodia.
6) We think the title Newborns is very powerful. How did you arrive at that title? What does it mean to you?
The title ‘the Newborns’ presents itself through survivor Laxmi Agarwal’s anecdotes and resonant conversations with several other acid attack survivors, who liken their recovery to rebirth. Tracking their internal struggles, evolving sense of identity, their notions of beauty and what it means to those in their environment, the title explores the powerful reconnection these women make to their new identity.
7) What do you think about short film as a medium of expression? For a long time it was seen as stepping stone to making a feature film. How do you think this medium has evolved?
Some of the finest filmmakers in the world have produced excellent shorts before & after their features.
Directors like Herzog, Wes Anderson & Claire Denise still make shorts out of love for the form. Some of the most iconic films in the history of cinema have been short films – like Le voyage Dans la Lune & Incident at Owl creek Bridge. Even the Dekalog by Kristoff Kieslowski found expression through a series of 1-hour episodes. The medium has definitely come a long way found a striking audience & identity of its own.
8) You have also worked on mainstream hindi films like Shaitaan. What do you feel about Bollywood? Do you think that the industry is open to new ideas and new forms of narratives? Who are the current filmmakers whose work you look forward too?
Bollywood is a curious social experiment to observe - one one hand we see a group of jaded cynics doing what they've done for years without feeling the need to make the slightest change, then there are the street smart ones - they seem all progressive & exciting & full off beans - but their stories let them down. Having said that, more and more filmmakers of my generation are becoming increasingly aware of their responsibility as artists. Its a nice change. The acceptance of newer stories & narratives. Besides-theres so much in to life to “feel” strongly about. Things that you are constantly interacting with on an everyday basis – art, politics, literature, culture, poetry, music …etc. Shaitaan was a long time ago! Bejoy Nambiar is a wonderful mind.
I was very moved by Vikramaditya Motwane's “Udaan”. I look forward to films from Dibakar Banerjee & his motely bunch. Titli looks great.
Anand Gandhi is someone whose stories/films/art/arguments/
9) We can't wait to see more work from you! What future projects can we look forward to from you?
I cant wait to put more work out there! thank goodness for a cluttered mind & desk!
I’m writing a book of curious stories for curious children, my next short “Bunny” is based on an episode that came out of these stories. I have written the screenplay for “Girls” im co-producing with Shimit Amin under our banner Missfit Films & directed by the insanely talented Gul.Dharmani. My work with Newborns & SAA is an ongoing process till we sculpt a feature out of all the material we have assimilated over the years.
Thank you Megha for such a stimulating interview! It's great to discover such a powerful voice. We wish you all the best for all your future endeavours.
Newborns is available online only for a short amount of time. Catch it here before it disappears :)!