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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Why The Indian Audience Needs More Short Stories: A Quick Chat With Director Shamik Sen Gupta, On Storytelling And Playing With Ideas

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Recently I was blown over an ad 'film' that crossed all records in the ad viewing history of sorts. I am talking about the ad that was made for a brand called Anouk, and even though it had three parts to it, the story that got most talked about was titled The Visit, that featured a young couple who were about to meet the parents, only, in this case, the couple happened to be of the same sex - lesbians. And we all know what 'that' does to our society. I loved the ad, especially as I have always supported the freedom of sexual choices in adults, and have believed that love should not be chained down to age, gender and other such unnecessary words or social barriers. In case you haven't seen the ad yet or are not sure about what I'm saying here, check it out HERE

The ad was actually an online release that was made in the form of a short story, and yes, it was made beautifully, nothing crass or unpalatable about it, and thankfully not made in a way in which many of our Bollywood pieces have 'generalized' and depicted females in same sex relationships. Both the girls in this ad were feminine, and there was no deliberate attempt to give one the 'male' identity as part of a couple.

I did write a lot about the ad, and that is how the director of the ad series, Shamik Sen Gupta, got in touch with me. If you would like to read the review of a few short series I loved, including the Anouk one, you can do it HERE

Shamik was kind enough to share some of his works for my viewing, and I was blown by the beauty in his story telling. I loved it, and again, as I have said earlier, I felt really sad that we, as audiences who would love to see more of such stories, are never given a chance to experience them on the big screen. That is what started our chat and discussion, and here is a look at what I talked to Shamik about his story telling and with Pallavi, his co-director for the short film Playground.

Debo: How come the interest in 'shorts'? Did you always want to get into the crisper version of story telling or is it a stepping stone to lengthier versions of the same? 
PALLAVI: Short is a challenging form of storytelling. It is as difficult or easy as features. But short films are economically easier to make. I am interested in both formats as a storyteller.
SHAMIK: Shorts are a form of films in their own right. Apart from a structure and grammar which is different from a full length feature, it also offers immense freedom especially in the new digital cinema age. That said, its also an extremely challenging form - especially when the ambition of most shorts is to find its way into festivals, in front of a discerning audience of cinephiles and jury. Apart from that, shorts are a great way to prepare oneself towards longer formats of storytelling.

Debo: When did you first come up with a short film and what was it about?
PALLAVI: This is the first short fiction film that I've (co) written and directed. I've worked as an assistant for a couple of feature films and as an actor in a couple of films. Before this I've made a student short called 'Skin' along with my classmate Sophia Bosch. 'Skin' held a microscopic mirror to the beauty treatments that the skin is regularly subjected to. After a filmmaking course in Sweden and Bengaluru, my friend Shamik Sen Gupta and I founded a media outfit- Sweet Spot Pvt Limited. Our first project was a documentary- 'Bookshelves at 17000 ft.' that follows an NGO that's setting up libraries in government schools in Ladakh. 
SHAMIK: I started making films in 2011, with Zinfandel, my first short film – which is about the life of a home delivery kid and his voyeuristic tendencies as he goes around a housing complex delivering stuff. Beyond that I have directed several short films, documentaries and ad films. My list of other short films include – In a Flash (2013), Bookshelves at 17000 Feet (2013), Playgrounds (2015) and the Anouk Series (2015).

Debo: As a movie maker, do you see the Indian audience open to short films yet? Or is there more interest in the international audience for the kind of work you do?
PALLAVI: I definitely see a growth in the number of short films that are being made, and a rise in the attendance to short film festivals. But I guess in our country, it will always be a niche audience that will like, view and encourage short films. Our audiences still have to warm up to non-commercial formats of storytelling. World over, the short film format has seen a steady rise in audience. The biggest challenge for short films is exhibition. I guess now with more and more people opting to get their entertainment from the net (net series, internet releases etc) short films too have a chance of being showcased and presented as sale-able content.  
SHAMIK: The Internet savvy audiences in India have access to short films, more than ever. Though, the same audiences are fed and brought up on a diet of formula feature fare. So their expectations from a short are not always aligned to the visions of independent short film-makers. Similarly, emerging short filmmakers delving into this new form have a long way to go compared to world standards. We often see filmmakers going gaga in social media about their making it to the Cannes Short Film Corner. Though this is no small feat, Cannes Short Film corner is just a showcase of shorts from around the world – but selection in that section is not the same as being accepted in the Cannes Court Metrage, the actual short film festival. The standards of the Cannes festival and all international festivals of similar repute are very high, and we Indian filmmakers have a long way to go before we become festival staples.

Debo: How long does it typically take for a story to be conceptualized and given a final understanding (in terms of content and flow) on paper? 
PALLAVI: This varies project to project. In case of Playgrounds, we wrote the script over 3 months, shot for seven days and did post-production for five months. 
SHAMIK: This story was actually not one of our first choices. We worked on several other plot-lines, before coming back to this story. As we were working on other stories, new sources of inspiration found its way into this story. Once we had the basic outline in place – we took our time to write several drafts. We also researched quite a bit about the subject, migrant labourers and their families and incorporated our insights into the story. It’s a multi-lingual short where the principle languages are Dakshani Urdu and Tamil spoken by migrant laborers.

Debo: As a director, how important is it to be connected to your producers in terms of content? is there a discord or a different view of seeing the same thing?

PALLAVI N SHAMIK: It is extremely important to find a producer who is on the same page as the filmmaker. In case of short films, it is quite difficult to find a producer because there is no usual, formatted method of getting back the investment that was put into making the film. So, unless there is a promise of turning the short into a feature at a later date, or selling the short film idea to someone to make a feature out of it, producers are wary to invest in short films. Both of Sweet Spot Media's films were funded by us. 

Debo: How was the experience of shooting the Anouk ads that went viral recently? Did you expect them to create such a buzz? 
SHAMIK: Anouk was a commissioned project for Ogilvy. I was part of the creative team that was behind the work, so when I took over as the director I was already very close to the project. I wanted to craft them Рunlike most advertising content. While the subjects in the films were sensational, I wanted to avoid stereotypes and clich̩ associated with them. I wanted the audiences to enter the stories unwarranted and actually experience the events in the lives of the characters. The films were made with relatively smaller budgets compared to advertising projects Рso we had to work extra hard to make them in a limited time frame. We rehearsed intensely, planned everything precisely and shot with two cameras to maximize time. The films were shot in Kolkata and the production teams pulled in favours from technician friends to make it all come together. It was an exercise in intensified filmmaking.

One can never predict the kind of buzz a film can produce – but knowing the subject we were aware that these films would get a lot of attention – positive and probably some negative. Though mostly, the buzz around the films were mostly positive. We always felt that if these films created a furor, or got banned due to some reason, it would say something about the kind of society we have become. I am very happy to say the reception, the conversations and even the debates around the Anouk films were overwhelmingly positive.

Debo: While making a short film, do you also rely on improv or is everything pre-set? Are there any non-actor actors in your shots? Do you try to mix the regular crowd into your story or is there an attempt to keep it strictly to the professionals?
PALLAVI N SHAMIK: For Playgrounds we had a watertight script. We did a lot of research on dialects, so it would have been difficult for the actors to improvise. We rehearsed with the actors for several days. But, we had to make quite a few changes in the script and improvise on the go during the shoot because of a lot of challenges and problems the shoot threw at us. Yes, there are a couple of non actors in the film. But they are mostly in the background. We did mix non-professionals and professionals. Mainly for two reasons. One being we had no extra budget for hiring juniors, and the other being we liked the idea of our actors seamlessly fitting in with the landscape.
Interestingly, the child in the film is only 3 years of age and non-actor. Being so young, he had his whims and mood swings and we had to work around it – making it all seem like a game. Sometimes, handling the child actor threw our schedules and shot break-downs off-kilter. That’s when we had to think on our feet and improvise to keep the storyline and the bigger picture intact.

Debo: How easy, difficult, fun is it to shoot live on the streets - your experiences (as the movie Playground was entirely on the streets)
PALLAVI N SHAMIK: It was harder than we imagined it would be. We shot in some of the most difficult-to-shoot locations. Busy streets, heavily populated alleys, traffic, noise, spillage of lights from all kinds of sources and many such problems. We had a tight crew and didn't have enough manpower to handle huge crowds. We also were doing sync sound and found it quite challenging to find clean sound takes. After Playgrounds, we've learnt so much about shooting outdoors with a small crew that we could write a small 'dos and don'ts manual'. The other good thing about making a film like Playgrounds is that, it suddenly peels a layer off the city that you know and reveals something that you never knew existed – spaces, streets and people. This element of odd surprise always adds some magic to the story and the film.

Debo: What is the current status of short films being shown in Indian movie theaters? Is there any information on whether audience will see such movies on a bigger screen?
PALLAVI N SHAMIK: We are hoping that we will soon be able to pay and watch short films in theatres. It will always be a niche audience thing, but if someone could work out the economics of it, then it would be a wonderful development for short films.

Debo: As a film maker, what are some of the biggest challenges you face when you tell a story in a short span of time? What would you also call your biggest joys that keep you rooted to your way of story?
PALLAVI N SHAMIK: The biggest challenge in telling a short story, is to make it a meaningful and lasting experience for the audience. To get the premise right, to hold on to your story from beginning till end, to keep it simple and yet deliver a profound or a moving experience. As auteurs, we don’t find the time a constraint, the stories are always written with a short duration in mind. Lastly, with all the constraints we would like to do something new – bring a new cinematic experience in terms of subject or technique – that is otherwise not always possible in the mainstream films.

Debo: What, essentially, is your way of story telling? 
PALLAVI: I want to tell stories. All kinds of them- simple, complex, profound, funny and sad. Long, short and tiny. Each story deserves a certain form, length, treatment and voice. I hope to be able to know the worth of a story and tell it well. Every time.   
SHAMIK: The idea of taking images and sounds of people, places, circumstances and stitching them together to create a certain meaning in a new way, is what attracts me the most. And then when an audience sees the film they always see it from their context, they deconstruct it from their perspective – and a synthesis happens, a new meaning develops – this interests me the most. Apart from this I am very interested in the power of the image and what it can communicate intrinsically.

It was quite interesting to know all about what goes on behind giving birth to a short film and finally bringing it in front of us, even though we are kind of starved of them here in India. Thanks Shamik and Pallavi and here's hoping we see more of your work and all the best !!!! 

- Debolina Raja Gupta

And like I always believe in and say: 
"Heal the world we live in 
Save it for our children" - MJ 

Debolina Raja Gupta