A little over a month ago, I had the chance to talk with USC film student Faroukh Virani, the director of the recently Kickstarted Indian science fiction film “Vimana.” The movie, which is tentatively scheduled for an early 2014 release, is Virani’s thesis project. Here is the synopsis from the Kickstarter page:
“Vimana” is a film about three Indian astronauts who are a product of India’s ambitious new deep-space program. Set in the near future, the astronauts are on a one-way trip to a distant planet, Gliese. Unfortunately, the ship’s captain, Rishi, passes away after an adverse reaction to the hyper-sleep. Now it’s up to the two remaining astronauts, Pankaj and Naaz, to come together and land the vessel in his memory.
To complicate things, India’s mission control requires them to jettison the corpse in order to avoid bringing biological contaminates to the new planet. But Naaz, who has fallen in love with Rishi, refuses to let this happen. While Pankaj finds her actions weak and in direct compromise of the mission, Naaz must prove that strength comes from a place that is elevated far above scientific protocol—and is what makes us human in this great expanse called the cosmos.
We had a chance to talk to Virani about the uniqueness of his idea, his love of science fiction and how personal this story really is for him.
IIF: What inspired you to do Vimana? It sounds like such an interesting project. When I found the Kickstarter and posted it, I got so many responses from friends who were just interested in it to seeing to actors who found it enticing as well. So tell me a little bit about it.
Virani: Well I grew up watching Bollywood and Indian films because my parents, they had one of those Indian grocery/Indian video stores for a couple of years. And at that time they were renting VHS and so there was always a ton of VHS’s around the house of old and new Indian films. They were pretty good about introducing me to the classics, like the old black and white classics and at the same time the newer Indian films. I was never super interested in them. I don’t think I appreciated them as much as I do now. Whenever I’d walk through the living room, they’d be like “Oh have you seen this song?” and they would just kind of point out something important like a piece of music or a playback singer I should know. So I kind of absorbed what I could. So I grew up with that but I remember never seeing the same sci-fi I used to love to watch here in the states. I mean I remember seeing some Indian films like ‘Mr. India” and more recently “Koi Mil Gaya” and “Krrish,” I’ve seen a couple but they weren’t the same.
IIF: Yeah but I suppose those films are obviously a little behind (technologically speaking) with what’s going on here in Hollywood.
Virani: Yeah. But then I really liked a lot Hollywood films here like “Solaris” and “Moon.”
IIF: I was going to ask you about that. When I read the synopsis, it sounded to me that the vibe was a lot like “Moon.” So I was going to ask you if that was an inspiration and I guess it is.
Virani: Yeah it is. I just wanted it to be something that’s going to feel like a solitary character is on a mission for a long period of time. It’s just to show what it’s like to experience something like that. Really though, the story within the film could be a human emotional moment anywhere, but being in a trapped spaceship just sort of amplifies whatever emotion they are going through. So that was interesting to me and then choosing what story to tell on a spaceship. I sort of drew on the personal story I wanted to tell and set it in a fantasy setting. That’s what I thought was cool. I wanted to do something sort of visually interesting and I don’t think I would have considered doing something like this unless I was at USC because all the faculty and resources here really helps to pull off something ambitious. And all the students have been really supportive.
IIF: Yeah it is a very ambitious project. Can you talk about the specifics on the technical side of shooting something like this? I mean, it is on a spaceship and it is in outer space. It must be a little bit difficult, considering the budget.
Virani: Yeah for sure. Doing it on a student budget is hard but at the same time we have a lot of support from people around here. We have been trying to reach out to some of these visual effects and animation studios for help. But yeah I think we’ll be able to pool some good talent on a student budget and it is hard. But in terms of the spaceship, we have access to USC soundstages which were just recently built, thanks to a George Lucas donation (laughs). Yeah he just donated $175 million recently to the film school and it just keeps getting better as the network grows and the facilities get better. So that helps a lot.
And we have a specific production design focused at the school. So there are a lot of students who just want to do great production design. One of my friends at school is looking for a project for production design and so she’s really excited to show her work and this seemed like a great opportunity. So she’s going to be the one who kind of makes the whole set. It’s her thesis as well to build the space and is working with our production design faculty at school.
It’s cool, we’ve been doing a lot of research on perfecting the spaceship. I mean, 99 percent of the film takes place on the spaceship so we’re just trying to create that space. We’ve been trying to do it on our limited budget so we’re just looking at what’s essential. So we would say “Do we have a cockpit room?” and then think “Well what would that look like?” Then we have a back room where do some calculations and controls and imagine what that would look like. So that’s the bare-bones approach.
IIF: Yeah you would probably have to get a little creative there. You mentioned growing up watching Bollywood and stuff like that. I’ve noticed work from particularly South Asian artists here in America, is improving at a rapid pace. Not necessarily improving, but it’s getting a lot more unique and a lot more universal. I was just talking to Kiran Deol the other day from “Farah Goes Bang” about how every TV show has a token Indian person and how “Farah Goes Bang” is made my Meera Menon and other South Asians, how it’s just getting more of a universal appeal And I think your movie is going in that direction as well. Do you think South Asians are moving forward in that arena?
Virani: Oh yeah I think so. I think there is a lot more recognition there. There is a great little community here in L.A. of Indian actors. There are a lot of professionals out here who are generous enough to consider my student project. They are all over a ton of TV shows. I think people have started moving into a more universal area. It’s not just about the color skin, it’s a funny character on the show.
IIF: Right. Guys only used to get roles like cabs drivers or terrorists and women they would get the role of an abused woman from a foreign land (And that’s still the case to some extent). But now, people like you and Meera are creating work for everybody.
Virani: Yeah and I think there’s a lot more out there. Like Shawn Parikh was on Cougar Town and he was funny but it was just about him being funny. Not really about him being Indian. And I think Aziz Ansari’s humor is very similar. It’s just Aziz’s take on the world, not necessarily an Indian take on the world. It’s just Aziz as a twisted, interesting young man. (Laughs)
IIF: Yeah exactly. He’s just hilarious. I love his R. Kelly impersonation.
Virani: Yeah and with “Farah Goes Bang”, Meera’s really just doing great. I think people are ready for these stories. Maybe it could have worked 10 years ago but it’s happening now and that’s great. It’s just totally unique and cool.
IIF: Going back to “Vimana”, what are we looking at in terms of a timetable and your plan for production?
Virani: We start shooting this June. The USC program has a set timeline for their projects. So I think by around January 2014, we have to be done based on their course structure. We’ll also start reaching out to some Indian and Asian American film festivals at that time and hopefully that’s something people might accept or want to see in the festival world. But yeah, around 2014 is what we’re looking at. We’re trying hard to finish it as soon as we can.
IIF: I guess other than “Moon” and “Solaris”, what other sci-fi influences have you had growing up?
Virani: I think the “Star Wars” films obviously. I’ve recently been watching “Firefly” and a film like “Contact” was pretty inspiring. A lot of different films like “Gattaca”, “Artificial Intelligence”, “Dark City”, “12 Monkeys” and “Blade Runner” are some of my favorites in addition to “Moon” and “Solaris”. One of things that really got to me was Satyajit Ray. As I got older I realized some things about him.
IIF: Well he’s definitely a pioneer.
Virani: Well watching his films and Guru Dutt’s films, I realized people have had an independent voice within the South Asian system for a long time. Satyajit Ray was there from the beginning and I learned one of his earlier scripts was called “The Alien.” He wrote that in the 1960’s and it was supposed to get made and it never happened. Then Steven Spielberg came from L.A. and eventually found the script and they say that became “E.T.” It was like a huge part of science fiction. So I thought it was incredible that India has this heritage with science fiction.
I mean just the way that Indians view the cosmos is very interesting as well. We have a particular viewpoint. We think of space travel and it’s always been the U.S. and Russia and there have been so many films that have traced that. But there are no real popular images on Indian astronomers even though the space program is coming up. That was a big inspiration too. I’ve been reading how India’s space program has been growing in ambition. I’ve been reading more about India and China everyday and even Iran sending a monkey up there. The space race is changing and we don’t really see it in cinema so I just wanted to show that Indian scientists are out there and we are doing interesting things.
I was reading about a lot of these western astronauts and what they would feel when they would go up to space. When they saw the Earth from space, it looked like this small blue marble from a distance and the atmosphere looked paper thin from space. They experienced this weird feeling that came over them. They realized how small mankind is and how fragile it is and how we are all interconnected in this cosmos and how we are just a whole race of people on this tiny marble. And these astronomers, when they came back to Earth, were looking to Catholicism or other Christian religions to find a term for what they felt. They couldn’t find it and eventually they found it in Indian traditions. The feeling was called Samadhi to define what they felt up there. (Editor’s note: You can find a discussion of that term and how astronauts found it here on Ascent Magazine) So it was interesting that it was rooted somewhere in Indian traditions to describe the experience of going up to space. So I think Indian spirituality is linked to space travel in some way. That’s how I felt.
IIF: For sure. I never really thought about it that way but you’re exactly right. The story itself is pretty intense and personal, if you don’t mind, could you explain your inspiration for the specific story.
Virani: Yeah sure. My father passed away from complications due to a lung transplant. He was sort of in and out of ICU’s and my whole family was around to support him. It was kind of a battle with science. We were trying to get my father to hang on and get through something very scientifically challenging. We had a mission to get him to have a successful transplant and sort of carry on. So I’m sort of translating that into space, even though it’s sort of a fantasy setting. It’s not exactly what we experienced. It’s there in some way in the film. These people have a goal, a mission where they want to reach this new planet for new life for humanity. So our goal was to reach a scientific goal for our father to carry on his life.
So on this spaceship, we have three astronauts and one of them falls ill, inexplicably during the journey. He falls ill due to complications with the cryogenic hyper sleep through the first part of the journey. So the film is about the tail end of their travels. It’s about the two astronauts left behind, even though they’ve lost their captain, their leader, the father of their ship, but they still carry on. And so they are finding this new planet, which is Earth-like so India and humanity can carry on. So this story is basically set in the distant future. It assumes there’s been this sort of massive land loss in India due to tsunami’s and overpopulation. It’s about life carrying on and it represents how my family has a difficult journey ahead to move on as well. It’s kind of a way to honor him and tribute to him. He loved Indian cinema and I think he would have loved to see this film if he was around.
IIF: Well it sounds great and I think he would. I think it’ll connect with a lot of people who’ve lost somebody.
For more information on “Vimana” and their progress in production please visit them at www.facebook.com/vimanafilm