By Priya Bhattacharji
Movies are made to move. Forgive this truism. However, the proficiency with which movies invite viewers to connect as well their ability to affect viewers often becomes the primary basis of their assessment. Which is why the typical elicitation by a casual film-viewer is restricted to ‘nice’, ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘slow’, ‘fun’, ‘real’.
‘Ribbon’, Rakhee Sandilya’s debut is a painstakingly well-crafted film, made to emotionally resonate with urban India. While Ribbon’s socially pertinent depiction about a fraught young couple has been widely appreciated, the film’s languid pace and unmediated style of filming has had mixed responses.
Here, we speak to Rakhee about her foray into filmmaking, and delve into the making of her much-discussed debut film, ‘Ribbon’:
Where did your love for cinema begin?
RS: No one from my family is remotely associated with filmmaking. But my love for movies started early, in my childhood. In the 1980s and 1990s, the VCR (Videocassette Recorder) was the heart and soul of our household. My mother was a huge fan of Rajesh Khanna. Thanks to her, I have seen each of his films. In fact, for the longest time I never knew there were others, till my dad introduced me to films such as Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke phool. Even today, if you speak to my mom, she’d narrate to you the stories of his films in such an interesting manner that you needn’t watch the films.
While my mother was into commercial films – by that I mean the usual boy-meets-girl kinds – my father had very different tastes. He’d watch Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt. As a kid I usually liked happy films. I found slow-paced films boring as I was unable to understand the emotions in them. Thanks to my father, I happened to watch a lot of Raj Kapoor films, but my favourite film back then has to be Kabuliwala. I used to always cry in the scene where the little girl and Balraj Sahni’s character part ways.
So how did you consider movies as a career option?
The media world just happened to me. As a kid, I used to write stories in my spare time. My father had given me this beautiful diary. He encouraged me to write, and used to gift me something unusual if he really liked a story of mine. He once gave me a Walkman for a story. It was a huge thing in those days. I could then listen to songs and write.
What kind of stories would you write and what songs did you listen to?
My dad was a big Beatles fan. He had a huge influence on me. I’d imitate him a lot, so I tend to listen to the Beatles a lot. I’d write emotional stories, one that explores relationships between friends and family. My father used to tell my mother and his friends, “She’s going to grow up to be a writer”.
So what did you choose to study?
My father moved to London for a job. In the U.K., I studied Literature at Cardiff. I was exposed to writers and novels I’d never heard of: the likes of Alexander Pope and David Copperfield. I’d never have read D.H. Lawrence novels if I wasn’t enrolled in a literature course. After that, I took up a corporate job. Then I happened to lose my father. It was a grim phase that made me question various aspects of my life. I was in Surrey at the time. I considered becoming a writer, by maybe taking up a part-time course while I worked. Till then I’d only considered it a hobby. I also happened to read a biography of Richard Branson, Finding my Virginity, that basically made me realize one should do what you want to do rather than what is expected of you. So, when I went ahead to enrol myself at Surrey University, I found that it offered a writing as well as a filmmaking course. I remember seeing students shooting something that got me excited. The counsellor there explained what a writing course would do. It would help me put down emotions and stories on paper, while a film making course would help me tell different kinds of stories and emotions visually. I decided to choose the film making course. I still remember my first assignment. It was to visually depict the various emotions: how to explore grief, happiness and others in story form. I loved it so much that I quit my job in 15 days and opted for a full-time course. This was an M.Sc. in Creative media, where I learnt to write and make documentary films – how one can choose a subject for documentary making, and the numerous ways to research on it.
What was your thesis film about?
For our thesis, we made a film about the emergence of R&B in the U.S. in the 1970s. I remember there was a lot of research involved.
How did you make your way to Bombay?
After my course, I knew I was set on making films. My tutors at Uni advised me that the best place to make films was back home in Bollywood. Given the sheer number of films it churns out, they felt Bollywood would be a feasible option. I never realised Bombay would be so difficult. I didn’t know how to approach people or ways to connect with them. I wanted to assist Vishal Bhardwaj, as the layered characters of his films greatly impressed me. Finally it was a friend of mine who I knew from London and was working at MadMidaas films that managed to put me in touch with Adeeb Rais, who was directing ‘Main Aur Mr.Right’. I worked on that film as an Assistant Director. We were quite a young, immature team. But by working on the film, I realized the jargon of shooting in India was quite different from what I learned in the U.K. Besides that, shooting the film itself was more or less the same. At the end of it, I realized that I didn’t need to learn filmmaking by assisting a director. I was qualified to make my own film. Even Adeeb realized this while working with me, and told me to go ahead and start directing on my own.
I started shooting ads and commercials. Then in 2012, I came across a scheme by the Films Division for new filmmakers. You have to pitch new ideas for a film and they’d call you for a presentation. I sent in an idea about the lives of surrogate mothers. It was a topic that moved me, and very few documentaries are made on what exactly happens during surrogacy.
I had a clear idea of what to explore and how to explore it from different angles. I wanted to know what the surrogate mother experiences and feels. What are the emotions the surrogate mother develops for the child? Do they ever feel the child is theirs? My idea was to follow the journey for 4 surrogate mothers in 4 different stages, ranging from the first few weeks to the latter stages of pregnancy, and capture how their emotions vary. My idea was shortlisted and I was invited to present it. I remember, Kundan Shah was on the board. It was a pretty big moment for me. My project was approved, I left for Anand and shot at the surrogate hostel. The documentary was titled ‘MY BABY NOT MINE’.
How was the experience of shooting this documentary?
I had a very mixed experience. Initially, I used to be angry at the idea of surrogacy – as to why does one have to suffer so much, why do they have to sell their wombs? My whole perspective on surrogacy changed while shooting. These women were doing it for their good as well as for the good of others. It was unfair on my part to have judged them the way I had. Shooting this documentary challenged my own viewpoints.
How did you go about conceptualizing ‘Ribbon’?
I knew that I wanted to make a feature film on this particular topic. I’d meet new writers to discuss the script, but I found they were very fixed in their thinking with certain attitudes that were deeply ingrained. When I started discussing the screenplay with Rajeev Upadhyay (co-writer of Ribbon), we seemed to share similar sensibilities. We could understand each other’s sensibility. We realized we gelled well together as a team.
How did you go about your research?
I am so crazy; I’m surprised I didn’t get beaten up. While I did know people close to me and the struggles they faced around child-birth, I ended up speaking to anyone I spotted with a child.
I’d just say hi, how old is your baby, your baby is cute and start talking. I remember this particular incident while I was speaking to a mother outside Billabong school in Malad. Within a few minutes of talking, she broke down while talking about her struggles of childbirth, and tearfully spoke about how her life changed. I ended up giving her my number and told her she could reach out to me if she ever wanted someone to talk to.
I spoke to a senior pharmacist who went on a break after her pregnancy. After that, she couldn’t manage to find a suitable job that matched her qualifications and experiences. She held an M.Sc. and was unable to find work at her level, which left her frustrated. Even I had the experience of the corporate world, so I had a fair idea of the attitude towards women after pregnancy. Both Rajeev and I spoke to random people and we soon had loads and loads of information and insight.
How was it working with Rajeev as co-writer?
If Rajeev wasn’t there, the film would have been made with Sahana’s (Kalki Koechlin) perspective. There was Karan’s (Sumeet Vyas) perspective that had to balance with the woman’s point of view. Karan too had responsibilities, the kind a man’s world demands: you think it is your duty to provide for your wife and child. In fact you will find a lot of ‘modern’ Indian men who show warmth and support their wife. Yet a thin layer of patriarchy kicks in when something goes wrong in the marriage. You’d be quick to blame the woman, no matter what. Also while writing, our equation was such that he’d usually come up with a scene or a situation, and my job was to understand which direction to take it in.
And what is it like – making your debut film?
First of all, you are new and young in the industry. Additionally, you are a female filmmaker. The pressure to prove yourself is much more. I remember when I attended one of my screenings, the press was surprised to see me. They were expecting an older person.
I doubt as a man you have to first “prove” your capability as a director. You know what I mean. Like questions are often raised – Will she be able to handle actors and a crew of 100? Will be she manage to control them? My job is to be a director, not a teacher. It is to compose and to collaborate with those who are able to understand the vision of the director. I work with those who are passionate to make something different because I myself work for passion.
But working solely for passion isn’t always rewarding.
Of course, living in Bombay is no joke. I’ve struggled and have seen others struggle to try and survive here. What I mean is to feel the passion as to why I want to make the film, what I want to see in a film. For me, the passion of making a film is because I want to see these kinds of films, I want to watch films about the things I care and enjoy. You need to go by your instinct, go with your gut while making a film. When you create characters, you put in your whole heart and soul in them. You have to be enthusiastic, else why jump into this whole process? If you have to jump into it, come in with conviction.
So how did you go about convincing people to help you make the film and shoot it this particular way?
Honestly, when we were writing the scenes we had no clue as to how I’m going to shoot this film. I had no particular idea as to how to bring it alive on screen. Once we had the script ready, a visual language began to form in my head. I started seeing the film in my head then, which is why I approached Vikram Amladi, the DOP of Fandry. He came to meet me, but he initially didn’t understand why I wanted to shoot the film the way I had decided to. He asked, ‘Why do you need long takes and fly on the wall techniques for such a film?’ I simply gave him a copy of a script to read, he took 3-4 days and returned convinced. He was very much on one page. Rajeev was supposed to do the editing. We all understood the choreography of the scenes and once we were prepared we decided to go on the floor. We then proceeded to do workshops with both the actors, Kalki and Sumit. They are very good actors, coming from the world of theatre. Within the first few meetings, I had discussed how I intended to shoot the film. They advised me to take some edit points, or it’d get difficult. When we worked, actors weren’t just actors, technicians weren’t only technicians. Everyone chipped in with valuable inputs. ‘Ribbon’ was an out-and-out team film. And because of this teamwork, the film was shot in 25 days. Not a single shot was taken on tripod, it was entirely hand-held. We did extensively rehearse to the extent that my production guys remarked that we seemed to be spending more time rehearsing it than actually shooting the film. But when we shot, the actors knew how to move, the crew knew how the camera would move. It was definitely tiresome for all.
What do you think kept everyone going?
I think you have to build that kind of attitude. You have to keep your team members excited. You have to feel that love and confidence in your work. You have to give people a reason to want to be associated with your script. I gave the script to everybody and asked for feedback. This way, we could pay attention to the littlest of details. For example, Sahana’s house in the first year of marriage has warm and bright colours. After three years of marriage, there is a maturity of colours and presence of paintings to show how the marriage has progressed. It was such things that kept everyone excited and involved.
How did you go about hiring people to work for the film?
The two things I have learned to get people to work with you in the industry –If you have faith, people will have faith and the other people are willing to work for a good script.
My costume designer Sachin Lovalekar, my production designer Rakesh Yadav, and some others were established industry people. Most of them had worked with big names. Someone’s worked extensively in Marathi cinema, someone’s worked extensively in arthouse cinema. I wasn’t even offering them much monetarily, but they readily agreed to be part of the film. When I was writing the script, I already had Kalki in mind, which is why I approached her. When I did end up meeting her, she had read the script and even seen my documentary. The first question she asked me – why do you want to make this film? I told her it was the journey of a regular couple, about how things happen and how things fall apart. Basically, things that happen around us in everyday life. Sahana’s character was easy to cast. On the other hand, I had a lot of problems finding Karan.
How did you end up choosing Sumeet Vyas?
When I’d visualize Karan, I saw him as a ‘normal’ good-looking person: like regular next-door engineers, doctors, corporate employees, people we tend to meet and interact with every day. I was looking specifically for a normal person to play the role of an urban, upper-middle-class person. I did not want a six-pack flouting or extremely slick hero. In fact, I didn’t know of Sumeet till a friend decided to introduce us. When we met, halfway through our meeting I knew he’d be a right fit for Karan’s role.
What do you feel about the response the film Ribbon has received?
You know you are a pure soul when you make a new film. I had written the script keeping a certain story in mind. However after the film was made, I wasn’t very confident of where to take it, about who’d be the right audience. I sent it to a couple of film festivals: one of them was MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. It didn’t get selected. I was late in sending it to the Toronto film festival. Then someone advised me to not get into the whole film festival submission process. I was told this film showcased modern, urban India and it’s usually the ‘exotic’ India fare that does well with international film festival audiences. So we decided to have a theatrical release straight away.
How did that work for the film?
Well, it was my first film and barely knew anyone from the industry or how films are marketed and distributed. The film had a short run in most theatres. Only a week, not even two – which was not enough to create a buzz or get talked about by the audiences. The film received a fair bit of critical appreciation though. But to be honest, its kind of disheartening when you put in so much passion and labour, and audiences don’t get to see it or show the kind of response you want. Whosoever has seen the film has had a strong reaction – people have questions about the film. Everyone has something to discuss about it.
In hindsight, what do you think you’d have done?
If I had to revisit it all over again, I’d have held selected screenings or special shows. I’d have actively reached out to people. Films made on such a budget need to be taken directly to the audience to create some kind of buzz. You need to gear people up for a theatrical release. You know from this I have learned filmmaking is only a part of the process. Distribution of the films, finding its audience is an equally important part of it. Learning about how to distribute your film is something every filmmaker and film student needs to know and pay attention to.
So do we get to watch it now?
We’ve been lucky enough to sell the rights to a leading TV channel, as well as a leading streaming service.
And what next?
I am in the midst of writing another script with Rajeev. It’s on a topic quite different to ‘Ribbon’. I’m right now on concentrating on this script solely. I am one of those people who can do one thing at a time. I don’t see the point juggling two to three things at a time. Hopefully, I should be done with it soon and ready to shoot.