Making an Indie Film in India: An Interview with Ramesh AvadhaniBy Susan Tepper
April 22, 2012
I have known you for more than a decade as a writer of sensitive fiction mostly centered around your Indian roots. But you are also a journalist who has many in-depth articles on nature and religion under your belt. Now you have taken on the role of filmmaker. Specifically as writer and Associate Producer. How did this new project come about?
A good friend of mine in the US, Ribbel Josha Dhason, happened to read one of my stories online and got in touch with me. “How about making this into a movie?” he said, ever so deceptively casual. Equally casual I replied, “Why not? How do you want to go about it?”
First step, turn it into a script, he said. Could I do it?
Yes, of course, I told him, although I had not written a script before. But I had read and reviewed a couple of scripts online at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope, and had also studied the script of Mr. Holland’s Opus, which is one of my favorite movies. That, plus my own writing style where I imagine the POV (point of view) as a camera or multiple cameras (in the case of different POVs) gave me the confidence I could write the script.
Ribbel said fine, go ahead, take your time.
It has taken me more than a year. Ribbel was a rock of total support. And another dear friend, Richard Lewis, an American author based in Bali, and whose novel The Killing Sea was optioned to Scott Free productions (Ridley Scott of Gladiator fame) helped enormously by critiquing every version. In fact, he will be there with us at the shooting of the film.
What a cool thing to have happen! It’s like that dream of being “discovered” the way old movie stars got discovered while sitting on a stool at the famous drugstore/soda fountain in Hollywood. Except, in your case, you’ve paid your dues. And, then some. You are not an overnight success by any stretch. You’ve done extensive amounts of lengthy travel in order to research your news articles on nature and religion. I remember a compelling piece you wrote a few years ago about a spiritual movement in India taking place at an ashram type of compound. It was very white and open and spacious in your photos, lot of columns and sky. Very peaceful looking.
And now you’ve taken this new turn toward film and that is hugely exciting! Can you share a little about the plot, without giving too much away?
You’ve touched upon what I have always believed— traveling and examining cultures in different regions (and India has so many sub-cultures because of different foreign influences— Persian, Mongol, English, French, Portuguese, etc) contribute to a good repertoire into which you can dip your pen of fiction. I mostly write from the viewpoint of realism— on issues and themes that I have experienced or encountered. So, yes, that nonfiction writing on religion and philosophy that you mention helped a lot in the writing of this film.
For example, I visited the former French colony of Pondicherry on the east coast in southern India some years back to write about the veterinary scene there for an Australian magazine. I stayed for over a week, meeting veterinarians and farmers and housewives impacted by issues relating to cattle— poor knowledge of the care of cattle, dwindling farmlands because laborers are migrating to cities for more lucrative work and other city attractions, and conversely, industrialists snapping up those unused lands, and the men-folk sliding deeper into alcoholism because alcohol costs almost fifty percent less in Pondicherry than anywhere else in India— due to the tax structure prevailing in such colonies. The article was completed but things went astray with the magazine editors and my article could not be used.
It’s awful when things get mucked up outside of your control. But to get back to Pondicherry, a lovely name that conjures up so many images.
Last year when I began to write this script, my director discussed Pondicherry as a possible setting for our story. The place has such beauty and compactness. Filming there would not only ‘lift’ the story to a level not usually seen in Indian movies in English, but would also provide ease in terms of logistics. I naturally jumped at the idea. And that’s how Pondicherry and to a certain extent the issues specific to the place figure into our script.
Regarding the plot: as stated in our website, it’s a story about a teen-aged girl slowly sliding into schizophrenia, and the ways in which her orthodox parents and self-centered siblings react to her condition. The plot mirrors what is happening in India— there is so much ignorance about the disease and so few facilities available. Plus there is the acute social stigma. As it’s understood today by most mental health specialists, schizophrenia is the result of improper workings of certain chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain. It can be controlled, or often even cured in the early stages, by medication. But the patient is swiftly labeled as ‘mad’ by society as a whole here. So what does the family generally do?
Dreadful to label a person with an illness in such a way. How do the families often react?
They refuse to acknowledge the disease, refuse to take the patient for medication; at best, the family just carries on, at worst, they isolate the patient or even abandon him or her. There are other factors too involving the schizophrenic patient that I have dwelt on in the script.
Mental illness is a tragically fascinating subject for art. Always has been. Often it has been romanticized, as in the case of certain poets. But people who work in mental health say it’s horrible in every regard and deeply sad for the patients who are struggling.
The manner in which you came to know the former French colony of Pondicherry, ultimately the setting for this film, is so interesting. Like it has been said: There are no accidents. Can you tell us more about what that area looks like?
In terms of physical appearance, Pondicherry is like any other small Indian town— crowded streets, hundreds of stalls and shops, houses and buildings of every size, noisy traffic— including their famous three-wheeler auto-rickshaws which come in two sizes; one that can squeeze in five passengers and the other, a little bloated, which crams in ten! Then there is of course the dirt and the heat.
Much of Pondicherry needs to get its act together in terms of cleanliness. If that is done it will attract more tourists to see its ancient temples, churches, magnificent colonial mansions, and spiritual retreats like the renowned Aurobindo ashram and Auroville. About the heat, it is 30 to 45 degrees Celsius much of the year.
However, the town’s location by the sea is somewhat of a cooling balm; the main beachfront is a great place for jogging and strolls. Another, the Ruby Beach, is in my opinion one of the cleanest beaches in India. No vendors or beggars. Just white sands, blue sky and bluer waters for miles on end.
Ruby Beach bordering Pondicherry gives it an extra special dimension as a film location, I would imagine.
Yes, it does. And in terms of sensibilities, I found the place easygoing. The locals are friendly to the tourist—whether Indian or foreign. The availability of inexpensive liquor acts as a high octane fuel for the ‘friendliness.’ This is unlike Goa which is a former Portuguese colony, where also liquor is cheap, but the local Christians there, descendants of Portuguese, are not as friendly with the Indian tourists as they are with the foreign tourists. The French, unlike the Portuguese, did not resort to persecution, and hence the original natives of Pondicherry remained Hindus. In fact, the Portuguese governors participated in several Hindu festivals and ceremonial processions; largely a strategy to gain a better ‘hold’ on the native population for ease of administration.
That the British out-strategied them is another matter. There are a few hundred descendants of the French, the Creoles, living in Pondicherry, but they prefer to keep to themselves. They live in what is known as the French Quarters. A walk through that section of the town is quite an experience— silent buildings, half-shut windows, impassive faces and lean bodies bicycling past in a non-intrusive manner.
Can you give us some hints about your main characters?
The film revolves around teen-aged Sundari, who has all those commonly accepted attributes to make a success of her life — beauty, brains, and a loving nature. We establish that early on in the film. But things go wrong in rapid succession. Yet, equally rapidly, she seems to recover from each setback, until a huge setback proves far too much. Other people she is in contact with, in the family and outside, react in various ways to her situation— principally her journalist father, Iyengar, a man so complex that one doesn’t know whether to hate him or love him. He is egotistic, loving, intelligent, intolerant and short-tempered.
An extremely difficult and complex father would not be helpful to a young woman failing under the weight of mental illness. Are there more characters?
The other main character is her older brother, Deepak. In the beginning he is intensely jealous of Sundari for all the love and limelight she hogs in the family. He seizes every opportunity to belittle her. He is obsessed with her, and the developments in her life, a trait that may seem foreign to western audiences but is fairly common in Indian culture.
What aspect in the family or culture creates such an obsession?
Indian parents generally dote on the son, for he is, they have always felt, going to be the future breadwinner, protector and caregiver in their old age. While their daughters, though educated and employed, would be married off and move away to live with the new husband’s family. Or at least near his family, should the daughter have enough clout over her husband to wean him off living with them.
That’s too much closeness for me.
(laughter). But going back to the doted upon growing up son… he assumes or tries to assume the power of the father, especially when his siblings are all sisters, and when his father is out of the house a great deal because of work. In our story, the son is not much doted upon; it’s more the girl, the lead character, who receives much of the parental, especially the father’s, attention and love. This creates anxiety for the son which leads to suppressed anger, making him obsess even more over his sister.
It’s interesting how different cultures manage to develop their own specific patterns of neurotic behavior.
Yes, but then the son, Deepak, gets embroiled with a girl of French descent called Mary Anne who almost makes him forget his family. These are the principal characters. The others’ behaviors, while illustrating their individual personalities, also serve to unravel deeper layers of the main characters. And there are two other siblings in the film. Plus friends at the school and college where Sundari studies. And a Romeo who swaggers in with the typical confidence of such Romeos.
What is a film without a Romeo?
Later we bring in a priest who exhibits the typical holiness of his tribe with a certain surprise twist. So, all in all, we have worked to make the plot throw up unexpected twists and turns, even as the audience sits back in apparent satisfaction that they have figured everything out. The script has been reviewed by one of Hollywood’s foremost script consultants.
You have me at the ticket line! Now here is something I simply must ask: Do you feel that it is essential, when presenting a female lead character, that she be very attractive? It seems all films made today, at least in the US, have a beautiful female lead. I see less of that in films from other countries, though England seems to be following the US pattern. In recent re-makes of old BBC films, the female leads, and even the males, are quite good looking. Sexy, actually.
Susan, let me put it this way. If I were to write a short story or a novel, I wouldn’t think it necessary that my lead character has to be beautiful or handsome in the sense that they should have the commonly accepted attributes of external beauty or handsomeness. In writing a story there is room to portray beauty and handsomeness in other ways, deeper ways, more convincing ways. But in film, where time is a critical factor, where the image establishes instantaneous contact with the audience, I have to rely on those commonly accepted attributes to go towards my objective— to stimulate disturbance in the audience’s mind, to bring in poignancy— in order to better impact the audience about the ultimate point that I wish to make. In short, it is more dramatic for film when a ‘beautiful’ girl develops schizophrenia. It may not work quite as much with a ‘non-beautiful’ girl.
I hear you. Because of my own theatre background, I understand the physical dynamic that takes place with an audience. The character has to strike an unconscious chord of desire to help the audience connect. It’s done in advertising, too, all the time. I was just curious to hear your thoughts on that subject. Can you tell us how you are going about casting this film?
Casting for a low budget film does require unconventional approaches; we can’t afford the usual methods of employing a casting director or hiring an outside agency. The producer, Ribbel Josha Dhason, has done some research on how low budget films get their actors. It was quite revealing.
That brings to mind some anecdotes I’ve heard about the early Merchant-Ivory productions in India, and what hoops they jumped through to finance, cast, then bring the film to fruition.
Yes, Merchant-Ivory were legendary for their tight budgets. I believe Ismail Merchant used to cook meals for his principal crew during shooting. Primarily, one would guess, to show off his culinary skills. But I also think it was another part of his overall cost cutting strategy.
Ramesh, will you be doing any cooking for your cast?
I love to cook! Maybe on weekends during the shoot I will don the apron!
Umm… I will hold you to that!
(laughter) In our case, for the casting, we have approached some colleges where theater and cinema is part of the course curriculum, and we put out a call for actors of both their past and current students. Another means of independent casting is the insertion of flyers in the English dailies just before they are distributed to readers; this method takes some time and legwork.
How exactly do you get that done?
By printing the flyers at a nominal cost, then inserting them via the newspaper boys.
Thank you. And we are also trying to make maximum usage of YouTube and Facebook by announcing our requirements. We are taking advantage of free postings offered at film and actors sites. The trick to producing a low budget film is keeping the costs down as much as possible on every front without sacrificing the quality of what we want to achieve. It entails more time and effort but it can be done.
It sounds like the type of film that will be nominated for many awards at the film festivals. I look forward to sitting down in my local movie theatre and seeing this unfold on the big screen. And I wish you and Ribbel Josha Dhason, and all those involved in this amazing project very great success!
Susan Tepper’s new book From the Umberplatzen is a quirky love story set in Germany and told in linked-flash-fiction.
Ramesh Avadhani is a writer and filmmaker. His regularly featured articles appear in Religioscope (Switzerland), World & I Journal (a Washington Times enterprise) and Reptilia (Spain), which is the leading herp magazine published in Spanish and Italian. His fiction and nonfiction have been widely published in the US and abroad, appearing in journals such as Contrary, Dragonfire, Gastronomica, The Reader, Living Now, Woman’s Day, The Veterinarian (from Australia), Woman This Month (UAE), The Times of India (Mumbai), Coin News (UK) among many others. He is a graduate of Bangalore University.
this interview was absolutely a most interesting one. So much great history of India. The film will be remarkable.
Dear Ms. Bruno, thank you for your very nice comment on the interview. I agree that the film Ramesh has written sounds remarkable!
I really enjoyed this insightful interview, Susan and Ramesh! I’ve had the great fortune of traveling to India on more than one occasion and each time I leave wanting to go back more and more. It is such a fascinating country steeped in rich, diverse history with an exciting present and future. Thanks for this!
Dear Robert, thank you so much for your lovely comments, I feel the same way. And I’m very excited about Ramesh’s film and the importance of the script he has written.