Interview: Anirban Roy, Director of short film “Aashpordha”
Until Aashpordha or Audacity, Anirban Roy made films in the US. When he returned to his hometown Kolkata, he decided to adapt his long forgotten short story into a film. Aashpordha has been travelling to several film festivals like Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles where it won the Audience award, AFI Fest and New York International Film Festival.
The film has been sold for braodcast in three countries; SBS (Australia), SVT (Sweden) and Chello Multicanal (Spain).
Here Anirban Roy talks about his experience and the story behind Aashpordha:
Tell us about Aashapordha.
A thirteen-year-old Indian girl dares to challenge the authority of her traditional father. That’s the basic plot line of Aashpordha (Audacity). It is a story of rebellion, where the small attains a victory over the big. It’s a tight slap on the face of the authoritarian in each one of us. For characters and relationships in the film, I drew heavily from my experience of living in a large family in Calcutta, when I was a kid. In terms of visual style, I wanted the film to have a feel of early Bengali Neo-Realism, which depicted the city and the people in a very timeless way.
I wanted to tell a funny story which had no jokes or gags. That is, a story where nothing in itself – neither the plot, nor the characters – are of any particular comedic value. But put together, it attains some sort of an absurdist humor. Let’s call it the comedy of the normal, for the lack of a better expression. That seemed something that’s worth exploring.
I am glad people relate to the film. It has sold in three countries for national broadcast – Sweden, Australia and Spain. In a world where short films almost never sell, I feel blessed about this (of course, thanks to our German distributors – Magnet Films).
How did the idea of the film occur to you?
I wrote a short story called ‘Debbie the Door’ with a friend of mine many years ago. I forgot about it for a decade till it resurfaced one day while I was cleaning up my computer. I had been thinking about making a film in Calcutta, India – a city I where I was born and lived in till I was thirteen. Two winters ago, when I was visiting family in India, I realized that if I tweaked ‘Debbie the Door’, it might make for a funny story. So I sat in my niece’s room and thought of all my relatives I could make fun of while shaping up the story and the screenplay. I asked my friend, Somnath Sen (we both went to University of Southern California), who is now a director in Mumbai, if he would produce it. He agreed and I went over to Mumbai and we started figuring out how exactly we could pull this off. That’s how it began.
How was the journey of making this film ?
What seemed like it would be a relatively smooth ride, when Somnath Sen and I met, turned out to be scary roller-coaster. We were initially set for filming Aashpordha in Mumbai, for practical reasons, even though the story was about a family living in Calcutta. We had a perfect location -something difficult to find in Mumbai (western India) – a house that could have been dressed up to look like it was in Calcutta (eastern India). But two weeks before the shoot, things started to fall apart. We learned that a major renovation had started in the house next to our chosen location, rendering it totally un-shootable.
We had no choice but to make a hard decision – disband the Mumbai cast and crew, postpone the entire operation and move it to Calcutta. Little did we know that this construction-next-door omen was going to follow us in Calcutta too. Kid you not, every time we selected a location and were ready to hit the road with the newly-formed cast and crew, we would hear about a new construction within a three-house radius. This happened twice in Kolkata.
Finally, we selected the producer’s home. One big reason behind this choice was that the producer had enough local influence on matters regarding his neighborhood, should a construction begin there too. But hold on…. by this time we were running into the climax of the election season in Calcutta. And anyone who has lived in India knows how unbelievably noisy election seasons are – bull-horns, PA systems on streets, demonstrations, variety entertainment, et al. Our one and only chance was to complete the filming during the “campaign-curfew” – a campaigning silence imposed for three days prior to elections. And yes, we did it! Whew!
How did you fund the film?
I funded about 60 per cent of the film. The other 40 per cent came from friends and well-wishers. We used various means to raise the fund – indiegogo.com, fundraising parties, asking for services and equipment to be donated, etc.
This is your first Indian film; previous films were based in the U.S. Tell us about your experience of film making in these two countries.
Even though I lived in India till I was 25, my professional life has almost completely been an American one. So it was a very strange experience for me filming in India. On one hand, everything seemed familiar – the place, the language, the custom, etc., on the other hand, I was at sea – as to how people operate professionally, what they mean when they say something, what the codes of conduct are. Thank God, Somnath, who went back to work in India right after finishing film school at USC, knew what I was going through. He would pull me aside from time to time to explain where and how I was not reading something correctly.
One specific thing that was extremely difficult was shooting a sync-sound film. Most Indian films are shot and then ADR-ed (or dubbed, as they call it there). So, location sound (or production sound) is never that critical, because they are replaced. Even though we repeatedly alerted the crew of the fact that our location sound is going to be the final sound source, and hence absolute silence was critical, very often someone in the next room would start talking during a take. This led to a lot of people, including me, losing their cool.
You started you film career as an editor. How did the shift from editing to direction occur?
I still edit for television. It pays the bills. As a matter of fact, I’m currently finishing off the last season of Jersey Shore for MTV. Not being from a rich family, I’ve always had to straddle these two worlds. Now it is second nature to me. Fortunately, over the last bunch of years, I have been blessed enough to be doing just fine with editing less and less (by choice).
Every time I make a film, I take a whole chunk of time off. And then come back and work feverishly as an editor to replenish the supplies, so to speak. To give you an example, in 2011, when I made Aashpordha, I took six months off. After that I worked for eight straight months as an editor. I am also very protective about my writing time. Every week, no matter where I am, I devote two full days to writing. As a result, I often have to work weekends as an editor to make up for the lost time.
The filmmakers you admire?
That’s like asking what my favorite food is. A toughie.
To name just a few – Krysztof Kieslowski, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, Satyajit Ray, Anurag Khashyap, Dibakar Bannerjee, the list is long.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Calcutta, India. Lived in a big “joint-family” till I was thirteen. Most of the fears that I still carry in me were forced into me during these years by my uncles and aunts. In short, quite a terrible first decade and a half. Then my family (that is, only my parents and my brother) moved to New Delhi. And life began! Unfortunately, I got into trouble constantly with almost every kind of authority – school, parents, cops… you name it. Somehow I managed to do well enough in studies to get into good schools and all. It is during these years that I fell in love with music and played in many bands. The last band I played with – Indian Ocean – has become India’s topmost band that sell out venues all over the world.
I came to the United States to do my Masters in documentary filmmaking from University of Los Angeles. After graduation, I started editing reality shows and directing documentaries for television. My last documentary – Taking the Heat - was telecast nationally on PBS. It was narrated by Susan Sarandon.
Your next venture?
My next immediate project is actually another short – Bullies. Set in Los Angeles, it’s a really dark comedy about two decrepit but vicious veterans of World War II, living in an assisted elder housing facility.
I am also trying to get a feature off the ground. It’s called First Snow and is set in Lowry, Michigan. It’s a story about two women who meet accidentally. One is dying from a crippling disease and desperately wants to live. The other has come to town to kill herself.