Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari spent 16 years in the advertising agency Leo Burnett telling stories for the biggest brands in India and South East Asia. “The New Classmate” is her first feature film. (Press materials)
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
AIT: In a country where 38% of girls drop out of school before Std 8th (eighth grade, the final grade before high school), “The New Classmate” is a thought-provoking tale which inspires and promotes education for the child and a better future for any country that dreams big.
“The New Classmate” is an emotive narrative close to my spirit. Dressed in an artistic backdrop, the story is about a mother and daughter laced with fact-fiction and the color of sentiments. I wanted to organically tell a story that creates empathy with the characters and catalyze social change. The film celebrates that, irrespective of one’s past, everyone has the right to dream, inspire and change his or her present for a positive future.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
AIT: India, the country I was born in, is going through an economic social change. In spite of this change for the better, there are still ideological differences in the various strata of society. I wanted to talk about dreams, the journey of an underdog who strives to make a mark in society and to tell everyone there is never a “never.”
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
AIT: Getting the cast right. We went through several auditions across the country to finally choose young non-actors. And then the training began. The main lead, Swara Bhaskar, had to go through a physiological shift to behave like a mother (which she is not in real life) and had to put on several kilos and behave an age which is much older than her current one.
We were shooting live locations in Agra, the town of Taj Mahal, and that was a tough challenge in itself, especially when you are a woman leading and managing an over-enthusiastic crowd. My team had a real roller-coaster ride.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
AIT: I just want them to carry an afterthought, a good, nagging feeling, pick up the phone and spend some time talking to their parents. And if the men have tears in their eyes, I think I will have achieved what I really want to communicate.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
AIT: Believe in yourself and ignore the ones who say “You can’t.” There are a whole lot of them out there to pull you down at every step.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
AIT: [Ones that stem from me being] a woman! “Did she direct this film? Did she write this film? We are sure someone must have helped her!”
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
AIT: The film has had its own journey. Like they say, “Good things come to those who wait.” Our film is a classic example of this proverb. “The New Classmate” was made by Jar Pictures and Opticus Inc. and acquired by Mr. Aanand Rai, Colour Yellow (Director of blockbuster movies in India) and Eros International.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
AIT: In India, we hardly have woman directors. It’s just now that the direction and cinematography space has changed, where we are seeing quite a few women, and I am proud and happy to be a part of this ‘India Bollywood Cinema’ space. We have a beautiful storyteller, Sai Paranjpye, who started her direction spree in the ’70s — wonder how she managed then! Paranjpye tells the most amazing real-life stories in a simple, comic way and in the regional language she is comfortable with. She gives a damn about who thinks what and carries a certain attitude in all her films.
Apart from her, I admire Kathryn Bigelow for her vision that would otherwise [typically be thought of as a] male zone.