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TORONTO ’06 DISCOVERY INTERVIEW: Chitra Palekar: “The success of a filmmaker is making a film that r

TORONTO '06 DISCOVERY INTERVIEW: Chitra Palekar: "The success of a filmmaker is making a film that r

Every day through the end of the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, indieWIRE will be publishing interviews with filmmakers in the Discovery section of the festival, which TIFF describes as “provocative feature films by new and emerging directors.”

Nineteen filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions. Director Chitra Palekar is at Toronto with her feature film, “Maati Maay (A Grave-Keeper’s Tale,)” a supernatural tale set in a small, remote village in India about a young boy and his mother who claims she is a ghoul.

Where were you born? Where did you grow up? What jobs have you had? Where are you working now?

I am 59. I was born in Dharwad, Karnataka state in India. Initially I worked as a lecturer in economics and worked at Tata Economic Consultancy Services. I did theatre at the same time in the evenings. Since 1980 I became a full time filmmaker. I basically produced and then acted in one film and also started writing scripts. I grew up entirely in Mumbai and this is where I live. I have one daughter Shalmalee, who has done her Doctorate in Post Colonial Literature and works in the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

Since my college days I was involved in the avant-garde theatre in Mumbai. At the same time, I also watched a lot of world cinema in the film society and felt attracted towards the cinema medium itself. After about 15 years of watching and admiring films, my ex-husband and I decided to make films ourselves. I produced and acted in our first film Aakrit (Misbegotten, 1981, Marathi). Though I learnt a lot on the job, I felt the need to study the technical aspects in depth.

Did you go to film school?

I was age-barred for the Film Institute in India (Unlike today, there were not many schools teaching Cinema in India). Also, I had a young child so I decided to learn on my own. I worked as an assistant with several filmmakers and some mainstream editors, thereby learning the technique of editing. I also spent a lot of time at Rajkamal Studios where one of India’s finest re-recordists Mangesh Desai, explained to me, the intricacies of sound design. I believe that it is important to know every aspect of filmmaking if you want to make a film.

In the last 25 years I have worked as an Associate Director, Designed productions, and have been creatively involved in post-production. In 1985 I also started writing scripts. I began by scripting a television serial Kachchi Dhoop, a musical adaptation of “Little Women” which became a rage. This gave me confidence to conceive and write a full length feature film in the form of a musical, “Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaye” (1989, Hindi). All this experience was inching me towards becoming a filmmaker.

What are your biggest creative influences?

I was always surrounded by the arts. My family was into classical music and painting; I was extremely fond of literature, and did theatre. I realised that the cinema medium not only combines all these, but also science and technology! … Now, getting it all effectively in a film is what fascinates me!

What are your goals for the Toronto International Film Festival?

“Maati Maay” is my first independent directorial venture. I would like to introduce this film to an international audience and The Toronto International Film Festival is a very important take-off point. I have always believed that even a culture-specific film can be appreciated all over the world as the human emotions, the human dilemmas are universal! I think that my film has such universal appeal and I want to share it with people in Toronto as well as the world over.
I also think that the commercial aspect of a film is important and I want to find an international market for my film for which again, TIFF is well known.

How/where did the initial idea for your film come from?

Initial idea behind the film: I am a great fan of Mahasweta Devi, who is a well-known writer and activist from Kolkatta. This particular story of hers first struck me because it had such strong visual possibilities. Then again, I found that the story expresses complex human relationships with utter simplicity; makes a strong social comment even as it touches one’s heart and though portraying harsh reality remains lyrical. These inherent contrasts were both fascinating as well as intimidating…especially as this was my first film. I took a lot of time to think over it…almost a year to let the story sink in me, and then I knew I had to make it.

The original story is in Bengali, I read it in Hindi, and then I decided to do it in Marathi because it is my milieu. Of course I did research to see if I could adapt it without any real changes to the core of the story. I realised that In India we may speak different languages, wear different clothes, and locations may differ a bit, but the basic pattern of behaviour is the same. In that sense we are very much one. So I decided to go ahead and do it in Marathi.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?

The biggest challenge was trying to find the money. After the script was ready I gave it to the National Film Development Corporation and the film was passed immediately by the committee but as my luck would have it, NFDC declared that they didn’t have any funds to produce any film. Instead of giving up, I tried some private companies. But they were slightly hesitant because the story is hard hitting. So I went around for quite some time trying to raise finance and then finally decided to do it myself with the support of family and friends.

Another was finding the right locations…especially the vast expanse of a plateau without a sign of civilization and a village of the 1950’s. Finally I found this place in Central India, in Maharashtra called Amravati.

The next thing was the cast. The story demanded two main highly talented actors and I was fortunate that Nandita Das and Atul Kulkarni, who are well known in parallel as well as mainstream cinema agreed to join the project. For the supporting cast, the problem was different. I required fresh faces to give an authentic look to the film. Taking known supporting actors from Bombay did not suit the requirement. That’s when I thought about taking the local amateur artists and villagers. None had ever faced a camera before but I took the gamble and it paid off!

One of the main characters is a 13 year old boy. The challenge was to find a boy of the right age who had a sensitive face and would combine innocence with maturity! A tall order that! Again, I preferred “raw talent” to precocious child artists . So I screen tested about ninety-two children from various schools in four cities and finally zeroed in on Kshitij Gawande from Amravati, who turned out to be a natural!

A convincing adaptation of the story from Bengali to Marathi was my big concern at the scripting stage. The subject is about a nursing mother. There are very few films about this emotional and physical state of a woman. So another challenge was to show it without making it vulgar.
On creative level, the cinematic treatment the story required was that of the “late 70s and 80s art cinema genre” in India. So the challenge before me was to enrol my unit, inspire them and to go beyond the feeling that the film may not be “in today’s fashion!”.

Finally, though I had experience in various departments I was a first time director and the big personal challenge was not to remind myself of my age.

How did you finance the film?

I have financed the film myself with support from family and friends. I had wanted to make a film for a very long time but had not been able to transform my dream into reality. I kept waiting for a break, admittedly a mistake, as funding for a non-formula film was not easy to come by. The private producers and distributors shunned such films completely and the meagre government funds mostly went to already known filmmakers! (Even now, the picture has changed only marginally!). Then, I did not work for seven years due to personal problems, until one day I woke up and realized that if I don’t make a film now, I will never do it! So I jumped into this and made the film!

What are you plans for distribution?

For Marathi films, unlike Hindi or other regional language films, the distribution system does not exist. Producers distribute their own films and I am doing the same for Maharashtra. The film will be released in Mumbai, Pune and other cities in Maharashtra in October. I also plan to release subtitled versions in other cities, because I have already got a feed back that the film is not just Marathi but an “Indian” film. Here, I am open to offers for the rest of the world rights.

What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why? What are some of your recent favorite films?

The influences on me are many. Satyajeet Ray‘s films impacted me for their “cinematic purity”. I love Ritwik Ghatak‘s films too. I love them for the way he uses the genre of melodrama and for its very complex sub-text. I also like Adoor Gopalkrishnan‘s films and his great mastery over film making. It makes me want to emulate him.

In world cinema the list is endless…mostly Masters…to name a few favourites, Hitchcock, Bergman, Truffaut, Chabrol, Kieslowski, Jansco, Felinni ( How I love him!) and Kurosawa. I saw them through my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I grew with them.

One of my favourite films is Pather Panchali. Through lyricism and simplicity, Ray brings out the human values and touches the heart. It has not grown old. It has stood the test of time. I liked Citizen Cain for its intricate design and marvellous form of story-telling. I have read about the challenges he faced and that too inspires me.

Many of Bergman’s films have influenced me. In “Scenes from Marriage” I cannot ever forget the opening scene, where the camera remains steady on Liv Ullman’s face for a very long time, yet, there is movement in the very expression, eyes, lips, nose… every muscle! Every time I see “Cries and Whispers” it hits me… the ensemble of all those great actresses! The colours, compositions, the dynamics of the relationships…everything fascinates me!

I saw “Wild Strawberries” long back but I remember every bit of it even now…especially the flashbacks! I seem to get very fascinated where human relationships are juxtaposed and brought out in all their subtleties, but I also like sweeping shots and action! I love Kurosawa for the fantastic camera movements, action and the energy they generate. I have watched his films again and again, to see the rhythms and how he handles drama as well as delicate things at the same time!

If Iranian films are made in India, they could have great commercial success. Simple human stories appeal directly to the heart. I also like Chinese films.

What is your definition of independent film?

My definition of an independent film is where regardless of whoever finances the film, the person who has conceived and who makes the film, gets the independence to complete the project as per his/her vision.

What are your interests outside of film?

I love dancing. I love reading, it is my greatest interest. I cannot fall asleep unless I read a book. Sometimes I don’t meet anybody for days and spend time with my books. Theatre has been an old passion. I also like to listen to political debates or on social issues. I like participating in causes for democracy, justice. I love music of any type.

How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

One way to see it is when the film makes a lot of money and is very popular. To me, success of a filmmaker is making a film according to his/ her vision and then the film remaining in time without becoming stale. When people from different generations and places watch the film even years after it is made, when people get inspired, enjoy, admire and are touched by it, the film and the filmmaker are successful.

What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

Maati Maay is my first film and now my goal is to create a future for myself, I want to be a great filmmaker, tell different stories, not only rural but contemporary metropolitan stories too. And I would like to tell them as well as possible.

What are your future projects?

I’m still going through post-natal stage. I have four or five subjects lined up, half-completed or completed scripts. Once this film is released I will decide on the next subject. I am extremely hopeful of finding a back-up for my second project.

[Get the latest from the Toronto International Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Toronto ’06 section.]

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