It’s been a while since I uploaded a Bollywood related post but today, I’m back at you with an interview with Shonali Bose, in relation to her latest release, The Sky is Pink which is officially out tomorrow. Sadly, I couldn’t make it down to London for the British film premiere so I didn’t get to interview, but my friend Kopal Gupta was more than happy to go in my place so I could have an interview with her up on my blog.
Shonali Bose is an Indian film director who has directed many heart wrenching stories. The Sky is Pink is her third directorial venture after Amu and Margarita with a Straw. The Sky is Pink is based on the true story of a young girl who was diagnosed with a pulmonary fibrosis and it tells the story of her parents and how much they fought for her to survive. It is bound to be another wonderful story (Kopal watched it and said it was fantastic) and it’s the first Bollywood movie in ages that I cannot wait for. I’m so happy to have gotten the chance to ask Shonali some questions about the film and her life as a director.
The main takeaway I’ve gotten from you by watching interviews with you about this film is how positive you feel and you give such a positive vibe off even through the screen. I was so excited to meet you. How do you keep your positivity going?
I don’t plan it! That’s just me.
I couldn’t find a lot of information about how you became a director. What was your journey like? How did you decide to become one?
Unlike most filmmakers, I had no desire to become one and I never even thought about it. I had not gone to film school at all, I had not even thought about it. I was a theatre actor throughout my whole life, even as a kid. I was on stage and I was the lead role in all of my school and college plays, so I did major theatre. I did my undergrad at Delhi University and did a history honours. I was a very serious student who was passionate about academics. I wanted to be a teacher and lawyer maybe for social justice but mainly a teacher. I went to do my PhD at Columbia University in America. The reason I went there is because my mother died when I was in my third year of college very tragically. She was only 42 and I was 21 and it was because of medical negilence. I found it hard to deal with so I had to leave the country.
So I took my scholarship to Columbia. If I had stayed in India to do my PhD, I would have probably have stayed on in academics because at Columbia I found that their approach to India was very developmental and third world which I hated so I quite after my masters even though I had funding for 6 years. In America, you’re allowed to work for a year after your masters before you have to go back. I was working at National Lawyer’s Guild, an activist legal organisation as I thought social justice was what I was going to do. I was working part time at a Manhattan cable tv place which was very political e.g. little 1 minute clips about police brutality. That interested me so I did a 6 week course at NYU which made me realise that I liked being on this side of the camera, instead of acting. I loved creating material from a political place as I wanted to create something that made an impact.
Then I applied to film school. I got into UCLA film school and I thought I would see if I liked it after one semester. I did a narrative short film as my first exercise and I loved the process of scripting, and doing something dramatic that then emotionally impacts people. It made me realise that this was my calling and that I loved this. I did also love doing documentaries and my thesis was a documentary, but I really loved making up a story, telling that story, getting my actors together and creating something out of nothing.
I (Kopal) moved from India when I was 12 and I don’t think I would have studied film either if I had stayed there as the culture there is very academics heavy so it’s interesting that you also felt like you wouldn’t have studied it if you had stayed.
For me, it’s the opposite. My family are very liberal and some of them are in media so it was the opposite. My mother was a theatre actor. I would have been encouraged to do that. I was academic, even though my family didn’t push me into it. I was in that theatre world so I had very liberal influences of people who were artists. I didn’t want to be an artist because I loved academics. I loved studying and history and I wanted to teach it.
So your parents are similar to Aditi and Niren as they truly were your biggest cheerleaders. Especially as a female in an Asian society so you need that support.
That is why in our promotions, we are saying, especially to women out there, paint your sky whatever colour you want to paint it. Societu puts us in a box and wants us to do certain things. No matter what you want to do, you do that. Paint the sky the colour you want.
When you were growing up, did any films inspire you or affect you emotionally?
Yes, certainly I loved watching films. One of the earliest memories is of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. As a class, we were taken to watch it and I remember crying in the theatre. As I had no interest in being a filmmaker, I can’t say they’ve impacted me as a filmmaker but yes of course, I have emotional memories of watching certain films for sure.
Personally or professionally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten that’s just remained with you constantly?
To be my own self.
Any recent films that you’ve enjoyed that have stayed with you?
There’s a lot. At a light level in Hindi cinema, I love films like Dil Dhadakne Do, Piku, PK and recently, Andhadhun and Stree. There’s a lot of interesting work coming out. In Hollywood, I loved so many of the oscar runners of last year. There are so many lovely films being made world wide.
In your interviews, you seem very connected with your actors. What’s one quality in each member of this cast that you really loved?
Overall, my approach to actors is that there needs to be an umbilical cord between me and them. The workshop process before going to set is to form that umbilical cord and also for them to form it between each other. I call it river acting versus pond acting. Pond acting is when each actor is just doing their own performance, and river acting is when from deep within each actor, that current rises and they meet. The synergy needs to be there between the actors and between the director and actor. I’m very conscious about finding that in the workshops and create that between them and us.
No quality really sticks but it’s about forming a relationship. So with Priyanka, I formed that relationship head on about death. Straight away, we talked a lot about death. She was still not healed from her father’s death and she has found this film extremely healing. I was already healed with my son’s death. I am very comfortable speaking abut it and that helped her connect with the character as she has not had a child. Hearing me talk about my son, both living and dead, really helped her and that was a deep bond between us as it was a deep subject.
With Zaira, right at the beginning when I cast her, I heard about the fact that she had anxiety and depression. She was nervous about whether she could even do the film. I did a meditation workshop with her, I played music that I made her dance to and I made her comfortable and relaxed. She’s like a baby for me. I mothered her and completely assured her that it wouldn’t be a factor. She’s publicly spoken about it but helping her take it head on and address it and not being afraid to say let’s talk about it. We talked about what we could do, what her fears were. She said that she was scared that sometimes on set, her body might just be shaking and I told her don’t worry about it, it will be fine.
This is just who I am. I can’t work without relationships with my actors. I want to be meaningful in their lives and I want to help them. What do they need from me and what love can I give them? It’s all coming from a place of love. With Farhan and me, we both have two children, I have one dead and one alive and he was two alive children and they’re a similar age. I love his work, as a director. He disarmed me by telling me in my very first meeting that he was terrified of doing the film and that he was just going to place himself in my hands. He looked into my eyes and he spoke with such vulnerability, which I connected with. We’ve spoken a lot about emotional pain and how to deal with difficult things. I was nervous to direct him as he is a director himself and I thought he might watch me as I was directing, but after that first meeting I was fine.
With Rohit, he was the only non star. I knew how intimidating it was for him as the other three were stars. Two major stars and Zaira, who was also by then, quite a big star, so it was a lot for him. I really had to work hard to make sure that he would be comfortable and not intimidated. I spent the most time working with him on his role and we have a deep connection because his name is Ishaan in the film which is my dead son’s name so I immediately had a close connection with Rohit. I fell in love with him at the audition. I auditioned 100 kids before I chose him. He was the only non star to find that character to match the family. He told me so much about his life like losing his father and how that affected him and how he could bring it into his character. I worked with him with stuff in his real life on top of the workshop work.
Did you think that the fact that some of the cast members had lost family members would affect their performance?
I didn’t worry about it. Priyanka can easily separate her personal life and her acting life. Interestingly, she never went to the place about her own father but got so into my skin, that she performed from a place of my relationship with my son. After one of the scenes towards the end of 8 months of shooting (there was only a 40 day schedule but it was scattered over 8 months), there was a scene where she had to break down. She was crying in the past and we called cut and it’s over. I always hug my actors after calling cut, whether it’s a sad or happy scene, to tell them that it was great. Whilst I was hugging her, she couldn’t stop howling. And she kept howling and apologising. She kept saying I’m so sorry about Ishaan, I know now what it means to lose a child. She had gone into complete identification with me, through our conversations so that was interesting that she channeled that versus her own father’s death.
When we were shooting the death day, Rohit broke down in my arms because he was thinking about his own father but I know that from my own experience as an actor, that it won’t spoil your performance. Some actors know and can access your own pain but some actors won’t do that. It’s an actor’s choice. Rohit chose to access it and I knew that he would be okay doing it and I was right there to take care of him.
All of the cast were perfect, and you can tell that they created a bond.
Off screen, they all became like a family.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
First I would say that you have to be very sure because it’s a tough industry to be in. You have to really want it because it’s so difficult. Have the courage to be an authentic voice and make a difference in the world. Tell your own story and you will find a way, especially in today’s digital world, where there are multiple ways to get a film made so it’s not restricted by money and film sets. You can even make a film on a phone in this day and age and put it out on youtube. Believe in yourself and your story. Why do you want to be a filmmaker? If you want to become rich, please go into another profession because it’s really hard to make money. Don’t do it to make money. Do it because you want to create content to affect people. Don’t think about the box office when you’re writing and directing. I want the film to work for me and if it works for me, then it works for my audience.
Why did you not produce this film after producing your first two films?
I have no desire to produce. I was forced to produce my first two films because nobody wanted to produce them. It’s a nightmare to produce a film. This was a cakewalk because I had producers. No one wanted to touch Amu because it was about genocide, I had to co-produce Margherita With A Straw because they didn’t want to touch disability and sexuality. Here, I thought it would happen again as it is about the death of a child but Sid loved the script so he wanted to produce it. He came to me, I didn’t go to him. He called me because he loved Margherita. I made what I believed in, even in a smaller way with my first two films, and that is what got me to The Sky is Pink. I’m continuing to make the cinema I believe in, even now.
After seeing the response that you received at TIFF, are you expecting a similar respone from the London Film Festival?
I think it will be way more emotional because London is very connected with the film and I’m expecting a very emotional response to that tonight.