Smriti Kiran: All the creators here, Arati Kadav, Gitanjali Rao, Konkona Sensharma, Mirrah Foulkes have gotten to make their first feature. Sheetal Menon made her first short film, which was very celebrated and Parvathy Thiruvothu is going to start her journey as a filmmaker this year.
I wanted to get all of you together because it’s really important to galvanise female filmmakers. I know we want to get to a point where the female part of it is not prefixed all the time to all the roles that we take on. But we also know that the numbers are dismal. There is now conversation at fever pitch about inclusion and representation. Therefore it becomes very important to have conversations about what the challenges are and what we can do in our ambit of limited influence to keep pulling talented people in.
It’s also an incredible opportunity to meet Mirrah Foulkes, who is an Australian filmmaker. I feel that if galvanisation has to happen, not only does it have to happen within the country, but we need to also pull in creators from around the world and maybe share experiences and challenges, and see how all of us can work together.
In your journey to get to your first feature or first short, do you feel that your experience was any different than the experience that your male counterparts might’ve had in that journey?
Mirrah Foulkes: I’ve done a bunch of these panels in the past and this is the first time that I’ve ever been on a panel that’s just women. It’s amazing to be connecting with colleagues from across the globe in such a weird and uncertain time in the world. But it’s also amazing to be on this panel full of wonderful emerging female filmmakers and to be starting to get a sense that this might be the new normal going forward. It’s very regular to see a panel full of men, so this pendulum swing that is happening is really encouraging. It’s encouraging for me to realise that it’s happening all over the world, not just in Australia.
To answer your question: Yes, absolutely. I think that there were different struggles that I faced coming into my journey. But having said that, I was also hugely supported by a team of men, my friends and peers that were filmmakers, and they were really the reason that I started making films and directing. So, while I recognise that there were certain struggles that I was facing, that they weren’t necessarily facing, they were actually my biggest champions. I’m the only woman in a filmmaker collective called Blue-Tongue Films. The guys are about 10 years older than me and were more established in their careers when I met and started working with them. So, that’s part of it. But they all championed me like nobody else, and they still do. While there were certain obstacles, I felt very held and supported by the good men in my life. I’m not sure if other people on the panel have had that experience.
Konkona Sensharma: I had a lot of privilege coming in. I was already an actor and kind of well-known, which was very advantageous for me. I got a lot of meetings, at least first-time meetings, even though a lot of them refused to finance the film. But I got a lot of meetings. It was easy for me to do that, which it may not have been otherwise. In that sense, I feel like I was so privileged that I’m not sure exactly what those disadvantages would have been.
One interesting thing I noticed is how we react to authority. I don’t think that the director needs to be somebody who is authoritative in that sense. But there is some kind of an expectation in the crew for the director to be that kind of a person. And it is very normalised for directors, often male directors, to be a certain kind of director, have a certain authority, where they are screaming or shouting. I just didn’t want that kind of an atmosphere on my set. That’s not how I work well. I don’t really think that that necessarily brings out the best in everyone. Maybe it works for some people. Of course, I had Chetana Kowshik, a kick-ass first AD. It is interesting to note that many times I’ve seen that female firsts have incorporated the kind of authoritative behaviour that is acceptable in men. So, she’s doing a lot of that for me. It’s just an observation as to how we react to that. I wasn’t that kind of a person. I managed fine because I had her, but I think how people react to you is a bit of a problem, especially if you’re a first-time filmmaker.
But other than that, I was so privileged that I think it was more advantageous for me than not.
Arati Kadav: I agree with what Konkona said about authority. I like my set to be quieter as compared to a male director’s set. Because I was sort of anonymous and an outsider, I felt that I could have made my debut three-four years earlier than I did because there were a lot of questions about my capability because I was a female director who wanted to make a science fiction film. There was a lot of love and sympathy that I could feel in the room, but that was not what I wanted. I wanted them to be confident, and that took some time. I felt that I could have made a film sooner if I was a male director.
Gitanjali Rao: No male director would probably ever say that they are privileged. For Konkona to say that and accept that is the way that women deal with their problems. The first thing you do is overcome them and then say, ‘No, it’s been easy for me.’ So, I think that is the root and the reason why we are all here and doing whatever we’re doing.
For me, it is a strange situation. With respect to animation, even if there was a man in my place wanting to make a film, he would have found it as difficult, because of the subject, because of the fact that it’s not for children, or because it didn’t have stars. So, I was making it difficult for myself whether I was a man or a woman.
I work independently. I got into the mainstream live-action struggle to make a film, not the animation industry. If I was to be a part of the animation industry, I don’t think I would have been able to make a film because it is seriously dominated by men. We all love Studio Ghibli films. We think the characters are so beautiful, and they’re so feminist, but there’s not been a single woman director from Studio Ghibli. That is strange. Disney has less than 1 percent women directors. They have just come up with the decision of having 40 percent women directors. So, it’s a jump from one to 40. Whatever has caused that jump, whatever they might be able to do is phenomenal.
In a sense, we all find the times to be very exciting because whatever we’ve been doing, which was frustrating until a few years back, now has started becoming fruitful for us, especially after the #MeToo movement. So, the struggle just becomes easier and more rewarding. As a woman, and in terms of making animation films, I worked with a studio that had worked a lot with women directors. In India, good animation films are made by women rather than men. The statistics are quite skewed in favour of women because it’s not such a big money-making, successful industry. The power-play comes in when it becomes a big, successful industry. A lot of women entered it before it became a powerful place, whereas, for the rest of you working with live-action, in Bollywood, it’s an established, male-macho scene.
Sheetal Menon: I feel that it’s not so easy for either gender. I’m still new to this and I’m yet to make a feature film. But talking about my personal experience, I just feel it was more of a struggle that I had within. I was so consumed with the whole belief of ‘Can I really do this?’ It was such a huge struggle for me right there. Even four days before my shoot, I almost gave up and I was looking for a co-director. I thought that if I couldn’t do this then I needed to look for someone who could help me shoot the whole thing. I really think that this was all there when I was struggling with whether I could really do it or not.
Smriti Kiran: There is a crisis of confidence that comes from not having enough opportunity. When you get that opportunity, it doesn’t sit lightly because it’s not the norm. The struggle to actually get finance and to get greenlit and to actually find your way in that web that is dominated by men makes it not normal to have so many female directors.
I want to know from all of you if there is a crisis of confidence. Of course, there was joy, but there was also a lot of terror while writing. I’ve seen Mirrah’s interviews, where she’s like, ‘I was just writing, and then I was terrified. But I need to get this done.’
Sheetal Menon: I’m still very new to this. I’m just one short film old. The whole thing of communication and how to be on set, for me, was preceded with this whole fear of even going there and calling the shots, saying, ‘Action!’ I practised it at home. ‘You have to be loud. Sheetal, people have to hear you!’ You’re thinking about your story, and then you have to go and play this role. The first day had so many things happening. Also, I was acting in my story.
When I decided to direct and act, everybody was like, ‘You can’t do this. You’re making your first film.’ There was no plan to direct a film in your life. ‘So, you’re making your first film, and you’re trying to act in that story. It’s going to be a mess.’ And I don’t know how all that happened because for me, by the end of it, I was like, ‘I want to make this story. It’s okay if I don’t act in it.’ At first, it was more about acting and then it switched. But finally, I was also part of the story and I was acting in it.
I remember there were times when there were a lot of things. I was losing time, and I couldn’t cover a lot of bits. I lost time. In my head, it was like, ‘How will I even edit this part? It’s gone. I’ve lost my time.’ It was so critical for me in my head because I was like, ‘This is how I see my story, but now how do I cover this?’ And I remember thinking right then and there, ‘Oh, I’m going to shoot this on the exterior day that I was planning to shoot because I had three days of shoot in this house.’ I had a hard time convincing people and they said, ‘It’s not going to work.’ I had to be sure, ‘No, I have to try it. I have to try this.’ I was not sure but somewhere there was a clarity that this is how I see it and I have to do it. I don’t know where I got that from. I was fighting for it constantly. And, that was my experience. I think it’s just a constant struggle. At the same time, to have that clarity in your mind that you need to be very sure of how you see it was great, be it the situation or even logistics wise if you can’t do it, or people telling you to try it this way or frame it this way. Somewhere, I think that clarity is so important.
Mirrah Foulkes: To ignore someone on set saying, ‘You should do this,’ when your instinct says, ‘I’m pretty sure,’ is the most terrifying thing in the world but it’s also your job. On my first day on my film, I forgot that I was supposed to call cut. I remember the first take of the first scene. I was sitting there watching my actors go, thinking, ‘This is really great,’ and then it just kept going and it kept going and going, and then finally I was like, ‘Oh, shit! Cut! Cut!’ I was so embarrassed. But it doesn’t take you long until you’re in the saddle and you go, ‘I’m used to the rhythm of this now and I can just focus.’
I find this conversation really interesting because I like to try and separate gender out where I can. All of us want to be seen as filmmakers. We don’t want to be talking constantly about female filmmakers and how that experience is different to men. Gender is undeniable. There are implicit things that exist in us. I find that so fascinating.
Also, this notion of how you’re expected to be on set and how a leader is expected to behave. My experience was that I thought a lot about that when I was shooting my film, and then subsequently, I always think a lot about it later on as well. What is expected of me on set in terms of how I should be, how I should manage my ship because you’re being a leader at that moment. I can choose to be this captain, which is very familiar, which people have an understanding of, or I can choose to be a captain that feels a little bit more of me. I think a lot of women want their sets to be a gentler and less confrontational place. But it’s tricky because you’re also wanting all the people that you’re steering to have faith in you. So, there’s this balance between wanting to have the strength and wanting to have a vulnerability that will bring out the most in people’s work. I thought about it so much. I still think about it so much.
I made a really specific decision very early on, after the first day of my shoot, that I wasn’t going to cry in front of my crew. As an actor, I was expected to do that all the time. That’s all anyone ever wanted me to do. It was always okay if I was vulnerable and emotionally turbulent. But suddenly I was in this position where I could actively see that, and not just for the men but for the women on my crew as well. If I was in that place, they started to question whether I knew what I was doing, and I get that because I’ve probably done the same to other directors. ‘Hang on a second, does he or she really know what they are doing? They seem all over the place.’ So, I just find it really interesting territory. I don’t have a solution to it. There’s no simple answer to it.
Very early on, someone told me that people can mistake kindness for weakness. I still think about it a lot. I want to be a kind person in life and on set and in my work. But I want people to feel confident to follow me and my lead. So, I think there’s a balance that we have to strike between our openness and our vulnerability, and our sense of we’ve-got-this and we know how to steer this ship.
Smriti Kiran: How did people respond to you on set once you were directing and kind of finding your way? You can pretend for five days, but you can’t pretend for 50.
Mirrah Foulkes: There are always cracks in that armour. For the most part, I had such a pleasant experience. I was lucky that I was working with a lot of people who I knew very well and who had worked with me before in different capacities. But every now and again, I would encounter a situation that I’m sure men encounter as well, where I felt like I was not getting the respect that I needed. There were one or two instances in everything that I’ve made where I’ve had to pull up a crew member. I think that’s maybe a little more difficult for me because my temperament is not combative, and I find it very difficult to push people. As a director, you’re doing a lot of that. You’re not hosting the world’s funnest party. I had to learn that. I was like, ‘There’s going to be people who I have to push, who are going to be really unhappy with that, but that’s part of making something that they can hopefully be proud of.’ It’s important not to shy away from that. So, I struggled with that. I’m still struggling with learning how to calmly and confidently push people to places that they don’t want to go to.
Perhaps, that’s a gender thing. Perhaps, it’s an easier thing for men to do, but maybe not. There’s a whole spectrum of different kinds of male personalities as there are females. We’re talking in generalisations, but I tend to think that a lot of the women, who direct, who grapple a little bit with finding the kind of balance between emotional vulnerability and being the leader that we’re so used to seeing in a director.
Smriti Kiran: I think of gender at that point in time because there is a burden on women to be naturally nurturing. With male directors, there is a certain kind of authority, whether it’s a first-time director or whether it’s the director who’s been directing for the past 200 films, naturally comes with. I think it’s also got to do with how we crew up. So, I just want you to weigh in on why even at a very basic level of figuring out who you want to be on set is a question for female filmmakers. Parvathy, you’re putting together a crew right now.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: I did a short pilot episode with a friend of mine, Rima Kallingal, who’s also an actor, now a director. She directed that pilot episode, and I acted and ran the production. It was a 4-day shoot with 18 crew members, out of which, 11 were women. To have a majority of women around was unheard of in our industry. This was during the pandemic so we had to take up protocols, and this was all done in one small apartment. All of us crewed up together. It was a completely different energy that we brought together. I don’t know what kind of energy that was, but it definitely was more like a group problem-solving radar. I’m sure there are egos between women too, but this was all about helping each other to get to that solution. We had about seven members who were male. During the wrap party, they actually came up and gave a speech and said that they’d never experienced this energy anywhere else. They never felt they were competing against one another. They never felt that they needed to put on a strong facade. We didn’t realise until after we finished shooting that this is the energy with which we went in, and this is what we expected throughout our careers as well. As an actor, I can say for sure that most of the time that I go to a film set, it’s probably just two or three women on a film set with about 100-120 men. There’s me and, probably, the hairdresser and maybe the supporting actors that come in, who are women. So, maybe about five-six in total. That is an entire energy shift.
What I found interesting was that I wasn’t used to it either. I wasn’t used to being surrounded only by women. I was used to having a certain kind of armour up and doing those little things that we do just so we sound firm yet polite. That kind of game really expended most of my energy on set for 15 years of being an actor. Now that I’m moving into production and direction, I realised that I can be myself. So, I’m relearning what it is to be myself and still get what I want.
Acknowledging my privilege here because I have worked as an actor for 15 years now. There is a certain stature, a certain presence and that everyone knows me here in the industry. But when I go in to pitch certain ideas, they are still casually pushed aside. I wanted to produce and direct a music album using animation, so I was trying to find a music director. Most of the music directors in Kerala are men. I went to three or four of them and the trust factor was close to nothing. So, I find that until and unless I prove myself with some material, I don’t think that as a woman I’ll pass the test that I can create as well. As an actor, I may have proved myself to an extent.
The thick and thin skin aspect of being on set as an actor that Mirrah was talking about, I still have to negotiate between where I need to be thin-skinned enough to be vulnerable enough to perform, but at the same time, thick-skinned enough to understand my marks and what my crew is trying to tell me. But I guess that kind of gets flipped a little and you have to renegotiate that proportion when you are behind the scenes. And that’s what I’m going through right now.
Arati Kadav: I agree with that. I had that same imposter syndrome of ‘Will I be able to do this? Will I be able to do this right?’ I think at some point I’ve dropped it and I’ve just embraced my authenticity in some way. Over the course of last year, I’m no longer scared to say, ‘How will we do this?’ First of all, I know that I prep super hard. I think that part of imposter syndrome will never and it’s pushing me in a good way because I’m prepping hard. I know I’ve done my homework. I’ve done my research, and we are trying to do something new. Asking questions is how we will push the boundaries of cinema.
The one advantage I had was that I’d made around five short films before I jumped into my features. So, I already had long-term collaborators with whom I had a very strong one-on-one relationship. My set was a very comfortable space. These people knew my strengths as well as weaknesses. So, I think that it is important to find your tribe. At the same time, keep your eyes open and collaborate with newer people. I was collaborating with this production designer. She was 20 years old but she was so good, with fresh ideas. She’d studied production design. She was talking to me about materials in a way that nobody had spoken about.
Cargo had six to seven debuts. There were a lot of first-time technicians making their debut. That relationship is also stronger when you are with people in the earlier stages of their careers. That’s how you build an environment where you can be yourself. I think that is the most important thing when you’re doing anything either as an actor or as a director or as a technician. If you can happily be yourself on that set, at least that is the safest space that you can create for yourself. So, I just try to create a good space for myself. It takes time, but it’s worth it.
Smriti Kiran: A lot of you have made short films before making your feature. Konkona’s made one short film before she made her feature, and Sheetal didn’t start off on Siblings wanting to direct it. Did you feel that you needed to prep yourself, get that kind of confidence and then do it? And does it become incumbent for a female artist to start making their own material because there is such a dearth of good material out there for them to sink their teeth into?
Mirrah Foulkes: That’s exactly why I started writing and making short films. I mean, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to direct. I didn’t have as much work as I wanted as an actor, and I knew I wanted longevity in this industry. I think part of that inherent imposter syndrome will always be with me because I never went to film school. My film school was working on sets as an actor. I started to absorb what I could. But the thing I love about short filmmaking is that that’s where you can take risks. That’s where you gather other young, emerging people around you and try stuff and you build your tribe. As Arati was saying, you start to build your comrades around you, who you’re going to go on to work with in the future. That was a really important part of transitioning into features for me. I just treated those shorts as my own version of film school.
I felt like the bolder they were, the more I was experimenting with my own authentic voice and the more I was happily prepared to fail in them. We work in a medium that costs a lot of money. So, when you’re self-funding a short film, it’s a lot easier to go, ‘This might not work, but who cares?’ than when you’re making a feature. There’s freedom in that. That’s a freedom that I would like to carry through into my feature work because sometimes you start to become safer and safer as the burden of the responsibility gets bigger. I think it’s important to try and continue to tap into whatever it was that sparked your imagination when you were beginning. That was my experience with the shorts.
Gitanjali Rao: In animation, I think every short should be considered a feature because it takes three to four years to make each of them. I am still a very shorts oriented person because one knows the labour of animation. So, my ideas are small enough to be told in the kind of animation that I can do and that I can finish off. I didn’t have the privilege of having the choice that I have more freedom in shorts. But I realised that as I kept doing them one after another, I was depleting my resources. I would put a lot of time into the shorts and I would earn nothing, I would lose money and they would go to 100-150 festivals, which is also an expense eventually because shorts are not granted travel expenses. It had a lot to do with the practical fact of it. And then, everybody thought that I should be making a feature, but I took my time. I had a story. Something was brewing in me. I had a producer who got interested in my work and encouraged me. But it took about seven years to find the finances, make it and finish it. While I was doing that, I still made a short, despite that entire process of raising finance. I realised that if I took one of the stories of my feature film and make it into a short film, it may become easier for me to find finance. This is where the confidence in a short film animation maker, wanting to make a feature film, has to be cultivated. So, I made a short film out of one of the stories of Bombay Rose, which took two years to make, and then managed through that to build the confidence and find the finance for Bombay Rose. So, a lot of times it was a way to make the feature, but on another level, it was far more pleasurable to make the short film than the feature. I’ve just finished a short film, Tomorrow My Love, which is going to Locarno. It was something I could easily make during the pandemic.
Also, one thing that is different from all of the other directors who are sitting here is that I can sit at home and make the animation single-handedly, which is what I’ve done with all my shorts. So, in a lockdown, it is possible. The only time I go out is to do sound design, which is like two days, and to make a DCP, which is like half a day. So, it’s possible. That’s why there are a lot more women animation filmmakers, auteur-driven animation filmmakers, all over the world. When you see Annecy, out of 50 shorts, 25-30 shorts are made by women because it can be done with no money, no space, and very little support. It brings your confidence to an acceptable level. If Printed Rainbow hadn’t gone to Cannes and won awards, nobody would have known me. So, it was a short that led to the feature. I think a feature is huge. It’s a marathon. But every time you do a 100-metre run, you feel so good about yourself. You feel great after a marathon also, but you collapse at the end of it.
To just add to your earlier question about confidence and the role that you have to play as a director. When I was directing my film, everybody who was interviewed in my crew said, ‘She knows exactly what she wants and she knows how to get it.’ Now, I don’t know whether that’s a compliment or basically them telling me, ‘You’re a control freak.’ This is why I have to get to that stage where I can do everything if another person can’t do it, which I did with my shorts, and reach that level of making a feature. Do not take shit from anybody saying, ‘This is not possible,’ ‘This is very difficult,’ ‘This is going to take this much money,’ ‘This is going to do that much.’ That’s why I could make it with a very small budget.
After an issue, my producer, Deborah Sathe, who’s a woman, came down from London and spoke to other producers who were male. She came back and she told me, ‘You’re not being very kind to them.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You’re not complimenting them.’ I said, ‘They’re not doing enough. That’s why I’m fighting with them all the time. That’s why I want them to do this.’ She said, ‘No, no. You’re a woman. They love to hear good things from a woman, and that is how things are going to work.’ I said, ‘This is all shit,’ but eventually, I had to play the role of a woman who nurtures men who are probably not doing what they are supposed to be doing. I wanted to finish the film!
Mirrah Foulkes: Everyone wants you to be the mother. I’m not a yell-y person, but things go wrong all the time or things get weird, and you have to. In comparison to what I’ve seen male directors do, it’s nothing. It’s barely raising a sweat. And I’ve had crew members turn to me and go, ‘Whoa, you can be really fired up.’ And I’m like, ‘Come on! This is nothing.’ But the expectation is that.
And speaking of imposter syndrome, I think sometimes that can be flipped a little bit and it can be projected onto you sometimes. So, I’ve had moments of walking onto a set and had lovely male crew members, who are genuinely supportive and want me to feel comfortable, come up and go, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine. Don’t worry about this.’ And I’m like, ‘Of course I’m going to be fine. I don’t need you to tell me I’m going to be fine.’ But the expectation is that you’re going to carry this anxiety into it, and you get to a certain point in your career where you don’t, where you know how to articulate what it is you need. That can be a bit off-putting.
Gitanjali Rao: Yeah, I think that’s a new thing, where we refuse to be like men and aggressive and cruel, and we refuse to be what they expect us to be as women, which is motherly and nurturing, and be somewhere in between. You know what you want, where you can get it, you’re authoritative, yet you have your faults. If you get accepted, then you stop calling yourself a female director or a woman director because you’ve encompassed it all. You’re not expected to be anything, you’re a new person, regardless of your gender. You know your job, and your crew will work with you. That would be a utopia.
Smriti Kiran: There is so much conversation about how we need to be on set. I don’t think this conversation will ever happen on a “manel”. We really think about every decision that we have to make and whether we are being hard on people or not, which is good, but which is also a lot of work. It’s a lot of internal work. You’re burning yourself out because you’re constantly thinking about things that another gender doesn’t have to. They get on to set and they deal with self-doubt that comes with the artist and other problems. But we are dealing with so much more before we even get to that point.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: In this pilot episode that we shot, I had a lovely executive producer with me. He’s young and he’s very good at his job. I’ve worked with him on different projects when I was an actor. So, I was also kind of learning the ropes from him. In Hindi, we use this word, ‘jugaad’, which means that if things don’t go as per rule, you can just kind of manage somehow or get somebody to do something for a little less. We had a situation and we developed this good cop, bad cop thing. Pretty soon I realised that I was always the bad cop. It wasn’t that I was the nurturing mother there. If people don’t come on time in the production group and if the call sheets have gone out and I’ve said 10 o’clock is the assemble time and people don’t come in, I am pissed. This is just how I am because I’m a stickler for time. And the more I got pissed, he kept coming and saying, ‘You know, maybe you ought to be a little nicer to them.’ Then I had to reflect on that. I was like, ‘Do I have to reflect on it as a personality trait or do I have to reflect on it because I’m a woman?’ So, I had to actually ask him that. Because I don’t care to be liked. It’s okay that they hate me. They just need to come on time so that our production costs stay within budget. I realised that it’s because he doesn’t want me to be hated. I’m like, ‘’m okay with being hated. You can be the good guy. It’s okay as long as we get our work done.’ The introspection is always so multilayered. It can be pretty exhausting.
Konkona Sensharma: When I was going to make my feature, and the protagonist was a young man, I remember a few people asking me, ‘You are a female filmmaker. Why isn’t your protagonist a woman?’ That’s so much part of the problem because why are we constantly telling women what to do? My film was about toxic masculinity, and I feel like even when you’re dealing with feminism, the focus has to be on men because a lot of the problems are coming from there.
I could totally relate to this crisis of confidence. Firstly, I made one short film, which was a while before I made my feature, and I was not so invested in my short because the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival had asked me to make it at a time when I wasn’t really ready to direct. I never really wanted to direct either, but I made it and it was okay. It was very different from my feature. I remember the evening before my first day, the next day was my shoot, there was supposed to be a meeting with my ADs and some HODs. I was so nervous. We had to wake up in the morning and walk into a banquet hall in a kind of seedy hotel in Ranchi. I must be slightly dyslexic because they started telling me so many technical terms about what’s going to happen the next day. I was like, ‘Oh, shit! I’m not even following everything.’ But because I wrote it and it’s from my past, I knew that material so well. I knew what I wanted. It’s not that I didn’t experience frustration or anger, but I do feel I was my best self during my shoot. I’ve never been that before or after, but I was so zen.
It’s not just the way that I have to be, or the leadership that I have to perform, I have this thing where I have to connect with people differently. My sound designer needs a certain thing from me, my AD needs a different thing from me, this actor needs a different thing from me. I think I am able to do that but it is exhausting. I’m a mom in real life, so I totally relate to what you guys are saying about women having to be nourishing. I can be, if that’s what’s needed to get things done. I can be that. If something else is needed, I can be that. I don’t particularly identify with any of those things. But to have to do those shifts, I sometimes find that to be very exhausting.
Mirrah Foulkes: It’s so interesting. You talk about that laser focus that you were your best self at that moment because I often reflect a lot on the things I would have done differently in my film, and there were so many things, but sometimes I remember that I’m really proud of the director that emerged that I didn’t even know was there, and the leader that emerged that I’d only ever imagined might be there. It’s really important to do that because I think we have a capacity that is so much bigger sometimes than what we can imagine. I don’t know about you guys, but my tendency sometimes is to focus on all the things that I did wrong. I have to constantly remind myself that there were periods in there where I just felt like I was on fire because you know your material more intimately than anybody else.
Konkona Sensharma: It’s so important to self-reflect as well. Just because I’ve done this and it’s done doesn’t mean that it’s fine. I think in retrospect that I was not as nurturing to my actors as I could have been, and that is something I realised only later. And it is really sad because I’m primarily an actor. I’ve acted for more than 20 years and I wish that I had been able to give them that space. So, that’s a note to me for the next time. But I think to be able to look back and self-reflect and introspect is such an important quality, and it doesn’t take away from your strength.
Mirrah Foulkes: Everyone says to you when you’re an actor-turned-director, ‘You must be really good with actors. It must be so easy. You must be great with actors.’ And it’s easy in that it’s demystified. I’m not afraid of actors because I understand the process, but I was still really surprised at how hard it was directing my actors. I thought it would be the breeziest thing, and all the technical stuff, the lenses and everything would be really complex, but I still found it really confronting directing actors. I don’t know if anyone else, any of the other actors, had that experience directing.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: With the shortest bit of experience I had, I found that each actor came to the film set with completely different energy and expectations from the director and the writer. When I go to perform I have my blinkers on and I’m listening to my director. There are times when certain directors have built up a strong boundary with their actors. That’s their process. They’re like, ‘My assistant director will come and tell you what to do.’ So, I’m curious to know if going from an actor to a director was easier, or did it feel more complicated because you would also probably start projecting what you would have wished as an actor to get from a director?
Mirrah Foulkes: That’s what I did. It made me really realise how different every actor is. Every actor has such different needs, and I know what I like but that doesn’t suit everyone.
Konkona Sensharma: As an actor, you have to be quite malleable because you’ve worked with so many different directors. That equation is so primal for an actor. That’s so primary and important. Different directors have different approaches. I find myself adjusting to different directors in different ways, and it helped me as an actor. Even in the writing, it helped me because I would play out everything that I wrote. I would imagine it and act it out and play out everything that I wrote. And even on set, it was very convenient because I would know, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be able to get up and turn from here because it’s not coming easy.’ So, that part of it was easy. I wasn’t maybe as nurturing, and I had a certain vision of exactly what I wanted, so I would keep pushing from that.
Sheetal Menon: For me, I found there was very little time for even a discussion on set. I only wish I had more time to prep with my actors before, which I was really fighting for. So, when it comes to even improvising or knowing your lines, I wanted to be super ready with them. When you’re on set, you know what you’re doing.
I remember I was really troubling Shivani Tanksale, my co-actor. I said, ‘Give me a little time. We need to practice these lines together.’ I remember I went to our house and we did a few scenes together. This was more for me than for Shivani. For her, it’s like, ‘Okay, I know the story.’ But I think it was more for me. ‘Okay, I’m seeing it this way, and we’re all okay with this. Go and shoot it.’ There was no time to sit and say, ‘Can we do it this way?’ One shot, two shots and move on. You’re just running. So, where is the time? I feel that it’s all the more important now to do a little bit of workshop or some kind of a thing. Just do that all before your shoot and not have any doubts. Even if you leave it there, you try your best and you get what you want, but I think after that you move on.
Gitanjali Rao: There are so many things that were said over here. Like Mirrah said or Konkona said, ‘I could have done things differently.’ You never hear men saying that. You never hear me saying, ‘I was my best that day, even during the shoot, because that was really me.’ They are like, ‘Yeah, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?’ Somewhere, I’ve internalised that behaviour just by watching them, and because I don’t come from live-action, I don’t have to interact with them.
I’ve learnt acting for theatre. But, I used it a lot in my animation. With Bombay Rose, I didn’t do what most animators do, which is, use a voice artist, record that voice artist’s performance and then give that to your animators to animate. That was not how I wanted to do it. I knew exactly how each and every character of mine was supposed to act. So, I acted out almost every character in the film. They didn’t really record it. I would go in front of the animator and explain the scene to him or her exactly how you would with an actor. They are not actors at all. The last thing that they want to do is act. I would say, ‘See it in your mind. This is how she would do it. This is how the old man will do it.’ So, I would enact it for them, and that’s when they created all the characters frame by frame. So, when somebody says that the acting in Bombay Rose is quite amazing, I take it as a big compliment. It was intense acting from us and the animators by not having an actor that you can direct. You have to create it from nothing.
And of course, it’s also very rewarding because sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and you still have to figure it out in other ways. While I was working on Bombay Rose, I was asked to work on October as an actor. It was a fluke. I worked so hard to become a director and I’d not worked hard at all otherwise, but I got a plum role in a Bollywood mainstream film.
Shoojit Sircar just said, ‘I want you. You do it.’ I thought that it’s just six or seven days, and he said, ‘No, it’s a one-month role,’ and it grew bigger. Having been a director for so long, I was constantly looking at what the director wanted from me. I stopped being an actor. I was a director who was being an actor for another director. This is something that happens after you direct your first film. Even when I was acting with Aparna Sen and Konkona a few months back, I was more into the script and behind Aparna’s back saying, ‘How is she directing? I want to know how she’s doing all of this.’ It becomes very interesting to see what the director wants and to deliver it as an actor.
So, in a sense, it’s very easy for me to act, but that’s because I’ve become a director, and I’ve done all the hard work of directing. But if I had started acting when I did back then, I don’t think it would have been easy for me at all.
Arati Kadav: I have a confession to make. After directing Cargo, I did Atul Mongia’s acting class for a week just so I could direct actors better. For me, if the actors are sort of method actors, like Konkona and Vikrant [Massey], they’re studied actors, I could really connect. I felt satisfied. We were operating in the same place. I was not finding the place to plug in what exact instructions to give to instinctive actors. They became sort of a black box. I wondered how I could unravel that and decided to learn more about the craft and how to approach the subtext.
Mirrah, I have to say, every actor in Judy and Punch is so good. Every note is so perfect. I’m envious of directors who are great actors, and this is a panel filled with great actors and directors.
Mirrah Foulkes: I think taking an acting class is an amazing thing to do. I think directing for me has completely changed the way that I act. It has completely changed the way that I am on set. I realised that I need to do less as an actor. My biggest job is to be present, open and malleable and to do my director’s bidding. I felt like I wanted to go back and apologise to all these directors I’d worked with before I had directed. I’m so sorry that I fought and disagreed with them all the time. I understand that there are things that you don’t see as an actor, and the best, the most beautiful thing you can do is to trust your director and to give over. Of course, it’s not always possible because sometimes the director’s an idiot, but when they’re not, it’s a wonderful thing to just give over, and I hope that it has improved my work as an actor, but I think it’s definitely changed direction.
Smriti Kiran: There are these wonderful female directors in Australia. You’ve worked with Jane Campion. Then there’s Shannon Murphy, Jennifer Kent and Kitty Green. Is there a sort of tribe or a collective that exists? Do you guys get together? Is there some sort of synergy that is there? Is the industry galvanised in a way that you support each other and work towards pulling more people in, collecting data and figuring out how you can expand the piece in terms of representation, in terms of getting equality on the set and in front of the screen?
Mirrah Foulkes: I mean, yes and no. We’re lucky because the funding bodies in Australia are making huge pushes forward towards gender parity. So, that’s happening. But I would say that my experience of being a director in Australia, particularly in relation to my female peers, has been quite lonely. When I worked with Jane Campion on Top of the Lake, she became sort of a mentor figure to me. She was very, very encouraging to me to continue to direct. And so Jane and I now have a really close relationship, but Jane is Jane. She’s much more experienced. I consider her a friend now, but she’s from a different generation. So, I’m so lucky to have her in my life. Shannon is among my few female director friends that’s sort of my age and we made our films about the same time. So, to have someone like Shannon as a go-to person is wonderful, but it can be very isolating and lonely. And like I said, I weirdly fell into this situation where I was surrounded by a bunch of guys that I loved and I work with all the time. They are my closest friends, they’re like family to me, and one of them is my partner, but not so many young emerging female directors. I’ve never met Kitty. I’ve met Jennifer Kent once. I’m sure if I was ever to pick up the phone and say, ‘I’d love to talk to you about this,’ then it would be great.
I’ve come to discover that directing can be a strangely lonely and alienating thing, and that’s one of the things that was such a huge difference from being an actor on set, just coming full circle back to this sense of how you are on set. On set, everyone has their department, and when you’re a part of an acting department, it’s so much fun. You’ve got your team, and you get to have your laugh, and you get to have cups of tea, and someone brings you a warm coat. As a director, I feel like it can be really quite isolating. Certainly, everyone is there to support you, but it can actually be strangely lonely. I didn’t expect that. That was one of the things that I really didn’t expect, and it’s part of that idea of trying to hold everything to steer the ship. It can be a lonely, lonely place at the top there, being the captain.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: In 2017, the Women in Cinema Collective was formed because of a terrible incident that happened in Kerala. Until then, we were all individual floating islands, and we were made to believe that was our destiny. That’s just how we were supposed to be. And it’s very smooth and Slytherin House like how they play games by pitting us against each other, not on screen but off-screen, to not let us have space to bond and talk and discuss. We all started talking once the Collective was formed. The topic would be about meeting the chief minister or meeting the cultural minister and needing to push the associations for compliance with POSH guidelines. Whenever we do come together, we start sharing stories and we realise it’s happened to all of us and we don’t feel alone any longer. I don’t remember what it was like four years ago to be a working professional in this industry. I just feel like more of an individual. I feel like as much as I’m empowered as a woman, the more I’m becoming an individual because suddenly that line is getting blurred because of the presence of all these wonderful women who are directors, writers, editors, artists, cinematographers.
Then in 2018, MAMI happens and I meet Smriti Kiran, who is a champion of champions. I’ve never seen anyone who is so dedicated to championing not just women especially but anybody, for that matter. So, I think there is a massive rewiring and restructuring that has happened in my head too. Smriti still tells me, ‘Why don’t you call up someone you really admire and chat with them and have a discussion?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s not going to be frowned upon? Will they think there’s an ulterior motive?’ because that’s what I’m told. As a woman, if I call a male director, that’s pushy. You’re not supposed to do that. There is a code of conduct. So, I remember the only time I did actually make that push was to actually find a mentor, to find somebody that I could look up to as an actor, especially in the industry. I was like a scavenger on the internet, finding everyone from inside the actors’ studio to other really far off websites to find interviews. I found my mentor in Cate Blanchett.
So, I stalked Cate Blanchett until she actually came to India. I snuck up behind her with a glass of wine, and said, ‘Can I speak to you? You’re like my teacher. You don’t know that.’ And then, after that, I broke the ice there. I started going up to different women in the industry asking, ‘What was it like for you? Let’s grab a cup of coffee.’ Not as often as I should, though. The idea that we shouldn’t form an alliance was a massive perception here. So, I want to actually break it. Be it global, be it Indian, I don’t care, I’m here. I’m present. Use me. Pick my brain. We’re all just going to grow interlocked. It’s going to be beautiful.
Mirrah Foulkes: It’s just so important to have that kind of connectivity and on a global scale, as well. I think that’s why film festivals are so important because they function in so many ways to connect with filmmakers from different cultures, and so it’s so enriching. It’s such an important experience. Those relationships that you form at festivals are so special. Even with my shorts, I felt like I had them. I was lucky enough to travel to festivals. It’s just a really special environment. I truly love some festivals and the relationships that come out of them. I just think they’re so wonderful.
Konkona Sensharma: I was thinking that it’s so important for actors to have a collective. I have a few actor friends, not too many, whom I’m close to. Thanks to that, I found that we’ve been told different things. Both of us have been approached for the same role but paid differently. There were a lot of discrepancies, which we were able to iron out because we knew each other. It’s really important to have some kind of a fallback option, that you can ask a community if you need to, especially for people who are going through some kind of problems or are starting out or who need that support, is very important. Producers do pit you against each other.
Smriti Kiran: You’ve made your first films. What has changed after making it? Does it become easier? Do you know how to do this better, not only in terms of the craft but the hustle of it? What has been your experience?
Mirrah Foulkes: The hustle doesn’t get any easier. The financing doesn’t seem to get any easier. In fact, it’s harder than it’s ever been before. But there’s this innate little seed in me that knows that I’m capable of doing it. That doesn’t get taken away by anyone saying no or any bad meeting or any actor passing. That can’t be taken away. I feel really excited about experiencing what it’s like to make my second film without carrying the whole weight of ‘I was never supposed to be here,’ ‘I’m nothing. I’m worthless,’ ‘This is a mistake.’ I’m really looking forward to throwing that baggage off and knowing that I can do it. I’m just going to get someone to finance it. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Gitanjali Rao: Mirrah correctly said that the hustling doesn’t get any easier at all, financing doesn’t. But then you realise that the hustling and the financing is not everything. The fact that you can be Googled and people know who you are and your film is on Netflix, is right in front of you, they take you at face value. It does not go back to that thing of proving yourself in every conversation, whether it’s five minutes, 15 minutes, half an hour, a workshop, or even longer, each time proving through your body of work. So, having made the first feature, I have a body of work with shorts, it doesn’t suffice every time somebody approaches me now.
I also think that the timing was such that you finished your first film and had a pandemic. You can’t really complain that it’s happening to you, it’s happening all over, which is also comforting in the sense that you stop being competitive and you understand the way the economy is going, and you don’t blame yourself too much or you don’t pressurise yourself too much anymore. So, the hustling doesn’t get easier, but your acceptance of what you do does get easier.
Konkona Sensharma: I’m not sure. I’ve been lucky to get decent roles, even post my feature, and I am not in any hurry to direct my second. My time is taken up with acting, with my child, thinking of stories, et cetera, so I have not actually gone out there again. So, I don’t really know yet how it’s going to be. I hope I’m more confident. I feel like I was. I had this curious mix of ‘I know what I want, so I’m confident, but I don’t want to be shy at the same time.’ Both of those streaks are there in me.
I feel like the first films are really special. As an actor, I’ve worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers. Very often, first-time directors, because they’ve been thinking about it for a while, have so much to give. I love working with first-time directors. I feel that has a special charm, but I haven’t yet ventured out on my second.
Sheetal Menon: I feel like every film comes with its own set of challenges. Making a film is too big a responsibility and commitment. You can’t not be sure about it, because once you make up your mind that you want to do this, it’s still okay, it’s still in your head. When you start getting other people involved, it’s no longer your film alone, it’s everybody’s. So, I feel that step for you is so important when you take that call, decide to make this film and set up a team. Then, there is no looking back. That was tough for me. I can’t go forward. I don’t see this, but there is no looking back. You have to run with it all the way. So, I’m only hopeful if I get an opportunity to make another film. Let’s see how that experience will teach me. I’m still very new.
Arati Kadav: The struggle doesn’t end. For me, before I made my first film, I used to feel that I hadn’t become what I wanted to become. When you’re making your first film, you’re operating under so many constraints and you’re actually pushing through. You’re leading a team for the longest time, for shorts, at the most, we have led the team for 10 days, and now it was 35 days and sustaining a project for a year. In my case, it was two years because it was a post extensive project. I felt that the whole process just to see myself deliver was such a big thing. Even though there’s a struggle, there’s a little bit more confidence. Before making my first film, it was like, ‘If I will ever make a film…’ Now it’s more like, ‘When will I make my next film?’ It is more of that. Sometimes it goes back to ‘If,’ but ‘when’ is a little more. The percentage is a little more.
Smriti Kiran: Guys, Parvathy is starting her journey this year. It would be great if you can give her one piece of advice.
Mirrah Foulkes: My one piece of advice is, don’t be scared to push if you haven’t got it. Keep pushing.
Gitanjali Rao: Parvathy doesn’t need any advice from any of us. She’s so good, smart and capable. I’m just looking forward to what she does as a director.
Arati Kadav: It’s okay if people hate you for five days. They will like you eventually. It’s okay to just let them hate you as long as you know you’re doing your shit.
Konkona Sensharma: Vishal Bhardwaj told me before I started shooting, ‘Don’t lose your shit.’ I personally found that very useful.
And ultimately it’s going to be what comes on screen. No one’s going to know whether you slept enough or that guy didn’t turn up. There are no excuses because it’s just going to be what’s going to be on screen. One has to be able to also have a plan and then improvise. These are things that everybody has to figure out. It’s different for different directors and different people.
I’ve never been to film school, but I think it’s important to kind of try out different jobs on a film set. I was lucky because as an actor, and also because my mom was an actor and film director, I’ve been on set since I was a kid. So, I always felt so at home on a set. That’s great for you because you know you’re just a tiny cog in everything, and how all the departments are functioning together.
Sheetal Menon: What advice do you want from me, Parvathy?
Parvathy Thiruvothu: Cast me in your next film, Sheetal. Use me. That’s what I want to tell you.
Sheetal Menon: A few things that really helped me was getting the right team, collaborating with the right team, even if they are a little more experienced. I can’t even tell you the support I got and how much it helped me working with them. While making Siblings, I used to question how I was going to make it every day. I remember somebody asking me whether I could see my film. And I said, ‘Yes. But I’m not too sure how to…’ He said, ‘Sit and meditate and just do a run-through of your story in your head. See it visually from start to end.’ That was my practice from day two. I used to sit and plan the entire journey of my characters from start to end. That practice really helped me when I was on the floor running it. I had so much clarity. That thing really helped me.
Konkona Sensharma: That really made sense to me. I felt like I could see my whole movie in my head before I even started writing. A lot of it was already there. And it’s so useful when you’re communicating with your HODs.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: I’m hoping that there is room for growth and to receive. My biggest thing is to get feedback as an actor. But I don’t know if I’ll be too possessive with what my vision is as a director. I don’t want to strangle my vision by just being too adamant about it. I want it to bloom from within. Hopefully, finding that breathing space is going to happen, too.
Mirrah Foulkes: Finding that stillness to be open and receptive to the things that you didn’t plan. That’s such an important space to exist. The stuff that just happens on the day is magical.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: I feel watched over, guys. This is the best place to have started.
Smriti Kiran: Thank you so much for sharing. I admire each one of you so much, and I’m so grateful for what you do. I hope that we can meet and talk and share and make this better for everyone and for ourselves.
I also want to thank the Australian Consulate General in Mumbai and John Edmond, the Festival Director of the Queensland Film Festival, who helped us get Australian talent and access to their films.