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Smriti Kiran: Actor, model, writer, director, chef, dancer – the immensely talented and humble to a fault, Sheetal Menon’s hunger to perform began with dance. Her father was in the army. Sheetal tragically lost him when she was just six. She and her sister were brought up by their mother single-handedly. Despite economic and logistical challenges, Sheetal’s mother always encouraged her daughters to study and stay true to their dreams. Their life was tough, but it was not one without hope.

Sheetal finished her studies and shifted to Mumbai in 2003. She was an instant hit in the modelling world. Her first advertisement, for Clinic All Clear, had her on a giant hoarding in the city. The same year she walked the ramp at the very prestigious Lakmé India Fashion Week. Many campaigns and covers followed. She was also part of the coveted Kingfisher calendar in 2005 and 2008, but Sheetal knew that acting was her dream. A few music videos and short films later she made her debut as an actor in 2008 with Brahm. The film did not do much for her.

In the years that followed, we saw glimpses of what she could do on screen – in My Name is Khan in 2010 and Shaitan in 2011. But things had come to a bit of a standstill for Sheetal as an actor. She made a dramatic resurgence six years later with Bejoy Nambiar’s anthology Flip, and her first short film as a director in which she also plays one of the main leads, Siblings.

Siblings premiered at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival last year and won the Critic’s Choice Short and Series Award for Best Film (Fiction), Best Writing, Best Actress and Best Director (Fiction). The widespread acclaim has brought Sheetal back into everyone’s consciousness, but most importantly, Sheetal earned her dream back and created her own destiny, when things seemed bleak, with her dogged perseverance.

Sheetal, I want to go back a little bit and try to understand something that fascinates me. How does a shy girl in Nashik, with no background in films or film-watching culture at home, dream of becoming an actor and have the courage to embark on that journey?

Sheetal Menon: I’m still very shy, Smriti. I was much worse as a kid. This may sound silly to everyone, but I think my struggle started from home – when I used to struggle to even step out of my home. It was some sort of a social phobia I had. Stepping out of my house and going out would make me so nervous. I was an absolutely awkward and quiet person. I wanted to be Anil Kapoor from Mr. India. I wanted to be invisible the minute I stepped out of my house so that people couldn’t see me and I could just see the whole world.

When I was much younger, I remember watching my mother on stage as a performer back in Gujarat, when my dad was posted there. She was such an active woman – performing on stage, doing drama, dance, singing, sports, excelling and winning trophies. I was so much in awe of watching her perform with so much joy and happiness.

After two or three years, I lost my father, and our lives completely changed. My mother had to take up a job. Then she started working full-time, and she was not the same person I saw on stage that day. She had real struggles like taking care of us. Life changed overnight for us. But something in her wanted us, besides our studies, to learn something more, be it music or dance. She deeply felt that we should do that. She took the first step when she took me to a dance school. I fought with her. My struggle was not going to a dance school but to travel the distance from my house to the dance school, which was really far. I said, ‘I’m not going to travel. I’m not doing this.’ And she said, ‘No, you have to do it. You will take a bike and go to the class because I’m not going to come and drop you every day.’ I cried for days. I finally did go, and I’m so glad she pushed me to do that.

The experience of being on stage for the first time and the kind of love I got from the audience just assured me that this is something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Joining that dance school slowly transformed me as a person. I was someone with so much baggage, with whatever that I was going through, which I was too young to even understand. Slowly, I saw myself change, and it was liberating. I was happy doing what I was doing. I was really confident. It gave me all that, but it was only while I was practising. The minute I was out of that class I was still that same awkward, shy person. I knew I wanted to have a strong personality, be that person, and I was leaning more towards that.

Cut to my first year in college. My college life was terrible; I didn’t enjoy my college life at all, but I do have some great memories from that time.

Smriti Kiran: Why is that? Why didn’t you enjoy your college life?

Sheetal Menon: That same issue. I would just quietly go around. There were people around but it was not really a space that I enjoyed. I think I enjoyed my school life more than my college life.

A good memory from that time is when I got an opportunity to take part in this youth festival competition during my first year in college. It was very difficult to even get through that. My problem was to go and fill-up the form, which I couldn’t. I came back home, crying to my sister, saying, ‘I can’t even fill the form or apply for it.’ And she was like, ‘What’s the big deal? I’ll just go and fill the form.’ So, she did that for me.

I remember that when I was selected for the competition, the whole experience of being on stage for the first time – it was my debut on stage in front of a large audience – and the kind of love I got from the audience just assured me that this is something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t know if I wanted to be an actor or a dancer, but it felt the same way when I saw my mother performing on stage and how happy I was. It validated all that for me to pursue it ahead. That’s my start.

The next day, when I went back to college, my English professor walked in and suddenly asked, ‘Who’s Sheetal Menon in the class?’ I was too shy to even raise my hand. He asked again, and then I got up, awkward and shy, and said, ‘Yes? It’s me.’ Then he asked me, ‘Did you participate in this competition? Because your name has come in the Nashik Times – you’ve won the competition.’ I didn’t even know, and I got to hear that from my professor. I think that is one of the best memories of college.

Smriti Kiran: You came to Bombay in 2003 and became a very successful model. You got acting opportunities, maybe not the kind of work that you really wanted to do. The kind of work that you wanted came very sporadically. What were the primary challenges at that point in time?

“I was honestly not very happy with the kind of work that was coming my way.”

Sheetal Menon: Going back to those times, I think, challenges were there right from the beginning. Anybody who’s new in the city is trying to navigate their way around finding what to do. That happened initially, too. I got this offer, this campaign happened, and soon after that, though modelling was new for me, I got busy, and I started getting work very fast. Things happened too soon and too fast. Immediately after that, I got the offer for my first film (Bhram by Pawan Kaul), which I went, auditioned for, and signed on as well. Things were moving too fast for me. I thought modelling happened quickly, so it was easy. Yes, you face challenges, but I was totally enjoying that whole journey. And I thought that even the movie was not going to be hard.

Sheetal Menon in Bhram (2008) by Pawan Kaul

But as an actor, that film was not a great experience. Unfortunately, that film didn’t do well. I was labelled as a model who couldn’t act. You have to take all that and just move on. I mean, it’s not the end of the world, so you move on. Work still happens slowly here and there, but I was honestly not very happy with the kind of work that was coming my way. Also, as a model, there were calls for all the item number songs. ‘Maybe you should do this, maybe you’ll get some recognition.’ I kept saying no to a lot of that. I took a back seat and I said, ‘Let me just take my time and figure it out,’ because I was not very happy with how it was going for me.

Around that time, I remember, Bejoy (Nambiar) was starting his first feature film, Shaitan. I was jobless; there was no work. I had a lot of free time at hand, and I decided to do it. It wasn’t simply chalo karlo. Bejoy’s friends came to help him – they were his ADs. I was one of them. I joined the team. It’s very important to know why I’m doing something. What is my reason? Here, my reason was that I’m free, and I need to utilise my time doing something constructive. Not to learn filmmaking, though. I didn’t know what I was getting into.

The whole experience for me was overwhelming. Now when I look back, I feel that if you are a part of a set and if you want to learn the craft of filmmaking, it’s so important to be in front of the monitor. I’m not saying in front of the monitor, but just be around that monitor area where your director is and see how he’s talking to his core team and DOP. That’s where you learn. I was too busy running around, going mad, completely crazy. If I have to give you an example, I felt like I was stuck in some kind of a tornado, and I somehow managed to come out alive in one piece. I said, ‘Kya tha ye? What was this experience?’ I was also acting in Shaitan. And the same happened in David.

Sheetal Menon in Shaitan (2001) by Bejoy Nambiar

On David, I did production. I said, ‘It’s not that I don’t want to do it, I don’t think I will be able to do this. This is some creative genius work – people who go out and make films. I don’t think I’d ever be able to do that.’ I said that I can’t. It takes some different level of passion to go out there and make a film. I stopped right there.

But there was this nagging feeling about what was happening with my career. I was busy with Shaitan, I did production on David, and though I am sure I learned a lot there, what was bothering me was where is my acting career going?

Smriti Kiran: Did you wish you were better prepared when you came to Bombay?

Sheetal Menon: I came totally unprepared to Bombay, with zero knowledge about the city or knowing how to even start. That is so important to know. Do a little bit of groundwork before you decide to come and start your career here. Know a few people who can help you; even if you don’t find them, do some kind of research. I’m talking about a time, 16-17 years ago, when it was also different. We didn’t have access to many things. I feel it’s a little easier today. But you’re on your own, and you have to figure things out. Your experience would teach you; there would be nobody to sit and guide you on how to go forward.

Also, knowing that going to auditions is part of your job. Go for 500 auditions – just go and do it. I remember going for one or two auditions, and I never got a call. I felt this is it for me, I should pack my bag and go because it’s not working for me. I wish somebody had told me that that was part of the job and I should continue doing that and not feel so dejected that it wasn’t happening. These are a few things that I learned through my experience, and it was not easy for me. And it’s consistent. Even when you’re going for auditions, you don’t get a call back, you don’t know whether you’re progressing. You’re doing those things because you don’t know when and from where you’ll get a call. Even those opportunities are so far and few between. You’re just waiting for that one call.

During the modelling phase, it’s easier to get calls for those commercials and campaigns that you do, but film is a different business. To get a call today from a good casting agent for a film is a godsend. You’re very lucky if you get one call in 15 days. Consider yourself lucky that they are even calling you for it. There are people who will be waiting. You wait for months for that one call. These are things nobody will tell you.

“I wish somebody had told me that going to auditions was part of the job.”

Also, have a plan. I’m somebody who never planned in life. I don’t work like that. For me, because I started getting work so fast, I was just busy going with the flow. But it’s very important to understand that no matter how busy you’re today, you need to have a two-year plan about what you’re going to do in the next two-three years. You should have a plan. You should know what is happening.

These are a few things that you have to constantly be aware of and work towards instead of giving up hope, packing your bag and leaving.

Smriti Kiran: After David, you stopped accepting offers that weren’t working for you. Apart from the production work, you went back to your first love, dance, and also another hidden passion that you have, cooking. What was that time like?

“That course was intense – I don’t think I studied this hard in school.”

Sheetal Menon: It was not easy to say goodbye to what I was doing. I don’t think it ever ended for me. I wanted to change, but I was not too sure. In my head, I used to always ask, ‘Is this the end? Is this all it is? Was I meant to do only this much?’ No. And I couldn’t live with that feeling. It was just killing me every day.

Finally, I think I waited too long, and it really started affecting me. I just stopped going out and meeting people. When you’re still there in the industry you meet a lot of people when you go out. For people, it’s like, ‘What are you doing in life?’ ‘What are you doing next?’ ‘What is your work?’ I didn’t have an answer. I couldn’t confidently say that I’m not doing anything. It was tough. That’s when I finally said, ‘That’s it. Let me try and do something else.’ So that’s when I took a call, I went to London to study, where I did my diploma in culinary arts.

It was a different life – working in a running kitchen. I was studying in London, and that course was intense – I don’t think I studied this hard in school. My day used to start at five in the morning, and I had to study for two hours before going to my school. I had to schedule my time like that. I was crying every day thinking that I was going to fail here. I used to say to Bejoy then that if I fail, I’m not coming back to India. I can’t fail in this. All that fear! But what a beautiful experience it was staying in a different country. It was like a dream.

Smriti Kiran: This is what happens when you have multiple passions. You’re deeply interested in cooking, and dance has been your first love. So, dabbling in two things or another passion is also a worthy cause to take up when you feel that the other passion is on the back burner.

Sheetal Menon: True. Can I tell you a very bizarre story I thought of? It happened when I was studying in London. I remember working with Namit Das. We were part of this commercial together, and we were flying to Turkey. It was one of those casual conversations; we were talking about life and career, ‘Kya hone wala hai?’ He was always this very charming boy, very positive. This was a time when I said, ‘I don’t think it’s working for me. Maybe I should try and look at different options.’ It was very random, but this one conversation stayed with me. We weren’t even friends. He said, ‘Whatever you’ve done, this is one small part of jo bhi aapne kiya hai; there is more to achieve for you as an artist.’ After many years, when I was studying in London, it hit me. It was just ringing in my head, whatever Namit Das told me, ki kuch hai – there is something that I’m going to go back to.

Smriti Kiran: It was such a kind thing to say! That’s why I think kindness really counts because what your words can do to another person or what you say to someone, how that might affect another human, is really important.

Sheetal Menon: After London, I came back and I joined this restaurant here in Bombay. I interned for three months. Suddenly, I was living this different life: going into the kitchen and working for eight hours and all that. But even that stopped. I worked, but I was not very happy with the whole set up and how the food industry works in India, to be honest. I stopped after three months. It was gruelling. The training was crazy, but I stopped. I don’t think anybody would be this lost in life.

Sheetal Menon at Indigo Delicatessen Mumbai

Smriti Kiran: It’s not always bad to be lost, especially when within that journey somewhere you find yourself.

Sheetal Menon: But it was too long. It was almost six-seven years of my life, where I was just figuring out what I wanted to do. That void was killing me. Then I got back, I got into dance again. I started teaching briefly for two-three months at my friend Elizabeth Pereira Pandit’s dance school in Chembur. She called me and said, ‘Why don’t you start back and do this?’ So I briefly started that also, I started teaching dance. That, too, stopped after a few months for me.

Sheetal Menon at Darren Das & Elizabeth Pereira Pandit’s Dance Studio in Chembur

Now I’m sitting at home feeling, ‘That’s it. I’m going to just lose my mind and go mad completely. Kuch nahi hone wala life mein. I don’t know what I want to do.’ There was that void in my heart. I thought whatever I was doing, I was busy doing little things, but I was not happy.

Smriti Kiran: You interned at a kitchen and taught dance. But you spoke about feeling a void, that at the back of your head you knew that this wasn’t where your heart was. How did the passion for cinema reignite at that point in time?

Sheetal Menon: I think it was really affecting me. That time was really tough. Every single day you wake up thinking about what you want to do in life, what my purpose is in life. It was emotionally draining me to see all that was happening. Very randomly, I saw this ad for Atul Mongia’s workshop. I knew Atul Mongia, not as a friend, but I had always wanted to join his workshop. I mentioned it very casually to Bejoy. He used to do these workshops quarterly. I saw it and brushed it off saying, ‘Okay, I’m not going back to this, so it’ll be a waste of time for me. Why am I even looking at it?’ I’m having this conversation with myself and with Bejoy.

Next thing I know, Bejoy tells me, ‘I have enrolled you for this course. Go and join it.’ I had no words. I said, ‘No, I’m not going back.’ And to think that I was even imagining of starting all over again! Why am I joining this workshop? To do what? Too many questions in my head and I’m not very sure what I’m going to do. I’m excited, but I don’t know my way forward.

“It was almost six-seven years of my life, where I was just figuring out what I want to do. That void was killing me.”

I joined this workshop, and the kind of love I received from people who were a part of the workshop to Atul telling me that I should act was a fresh lease of life. That’s it. This simple line: You should act. I don’t think I got that kind of an appreciation all my life, in my entire career. I never got the kind of appreciation that I got in 10 days, when he told me, ‘This is all you should be doing and nothing else.’ I just broke down. I cried because there was some kind of reassurance that I was not wrong; maybe I should try again. That was a defining moment for me to sit back and reflect, ‘Okay, let me give it another shot, and it’s okay. I don’t know how I’m going to but let me try.’

Smriti Kiran: You wanted to create a showreel that you could send out in the industry, which would awaken them to your talent. That is when Siblings came your way. How did this happen, and how did you get involved in writing it?

Sheetal Menon: As you said, I wanted to make a small showreel, and I was looking at different ways of putting it together like taking scenes from films and compiling it together. I was taking some time with it, and Bejoy had some story. He said, ‘Why don’t you take the story, and see if you want to work on this story to make the showreel.’ So, I read that story. There was a basic structure. But something stirred in me when I read the story. I said that I want to spend some time and understand the story, whatever that I’m going to do, but I just want to spend some time with it. ‘Is it okay?’ I asked. He said, ‘Take your time.

“I’m sitting and I’m staring at the laptop thinking of what I can do and what I can write.”

The five-ten days that I was reading that story, something in me said that I should change something in this. I remember going back to him, and I had a conversation with him, where I said that I want to work on this story, without knowing how the whole writing process works. Very confidently, I told him that I want to just change something in the story, even if I want to make a showreel. He said that you can do whatever you want to.

Suddenly, there was this whole plan in my life: I have a story in hand, and I’m going to work on this draft, or do something. So I take my laptop, go to a coffee shop, sit there and plan to start writing. I was very happy doing just that, and have something exciting to look forward to. I’m sitting and I’m staring at the laptop thinking of what I can do and what I can write. There is nothing coming in my mind; there’s nothing happening. I liked that I was going every day. I would just go into that coffee shop and say ki aaj kuch idea aayega, something will happen, I’ll write one line.

It was literally starting from the basics, and not understanding how to write. I remember calling him – I think I’ve troubled Bejoy a lot – asking about how you write. ‘Even if I have to start, what do you think I should do?’ He said, ‘Pick a scene, think of an idea.’ That’s how it all started for me. But a few weeks into that, I’m still sitting with the story not knowing how to go ahead and what to do with that.

I made a list of writers I wanted to approach; again, not with a plan. I said that I need to work on the story. And so I called Arpita (Chatterjee), my co-writer on Siblings. She immediately answered. I gave her a one-line idea, and she said, ‘I’m free for the next three days. Can you meet me tomorrow?’ And that’s it.

“Spending those three-four days with Arpita really helped me understand something as integral as the core of my story.”

I went to meet her. It was our first meeting, and we just cracked the whole story. It was magical. I really lucked out there! I started jamming on the idea with the first person that I met. I don’t even know where I’m going with this whole thing, how do you even have a meeting with a writer? How am I going to even narrate those four lines to a professional writer? It was very uncomfortable and awkward. I started talking to her, and she connected immediately – we were on the same page.

Sheetal Menon and Arpita Chatterjee

I said, ‘Oh, it’s so easy. This works like that.’ But, no, it’s not that easy. It’s not that easy to find that right person for your story. I must say that I was lucky to find Arpita, who connected to my story. I’m grateful that I met her, and we worked on this together, but it’s not that easy. Well, I don’t have that much experience, but you will know when the person is just not right. You should always see that. That first step is very important especially when writing.

Smriti Kiran: You told me that in those three days, Arpita asked you questions that made you learn so much.

Sheetal Menon: On day one of our meeting, we got a structure to our story. We were discussing a lot. It was not that we immediately started writing. We would meet at her place and start discussing. I was completely going with whatever she had to say because she’s somebody with a lot of experience. It felt like I got a short writing course from her. I would ask her these questions about how she does it, what does this scene mean. I had a few questions but she bombarded me with fifty thousand questions! Awkward questions – she was asking me, ‘What is the core of your story’, ‘What do you mean by this character?’ And I’m sitting there saying that I don’t know. She said that you should know; if you want to write, you should know these things. I was just taking notes.

Spending those three-four days with Arpita really helped me understand something as integral as the core of my story. It gave me a lot of clarity. It helped me understand that my story should start from home. What do I see there? I see this father who is bedridden, his two daughters taking care of their ailing father, and that the root cause of my problem starts from home. Once I understood that it became easier for me to develop it into a full-fledged story and create its world. These pointers are extremely important and critical to understand.

Obviously, people who take some kind of training or work under somebody get that kind of information, but somebody who is starting new doesn’t have an idea. You’re going with absolutely zero knowledge about how it all works. You’ll be lucky when people teach you and tell you how to do it. I’m very lucky and grateful that she came on board and helped me with my story.

Smriti Kiran: Once you knocked the story into place, you still weren’t thinking of directing the film. How did the idea of directing and acting in the film come about?

Sheetal Menon: After my meeting with Arpita, and after working on the story, we changed the draft completely – from what Bejoy’s story was to our drafts. I went back with this story and showed it to Bejoy. When he read the story, there was no expression on his face. He said, ‘It’s not my story. What have you done with this?’ I said, ‘This is the story that I’ve worked on with Arpita.’ And he said, ‘But this is not my story.’ Initially, it was so awkward for both of us to have that conversation. ‘So, what do we do?’ And there was silence in the room. He’s just looking at the story, looking at me and saying that this is not his story. ‘What are you doing with this?

A few steps of confidence were leading me to something bigger.”

We had a little argument, where he started questioning me about a lot of things. For the first time, I said that that was how I saw it. And whatever I’d be doing with it, that is how I’d want to make it. The first time that sentence came out of my mouth, when I said, ‘This is how I want to make it’, I asked myself, ‘What do you mean by make it? I’m not making it. This is my story, yes, but I’m not making it.’ And yet I fought for it. That argument was tough; he took a little time, and post that he was kind and generous enough to really understand, as a professional, that she should do this on her own. He stepped back. He said, ‘Go, take it, and do it the way you want to. Don’t compromise on your voice, whatever you’re trying to say. I don’t connect to this, but if you feel confident about it, go and do it.’ It was such a big thing for him to say that. It meant a lot to me.

So, these were a few steps of confidence that were leading me to something bigger. It was not an overnight call. These were the moments that helped me when I finally took that call to make the film. I was with the story only with the intention to act. I was trying to pitch the story to people, and people were like, ‘Who’s making this story?’ ‘Who’s directing it?’ ‘I know you’re acting in the story, but who’s directing it.’ I said that I really didn’t know, but I was looking at options. I knew for sure that I didn’t want to give my script to anybody. But it still wasn’t hitting me that I should say I want to make it, but I said, ‘I can’t make it. I have no experience in this. How will I just go and do it?’ And if I said it, then I’ll have to go all the way. I can’t back out. Tough call!

When it finally happened, people didn’t support me. When I say people, I mean whoever I went and met and discussed the script with. I remember only Bejoy saying that you should do both – act and direct. And I said I have no experience. He said, ‘It’s okay. It’ll happen. Do it, and it’ll happen.’ I get goosebumps when I think of it.

Smriti Kiran: What were your first steps as a director?

Sheetal Menon: What happened was that I also spent a lot of time writing the story, and I got stuck after a point. I was sitting with that story for nearly eight to ten months, making little changes here and there, but I was not able to lock it. Once you lock your story is when you start planning ahead. Your next step is getting your team on board.

“I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this whole process of getting all my HODs together.”

So, I was still sitting with my story. It was almost a year, and I remember Bejoy was like, ‘What are you doing? Are you not working on whatever you were doing?’ He said, ‘Abhi band kar do because it’s not going to work. I don’t think you are serious about it. Just close it. If you really want to do it, prove it by shooting this film in the next two months, otherwise, it will never happen.’ I just needed that little jhatka. But I said, ‘My script is not ready.’ He said, ‘It will never be ready. You will never be a hundred percent confident with your script. It’s okay. Whatever there is, it’s fine. The story is working. Go ahead and make it.’ That was my first jhatka. The second was what to do next.

Sheetal Menon on the sets of Siblings

Those steps were almost like a little child learning to walk. The plan was to now start calling people. I remember making that list, making the whole presentation on who I wanted for my story. My first call was to Shivani (Tanksale). I mailed her my story. She read the script. I was like, ‘Oh my God, she’s gonna say that I don’t like it. What is this?’ The call happened, and she said, ‘When are we meeting?’ I was nervous as hell during my first meeting with Shivani. It’s so important when you’re going with your story to be confident, but here I was having just taken the call of directing the story. That first narration is so critical. She heard the story, and she said, ‘When are you planning to shoot it?’ It was that quick. And I asked, ‘Do you like the story, and you want to do it?’ She said, ‘Yeah. If I’m free on those days, whenever you’re planning to, we’ll do it.’ That’s when I realised that I had to start working backwards. It was happening.

Sheetal Menon and Shivani Tanksale in Siblings

Then it was slowly setting your team. The first person I wanted for my film was my DOP, Harshvir Oberai. He was this little boy during Shaitan, shooting the making of Shaitan. He’s brilliant. He just shot Aarya recently and is also currently shooting Bejoy’s Taish. So, I called him and said that I have this story, would you be free to meet? That first meeting with Harshvir was exactly like my first meeting with Arpita. I didn’t know what was happening, but I had my dream team coming together. I wanted him for the story, and he said, ‘Whenever you make it, I’ll come and shoot it for you.’ It was so easy. He connected immediately to that story, and he saw it. Even that whole conversation about what is the look of my film, the colours went so smoothly.

I started researching a lot; I was reading a lot. You need to have those specific details. Now I’m coming back to how you visually see your film. You should know the referencing that you do because when you have your meeting with your DOP, and he agrees to come on board, your next meeting is discussing the look of the film.

Smriti, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this whole process of getting all my HODs together, my costume designer, Gopika Gulwadi, to Nehaa Mishra, who co-produced it, my production designer, Anita Rajagopalan – they were like a dream. With Anita, too, I thought that she would never do it, but when I met her, in that first meeting itself she said that she’d do it. I’m not boasting about this, but they really helped me with this. They helped me.

Smriti Kiran: The director is the captain of the ship, right, the guiding light for everyone, because it is your vision. For someone who likes to be in the shadows, how did you prepare to take charge?

Sheetal Menon: I’m very poor with delegating work. I don’t understand that part of it. I’ll just say it once, and then I’ll stop. If that person is not doing it, I’ll do it myself. I prepped like mad for this. I knew that it wasn’t my space, and there were a lot of things that I didn’t understand. It was very critical to understand that whatever I was doing, my prep was my training ground. So, I was living, breathing and eating the story. I’d wake up thinking about my characters, or something that I should do. Those few months were like waking up with a purpose – I’m doing something and planning, and I’m going to make this film. So, I got very obsessed with the whole prep part of it.

Smriti Kiran: You even went and met caregivers, for example.

Sheetal Menon: Yes. Even the small props in each frame, I made a list and said that these are specifics I want at any cost. The bigger things, like the ventilator machine at home, the entire medical setup, was important to know, see and understand in terms of the caregiver’s work. In the film, I have been doing it for the last two years. It should become something that you’re so used to handling. You need to know it well. There is the story, but this is an equally important part of it.

I remember going to the ICUs. They don’t allow you to go inside, but I begged and pleaded with them to just let me take a look at the patients there, especially people who are on the ventilator. I was just standing there watching them, and seeing the entire setup. I prepped for every little thing in my story.

Siblings (2019)

Smriti Kiran: What were the days leading up to the shoot like, because I know that there were new problems that sprang up and the prep really helped you deal with that. [You can watch a video on MAMI’s Instagram channel about the before and after of Sheetal’s film.]

Sheetal Menon: You know your story; you’re prepping for it, putting it together, and getting a team – that is one part. Then comes the whole choreography of the scene – how you are seeing the scene come alive, and timing your scene, all those things. As I was coming closer to my shoot, I had to sit and have that discussion with my DOP, Harshvir. He was travelling at that time. I remember talking to him on the phone about what I wanted to do, thinking out loud about how we could shoot the story.

“Your story is everything. Take time with your story.”

I said, ‘Can we get a house for free? We’d have to obviously hire a camera. I just want to place my actors in the house. Obviously, I’d have to get that time to do that from my actors as well, let them be there for a day or two, and slowly start following them.’ That was my initial plan. I said, ‘I don’t want to land up on set and tell my actors ki aapko yahan se vahan jaana hai, you have to do this or that. I don’t want to do that. It’s too mechanical in my head. I want to go very organically about it. I want to just follow my actors.’ That was my ideal way of shooting the story. He just laughed and said, ‘Sheetal, aise nahin hoga. That way you’ll shoot for days in that house.’ But I kept saying that it was exactly how I wanted. He kept saying that you can’t have it that way.

Sheetal Menon on the sets of Siblings

In my head, if we were getting a house for free, we could do that. I was thinking, ‘Let’s just take a camera and shoot.’ Suddenly, as we were coming closer to our shoot, I was told that those guys hiked the price. We were getting that location for free almost, and suddenly they were asking for one to two lakh rupees per day, for a short film. We had to take a call that we can’t go ahead; we can’t pay the money, and we’ll cancel the shoot. I said that I’m not doing it. This is after everything is locked – your days are locked with your actors and everybody who was on board, even the days of the shoot. And suddenly the price for the location was hiked, and they said, ‘Itna toh aapko pay karna hai.’ I told Bejoy, ‘That’s it. Just cancel it because I’m not going to do it. I don’t want the pressure of this being so expensive to do. I can’t shoot with that pressure.’ See, these are things that you don’t plan for.

Smriti Kiran: That’s why prep helps.

Sheetal Menon: Exactly. But since we had prepped so much, we also went for the tech recce at that location, Bejoy took the call and said that you will shoot here and that we’ll figure it out. We ended up paying a lot of money, but he didn’t step back – a producer was like, ‘We’ll pay that money, and we’ll shoot here.’ It was a tough call, and I even raised concern over the fact that it was a short film and that I wasn’t sure who would even buy it; we can’t just spend that kind of money. But he was hell-bent and said that we will shoot it there.

Smriti Kiran: You were thinking that you’d have days and days to shoot but the shoot time was reduced to something like 48 hours.

Sheetal Menon: Yes. One very tricky call I had to take was how many days of shoot I required because once you start scheduling it on paper, you should know that. Bejoy asked me how many days I needed to shoot this film, and I said that I needed 20 days. He said, ‘Tu feature film nahin bana rahi hai. It’s a short film. You will not get 20 days. You’ll get five days to shoot this film – that is, three days in the house and two days to shoot exterior shots.’ I said, ‘No way. I cannot do it.’ And it was a long story. I said, ‘I can’t finish it in five days.’ He said, ‘If you don’t finish it, whatever you miss out on, you figure it out on the edit table, but this is the time you get.’ He was very strict. He’ll talk to you very professionally. Five days means five days – that’s the budget, figure it out. This was adding to my general stress level.

As I was nearing the shoot, I fell ill. I had severe anxiety and fever. This was just four days before the shoot. Struggling with that, planning for the shoot, and also acting in the film, led me to think about what would happen if I froze on set. But it’s just like going for a war. Fight it. Mar jaoge toh mar jaoge. But go fight it, and come back.

It did work out somehow. It wasn’t easy.

Smriti Kiran: What are your key learnings from this experience?

Sheetal Menon: I feel it’s important to have some kind of exposure, if you can train under someone to get that little experience or if you study. I think that’s very important. You can’t just decide one day and just start right away. It requires some kind of training or some experience on a basic level to understand how to write your story and how to run a floor. On your own, you cannot, no matter how prepared you are. If you can find access to that, be on a set and just see how that works.

I’m just going step-by-step – from writing to getting your crew together. Some kind of basic training is needed. Even that time when I assisted Bejoy on Shaitan or David helped me. All that helped me when I decided to make a film. So, some kind of basic training is a must.

Your story is everything. Take time with your story, really know your story well, know what you’re trying to say; as Arpita said, know the core of your story. Those little things that she taught me. Spending a lot of time with your story is very crucial. This was my learning. Only after I spent that much time with my story did I get some kind of clarity. Also, the prepping part of it made it easier.

Smriti Kiran: You also said that you had difficulty delegating, and once you went through this experience, you got to know how to do things on set. Now when you make your second film, would it be better for you because you know the kind of things you should and shouldn’t spend your time on?

Sheetal Menon: Right. The first time when you’re making a film, you end up doing a lot of work, but it’s also needed. Even if you have your assistant with you, I believe that even if I make my second film tomorrow, I’ll be doing all these things. This is for my comfort because this is where I’m learning. I’m gonna do this all over again, you know? Getting an assistant, or whatever you’re delegating, as practice, one should do it themselves too. That’s how I see that. It depends from person to person. Everybody will have a different way of working.

Smriti Kiran: As someone who has been doing different things in the industry for the last 17 years, what are the things you would like to see changed to make it a more humane place?

Sheetal Menon: I feel that there should be some kind of a guideline or some kind of a platform where you can help newcomers. I’m sure there are agencies who are managing people’s work, but there are a lot of people who find themselves lost and don’t know their way. Newcomers should also do some preparation. It’s important. Just don’t go unprepared, saying that I’ll land up there aur sab ho jayega. Some kind of groundwork is needed. Know what you are getting into, know a little bit about the industry. I’m sure a lot has changed today. You have so much information around you. You have access to people. I’m sure it’s become easier, but it’s still very important to come with a plan. Come with a solid plan. Don’t just land up. Don’t rely on the fact that you just have to make that one call to this one or that one; it’s a long thing that you’re getting into. You should be sure of it, you should know it and you should do your research. All that is very important.

Also, there are things that people don’t prepare you for. Today, I understand the importance of why going for auditions and going for many is a must. People might not call you, but those rejections are a part of your job. So, these are little things one should know before they start off.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Youtube

Harman Khurana: As a beginner, how do you find your dream team, people who believe in you and give you that opportunity to actually go for it and showcase your talent, or simply the space to pitch your ideas?

Sheetal Menon: Once you know that you have worked on your story and you’re ready to take your story to the next level, your next step is to get your team together. It’s important to make a list of people that you can approach and have access to. Remember that it’s your story.

I know that if they connect to your material, they will respond, they will call you back. Some kind of experience is still needed. But it’s important to know the kind of people you want. Approach them directly with your script and see the kind of response you get. That’s the process, that’s how you have to go with that.

It can’t be just one person. I remember I had five options. I knew that if this person says no, I’m going to go to the next person; if that person says no, I’m going to go to the third one. You should also be ready for that. I was lucky that the first person said yes to it, but you should be ready that they all might just say no. Then you keep trying. If you believe in your story, you keep approaching people until you find the right people for your script.

At that stage, it’s also very critical to not compromise. You should still believe in finding the right person, because what happens is that ki ab koi bhi nahi aa raha hai, toh I’ll just take anyone and make the film. If you’re not a hundred percent sure, don’t do that. Don’t compromise on that.

Surabhi Apte: How do you balance authenticity and fiction in your story? For example, were the details of the father’s illness mentioned in the screenplay even though it is not made explicit in the movie? How much did you have to research about the father’s ailment?

Sheetal Menon: For me, authenticity was the key. When you see it, you should feel like this is happening for real. The world that you’re creating should be very close to you. If this is my story, and if I’m creating this, this should be something that is happening in my house. I’m going to show it as it is. I’m not going to do something for drama.

The father is shown to be ill throughout the film, and the final call, during the climax, that the mother took to pull the plug was drama for me. It was killing me. I thought that it was going to the level of superficiality, whereas I wanted to go as real and authentic there. I really struggled to even construct and choreograph that scene. That was drama for me. But my challenge and struggle was to stay close to making it and showing it as real as possible. I did that for every beat and every moment of my story. I really struggled with the end scene, where you see the two sisters coming back together. It was a tricky little space for me. I kept working and changing it.

Siblings (2019)

As for researching the father’s ailment: I did a lot of research. I studied. I was reading about a family taking care of patients at home. I’m not saying that you should just Google and find out, but you should also try to find people around you through whom you can get that information.

In the film, the father has been bedridden for two years and he is in a coma. I saw a lot of stories about whether or not one can take care of a patient in a coma at home. While I was prepping for this film, I remember a friend of mine called me one day. I hadn’t spoken to her in 10 years. She called and came over to see me. We were at my place, spending some time together, and as she was leaving, she said something about going to therapy. I asked her what for. This is when I was about to shoot my film in the next month, and this friend of mine, whom I met after 10 years, randomly tells me that she was going to this person’s house who is in a coma and treating her. I said, ‘What! Tell me a little more.’

You have to be open to those kinds of things. It just happened. She showed me this video, and she told me about the lady, who slipped one day and collapsed into a coma for 16-17 months. The whole family’s life – her husband, their two children, his mother – was revolving around that lady. They were gone. They were doing it day in and day out. Somebody told me my whole story as it was happening in reality. It happens around us. It’s very important to keep your eyes and ears open and see what happens. I read a lot about this, and I took a lot from there and put it in my story.

Neel Joshi: How did you put yourself in the shoes of the writer, director and actor at the same time considering that they have different goals and see the film in different ways?

Sheetal Menon: It was extremely challenging. What really helped me was that I prepped like mad. So, there was a lot of clarity with the story. When I was on the floor, I was able to focus on everything individually. It’s not as easy as you say it. When you are there you actually don’t know what you’re doing. But you should know that it should happen organically. For that, your preparation is important.

Me playing Diya, and at the same time directing, and telling my actor that this is what I want from you, is a combination of four-five tasks happening simultaneously. Nothing can prepare you. Whatever I did, it worked out. It is very challenging. It was very tricky, but I had to just let go. Once I was on the floor, I was able to focus on every bit individually, and it just happened organically.

It was not easy, but I had to be aware that if I am nervous, it’s gonna show on my face because I’m also facing the camera. Things were also happening so fast – I would say my dialogue and say ‘cut’. The old lady would come and ask, ‘I forgot my lines. Can you sit with me?’ So I had to sit with her and rehearse her lines. There are so many things happening simultaneously. You only know it when you do it. I learned from it.

Another thing was that playing Diya was easy for me because they were not too glamorous people on screen and they didn’t have to look pretty. After finishing the shoot one day, by the time we wrapped up, it was three o’clock already. I came back, and I had to be back on set at six o’clock in the morning, and start rolling in one hour. I got no time to sleep. Literally, three hours; then you wake up and you run. But what happens? You’re struggling. It was showing on my face the next day. Luckily, it helped me because Diya had to look like that. Diya had to look tired. Diya had to look haggard. But it was also my learning that if I pick a story where I have to look a certain way, if I have to look pretty, managing everything can be very tricky. It’s difficult. In this story, it worked out for me.

Shruti Parthasarathy: While it must have been certainly difficult to be in each of the roles that you took on for the film, how did each of them help you in bringing out the best in the other?

Sheetal Menon: I only knew a story from an actor’s point of view. I don’t think I had a favourite. Diya was not my favourite. Nidhi was my favourite, so was Dadi and so was the father. I owned that story and all the characters. It was my baby. I was ready to leave Diya if Shivani wanted to do her instead of Nidhi, I’d have told her to take that part because for me what counts is the whole story.

That changed from an actor’s point of view—when you’re only looking at the story and your part in it, and how significant your part is—to looking at a story, where all the characters become important for you. That change was something else.

I remember Dadi was the only one who really struggled with saying her dialogues because she couldn’t really speak in Hindi. She was a little lost on set and needed this constant guidance. And as an actor, I’m somebody who needs their space. But I don’t think that with Diya I got time for myself. Any actor who came forward and said that they needed help, I was there. I was looking at it as a whole, never individually in the sense that only my part should be good and only I need to do well. That was a learning for me.

Aratsu Zakia: How much technical knowledge did you have on day one of being a director?

Sheetal Menon: I had no idea about the camera work and all that. But as I spent time with my story, I went with the whole visual part of it, how I was seeing my story, in the same language as I thought of it, which was very critical with my DOP. I’ll give you an example.

Nidhi’s story, when she meets the guy, is replete with tension. I wanted to take a long shot of that. This is how I spoke to my DOP, I said, ‘I want a long shot of that, just tracking. And when we see those two people in the silhouette shot, I want to see Nidhi’s eyes. Go close, then cut to the boy,’ breaking it like this to the DOP, through basics.

I don’t think it was very difficult to explain. I was able to explain this much to my DOP, and he understood. So every scene was broken like that, where it was clear in my head how I wanted to shoot – if I wanted to shoot mid, or do a really tight close-up, if I wanted the colour of the house to show in a frame, or a shot of the walls peeling. Every little thing was crystal clear in my head. Why? Because I worked on the story so much that it just happened to me.

I don’t think I knew any other way to do that. But I had a conversation with my DOP, and I told him that I didn’t really know technical terms. He said, ‘Whatever that is, just explain it to me.’ So I explained everything to him. For him, it was more than enough. He got it. We were on the same page.

Even the colour of the film, sitting on the DI, and getting the right colour and mood of the film, those things were also important. For example, the chai scene in the film had a very different mood. It was all gloomy. The film was shot, but that entire chai scene, after the fight, had a certain mood to it. I wanted that colour, that bluish tone. But this is exactly how I explained it to my DOP and he understood.

Once you have your story, it’s important to start referencing, and pick out your favourite, whatever it is, according to your process, frames or colours that you like; make a story out of them – this should be the colour palette, this should be the mood, and this is how I see my frames. Once you have that visually, you can explain it to your DOP. Technically, this is how I worked, and my DOP understood. So, I didn’t struggle there.

Yash Kasotia: How many drafts did it take for you to reach where your final film was? Did you stop writing before the shoot or continue writing on the shoot?

Sheetal Menon: I wouldn’t know how many drafts in numbers, but I spent almost a year with that story. I’m sure the basic structure was there, but I kept changing the scenes here and there. I kept adding a lot of stuff. Those eight to ten months for me were spent in just making those basic changes. It took a lot of time for me to even understand when to lock my story – I was not confident. Then I was just sitting with my story there thinking that there is more to it.

I really struggled with the dialogues. Once you have your script completely ready, you have to also work on the dialogues. I changed the dialogues too many times. I was working on that till my last day of shooting. The dialogues for the scene with the boy, who she meets on Tinder, when they meet and are walking with each other, were written half an hour before we shot it, which we improvised even further when we did it. I got ten minutes with my actor, and I said, ‘Let’s just do a run through. Just say however you feel if you met a girl through Tinder.’ There were dialogues that came naturally, we wrote it, and we somehow mugged it, and took that shot in half an hour. That happened on the spot, the dialogue part of it. We were doing guerilla shoot, so we didn’t have time.

As I said, I kept making little changes. Even while shooting, I would feel that there’s something wrong with my script, it’s still not working. So, I don’t think that you’re ever a hundred percent confident, that this is it. Now I can go and shoot it. There’s always something you want to keep adding and removing. It’ll work for you today, and tomorrow you’d want to just take it out. That process is just there till your last day of shoot. But then you do it, and you do it even if you make that mistake and you feel like, ‘Shit, mujhe ye dialogue nikal dena chahiye tha, I should have taken the scene out of my film.’ It’s okay. It’s not a mistake. It’s your learning. Today, if I watch it again, I cringe at some bits. I do feel that I shouldn’t have done this much, but that’s part of your process. That’s how you learn. Don’t be so harsh on yourself thinking that you’re not ready, or you can’t lock your script and move forward. You just need to take that call and go ahead.

Abhishek Soman: Do you change the draft of the script while pitching it to different people – a producer or actor?

Sheetal Menon: No, I was not changing it while pitching it to different people. I was not changing my draft. It stayed the same. This is purely from my experience with my short film. I can only tell you that much. I don’t know how other people do it, or what their process is.

But with my script, once I knew that this is all I have, I kept changing the draft while I was writing. But post that, when I started pitching my story to my team and the people I wanted on board, I stuck to it. I stuck to what was there on paper for everyone – be it my HODs or my costume person or the production designer or my actors. It was the same story, the same narration that I was giving to them all.

I wrote a lot on paper. I had every beat of it on paper. But that was my process. It’s only so that you don’t forget things even while you’re narrating or even when you go on the floor. So, I wrote a lot, every little beat, and whatever else that made sense to me. That was my Bible. It was a messy draft. There were notes everywhere.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Sheetal Menon in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

P.S: The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) conducts Dial M For Films, an online knowledge series, free of cost because we believe in fair and equal access to the insight and experience of talent from the world of cinema for all. If you find these sessions of value and would like to quote from them or distribute them further as study material, we request that you give MAMI and Dial M For Films credit while doing so.

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