Shonali Bose was born in Calcutta and grew up in Mumbai and New Delhi. She earned her B.A. from Delhi University and M.A. in Political Science from Columbia University, New York. She worked as an organizer for the National Lawyers Guild for a year and directed live community television in Manhattan before joining the MFA Directing Program at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Early in her career, Bose directed the short films “The Gendarme is Here” and “Undocumented” as well as the feature-length documentary “Lifting the Veil,” all of which screened at numerous film festivals. She made her feature film debut in 2005 with the drama “Amu” whose screenplay she had also written. The film was released in India to critical acclaim and positive response from the audience. It later screened at the Berlinale and Toronto International Film Festival and garnered Bose several national and international awards, including the FIPRESCI Award, the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in English and the Gollapudi Srinivas Award for Best Debut Director. In fact, Bose wrote the novel “Amu” that is based on the screenplay and was released simultaneously with the film. She later co-wrote the script for “Chittagong” directed by Bedabrata Pain, a period drama that chronicles the 1930 Chittagong armory raid. Her second feature, “Margarita with a Straw,” premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival again to critical acclaim and went on to win the NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film. Bose had begun working on the script a year after the death of her son and the film’s initial draft won the Sundance Mahindra Global Filmmaker Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Her real life experiences of studying in New York and her relationship with her cousin Malini Chib who has cerebral palsy as well as her and Chib’s sexuality as queer and disabled people respectively inspired Bose to make “Margarita with a Straw.” The film was originally rejected by the censor board in India, but won the appeal and was released shortly after the ban on homosexuality was lifted.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Black Nights Film Festival, where her latest film, “The Sky is Pink,” starring Priyanka Chopra, Farhan Kahtar and Zaira Wasim, screened after having won the PÖFF Industry@Tallinn Script Pool in 2017 and later having its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
How did the film come about?
Shonali Bose: This is based on a true story. In January 2015, this eighteen-year-old girl in India, Aisha Chaudhary, watched the trailer of my previous film, Margarita with a Straw, thirty times and told her parents: “I hope I live to see this film.” She said that because she had previously been told she had only five years to live and it was coming to the end. Two weeks later, she died without seeing the film. When the film released in theaters in April, her parents watched it and they saw that at the end of the film, it was dedicated to my son because I had lost my son. They realized that I have lost a child too. Then, it took them six months to find me. I was living in L.A. at the time and they Skyped with me and talked to me and the mother said: “You know, we’re trying to make this film about our daughter. Can you give us advice?” And in the middle of that Skype, she said: “You know what? Actually, would you consider making this film? We would really like you to make this film.” So I said: “Let me hear the whole story” and I heard the story and I said: “I am not interested in making a film about a teenager who’s courageous in the face of death. That’s a great story, but it’s not for me. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in your love story as parents, your marriage and the fact that your love survived the death of your child. That’s interesting to me and, of course, she’ll be part of it.”
So we agreed on that and then, that’s when I wrote the script and as soon as I finished it after six months, when I was happy with all my drafts, I wanted Priyanka [Chopra] as the lead, but I couldn’t access her at all. I managed to reach her managers and they were like: “Yes, yes, we’ll give her the script.” But nothing happened. Meanwhile, I got into the Script Pool Tallinn at the Black Nights Film Festival and it was pitched and we won the first prize and we decided we were going to make it as an independent film. Around this time, one of the biggest producers in India, Siddharth Roy Kapur, had just set up his production company, which I didn’t know because otherwise I would’ve reached out to him. He was with Disney previously and I knew they wouldn’t be interested in this kind of film. Sid had watched Margarita with a Straw and wept in my arms, so I knew he had the same sensibility as me. His office called me and said: “Do you have a script?” I sent them the script, they read it and within two weeks, he called in for a meeting and said: “It would be my first film. I love it! I love it! But I am trying to make mainstream films, so if I can’t get an A-list star to say yes to play the character, make it as an indie film, I won’t do it.” I said: “Yes, I want Priyanka Chopra and if not, there are two or three other Indian stars I am interested in.” So he said: “Ok, let’s get it to Priyanka.” Because he is a huge producer, he gets it to her manager, the manager reads it, loves it, gets it to her. Tallinn was in November and now, it’s January, I’m in L.A. with my son who is home from college, and the manager tells Priyanka: “You need to read this NOW, this weekend, because she is in America and she can meet you.” Priyanka reads the script in one night and just loves it.
I wake up on my son’s birthday to a text from Sid saying Priyanka wanted to meet me. Ever since his death, my son has always given me “gifts” on his birthday and deathday and my birthday. I knew right away that this film was blessed and was going to happen. A year later, the world premiere of the film took place on his deathday – 13 September!
Can you talk about working with Priyanka Chopra?
S.B.: By this time, Priyanka is this global star and she’s done films which don’t necessarily make her go to a realist place. I do realist cinema, so either realism, natural acting, or deep, deep stuff, but I just felt that she has it in her. When I met her, we bonded over death. She had lost her father three or four years before we met and she was very close to him and she had not been able to accept his death. And we just bonded and connected in talking about death and our feelings. That is so important – to form an emotional bond with your actor. So that happened right away and it was fantastic. She is a very, very directable actor; she takes direction very well. Her own instinct sometimes was totally bang on, sometimes it made her do something different, but then, if I could give her the right direction, she could totally change her performance, so that was amazing for me. And really, for me, the thing was the fact that she really played me for her role. She basically said that she likes to follow a character to play off and she met the real person and they got on really well, but somehow she didn’t make that emotional connection with her that she made with me, so she totally channeled my relationship with my son Ishan. Close to the end of the shoot on one day – she had to cry in the scene when her dead daughter comes on screen. After calling: “Cut!” I went to hug her – as I always do. Normally, we hug and it’s over. This time, she held on to me and kept howling and saying: “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. About Ishan. I know now what it means to lose a child.” By this time, she had totally got into my skin as a mother. I was deeply moved.
Can you talk about the title?
S.B.: Aditi’s older son is four and the baby is sick and she is dealing with the baby in London and her little son is in India and she calls from a telephone booth and she is just missing her child. He is fine and he is crying on the phone and he is stammering and he’s never stammered and she is like: “What happened?” and he is crying and stammering: “Mamma, mamma, the sky is ppppink, no?” He painted the sky pink in his little art class and the teacher punished him. In India, they are so strict that the teacher said: “No, the sky is blue. Why did you paint it pink?” He was so traumatized that he got a stammer and she said: “You can paint your sky whatever color you want to paint it. Your sky is your sky.” And for me, it has multiple meanings because I, ever since my son’s death, just look up to the sky and say: “Ishan, hiiii!” I have a big connection with the sky since his death because I feel he is in the universe, he is in the sky, he is with me, full of light and love. My sky is iridescent with the light of my son and my mother. I want everyone to paint their sky whatever color they want to paint it – and not be oppressed by social and family pressure. I love this philosophy of Aditi’s. In the film too – she, as a mother, crossed all boundaries to make life great for her sick child. This is why the title is what it is.
Can you talk about the creative process behind the film? How did you write the film? How involved were the parents?
S.B.: The parents weren’t involved at all. Neither in the writing nor the making of the film. I heard the story from them over a two-week period and after that, I said: “Leave me alone. I need to write this. I need to figure it out.” Right from the beginning, I came up with the device of having Aisha be a spirit voice that was caustic and humorous about death. And that was great and one of the things that drew my producer and my actors to the script. I did ten drafts in a linear way and then six months passed and I revisited the script and I was like: “There’s something missing here” and I decided to make it non-linear. This was liberating and really took the script to another level. In terms of directing, it was intense workshops with my actors. I made it clear to Priyanka and Farhan [Akhtar] that this is a different kind of deep work and they were game for it.
What was the parents’ reaction?
S.B.: They absolutely loved the film! They howled, they cried, they feel healed by it…The mother said on stage at the Toronto world premier – “I feel Aisha has been reborn tonight.”
Can you talk about Aditi (Moose), her strength as a woman, as a mother who fought for her daughter and who ultimately lost her?
S.B.: Aditi (Moose) is the person who narrated the story to me and what struck me from the beginning was her joie de vivre, her decision to make every moment of life count and not be pulled down or depressed by the death sentence on her kid. She wanted the epitaph of her daughter’s grave to say – “She lived.” She was ready to take risks and do crazy things – to give her daughter a good life. Sometimes it is hilarious like pulling off the dress from the mannequin or plotting for her to have a boyfriend and get them into a bedroom!! For me, one of the most remarkable things is that she had the courage to say they were not going to do a lung transplant because she could die on the operating table or she would be just tethered to machines and that’s no kind of life. That takes a lot of courage because anybody would want what the father wanted, which is: “If there is a 10% chance, I want that chance; I’m not going to let my kid die!” I don’t know if I would have made the choice she did. It’s just so brave to say that the quality of life matters more and to stand up to the doctors and everybody in her family and say: “No, we’re not going to do this lung transplant.” That is amazing. She took on the medical establishment, she did all the research herself, she was just on it, but as a result, when her daughter died, she was just like: “I’m fifty and I don’t have a life!” That’s what she told me. Her entire life revolved around that, so she had a big crisis.
How is she now? What are they doing now?
S.B.: I think it’s very hard. As I said, her life revolved around her daughter and that left a huge vacuum for her. She’s gone back to her work as a therapist. They are living in Boston now. She is not happy in Boston. She was fine in London. I would say they are still having a hard time. Though it is better from the first time I met them when the pain was much more raw.
The film also screened at the London Film Festival. When the credits rolled, the people who raised the money for Aisha were asked to stand up if they were there.
S.B.: In London, three people stood up when they read that text and one of them was the radio show host and two of them had raised money for her.
Do you think your filmmaking style has shifted from one film to the next?
S.B.: No, I just feel I’ve become better at my craft, but I feel the style is the same: I like authentic, so I am not into fantasy or necessarily pulling my audience out. I don’t do self-conscious cinema even though I totally believe in it – the Brechtian cinema or Brechtian style, I am really for that. I’ve noticed that even though I was for that when I was studying in film school, in my own cinema because I was trying to make cinema about difficult subjects that I want a mainstream audience to watch, I don’t shake you up. You are very much in the story; they are dramas where you are totally in the story. I feel there is a similarity in the subjects. I’ve done a mother-child trilogy because I had lost my mother too. In the first film, the mother dies; in the second film the mother dies, and in the third film, the child dies. This is the third of that trilogy and all three films are emotional dramas, but the style has not been melodrama. The style has been just natural, quiet drama with authentic, honest performances – honest filmmaking. I would say the style is the same, but my craft has become better, so I understand where to put the camera, I understand where to position the actors in terms of camera much better. My craft has improved, but I would say my style is the same.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past two years. How do you see the situation? How is it in India? Where do you see yourself in this discussion?
S.B.: As a woman director, I must say, I have not had any troubles, as in the sense that I have not faced any issues of sexism directly as a director; that’s just my luck, that hasn’t happened to me. I was at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, I graduated, I went to India to make my first feature film and I didn’t face any sexism from anybody or anything. It was the same struggle even a male director would have. It was a struggle to get your first film made, but it was not a gender struggle, I must be very honest. But overall, I can talk about the industry because I feel we are in such a deeply embedded patriarchal society in India that women not just in film, but in any career, which is not a traditional career, a career that has weird hours – people still look at the film industry as something maybe bad. No one tells you: “You don’t have to get married, you go be a filmmaker.” The whole pressure in India for girls is about getting married. That’s a terrible social pressure, so that’s why we don’t have that many women directors. We just have a handful of women directors because you need a huge amount of support. If I didn’t have my family, I couldn’t have made my film, but my family is not traditional. To get that kind of support so that a woman can go and do her thing and still be a mother, that’s what makes it really hard, I feel. The #MeToo movement became really huge in India a year after Hollywood. It was fantastic because it broke some huge things. There was a woman who spoke out and it was taken seriously, so the male director who had hugely molested her in a hotel room was completely blacklisted, dropped. That didn’t happen before because he is famous and big – same as it happened in Hollywood – and after that, many others spoke up and it sent a ripple. But sadly, now a year later, that director has been reinstated and the movement has died down and terrible things could be continuing to happen again behind closed doors. Patriarchy and sexism are entrenched and not going to go away that fast. But we have to keep hammering at it.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
S.B.: I was asked this same question by a journalist before going to TIFF and I thought: “This is shocking!” because I had to research. I said Greta Gerwig. I love Ladybird. But that’s a recent film. I also like Mira Nair who is also from India. I don’t love all her films, but I loved Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. If it were men, I wouldn’t have to think, think, think… That in itself is so shocking! When I was at TIFF in 2014, I loved a film by this Korean filmmaker, Boo Ji-young, called Cart. I loved Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik. From when I was at UCLA, I remember loving Harlan County, USA by Barbara Kopple and Real Women Have Curves by another UCLA alum, Patricia Cardoso.
What are your next projects?
S.B.: I have no clue because what happens with me when I am doing a film, I’m the writer-director and I am so immersed in it; I am birthing it, I treat it like my children, it’s my baby!
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Black Nights Film Festival.
Photo credit: Black Nights Film Festival.