“Representing your country is both exhilarating and nerve-racking” – Reema Sengupta on the Sundance 2018 premier of her film ‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’

Reema Sengupta, a name that is going to make a tumultuous entry in the feature-length Indian independent scene very soon, has made a fabulous one with her short fiction ‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’ already. The wearer of many hats, Reema is a writer, director, and an editor, has done some stellar work via the advertising agency that she founded called CATNIP. Reema is known for her documentaries, stop-motion animations, interactive video installations, and fiction films that she has made and worked in across India, UK, South Korea, & the US.

While Reema deliberates about her film, and its latest achievements in this interview wonderfully, I wish to direct you to an incident that happened not very long ago. The name Arunabh Kumar is hopefully not forgotten yet – the (ex?) Founder of TVF who had multiple allegations of workplace sexual harassment against him, Reema was one of the many women who came forward to call out this serial abuser, and her vehement declaration on Facebook helped a lot of other women to follow suit. Reema herself added on to the anonymous coming out by the infamous Indian Fowler.

While it is unfortunate that sexual harassment is a battle still relevant in 2017 (2018, really), it is heartening to know that women have stopped tolerating it silently, well, for the most part. In this interview, Reema talks at length about her life, venturing into filmmaking, some of her earlier films, and about the exciting Sundance nominated ‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’ too. Read on…

Photography credit Reema’s photos: Anish Sarai

Q. Let’s start with your story. Could you tell us about your childhood, your growing and working years and education, to the extent that informs the work you do currently?

I am an only child born into a lower-middle-class family. We were poor, but my mother never made me realise it. I’ve wanted to make films for as long as I can remember. Every summer break, my classmates would take vacations, and I would do filmmaking workshops, theatre workshops, screenwriting classes, etc. I was always way younger than the average age of these classes, but every now and then my script would be selected for the class to work on, or I would win the ‘best student award’ and get my fees back. I grew up watching incredibly strong spirited women fighting or resigning to their circumstances, and wondered what makes some people question their circumstances and others not. I chose the ‘arts’ stream for my junior college at St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai, even though “people with 90+% in their board exams obviously take science”. I went on to study BA Honors in Contemporary Media Practice at the University of Westminster, London – where I graduated at the top of not just my course but the entire Media, Art & Design school.

Today, I’m a writer-director-editor based in Mumbai. I was 21 when I made my first short film that won 16 awards. At 22, I was awarded the prestigious Asian Film Academy Fellowship (2012), where I represented India and co-directed a short film at the Busan International Film Festival. The International Green Screen Lab 2012 (supported by British Council, Goethe Institute, Cinekid, etc) selected my first feature film script for development. I was the youngest writer at the Lab and shared creative space with national award winners, international film writers and veteran filmmakers. In 2014 I co-founded a niche advertising production house called CATNIP where I wrote and directed over 250 videos in the last three years and worked with names like – Skrillex, Above & Beyond, Nucleya, Red Bull, Amazon, OML, Budweiser and many others. I’m also a poet, a dancer, daughter of an amazingly inspiring woman and mother to three rescued kitties.

Q. Why filmmaking? What lured you?

I’ve always been very sensitive to the socio-political conditions around me. So much so that feeling responsible for contributing to the aspirations of change and the need to make a difference became intrinsic parts of my being. The objective was to generate empathy and films have an immense capacity to do that. The prolific reach that films have as well as their perpetuity made me choose them as my medium of choice. Thankfully my ‘dominating’ personality found a natural fit in the profession of a director.

I remember writing my first poem when I was in the second grade, acting in plays and dancing on stage since I was five. All these experiences really accelerated my romance with the arts.

Q. What do you think is the importance of liberal arts in early education? Why do we see a growing trend of people choosing engineering, business as a career only to circle back to arts, much later?

I believe the objective of early education is to provide exposure to various faculties. So exposure to liberal arts is just as important as other fields. Liberal arts require a different approach to thinking, analysis and reproduction, and learning these approaches early on is a lot more effective. I remember writing my first poem when I was in the second grade, acting in plays and dancing on stage since I was five. All these experiences really accelerated my romance with the arts.

The skills required for filmmaking are not just acquired, but also evolve with life experiences over the years. The earlier we start educating ourselves, the earlier we start recognising that aspects of our emotional development can and should be translated into our work.

Arts appeal to something very intrinsic about human nature – emotionality and empathy. When you have characters that are so alive in your mind and stories that absolutely need to be told, it’s difficult to ignore their existence for too long. I guess that’s what makes people come back to the arts despite their earlier career choices.

Q. Could you tell us about your film ‘The Tigers, they are all dead’?

The Tigers, They’re All Dead’ was my first short film as writer-director. It is a satirical comedy about what happens in Mumbai the day India’s last tiger is found dead under undisclosed circumstances. I wrote the script when I was in school – an angry teenager who didn’t know what to do with my frustration with the desensitization I perceived around me. By the time I turned 21, I just couldn’t stop myself from making a film – I had been studying and thinking about films for years, now I just needed to make one. So I started a crowdfunding campaign, back in 2011. I must’ve spoken to hundreds of people! The campaign got a lot of support and my mother stepped in as the producer to take care of the organization of the shoot. I was naive enough to need 35 characters, 12 locations, a child and a puppy in my very first short. Thankfully, it all came together. The film went to festivals all over the world and won 16 awards.

Q. Being selected to be screened at Sundance is no ordinary feat – one among 9000 odd entries, and the first for an Indian film after a gap of 15 years – shock, surprise, and overwhelming feelings apart, what is your profound reaction to this?

I read the Sundance selection email on the upper berth of a rickety sleeper bus. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think I actually believed it was happening till I double-checked Counterfeit Kunkoo’s name on the Sundance website two weeks later. Sundance has been supporting incredible independent cinema for so long. Having their endorsement and support has given us so much credibility – it has changed the trajectory of the film’s journey and mine too. I remember my heartbeat racing as I put the Sundance laurels on the poster of the film. We are absolutely thrilled that a small indie short made hustling it out in the streets of Mumbai is getting so much international attention. We are also the only Indian film at the prestigious Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival. The responsibility of representing your country is exhilarating and nerve-racking at the same time.

Still from Counterfeit Kunkoo

Q. Could you tell us about ‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’? What drew you to this story?

‘Counterfeit Kunkoo’ is a fifteen-minute narrative drama about Smita trying to find a house to rent in Mumbai as a woman without a husband. It addresses housing discrimination, marital rape and the need for liberation – both societal and sexual. It is an intimate perspective on the idiosyncrasies that come with the misogyny that pervades our everyday lives. This film comes from a deep sense of anger and helplessness at the treatment I’ve seen meted out to amazing women like my mother and so many others.

Q. How did you go about the casting? Are there any memorable events during the process that you would like to share?

While casting, the primary consideration was realism – people who could bring authenticity to the character. Vijay Varma and I had discussed the script years ago when I first wrote it and I could never imagine Sunil as anyone else ever since. Casting for the lead character of Smita, of course, was the most difficult. When I finally came across Kani, I knew immediately that she would be perfect. But when we met, even before I could pitch the film to her, I discovered that she only spoke Malayalam and English. Our dialogues were in Hindi and Marathi so I didn’t even bring the film up. I went back and found myself looking at her Instagram photos for hours, my Smita now had a face I couldn’t extricate her from. In the next meeting, I asked Kani to repeat one of the Hindi dialogues after me – and I knew that we could make it work. Kani is such an incredible actress, she portrayed the character even better than I had imagined it. Only two characters were played by professional actors, everyone else in the film are non-actors – neighbours, family friends, and acquaintances who were kind enough to come help out.

Q. You have written, directed and edited this film, how did you try and maintain the objectivity of your story – was it easy this way?

It was easy in a lot of ways and absolutely gruelling in some ways. I’ve always been a writer-director, through all the 250 videos I’ve made as CATNIP. I always edited the projects I was very emotionally invested in myself so it was a given that I would edit Counterfeit Kunkoo as well. The film already existed in my head so it would be a lot easier to do these things myself. I was so emotionally and physically exhausted after the shoot that it took me a while to get on with the edit. The editing process was riddled with anxiety and self-doubt. I realised that since I had been working on short format content for three years, my cinematic rhythm had completely changed. The first response to the first cut of the film was – ‘Why is your film cut like a hip-hop montage?’. It was only after two re-edits and several months of working on rediscovering my rhythm that I finally locked the edit. There was a point when I refused to show the film to even my closest people because I felt that I had wasted everyone’s time by making a lame film. I’m just so relieved the team’s hard work is paying off.

Still from Counterfeit Kunkoo

Q. Do you think there is a convergence of politics and arts, of any kind? What is the one thought you wish to leave the audience with, after watching your latest film?

I feel art has a responsibility towards politics, and the socio-political fabric of our society has a responsibility towards arts. As artists, we must constantly strive to inspire independent thought and the spirit of questioning and art must be given the environment to thrive with independence.

I would be happy if the audience watched my film and went back with the thought – ‘It doesn’t have to be this way’.

Q. What do you think is the problem with Indian cinema distribution system, that is shutting its doors to most of the female filmmakers or scripts that are centered around a female protagonist?

Q. I have actually faced a strange converse. I made my second short film in 2012 – it is a science fiction short set in dystopian London of the future and spoke about the loneliness that stems from over-dependence on technology. A very prominent Asian film festival reached out saying they were interested in programming the film. But for some reason, it didn’t work out. When I spoke to the programmer, she told me that she loved the film but it didn’t look like a film made by a “young Indian woman filmmaker” – there was nothing Indian or women-centric about it. That was perhaps the first time I realised I am a ‘female’ filmmaker, a different species of filmmakers.

Counterfeit Kunkoo is already getting a lot of interest in terms of sales and distribution. Most of those emails say that what got them interested is the fact that the film is a subtle and intimate portrait of an Indian woman. I don’t have any personal experience in terms of the feature industry but at least in the digital space, there is a lot of excitement and eagerness about working with female directors.

Photography credit Reema’s photos: Anish Sarai

Q. In the wake of allegations pouring in on men about their sexual misconduct, the onus seems to still lie in the hands of women to make things right. You were recently vocal about your experience, how has life been since, within the fraternity? Are you seen as a traitor for having called out “one of your own” (filmmaker to filmmaker) or was there any support at all? It’s been a while now, how has the consequence treated your abuser?

I have been a director for six years now – I have worked with hundreds of men and more often than not, I’m the only woman on set. I feel thankful that the vast majority of men have been very respectful – all the way from light-men to major Bollywood stars. It is our responsibility, not just as women but as human beings, to stand up against inappropriate behaviour. The onus must be on the community and not just the women. For too long, everyone has shrugged and said – that’s just how the industry is or that’s just what he’s like. We’re all just trying to do our job – a very stressful gruelling job filled with prejudices. The least we deserve is a working environment where we feel comfortable and safe.

Being vocal about my experience made absolutely no impact on my work, brands/artists who wanted to work with us, or the attitude of the fraternity towards me. There was a lot of support from people from the industry who told me they will personally look for work for me if needed. Thankfully it didn’t come to that at all. The consequences seem to have been pretty tangible for the person in question, from what I have read in the news and heard from friends in the industry. Despite the support, it was an emotionally haunting experience – it took me a long time to deal with anxiety that episode brought with it.

Q. What do you wish to tell young women who are hoping to pursue filmmaking but are in a dilemma about its legitimacy as a career?

Filmmaking is a difficult profession regardless of gender – it is a lifetime of pushing yourself physically and emotionally, with an unhealthy amount of self-doubt and anxiety. No matter how long you’ve been doing this, if you aren’t palpitating at the beginning and end of a passion project you’re doing something wrong. Despite all of this, I can’t imagine myself not making films. There is something incredibly gratifying about giving tangibility to a thought that only exists in your mind and sharing it with the world. If you are hoping to pursue filmmaking and are certain that you absolutely cannot ignore that need to make films you feel in your head and heart, dive straight in. Work very very hard on yourself – educate yourself, take chances on yourself, be naive, be sharp, be uncompromising. Know that the only way we can conquer the prejudices that lie ahead of us as women in the film industry is by becoming so good at what we do that our gender becomes irrelevant to the conversation of our career.

It is most certainly a legitimate career option. You get to decide the trajectory of your career. There is scope for creating good films, there is scope for financial sustenance, and ever so often the two intersect.

Q’ Could you name some of your favourite writers, directors and films? Of the films you’ve watched, what according to you is the most memorable film with a female protagonist?

I’ve never been much of a cinephile but here are a few names that are currently on my mind –

Films (in no particular order):

The Square, Coherence, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Children of Men, The Lobster, Dog-tooth, November, The Other Side of Hope, I am Not a Witch, Mother!

Writers/directors: Charlie Kauffman, Yorgos Lanthimor, Alfonso Cuaron

It’s difficult to pick one so I’m going to name a few films with female protagonists that left an impact on me –

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, Mother!, Arrival, I am Not a Witch