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Monday, December 11, 2023

Shonali Bose: “I Access My Own Materials To Tell Strong, Powerful Stories”

Shonali Bose is an icon for many reasons but primarily, she is amongst the few female filmmakers who have carved their own path in an otherwise patriarchal industry.

Whether it’s Amu or Margarita With A Straw, her movies mostly centred around self-discovery always strike a poignant chord which embraces death.

Her current directorial The Sky Is Pink is another sentimental but thought-provoking movie which also showcases death in a realistic, positive light.

It is based on the true story of Aisha Chaudhary (Zaira Wasim), a young motivational speaker and author who was born with an immune deficiency disorder and died at the age of 18.

As such, the heartbroken parents (Priyanka Chopra and Farhan Akhtar) give up their jobs and travel to London’s Great Ormond Street, the only place that offers hope for their daughter.

The generosity of people’s donations funds the treatment that saves young Aisha and the family eventually moves back home.

Years pass and all seems well, but the family is not out of the woods.

In a candid conversation with Filme Shilmy, Shonali talks about how she channels personal grief into creating compelling stories.

Be it Amu or Sky Is Pink, your films seem to be shown through the lens of young, zestful and curious girls. What determines this narrative style?

All three of my films Amu, Margarita With A Straw and The Sky Is Pink have 18-year-old girls as the main protagonist. It’s a complete coincidence, I don’t think I necessarily planned it.

This film is, of course, a true story but in the other two, I guess I was going back to my own life.

I was around the college-age when dealing with the 1984 genocide and so wrote Amu for that reason.

With Margarita, I wanted to do the romance of somebody young with cerebral palsy (CP).

In a certain way, I realised that my previous protagonists were 18.

My focus in this film are the parents so I made the conscious decision of showing a romance between two people who are in love from their 20s to the 50s.

As a filmmaker, how does one translate their personal grief through another inspiring yet poignant story?

Wonderful question. My belief as a writer is having the courage to access your own deepest places of pain and experience in life.

In my opinion, that will always be the best work.

With Amu, all I knew is that I had never written a feature script and so I needed to visit the toughest places in my life – which for me, was my mother’s death.

I was 21 when she passed away and was very hard. Just before her death, the genocide happened. So both things happened when I was at Miranda House college.

It was a hard thing for me to access that pain, but I eventually did which is why the film became a mother-daughter story.

As for Margarita, even though the inspiration was external (my cousin Malini who has CP), but I yet again revisited pain as I wrote it 4 months after my son’s death.

Before his passing, the mother in the film hadn’t died but in fiction, I needed to kill the person closest to my protagonist because I had just suffered that.

I am bisexual, my cousin isn’t. It was illegal at the time in India and my protagonist initially wasn’t, but then it slowly became about me.

I’m sure there are brilliant writers out there who don’t need to do that, but this works for me. I access my own materials to tell strong, powerful stories.

In what way do you feel The Sky Is Pink will change people’s perspective towards life and death?

What I love about Aditi and Niren Chaudhary is when they heard that their child could die in 4-5 years, their approach was like:

“All of us are going to die and everyone’s afraid of it, but we aren’t afraid of it. We are going to take life by the horns and make every moment count.”

That’s a philosophy I love and I sincerely hope that people can remember.

It’s actually such a simple thing but we forget when getting caught up in the rat race of life we forget to spend time with our family members and ourselves.

Another thing I brought to the movie as a filmmaker is my approach to death. That didn’t come from the parents but from myself.

After the huge pain of my mother’s death, by the time my son died 25-years-later, I was completely able to accept his death and worked towards getting peace with it.

Having done that, I’m in a beautiful place around death. In fact, I call it ‘death day’ and I celebrate it.

I always think the idea of being able to watch your own funeral and see who didn’t turn up is incredible (laughs).

If we could all view death/funerals like that, how much easier it would be!

It unites several mainstream actors on a parallel space. What is your approach to balancing both of these aspects?

I approach my cast as actors, I don’t view them as stars and they never acted like stars either.

They also approached me as a director. Initially, I was intimidated to direct Farhan as he himself is a filmmaker.

Plus, he’s also directed Priyanka, another cast member of my film! So I constantly thought he would be watching and judging me.”

At the very first meeting, he looked into my eyes and said:

“I am terrified of doing this because the script is brilliant and my character is so layered. I’m so scared so I’ll just leave it to you.”

That just disarmed me and it was so beautiful. This was a similar case for Priyanka, Zaira and Rohit.

They were actors just like how Konkona was in Amu and how Kalki was in Margarita.

It is a commercial film because there are known stars in it, but it is an authentic and honest way of narrating the story as it’s me directing in the same style as I usually do.

Your films, including The Sky Is Pink also revolve closely around strong mother-daughter bonds. In what way is this reflective of your relationship with your mother?

Oh fully! I always say that I’ve made a trilogy of mother-daughter relationships and death.

Clearly, that has moved me as I always reflect on my actual life. I had a very close relationship with my mother as I do with my children.

In Margarita, by then it was about the pain of my son’s death, even though the mother dies.

But the relationship by then was doubled. Amu was just mother-child and Margarita the pain was from both points of view – as a mother and as a child.

The Sky Is Pink is someone else’s story and almost every scene is verbatim. I also poured my own experiences and love as a layer.

In order to meet Aditi Chaudhary, Priyanka made a special trip to London.

From the very first meeting she agreed to the script in New York, she heard about my son Ishaan and loved the story of what I told about him.

Throughout the whole journey, she really became somebody in my skin and accessed my relationship with him, as well as his death.

There was a scene we shot. I said cut and went to hug her. She couldn’t stop howling in my arms and kept saying: “I’m so sorry about Ishaan (my son) I now understand what it feels like to lose a child.”

I don’t get sad by that. I just held her but she really went to pieces because she accessed my pain so much.

Making this film has been a joyride for me. I had a blast. It has not been sad or difficult to make it.

Since many of your films are narrated through female characters, how can the prominent trend of ‘female-centric’ content continue?

Firstly, it’s terrific that producers are now backing this more and more. However, it is still a slight struggle.

The biggest movie-going numbers are still of those who are young men. Many of them still want to see War and Hrithik Roshan-style movies.

Suppose we make a female version of this, how many eyeballs are we going to get?

Anupama Chopra tweeted this out recently and I’ve always wanted to make an all-women heist film.

I’d love to do more such terrific scripts. If I can get stars to agree to some brilliant script, I’d be happy.

My casting is always for the right person. Margarita With a Straw, for instance:

Two actors who I absolutely love – Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone – if somebody told me to cast them as Laila, it wouldn’t work. 

I’m never going to be dishonest in my casting. So if it works to have stars with whatever script I have, then definitely I’d be happy to make the film.

My cast must be actors.

Listen to the full interview with Shonali Bose here:

The Sky Is Pink had its European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. It officially releases on 11th October. 

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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