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All cinema has an inherent patriarchal ideology: Shonali Bose

Pink skies: (Clockwise from top left) Ronnie Screwvala, Farhan Akhtar, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Zaira Wasim, Shonali Bose and Priyanka Chopra.  

After Amu (2005), Chittagong (2012) and Margarita With A Straw (2015), filmmaker Shonali Bose returns with The Sky Is Pink (TSIP) that had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival on September 13. Edited excerpts from an email interview with Namrata Joshi

Amu was both political and personal in its tone. Chittagong was about individuals caught at a crucial moment in Indian history. With Margarita you went more intimate, raising personal, humane issues like those of disability and sexuality. Is TSIP along the same lines?

TSIP is definitely an emotionally intimate film. But even though Amu had a larger political context at it’s core, it too was an emotionally intimate film, about family. In fact, I have made a trilogy on mother-daughter relationships and death. If you examine the core narrative of each film you will see this strong thread. In the first (Amu) a mother takes her own life and her infant daughter is adopted and raised by a social worker and they have a strong and close relationship, which stands the test of the daughter’s discoveries. In the second (Margarita with a Straw) the mother is the carer and then it flips, and the daughter becomes the carer and comes to peace finally with her mother’s death and her acceptance of her own disability and sexuality. In TSIP, for the first time the daughter dies. All three have very strong women playing mothers and daughters and they have strong bonds, which defy death.

Are you, as a filmmaker, in a zone where you feel like engaging more with these personal issues than presenting a more political point of view that you started with in your first two films?

I am as drawn to larger political issues today as I was 30 years ago when I got the idea for Amu. I think disability and sexuality is a hugely political issue. It shouldn’t be; it should be personal as you say it is. But at the time that I was making Margarita the Supreme Court was reversing the High Court order making it illegal to be gay in this country. I consider Margarita to be as political as Amu. TSIP is indeed not overtly political. But personally, I feel politics is embedded in all cinema. All cinema, has an inherent ideology usually patriarchal! Whether a film is sci-fi or action or romance, it is still a representation of the world and relations within it, particularly gender relations. TSIP shows a family where there is complete gender parity. More than that, it shows a Hindu man who is what a true Hindu is – tolerant and accepting. This is a very important political statement, at a time when the prevailing enforced ideology in the country is of a narrow intolerant Hinduism.

Like in Margarita the central character here is vulnerable and/or ailing? Are these frail (yet perhaps strong in their own way) characters occupying you more?

The central characters in TSIP are actually the parents, not the sick child. So that’s a misnomer that this film is a biopic of Aisha Chaudhary. But of course the subject matter is the sickness of a child who then dies even if she’s not the protagonist. Kaju in Amu was also vulnerable. She was a young person who had a brutal history that she had amnesia [about] but was about to find out. In Margarita the protagonist was anything but ailing. Disability is a condition, it’s not a sickness. In fact, Laila is quite grey as a character as she merrily breaks a few hearts. The entire thrust of Margarita was to portray her not as someone to pity. I feel all my characters are a blend of strength and vulnerability. Aren’t we all? I don’t think it’s a correct characterisation to say that I am preoccupied now with frailty. I choose the story to tell first. The character comes later.

Tell us a bit more about how you zoomed in on TSIP story?

In January 2015, 18-year-old Aisha Chaudhary watched the trailer of Margarita with a Straw 30 times and told her mother, “I hope I live to see this film.” She said that because she was coming to the end of the five years she had been told she had to live. She died two weeks later without seeing the film. Nine months later, her mother approached me to tell her story. I was drawn to the story, not of a heroic teenager defying death, but the parents who had to deal with it. I too had lost a child and was ready to explore this cinematically.

Was there a specific aesthetic/artistic way with which you decided to approach it?

The story, facts and events in the film are completely true. I wrote the script as close as possible to the truth. So, when deciding the look and feel of the film, I decided to stay with realism and be as authentic as possible.

I was very conscious to never be melodramatic, manipulative or heavy handed with how emotions were to be expressed. I can’t bear that. I also deplore when emotional scenes are “filmy” and acting is not authentic. This is something I have consciously worked on in the entire trilogy. I set the tone in pre-production with my actors. Then it becomes a matter of fine-tuning on set and adjusting them if they stray from that. I seek honest performances over and above everything else.

Pritam as a music composer is an interesting choice. You have shown eclecticism in your choice of composers. Why him this time?

Right from Dhoom to Dangal I have loved Pritam’s compositions. But I wasn’t sure if our chemistry would be right. That’s really important to me in choosing my HODs: their response to my script and how we get along. Sid [Siddharth Roy Kapur] and I went to meet Pritam to narrate the film to him. I fell in love with him immediately. We connected as Bongs from Cal [Kolkata]. I love the songs he has given me for this film. I was excited to bring Gulzar saab and Pritam together. Working with Gulzar saab has been so humbling and beautiful.

How important is music to the film?

There are two aspects to the music in the film – the original score and the original songs. The score, was composed by Mikey McCleary, who was also the composer (songs and score) in Margarita. And, of course, the songs were composed by Pritam. There are four songs in the film and they are all important as is the score. The score plays the added role of running counter intuitive to what you see. So, for instance in the funeral scene, the score I have selected is utterly unexpected and will surprise you but is completely in keeping with my experience and feelings about death. I grew the most in terms of my own learning curve as a director in working on the music of this film. I would say the overall music of this film was the most challenging as well as rewarding, as I love the end result.

The choice of actors is as interesting and unconventional in relation to their popular image and persona?

Priyanka [Chopra] was always my first choice for the role of Aditi Chaudhary, from the time that I started writing the script. I just felt in my gut that she suited the character the best in terms of her look and feel and she had the acting chops (pun intended!) which I felt had yet to be shown off in their full glory. Aditi is drop dead gorgeous, intense, volatile, strong, romantic. All qualities which I felt Pri best embodied. When Sid came on board as the producer, I told him I wanted Pri and he concurred and got the script to her. It was on my son Ishan’s birthday on Jan 20, 2018 (his 25th birthday – nine years after his death) that I got a text from Sid that she had read the script and wanted to meet me. Right then, I knew this film was blessed as Ishan has always given me gifts on his birthday and death day. [The world premiere of this film happened on his death day – Sep 13].

Farhan Akhtar was also one of my top choices when we went into casting. I felt he had the depth, maturity and sensitivity as well as the charisma that the role demanded.

Zaira Wasim as Aisha Chaudhary was the brilliant suggestion of my co-writer Nilesh Maniyar. I immediately acquiesced. Not only is she a natural and brilliant actor but she has the spunk, humour and depth to play this significant role.

The hardest casting was for the last member of the Chaudhary family – Ishaan. (What are the odds that Aisha’s brother had the same name as my dead son!). Casting Bay must have auditioned 100 boys for this role. They put Rohit Suresh Saraf at the end of their list. I called him for an audition to see if he could respond to direction and I instantly fell in love with him for the role.

I am utterly grateful to these four [actors] for trusting me and allowing me to take them to their deepest selves and perform from there, from their inner core. They are superlative and it has been a mind-blowing experience working with them. I believe in forming an invisible umbilical chord with each of my actors in the rehearsal process. In this film, it was super important as the shooting stretched over a year. I have a unique and very special relationship with each of them. Again because of it being a year of shooting my relationship deepened as we went along. I already miss them sorely from my day-to-day life!

TIFF has always been lucky for you. What is it that makes it so special?

It’s a hat trick and that is thrilling. TIFF is very integrated with the city of Toronto and that makes it unique. I love Toronto and have spent a lot of time here in my life as an activist in my 20s and then as a filmmaker. Especially with Amu – where I went and spoke in every gurdwara and personally did the theatrical release with countless Q and As in regular Canadian theatres.

The audiences here are diverse and film-literate and warm and appreciative. It makes for great interactions. I’ve been stopped on the street several times during TIFF by someone who has seen a screening and watched the Q and A. I have had deep conversations with audience members for lengths of time. That’s really rewarding and special. I haven’t experienced that anywhere else. I love the TIFF head Cameron Bailey. I've known him now for 15 years from the time he stood in the wings at Berlin during my Amu Q and A and then invited the film to Toronto. I am so happy that he is now the Head of the Festival and again he personally chose this film.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 2:46:15 PM |

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