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'I wanted to write about a young woman's sexual awakening'

February 05, 2024 14:00 IST
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'I went to a school in Baroda, where if the boys harassed us, the teachers pulled the girls aside and said, "Oh, your skirts are too short".'
'They made us feel ashamed of having any sexual feelings or having bodies that were growing up to be a young women.'

IMAGE: Preeti Panigrahi and Kani Kusruti in Shuchi Talati's Girls Will Be Girls.

Debut film-maker Shuchi Talati's feature Girls Will Be Girls won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award in Acting for the lead performer Preeti Panigrahi and the Audience Award in the same section.

These awards were not unexpected as many critics observed that Girls Will Be Girls was a revelation.

A graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, Talati, 39 was fortunate to get support for her first project from two close friends, actors Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal, who have recently stepped into producing films with their company Pushing Buttons Studios.

Chadha and Talati have been friends since they attended the Social Communications Media programme at Mumbai's Sophia College.

Shot in boarding schools in Mussoorie and Dehradun, Girls Will Be Girls is the story of teenager Mira (Panigrahi), a studious, head prefect, whose sexual awakening and attraction to a classmate Sri (Kesav Binoy Kiron) is challenged by her mother, Anila, a single mother for all practical purposes, played by Kani Kusruti.

Talati, who now lives in New York, has done a wonderful job of creating believable characters, spirited, focused and at times, flawed. It is rare to find such characters in Hindi cinema. We care for them, even as we watch them go down the wrong paths.

Talati was enroute to Sweden to attend her film's European premiere at the Göteborg Film Festival when she discussed the film with Aseem Chhabra.

Shuchi, congratulations on the awards your film won at Sundance. What is this last week been like, especially after the awards were announced?

You know, it's changed a lot and not so much.

The awards were great but what felt more life-changing was to actually share the film with an audience.

You work on it for so long but to sit in a theatre with an audience and feel people so deeply invested, laughing with embarrassment, gasping.

That felt transformative.

The film had met its audience.

I was so happy Preeti's work was acknowledged. She's so special, such a revelation and so brave.

The Audience Award was a confirmation of what we felt in all the screenings.


IMAGE: Preeti Panigrahi and Kani Kusruti in Girls Will Be Girls.

How did these characters come to you?

The first character that came to me was Mira.

I was writing Mira's story from a place of rebellion.

I went to a school in Baroda that was much like this one, not a boarding school, but extremely strict, where if the boys harassed us, the teachers pulled the girls aside and said, 'Oh, your skirts are too short.'

They made us feel ashamed of having any sexual feelings or having bodies that were growing up to be a young women.

I wanted to write about a young woman's sexual awakening against this backdrop where she did not feel shame.

She's a person, a young woman with agency, who is enjoying this blossoming into her womanhood.

At first, there was a triangle between Mira, her boyfriend and a teacher, who was a little flirtatious because we all knew teachers like that.

You give a hint to that in the film.

Yes, there's a little remnant of that story.

I was writing a separate script, which was a mother-daughter story.

Neither of them were coming together until the two scripts collapsed into one.

I think the second part of the story comes from my perspective, now as a woman in my 30s, trying to imagine it from the mother's point of view.

She is also in her 30s.

She's a young woman who should have desires.

Why should she be relegated to a supporting position in her daughter's and husband's lives?

It doesn't seem like her marriage is that great, so if she's flirting with this young boy, what's wrong?

I think that's when the story became complete.

IMAGE: Preeti Panigrahi in Girls Will Be Girls.

What I like is the three main characters you created: Mira, Sri and Anila. They are beautiful, but all have flaws. They are like us. We all make mistakes in life.

The issue about the characters being well rounded was really important to me.

Yes, all the characters are flawed.

Mira, who is sort of a 'Miss Goody Two-Shoes,' throws her friend under the bus to save her own skin.

She is kind of complicit with Sri in using her mother to get what she wants.

Sri is a young boy, extremely charming and you could write him off as a cad. But actually, he's also a vulnerable young boy, whose parents are not around.

He's moved around a lot, developed this charm, giving people what they want as a defence mechanism. So I care for him.

The mom sometimes prioritises her own thrills and her needs over her daughter, but when push comes to shove, also shows up like a fierce protector mama bear.

It was equally important that all characters were written with compassion.

Nobody is perfect, but nobody is a villain either.

I needed to feel that each character was acting from a place that made sense.

I liked that the script doesn't reveal a lot. When the film gets over, you leave much to our imagination. Did some things happen or not? Or maybe we were just shocked that we thought things happened. There is a mystery quality to the film.

For me, what actually happened, the conversations the characters are having when we walk into a mid-scene... these things are not so important.

I feel like the film is very clear emotionally.

There's a clarity in Mira coming to understand her mother a certain way.

She doesn't like her in the beginning. But she comes to a different understanding of her mother by the end. And that should be clear to the audience.

The film is told through Mira's point of view and the audience does not know anything that she doesn't know.

Hopefully, the audience is never ahead of her.

As her point of views of different people change, we are on this journey with her.

There are things that she will not be able to ask or articulate.

How can you ask certain things of your mother, in the context of our culture? And I don't think it's important.

IMAGE: Preeti Panigrahi in Girls Will Be Girls.

But as a writer, you must have had fun with the way you constructed the situations. By leaving things unsaid to yourself, you also don't know what actually happened. I found the film disturbing at times. I was on the edge of the seat. Yet, it was so sweet, romantic and tender. It's very rare that you get these ideas blended together.

I had fun writing it. But I also had a lot of fun in the edit.

As you are saying, there is tenderness and this feeling of being on the edge of your seat.

They are both separate but in a way, so close.

The tenderness you feel for Mira is a huge credit to Preeti. Even though she's an internal character in her performance, you always know how she's feeling.

When she is afraid or concerned, you really feel it. We tried to shoot it that way in the visual language.

When I worked with actors on set, I loved exploring.

I would tell them to play more or less flirtatious. Because I knew in a film like this, there's a fine line we are going to walk in the edit.

We had to test to see how Mira or her mother were perceived.

It was great to have the room to calibrate this in the edit.

You can write it a certain way but there will always be surprises when the actors play it and you never really know how an audience is going to respond.

The fun part during the edit was to test the film with a small audience, then come back and fine tune it if Mira was too likable or if Sri was not scary or likable enough. The same for the mother.

You worked with Dilip Shankar to cast the film. To get Preeti and Kesav was amazing. What were you looking for in these actors?

For Sri, I was looking for an actor who would have the right quality of being a boy and a man, where he would be interesting both to the daughter and the mother.

He had to have the right combination of charm, but also sincerity and a vulnerability, so he can charm both the women, but you are not wary of it right away.  

You don't feel he's a bad boy because he's not.

It was a hard combination because we saw many actors who felt like charming, bad boys. But you would immediately say, 'Oh, no, stay away from that one.'

Kesav was not that.

I feel he really nailed this tightrope he had to walk on.

Preeti is extremely special to me because she is kind of unselfconscious and has this amazing way of being in the moment.

She does not feel studied.

Young actors, especially now in the times Instagram and TikTok, know what their good angles are.

There is a self-consciousness in front of camera, which even very good actors have.

But Preeti does not have that. She is so natural and she always did unexpected things, the way her mouth moved or something else. It felt like very true to life.

Also, Preeti instinctively understood this character.

She is not unlike Mira. She would come to rehearsals with a little notebook, prepared with questions. She's very studious, smart but also a rebel.

IMAGE: Shuchi Talati, Richa Chadha, Preeti Panigrahi and Ali Fazal take their film Girls Will Be Girls to the Sundance Film Festival. Photograph: Kind courtesy Ali Fazal/Instagram

I have seen Kani in a number of films, including Biryani, which is a difficult film to watch. What was the quality that you found in her?

Kani has a livewire quality that is unusual.

You never know what she's going to do next.

She's an actor who doesn't over rehearse.

On the set, you feel she sometimes doesn't know what she's going to do next.

She has kind of nailed this technique where she knows enough, the lines, she will get the marks.

Technically, she's very sound.

She always knows where to catch the light.

But emotionally, she leaves some space for her to discover what's going to happen. This quality where you watch with a little bit of being on the edge of your seat, is so essential for the mother.

A good friend of mine said that Kani has this underlying effortlessly tragic quality. You feel like there is some sadness underneath.

Somehow, she brought this sense of history, sadness where you feel she's mourning her youth.

How was it like working with your friends Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal as producers?

Richa is an old friend. We made our first student film together. And then she acted in a short film that I made to apply to film school.

Over the years, Richa became an actor and I became a director.

But every time I would come to Bombay, her home is my home.

During the pre-production of this film, I stayed with Richa and Ali for four months.

We couldn't really hang out as friends because as soon as we saw each other, Richa would pull out the to-do-list that we needed to tackle. Even though they are first-time producers, they understand the film business. And Richa especially has always had a producer sort of brain.

They were immediately good at things like fundraising.

They had all these relationships with the cast and crew.

Richa was the one who introduced me to Dilip Shankar.

But they also protected the film. They understood what it would have meant if we had a Bollywood star in our film.

There were financiers who wanted us to go that route, but Richa's and Ali's word had a lot of weight, where they said no we are not going to do this.

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