After an award-winning debut, writer-director and co-founder of FilmKaravan [which has supported projects like Superman of Malegaon, Sita Sings the Blues] Payal Sethi is all set to kick off shooting her second film, Leeches. The New-York bred filmmaker began her career under the tutelage of veteran director Mira Nair. She assisted on films as varied as The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, before directing her first short, Grant St. Shaving Co., which won her recognition at film festivals abroad. Payal speaks to me about her upcoming film, her journey into film-making, what appeals to her about short films and more!
Leeches is a fictional tale based on the myriad stories of one-day brides that I came across while living in Hyderabad. The female protagonist, Raisa, is a young, fiesty girl of sixteen, the eldest daughter of four to a single mother. When she learns that her innocent little sister has been promised in marriage to an old man in exchange for money, she decides to protect her by taking her place. Except, she's not a virgin anymore and the suitor in question has paid for a virgin bride. Her quest to restore her virginity leads her to discover a forgotten old wives' trick, but the ensuing consequences are devastating in ways that she could never have imagined.
After delving deep into the subject of contract marriage, my co-writer & I realized we didn't want to tell yet another story of child marriage. We were drawn to the idea of a young girl, powerless but for her virginity, who tries to get the better of this well oiled system of sham marriage. We explored this idea towards a shocking conclusion, which becomes the twist in the tale.
Where are you right now in the project?At the moment, we are raising funds to make the film through Wishberry and have successfully cleared our production budget of INR 6 Lakhs (USD 10,000) in just 15 days. We have 23 days left to raise an additional INR 5 Lakhs, which goes towards post-production, paying our cast & crew, and bringing down my Director of Photography from New York, who shot my last film. We have also started the casting process & done a preliminary recce in Hyderabad for locations. Meanwhile, I am looking to bring on board an excellent production designer in the next few weeks.
Anyone, anywhere in the world can contribute to this project on Wishberry and believe me when I say, every little bit matters. In India, we offer cash & cheque pick-ups from your doorstep, so I hope that people who want to become funders and were deterred by the credit card option will take action. We only have 23 days left for this campaign.
When do you plan to begin shooting?
We begin shooting this film in September. My goal before we begin production is to reach a wider audience through the campaign. As we now know, crowd-funding is a great audience builder. This story deserves to get out and I would encourage anyone who wants to support our film to check out the page. Anybody can get involved for any amount, however small. Rewards start at US $4/INR 250. Ultimately, it is the show of hands that will matter.
You went the traditional way to fund your first film/short. It was backed by Mira Nair. Why did you choose to crowd-fund this one?
Actually, we crowd-funded the post-production of my first film as well, through Fiscal Sponsorship, which we received through Fractured Atlas. We just didn't know it was crowd-funding back then. Mira was one of the first to pitch in, and with an incredibly generous contribution. Her support to Grant St. Shaving Co. was wonderful, on so many levels. [You can watch her short film here].
What got you interested in films?
I always wanted to write, but my interest in Creative Writing, which I started to pursue at Vassar College during my undergraduate years, was replaced with writing for films after a fortuitous lecture on Film History & Theory during my sophomore year. It was in those lectures and screenings that I discovered the desire to write films & eventually, to direct them. Then, during my Junior Year I went off campus to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts & pursued the 16mm Sight & Sound program, which put a Krasnogorsk (camera), lots of black & white 16mm film, & a Steenbeck into my hands.
After film school, I started working with Mira Nair as her assistant, and slowly grew through the ranks of Mirabai Films, over four lovely years. I had declined admission to the Columbia MFA to work with her, because the Dean at the time assured me it would be the best film school for me. He was very right.
Looking back, I realize, this was so much more than a job. It was an education gained while peeking over the shoulder of one of the finest filmmakers of our time.
After Mirabai Films, I became a freelance AD, working on a friend Soman Chainani's thesis film, and then Karan Johar's Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. In the US, being an AD is a professional career track, unlike in India where it's a stepping stone to directing. For about two years after KANK, I worked on some incredible film festivals, including Tribeca, IFP, Hamptons & the NY Indian Film Festival, in various capacities, from programmer to industry manager. The exposure to current films from all over the world was an immersion that cemented my passion for film-making.
What appeals to you about short films as a medium? Do you plan to make Leeches into a full-length feature?
Short films are self-contained – they are abbreviated, but intense. They are not small versions of feature films, and the narrative path can be quite different, if needed. I enjoy exploring certain ideas as short film, while other ideas are better suited to a feature treatment. Leeches is a complete film & will probably end up being around 20 minutes. However, there are several stories of girls just like Raisa – heartbreaking stories that unveil a set of human emotions that I find disturbing & fascinating, in the way that a horror story can be. So yes, I am certainly thinking about a feature.
Who is the audience that you think this film will engage?
Promoting indies by prominent mainstream names, helps get the word out. Ship of Theseus, for instance, had Kiran Rao supporting it. Do you plan to get someone involved with your film at any point?
Why not? The right partner can bring visibility to this film and one of my goals is to spread awareness about this particular practice - legalized prostitution under the guise of marriage - to as many people as possible, through a story that above all, engages its audience. I wouldn't name names simply because support is given when there is a connection. If I manage to make a connection with a 'persona' through this film's story it would, of course, be great to work with them on this together. I'd love to see that happen organically.
A film-maker who inspires you the most?
I could never pick just one, because there are aspects of each person's film-making technique that inspire me. Here are some, in no particular order. Mira Nair, Cristian Mungiu, Asghar Farhadi, Pedro Almodovar, Emir Kusturica, Jeunet & Caro. I could go on and on.
What next? What kind of films are you looking to make in the future?
My path has been a joyful potpourri up to this point. I have written, directed & produced a personal short film in New York. I have also written two feature scripts: a surreal dramedy about a mother & daughter in Ooty as they traverse the tricky path of a regional beauty pageant; and a wildlife crime thriller, which was developed under Asia Society's New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters. Leeches, which relies heavily on realism, is my second film as writer, director & producer. I can only wish the road ahead continues to be just as unpredictable & enjoyable.
Leeches in 3 minutes: