July 14 2016
Leena Yadav, the director behind tomorrow’s London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) opening gala film, talks about village intimacies, Ajay Devgn’s producer role and why she went from Bollywood to indie cinema…
WHEN director Leena Yadav (pictured below) first had the idea for “Parched”, her third feature, which opens the London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) this year, she thought it was going to be slightly different to how it eventually turned out.
“We actually started off with the thought: “Let’s make it a ‘Sex in the Village’ and shock the pants off ‘Sex in the City’,” she chuckled in a telephone interview with www.asianculturevulture.com, before she left India for London.
Her film, which centres around four women living in rural India, is possibly still one of the most candid and frank portrayals of village life in India and is based on real women and their real thoughts, ideas and dreams.
“It started with a conversation with (the actor) Tannishtha Chatterjee and wanting to work together.
“She was telling me about her conversations with people in the village where she had been shooting her previous film.
“I found a lot of those conversations were extremely frank and candid – and especially so about sex.
“The way they (the women in the village) spoke about it was really interesting, they were much more honest about it (sex) than people in the cities,” revealed Yadav.
It sparked more than an idea and while she began creating a script centred around four women living in the rural interior of India, she also travelled to an area called Kutch, in the west of India, in Gujarat State, to talk to women about their lives there.
“We had to break boundaries and bond with them,” she explained. “And once the men were out of the scene, it was easier. We shared our lives with them and they shared their lives with us.
“We got a great insight into their lives, we sympathised and empathised with them. We came back with emotions, not just notes.”
She said the script she had started didn’t have to be changed drastically.
“I thought I might have to come back and junk a lot of it, but it was not too far off the mark of things,” she revealed.
The resulting film has already enjoyed much global acclaim – not least when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
“It was part of a special presentation – it was great for the film and extremely heartening – people shared so much more over there with me (after they had seen it).”
Getting money to make it was not easy and it was Bollywood star Ajay Devgn’s backing that helped to get the film made. Her husband, Aseem Bajaj, a cinematographer had worked with Devgn.
“Nobody wanted to make a film with female protagonists but Ajay supported us, and said we could use his name to attract investors and he also gave us seed money to start work.”
Two private investors not from the film industry – Gulab Singh and Rohan Jagdale made “Parched” possible with a reported budget of £2m.
Yadav’s two previous feature films, “Shabd” (2005) and “Teen Patti” (2010) had featured Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan) and Sanjay Dutt, and Amitabh Bachchan and Sir Ben Kingsley, respectively. And while there was a good deal of critical praise especially for the first, for a director like Yadav to move away from using Bollywood stars was a gamble and a radical departure.
“A friend of mine asked me this – why are you making ‘Parched’? People make independent films to work with stars but I’ve never charted anything, I make what I am drawn to. I try to do it and so far the universe has allowed me to do it – and I not complaining.
“The earlier films were with big stars but they were absolutely not conventional Bollywood films.”
This film’s undoubted strength she feels is that while these women’s lives may look quite removed and distant from our own (as urban dwellers), some of the issues they face are really no different.
“What struck me when I was writing was, who am I kidding? Exactly the same stories are happening right here in my backyard – you tend to believe that trouble is happening elsewhere,” said the Mumbai-based filmmaker.
“When I sent my script to my friends around the world they wanted to know more and they could relate to these characters.
“These are universal subjects and what is happening in this corner of the world, where there is no education or a lack of information is actually also happening in the most progressive of cities.
“It is extremely depressing to learn but this is a conversation that needs to happen internationally…”
Some have seen “Parched” as a sort of Indian version of “Thelma and Louise”, a bold, entertaining, upbeat cry for women to enjoy greater freedom and independence than is hitherto permitted to them by traditional societies.
Yadav wants to stress that “Parched” is not a ‘feminist’ film or preachy or didactic as some issue-based stories can be.
“The film has a lot of dark subjects, but the film is also very hopeful and it also has a lighter side to it. I am celebrating these women.”
The film has yet to release in India. She expects it hit theatres in September/October and is keen to make sure the film reaches the widest audience possible.
“I want to go back to those villages (I visited) and share ‘Parched’ with them. We are discussing distribution and making sure the film will go to villages and the smaller cities.”
She said the climate in India both for women making films and independent productions has improved and the divide between a strictly commercial (Bollywood) film and an independent one was changing.
“It’s been challenging for women to come into the industry,” she responded to a question about being a woman in a male dominated film world.
“For years people didn’t come into it, they didn’t want to work in the industry.
“Now, there’s a huge increase in number of women technicians, not just directors, but production designers, costume designers, a lot of the creative talent in the industry are women, so there is an increase in numbers.”
And the industry profile was less rigid and marked by clear boundaries.
“’Masaan’ (an award-winning Indian indie film that premiered in Cannes last year) got a theatrical release.
“Around 10-15 years ago if you said your film was going to an (international) festival, no one wanted to see it.
“In the last two or three years that’s changed, the public are talking about these festival films as good films.”
She doesn’t like being referred to as ‘a woman filmmaker’.
“You don’t talk about men in the industry as ‘men filmmakers’.
“I just feel calling me ‘a woman filmmaker’ puts me into a box, when I started out I was asked about being a woman filmmaker so much, I thought I will never make a ‘women’s film’ because that’s what they want me to do.”
And what of the future?
“I am having conversations about about two or three international projects in LA, and I am starting an Indian film in Delhi at the end of the year.”
As yet it does not have a title but it will be quite different to “Parched”, in its central theme.
Co-written with Vivek Anchalia, it will be about fathers and sons.
‘Parched’ – Opening Gala Film, July 14: Cineworld Haymarket, 6pm, 63-65, Haymarket SW1Y 4RL. Booking here.
Also Opening Gala Film, July 15: Cineworld Broad Street, 7pm. Booking here
July 16, Cineworld Wembley, 5.30pm
July 20 BFI Southbank, 8.40pm (see here for discount only with ACV)
Our selection of films to look out for at LIFF2016: http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/london-indian-film-festival-2016-what-to-look-out-for/
The preview LIFF2016: http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/london-indian-film-festival-2016-women-filmmakers-and-gender-issues-in-spotlight/