October 16 2015
Education and aspiration are at the heart of debutante filmmaker Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s film…
THERE’S a strong social message in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s debut film, “The New Classmate” which enjoyed two screenings at the London Film Festival (LFF).
At one of the LFF directors’ meet and talk over tea sessions this week Tiwari (pictured below) told www.asianculturevulture.com: “I don’t want my film to go just into the multiplexes, I want it to reach a wide an audience as possible and if necessary do it the old way, get a truck, drive out to the villages, set up a white sheet with a projector and show it to everyone.
The plot of her film at one level is very simple: single mum Chandra – played with great empathy and seductive innocence by Swara Bhaskar, who has more of a Bollywood pedigree than an independent film one – wants her young teenage daughter Apeksha, to study well and not have to be a maid, like she is.
There is a problem – Apeksha likes to plonk herself in front of the TV and while away her time doing anything but study.
When Mum learns her daughter is not a great student and has no ambition or aspiration, she almost loses it.
For Tiwari, the set-up helped to serve an important point – in low income households girls rarely continued their education beyond the age of 11 in India.
“Thirty-six per cent of them either drop out as they are going to get married or they have to support their family and earn money,” Tiwari declaimed.
There is then little incentive to keep children – especially girls in school – and the parents of these children often didn’t understand why they should support their children through it.
“How can parents, who are uneducated (through no fault of their own) inspire their own children,” she reflected.
“And the story was purely to say whichever part of society you come from, if you have a dream, you have to push yourself to accomplish it.”
Part of the film was inspired by Tiwari’s own understanding of aspiration through someone who helps look after her five-year-old twins at home in Mumbai. The film though is set in Agra to accentuate the ‘small town, no ambition’ syndrome in Apeksha – and the final scene with the backdrop of the Taj Mahal could melt the coldest of hearts.
Tiwari explained: “My nanny sends her daughter to an English medium school (where the teaching is in English- these schools are generally more expensive and competitive) but she feels bad she can’t help her own daughter, because she doesn’t know English.”
As in the film, even parents who want the best for their children academically wonder whether they can afford to put their offspring through school and university.
There is little help for higher education, and while a lot of primary education and secondary education is nominally free, standards are not always high and the better schools do charge – though there are some government funded schemes also to help with this.
The film may sound a bit dry and dull when put in these terms, but Tiwari’s story is watchable and warm and Bhaskar’s character is attractive and radiates hope, so much so that her wealthy retired employer helps her out with the fees.
But even with coaching and extra jobs to pay for it, Apeksha shows little appetite for graft and endeavour, until her mother decides there is only one final course of action open to her.
She manages to enrol herself into the same school – much to the consternation of her daughter.
Mother soon befriends the gifted and the grafters who take to her and it isn’t long before Apeksha comes round.
But it is still a little grudging – the turn is probably too big a plot element to give away here, but Tiwari’s own energy and fervour make you believe in the film a little more than you first might.
For a critical western film sensibility, it’s probably a little too sweet and sentimental, especially its last third, but in India it should do well and strike a chord with those very people Tiwari is desperate to communicate with and ‘educate’.
As a former advertising creative for the global ad agency Leo Burnett, she worked on the account of the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
In India, the programme when it first started was bigger than anything and was fronted by the country’s most recognisable Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachchan.
Programme makers Sony in India knew that for the show to work it had to attract the same people Tiwari is keen now to support in her film.
She remembers making an ad with a young girl who gets through to the final rounds and Bachchan asks, as he does in the real shows, what would the girl most like to say on national TV to everyone.
She turns a common Hindi phrase upside down: ‘Congratulations it’s a boy into ‘Congratulations, it’s a girl’.”
“It really resonated with the audience,” said Tiwari. “I want to take my film to the country, it’s aspirational.”
The “New Classmate” is produced by Jar Pictures/Opticus Inc and has been acquired by acclaimed director-producer Aanand Rai of Colour Yellow Production and it is set to be distributed by Eros international and Films Boutique. Eros is part of a big Bollywood studio which already has a well established distribution network, so there is a good chance it will screen in the UK.
“I wanted to make a movie that was (socially) relevant. It wasn’t just about making a movie, getting distribution and releasing it.”
It had to be about more for her and…it is, and even if only a handful of parents rethink their plans for their daughters and keep them on at school in India, it will be worth it.
- Cannes Palme d’Or winner ‘Dheepan‘ about Sri Lankan refugees settling in France, Friday, Picturehouse Central, 6.30pm; Saturday, Odeon Leicester Square, 2.15pm
- ‘Sherpa‘ (about Nepal) Sunday, Cineworld Haymarket, 12.30pm
- Check here for latest availability of above films: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff/ticket-availability