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Interview : Shailja Gupta

''WALKWAY is South-Asian male version of SEX AND THE CITY''

Shailja Gupta renowned visual artist, film maker, creative consultant, Head of Red Chillies USA and Head of Digital and Merchandising division (for over a decade now), is all set to release her directorial debut WALKAWAY in India. The movie which was released in US was very popular for its music which was composed by Ram Sampat and brilliant duo Vishal-Shekhar who have given numerous hits in Bollywood.

She recently also announced her latest digital art project - ''Glimpses - 100 years of Indian Cinema'' as a fitting tribute to 100 years of Indian Cinema. In conversation with the very versatile Shailja Gupta.

Here are the excerpts:


You don many hats and are a multifaceted personality. Was turning filmmaker a passing interest or a passion?
It's definitely a passion and not a secret dream from childhood. Though I have been fascinated by films all my life, I didn't really think I would be making them one day.

14 years ago when I moved to Mumbai, I got a chance to work in the film industry but not directly related to filmmaking but on the technology side. I got a chance to spend hours on film sets and was fascinated by how someone's imagination and vision is brought to life step by step. I think from there on I had a dream to make a film someday.

'Shahrukh Khan also generously offered me the Red Chillies post production facility where I did my editing.'

As for donning many hats, it wasn't really a conscious decision. I just happened to work on different streams from time to time and two decades later everything seems to just piece itself together. Each experience helped me learn skills that I landed up using in different ways for different projects.

What kind of film is WALKWAY?

It's a comedy drama. This movie traces intersecting stories exploring different aspects of love and companionship, as four friends in New York struggle to find their way through the meanders of Indian matrimony. And the importance of unshakeable tradition while trying to fit into a contemporary society

Exploring the subtleties of the Indian mega-institution of marriage, from the now-veiled urban dowry system to the overwhelming compromises demanded of a cross-cultural couple, the film weaves through the lives of four friends ...who struggle to balance engrained values with modern environs in the fast-paced melting-pot that is New York.

I guess it's probably the South-Asian male version of SEX AND THE CITY, DARIUS, Vinay, Shridhar and Soham - single, dating, engaged and married, strive to maintain some semblance of sanity while questioning themselves, their desires and choices, and the importance of unshakeable traditions.

How much of assistance you got from your mentor Shahrukh Khan?

He helped me with the finishing funds which I used for post production. He also generously offered me the Red Chillies post production facility where I did my editing. The VFX department was very forthcoming and a small team worked on a few small pieces that needed VFX support.

Tell us about your journey at Red Chillies and about your new role of a filmmaker?

My role in Red Chillies is mostly on digital innovation and merchandising. I worked with SRK almost 14 years ago on a technology project after which I moved to New York to expand my technology company and landed up directing a feature film a few years later. Then after a decade I worked on RA.ONE where I managed the digital marketing and merchandising. It was an absolutely delightful experience. Working on the merchandising, from product designing, scouting for the best manufacturer in China and working on samples, learning the whole end-to-end production and packaging is something that I would have never been able to learn in any school. The digital innovation was also something I thoroughly enjoyed especially being work with a search engine. Together we did some great digital innovations including the first google gadget which was a great success.

"Red Chillies got involved only after I had finished making the film."

Did you face any constraints while making the film? With backing of Red Chillies and SRK how easy was it to materialize your vision?

Constraints is probably the easiest word to describe. It was tough, crazy and incredible at the same time. Red Chillies got involved only after I had finished making the film. I started the film with the backing of 20 of my friends who put money ranging from a 1000 USD to 20,000 USD. I kind of covered pretty much every possible problem that any independent filmmaker could face. From getting thrown out of locations to not enough time to finish the scenes for the day, from extending shooting days to not having money to finish the film.

Once the film shoot was over, I got help from Red Chillies. Getting this help was definitely a step closer in materializing my vision but the struggle didn't really end there. I tried releasing my film in USA and my cousins from Kolkata helped me with the end tail finishing funds to get the prints made. In spite of all this, I am still struggling to release my movie as the markets are very competitive but I still consider myself lucky because I got help from tons of people to be able to complete my film.

From what time you have been nurturing the script of WALKAWAY?

Since the time I decided I wanted to make a film, I had 2 subjects in mind. WALKAWAY is inspired from the lives of my friends who live in New York. I was very intrigued that on one hand each one came from such varied backgrounds yet how their lives followed pretty much a single pattern and how they moved from one phase of their life to another in a seamless fashion. Most of them were from prime MBA institutes of India, came to New York, lived as roommates, got jobs in high end investment banks..then one by one most of them would have an arranged marriage, where the spouse would come to USA and due to visa restrictions would probably go for higher studies, move into their own apartments, first rented and then ownership then follows a kid a few years later and so on and so forth...and life goes on.

In spite of this life, I also saw a pattern how living thousands of miles away from their family they were still influenced and affected by what goes on in India and it always made me wonder what is it...emotional baggage or an excuse?

Was WALKAWAY strategically released in US before India?
To be honest it was more out of desperation, as I mentioned, India is a very tough market and it's not easy. I didn't want to wait for years to get my film to the audience, so I decided to at least try to showcase the film to a limited audience to get some reaction.

Does WALKAWAY have a universal appeal?
I would like to believe so. Some of the people who were not south Asians, could identify with the characters...though the rituals and culture might be different, the essence of conflict was pretty similar to what they had experienced. The problems that I have tried to showcase my characters face, are pretty universal and can transcend audiences as per each ones interpretation.


What kind of reactions you got from American audience?
Some of them found a few elements fascinating yet disturbing, especially the inter cultural marriage and the dowry aspect and some audiences who were from other countries could identity with some of the conflicts as they have it in their cultures maybe not in the same manner of speaking but face similar issues.

Have you shown the film to SRK? If yes, what were his words after watching it?

He has seen parts of it not the whole film.

Any plans to take it to film festivals?

Not really.

The music has been lapped up by US audience and got overwhelming response. In fact the music composer duo Vishal-Shekhar & Ram Sampath composed the music of the film without charging any fees. What do you have to say?

I still can't believe that they composed the music after watching the film and didn't charge me for it at all. They just did it because they liked the film and wanted to help. The most amazing part was that both Vishal Shekhar & Ram Sampath have worked with industry stalwarts and are always racing against time since they have so many projects, they still gave the same amount of effort and time for a small film like mine.

'Content innovation is very limited.'

How much is music essential for a film's success?

It all depends on the story and the genre of the film. Indian films, the music is still very important from the creative as well as the commercial point of view. It's more about music being a separate component and it works very well too in some films. It's in our film history...the songs are separate experiences.

Internationally however the music is used differently, as in the background and not lip sync, unless it's a musical. Some Indian films nowadays also use songs in this format.

Is WALKAWAY a conventional Bollywood film with music and dance? What kind of audience is being targeted?

The lines have started blurring. I don't know what genre one can put it in. As for the audience, it is for the urban audience targeted at metros and smaller cities.

Having a strong background in technology, technically was it easy to turn your vision into a full-fledged film?

I would love to take credit ... it did help but it was definitely a very big learning experience. The kind of things I learnt while making my first film, I don't think going to a film school for two years would have taught me that. Technology helped me more in the post production.

'Though India is moving fast the connectivity is still a very big issue.'

Can you tell us how much digital platform contributes in creating buzz about films?

These days a crazy amount. Internationally digital platform is competing with conventional media at par...however India is quite unique that way, in spite of a huge audience online, there is very large audience which doesn't access the internet and still relies on televisions, newspapers etc. And then on the other hand, mobile is another big resource that is being tapped for promotions.

What is the market and scope of digital platform for films?

Everyone keeps saying that there is a huge scope and I do agree at some point but the growth I feel is taking place at a much slower pace than some of the markets. Ultimately it comes down to infrastructure. I split my time between USA and India equally and in spite of what all the ''digital pundits'' say, as a consumer of video content I can say that the experiences are totally different.

Thought India is moving fast the connectivity is still a very big issue. I can't imagine watching a ''game of thrones'' online without waiting for it to buffer. On the other hand ''Netflix'' has created history by producing the first ever 13 episode series for its platform called ''House of Cards'' just for its platform and has changed the TV industry forever by bidding and getting ''Arrested development'' for its site before the channels.

Mobile probably has much better chance of growth even in terms of content. The market for shorter clips is bigger but then again movies & cricket are the only two big players. Content innovation is very limited.

- By Rachana Sheth, Glamsham Editorial

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