Cargo director Arati Kadav on challenges of making an indie sci-fi film, and perks of a screening at SXSW
Arati Kadav's debut film Cargo, starring Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi, premiered at the 21st MAMI Mumbai Film Festival last year.
Arati Kadav, the director of Cargo, touted to be India’s first ever spaceship sci-fi film, likes weaving stories, especially about magic.
“When I enter the Mount Mary fair, I feel so happy, and I want people to have that sense of enjoyment and experience when they are watching my film,” says the independent filmmaker. An engineer with a Masters in Computer Science degree from Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Kadav quit her job in the US to pursue her passion of storytelling and filmmaking.
Cargo is her first feature film. Co-produced by Anurag Kashyap, and starring Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi, it premiered at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in 2019, and has now been selected for the prestigious SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival.
Cargo is set on a spaceship with Massey playing the demon Prahastha, who, with the help of a female astronaut (Tripathi), works for the Post Death Transition Services, who recycle dead people for rebirth. The film seeks inspiration from Indian mythological tales as well as folklore, even if it stylistically reminds one of Western sci-fi hits like Gravity and Interstellar.
Firstpost catches up with the young filmmaker, who talks about the challenges of making an indie sci-fi film, what attracted her to the genre, and why it is such a rarity in Hindi cinema. Below are some excerpts from the chat.
The core idea of Cargo is both innovative and ambitious. What is the origin of this concept, and what attracted you to this genre?
I’ve been working in the sci-fi space for seven years now. It’s been a long struggle. But I wanted a story that’s very rooted in Indian culture. I read a lot of stories from the Panchatantra while growing up. I used to like mythological stories, and even participated in story-writing competitions.
Those stories from mythology were about making sense of our existence. So Cargo attracted me because we always try to make sense of why we have come into this world. The beauty of life is in the fact that it is temporary, and it can disappear. Beauty lies in impermanence. That was the philosophical thread of the story.
While making the film, I wanted to give that sense of joy of wonder that I felt while reading those stories. I wanted to show demons going towards new-age ideas and discarding everything that is old and archaic. It is a sort of industrialisation that is happening, even in their world. I have tried to make a contrast between that world and our ordinary, everyday lives.
I genuinely like human stories but if there is an element of magic, I get drawn towards those narratives even more. I feel there is something more to this world than what we can see, and it is this that unites us. Somebody asked me if my film was Hindu because I was talking about rakshasas (demons), and I said 'no.' Rakshas don’t belong to a religion. In fact, I have tried to take our own philosophies, and weave them into stories of magic. I also drew inspiration from directors like Terry Gilliam. He takes these little quirks of human life, and exaggerates them to gigantic proportions.
How will it help Cargo that it got selected for the SXSW festival?
I am very happy that it got selected for this festival because it is a hardcore genre festival, and the crowd coming for it is very select. The film is also going to the London Sci-fi and Sydney Sci-fi Festivals. London Sci-fi hosts the Arthur C Clarke Award, which is the top literary award for science fiction. Just to meet these sci-fi writers and creators has a nice energy. It’s like finding your own peer group in a way. Sci-fi is not really made in India so for us to crack this festival and just be there is great. Thankfully, our film is also very Indian. It is rooted in Indian mythology. So it is like bringing your culture to a pool of sci-fi stories. I hope all this translates to a good release globally.
Why do you think sci-fi is not a big draw in India?
Traditionally, not many people have attempted sci-fi films. Whenever they tried to make one, they made superhero stories. There were writers like Ray Douglas Bradbury and Philip K Dick whose stories were made into Hollywood movies. But there, they have an immigrant culture. Their unit of family is two people, husband and wife but in India, the family concept is totally different. We have a close-knit family, and half the time, that becomes such a big plot point, something like my older brother should not feel bad. Considering our family structure, we are so connected with each other that you can’t become superheroes in isolation, and hope nobody will know. The whole world will find out immediately.
You can make sci-fi stories but you have to still make them personal for people. Here, we started by trying to make films that were borrowed from the West. We should explore different stories. There aren’t many examples of sci-fi films in India but something like Mr India is quite close. I was reading a folk story about a sadhu helping people in different ways, and then I learnt that story was being adapted by Disney, and I was like, those guys are adapting our stories, and we are not even trying to contemporise it like what we have attempted in Cargo.
What are the challenges for an independent filmmaker in India?
You need to have very strong willpower. It is a marathon. It’s not just getting a script, you shoot, and it’s over. There is a challenge at every stage: casting, locations, and getting the right people to work with... not just production partners but also team heads because every collaboration doubles your scope of impact, and makes the film better. We were lucky to have a very good team. For instance, our sound designer is a National Award winner. If you are trying something, you have to do (it) with technically sound people because science fiction in general is both pre- and post-production heavy. It’s almost like making a period film.
How did you convince the actors considering Cargo is so different from what the Indian audience has seen before?
Getting Shweta was easy because I have known her for a very long time. But I wanted someone with some gravitas for the male lead. Shweta was shooting with Vikrant for Mirzapur at the time. I was keen on Vikrant because he’s worked in television, movies, and even web series and such people bring in a lot of nuance, not just in their work but also in their working relationships. For Konkana (Sensharma), who has a cameo, I wrote a long backstory which convinced her to do the role.
Earlier, I had made Time Machine. It was a 40-minute sci-fi film. It was on various platforms like Mubi and Amazon (Prime Video India). That helped to convince the producers and actors that I can do it.
How did you find the backing to get it made?
I had a long working relationship with Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane. I had a film with Phantom, and we were close to making a sci-fi film but the production house had its own challenges, and it ultimately didn’t happen. However, they promised to help me as much as they could even when I chose to make the movie independently. So a lot of guidance came from them.
What went into creating the spaceship? It was pretty impressive.
We had a whole set of people working on that with our VFX and CGI teams. We did a lot of research and prep to find the right references. I referred to NASA, and we extensively referred to all the spaceship films, right from Gravity to some obscure films like Moon, an independent film which had a very interesting way of labeling every rule, which we tried to use. We didn’t want to be totally realistic but it had to be heightened reality. For your magical story to exist, the world cannot look the exact same. It had to be a little different. In fact, a lot of thought went into the design. Instead of making it jazzy, I wanted a retro sci-fi feel with buttons and knobs. It was like a clunky metallic living organism. I wanted to make it like a jellyfish mechanism. We wanted it to be life in itself.
What next for you?
I am currently working on ideas for a film and a series. I don’t have much access. I’m trying to be an insider in the industry but that hasn’t happened yet. I hope that changes soon. I hope one film leads to another, and the exposure helps. Now with digital streaming platforms, the Netflix and Amazon audience is exposed to a variety of narratives so people also know that if you are from India, the narrative will be different. There are very human and endearing stories even in the sci-fi genre.
I write every day. I recently read that Gulzar writes two pages every day. If he does it, why shouldn’t I? At times, when you’re struggling, it’s easy to have self-doubt. A lot of people also ask me why I make sci-fi films, and not, say a romantic movie. But I am very passionate about sci-fi. Maybe I’ll make a sci-fi romance. That would be fun.
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