Filmmaker Reema Sengupta on Counterfeit Kunkoo, India's sole entry at Sundance 2018

Prahlad Srihari

Feb,08 2018 18:12:38 IST

The 2018 Sundance Film Festival saw a record number of female filmmakers showcase their work at America's premier gathering for independent storytellers and film enthusiasts. Thirty-seven percent of the 122 films presented at this year's lineup were directed by women. Around 8,740 short films were submitted to the festival and the organisers whittled the number down to 69. But only one short film from India defied the long odds to make it to the iconic festival in Park City, Utah — Reema Sengupta’s Counterfeit Kunkoo, which premiered on 28 January. The 15-minute short was the first official Sundance selection from the world's largest film industry in 15 years. "I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable that more Indian shorts haven’t been to Sundance in the last 15 years, especially considering the volume of films that come out of our country," says the Mumbai-based Sengupta, elated yet daunted by the distinction.

Reema Sengupta. Image via CATNIP

Reema Sengupta. Image via CATNIP

People from the remotest corners of India make a beeline for Mumbai in hopes of fulfilling their urban middle-class dreams. You may find fruitful business opportunities, better jobs and decent wages but woe unto you in case you are hunting for affordable housing. And even God can't help you if you're a single woman looking for accommodation in Mumbai. Counterfeit Kunkoo tells the story of one such woman, who despite making for an ideal tenant, discovers singledom can be especially cruel and oppressive. And for Sengupta, writing the story was a cathartic experience as it was a deeply personal one. "Counterfeit Kunkoo was written a few years ago when after 24 years of marriage, suddenly one day my father told my mother that she needs to figure out her own accommodation by the end of the week. Here was a strong, financially independent woman scrambling to find a house to rent just because her husband wasn’t standing next to her acting as her character certificate," says Sengupta. "I didn’t know how to channelise the deep sense of anger and helplessness I was feeling so I chose to write a film about it." Sengupta wanted to lay bare this issue of housing discrimination and the social stigma that can unwittingly conspire against a separated woman.

The film also explores the pervasive nature of everyday sexism and misogyny. In a traditional patriarchal society like that of India, a woman is considered to be 'complete' only when she is married. "It is an intimate perspective on the ‘Ideal Indian Female’ in contemporary urban India, and how we still seem to live in a society that treats you having a husband as a prerequisite to respectability. We have tried to portray the story and the characters with as much honesty and realism as possible, in the hope that the audience will see more than just the primary messaging of the film; in the hope that no matter the scale, it will bring some tangible change," she says. Sengupta hopes the inherent universality of the film's themes and issues resonate with audiences worldwide, regardless of geographical or socio-economic differences.

A still from Counterfeit Kunkoo. Image via CATNIP

A still from Counterfeit Kunkoo. Image via CATNIP

"I feel arts have a responsibility towards politics and culture, and the socio-political fabric of our society has a responsibility towards arts," says Sengupta. Society and art have always had a symbiotic relationship. While art has the power to change society, for it to be appreciated, it must be relatable and relevant. And it is important not to censor art. This holds particularly true in wake of the Padmaavat row, where fringe groups accused Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film of being — as perhaps Shashi Tharoor would put it — "an exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies." Sengupta believes as artists, we must constantly strive to inspire independent thought and the spirit of questioning, and art must be given the environment to thrive with independence. "Films are interpretations of culture, and interpretations are inherently subjective," she says. "It is, however, the responsibility of artists to hold a mirror up to society."

Sengupta runs a niche video production house called CATNIP, which she says is essentially her "playground to experiment with short format video content." Her visual sensibilities bring to mind the works of some of the most gifted and visually entrancing storytellers in cinema like Michel Gondry, Wong Kar Wai, Yorgos Lanthimos, Charlie Kauffman, Alfonso Cuaron, Darren Aronofsky, Ruben Ostlund, Denis Villeneuve and Aki Kaurismaki — all of whom, she says, " have a certain sense of honesty about their films that shines through regardless of how different the films are from each other." She also cites Hansal Mehta (Shahid, CityLights, Aligarh) and Anand Gandhi (Ship of Theseus) as some of her influences. She loves experimenting with different media, drawing inspiration from still life photography and Indian renaissance paintings to even Boomerang gifs.

Counterfeit Kunkoo poster. Image via CATNIP

Counterfeit Kunkoo poster. Image via CATNIP

A post-Weinstein Sundance offered up a number of interesting films in which women were equally present in front of and behind the camera. It provided women filmmakers, like Sengupta, unprecedented opportunities to have their voices heard. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan took home the top honour and films like Sara Colangelo's The Kindergarten Teacher, Alexandria Bombach's On Her Shoulders and Jennifer Fox’s The Tale all made a strong impression on festival-goers. While Counterfeit Kunkoo lost out to Macedonian director Goran Stolevski's Would You Look at Her in the International Narrative Short Film category, Sengupta is just happy her film made it. "It feels unreal, exhilarating and sort of daunting at the same time. It was a lot of responsibility," but she goes back "with a generous amount of pride."

Updated Date: Feb 11, 2018 15:47 PM