First Gujarati short, Anita, to premiere at Venice Film Festival explores patriarchy beyond borders
Anita is the first ever Gujarati language film to play at the ongoing Venice Film Festival.
As unique as 2020 is for film festivals, with many either cancelling or moving online, it’s equally special for the three Indian films premiering at the 77th Venice Film Festival (from 2-12 September).
Among the elite selection (including Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple and Ivan Ayr’s Meel Patthar) is writer-director Sushma Khadepaun’s Gujarati language short film Anita, which is competing in the Orizzonti Short Films Competition section. This makes it the first ever Gujarati language film to play at the ongoing Venice Film Festival.
The 17-minute film stars Aditi Vasudev and Mitra Gadhvi as married couple, Anita and Vikram, who come to India from the USA to attend a family wedding. During the visit, Anita is forced to confront the myth of the American dream. The film explores themes of gender stereotyping and patriarchy.
Anita was Surat-born, New York-based Khadepaun’s MFA thesis film and is also the basis for a full-length feature titled Salt. Her earlier shorts include Foren and Rotten Egg.
Khadepaun said she was surprised by the Venice selection. “We were confused as to whether we should continue submitting to festivals this year. I felt we should hold back, but my producer, Ankur Singh, suggested we submit to Venice and to our surprise they accepted the film quite early in the process. We were thrilled to hear the news especially because Venice was going to be a physical festival.”
The story of Anita — and Salt — is very personal to the director. She has drawn on her own experiences of moving from India to America and also on observations and experiences of people she knows. “While the feature is still in the works, I wanted to explore the characters and tone of the film, that's how Anita came about,” she said.
Speaking on the American dream and Anita’s realisation of her limited freedom, Khadepaun said, “When you move away from everything that is comforting and familiar in the hope for a more liberated life and then discover that you've left the country but not the patriarchy, the disillusionment perhaps hits harder.”
Anita is striking for the number of themes and comments it packs into the short format, such as upturning the notion that an Indian woman who breakaways from small-town conventions might have more agency if she lives in the liberalised west. “That is exactly what I'm questioning through this film. Can we leave behind our conditioning by choosing to move away? Or does it follow us where we go?” said Khadepaun who found it challenging to cast a Gujarati language film with native speakers. She did succeed for the most part, with the exception of casting Vasudev as Anita.
“As you know, the Gujarati industry is rather young and for both Anita and Vikram's characters I was looking for actors who could not only speak the language but could also deliver an understated performance and be open to partial nudity on screen. That was a very tough ask, especially for a super low-budget student film.” An arduous casting process, especially given the budget and sexual intimacy required on screen and finding popular mainstream Gujarati actor Mitra Gadhvi. “He took time to ask questions and was keen on pushing his boundaries as an actor. As the Gujarati industry grows and there are more actors in the casting pool, this will perhaps become an easier process. As for Aditi, she stayed committed to the project for over a year. The rigid visual language of the film required an actor who could carry the weight of the film, which Aditi has done that with nuance and grace,” said Khadepaun of her lead cast.
Language offers authenticity, context and cultural specificity. It captures a world and its fabric. Hardly having any film references in Gujarati while growing up, Khadepaun said she found herself wondering, “What would my people sound like on screen?” She added, “I know it sounds trivial, but it is a very powerful experience to see and hear familiar people on screen and not a caricatured version with a Gujarati accent. Fortunately today audiences are becoming more and more open to subtitled stories in order to experience new worlds that they can still connect with deeply.”
The shoot near Valsad, Gujarat, came with its own set of tests and rewards. From cast and crew members getting stranded because of hurricane Vayu to shooting in house with its own mango orchard. But as a director, Khadepaun found shooting a six-minute long single take was a mix of both — challenge and reward. “That scene required such vulnerability from the actors,” she said.
Khadepaun hopes to find a streaming platform to screen Anita. But first, stepping on to the red carpet on 11 September at the Sala Giardino in the city of bridges.
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