How Arati Kadav plans on shaping genre filmmaking within the confines of Hindi cinema
Kadav is quickly becoming that filmmaker who dabbles in genres, Hindi cinema rarely makes an effort to accommodate. Her voice has a distinct whimsicality to it.
Arati Kadav vividly remembers the first time she felt the far-reaching impact of films. The year was 2005, and the film was Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Kadav was hosting the 'screening' in her hostel room at IIT Kanpur, with five of her classmates. "I had seen the trailer, and I was really intrigued by what was Jim Carrey doing in a film like this? More than the science fiction, what I found magical was how Gondry was making one scene disappear into another, also how characters stumbling into a completely different set-up. One by one, I remember everyone was leaving the room, and I couldn't believe they weren't getting the film like I was. Till then, I was watching the usual star-driven stuff. It's only around then that I learned to categorise them as 'okay this is original storytelling, this one's borrowed'", says Kadav during a phone conversation. It's easy to see the similarities between the 2004 film and Kadav's feature film debut, Cargo, which released on Netflix last year. Having also released a short, 55 kms/sec, Kadav is quickly becoming that filmmaker who dabbles in genres, Hindi cinema rarely makes an effort to accommodate. Her voice has a distinct whimsicality to it, one that might soon be on the cusp of seeming repetitive unless she reinvents it, or subverts it in her own way. It's a challenge/hurdle of Kadav's own making, that comes with the territory of mangling genres like she does.
Growing up in Nagpur, Kadav's life wasn't very different from the millions of students preparing for the 'science stream' and a steady job. She remembers the experience of watching Mr India with family friends, and the samosas and popcorns during intervals inside theatres. "I used to love the usual Shah Rukh Khan fare of the late 90s like Badshah," she says about a time when she watched films only for respite from the daily grind of school & tuitions. She attributes her engineering degree in IIT Kanpur for laying the foundation of her drive to tackle what might be considered "unfilmable” in the Bollywood realm. "We would come back after a week of consecutive 'night-outs', and that gives you the courage to take challenges head-on. All the prep that it requires to get to a college is very result-oriented, and what engineering teaches you is how to free yourself from the result. I don't think I would have been able to tackle the challenges of making Sci-Fi films, and that too in my position where I'm so crazily short of funds. Thank God, I had the experience, where we would be faced with a new problem every day, and we would simply say ‘okay, we don't have a solution in sight, but let's put in a sincere effort to try and solve it’. I think that kind of gave me the courage," Kadav says.
Living up to the popular internet adage for an Indian student "If you're good at something, do it after engineering", even Kadav discovered her 'passion' for filmmaking during her stint as a software engineer at Microsoft in Seattle. "A lot of (Indian) people pick up hobbies during the weekends (while living in America) and it was during this time that I got a handycam around the Thanksgiving holiday. Video cameras were very cheap, but being a middle-class Indian that I am, I had also quickly done the USD into INR conversion. So, I knew I had to make good use of it, kyunki itna mehenga khareeda hai. I'd got the camcorder that would store directly into a hard-disk, which I would transfer to my laptop, and that was the time I began editing. I started cutting these one-minute, two-minute videos, and I think I really fell in love with filmmaking while editing. This was the first time I was juxtaposing two emotions, with music, and it was a high unlike anything else I had felt in my life. As an inherently shy person, I found this was a new way of expressing myself."
Kadav quickly understood that her amateur film projects needed a finishing school, which is when she decided to take a two-year sabbatical and join a film school in Mumbai. "Growing up in Nagpur, you're only taught science and maths. From my childhood I was really drawn towards all things creative — I used to sketch a lot, I used to write poetry. But all this was 'extra-curricular'. I was really enjoying learning about philosophies, there's a whole 'film education' class where you're supposed to decode the purpose of cinema. I made this short film, which happened to be a Sci-Fi, and I was so excited about it. I felt like this fantasy world has come to life with my film. It was a massive self-actualisation moment in my life." Attracted to the Sci-Fi genre, Kadav became an even more keen reader of Sci-Fi books around the time she graduated from film school. And even though she claims to have enjoyed the Phillip K Dicks of the world, she also says how they never *spoke* to her. Which is when she immersed herself into Eastern Sci-Fi, horror and mythology. "Ted Chiang is my favourite author, whose novel (Story Of Your Life) was made into Arrival (2016)," she adds.
Life had been (relatively) easy for Kadav until she turned filmmaker. She was certain that she would need to put in an 'X' amount of hard-work, which would (more or less) yield an outcome 'Y'. Maybe it was her optimistic outlook in solving problems, which contributed to taking a plunge in an industry that's too content remaking, repeating successful 'formula' films. Kadav's feature debut was in development in the erstwhile Phantom Films for almost three years, before she moved on. Cargo was her sixth screenplay, which she wrote during an intense two months, where she would be waking up at 4 am every morning. "We had a clear deadline, where the studio would only be available for a period. So, we had to get everything ready for that window, and it made us all overworked like crazy," says Kadav. She wasn't nervous so much while shooting the film, like she was before they began shoot. "I think till I saw the set, I used to worry a lot. What if the spaceship, doesn't look like a spaceship? We were battling extreme budget constraints, and my worry was that the whole thing looks fake, and what if everything looks like cardboard? Someone shared with me a space short film, and it looked atrocious. The film looked fake to the hilt, and the man was talking like a robot, probably to make it look "futuristic". I got really anxious," says Kadav, while also going on to add "I have a few regular collaborators, who are very critical and frank. And the way they were supportive through the process gave me the confidence that what we were on the right track. I had a solid team too."
Both Cargo and 55 kms/second seem to be drawn toward melancholy, something Kadav herself acknowledges too. "Maybe it's the loneliness of the struggle through those 5-6 years, you know? Now that the films are out, the struggle is still ongoing, but I'm less scared of what lies ahead," says Kadav. According to her, both producers and filmmakers need to meet halfway with respect to filmmakers like her, who have genre-specific ideas. "There are no processes in check, no exchange of ideas, no jamming of two different school of thoughts unless you meet someone accidentally. It's not a regular recruiting process here, where you send your resume to an HR. As a filmmaker, it's not really a simple process of where I can go knock on the doors of filmmakers and meet them, that's not how it works."
Apart from the severe financial constraints for a film, at her position, Arati Kadav also needs to be conservative while ideating. She confirms there was a 'crazy' idea recently, where she had to actively 'tame' herself, simply because of how else would she ever be able to realise the idea on set. It's a strange impediment in the life of a filmmaker, and how creatively Kadav chooses to overcome it in the near future, will determine her place in Hindi cinema.
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