Shonali Bose on The Sky Is Pink making waves overseas: I know the film will work for a universal audience
'Having lived in the US for 30 years, I can tell you even the films that win Oscars find it difficult to get American audiences,' says Shonali Bose.
Shonali Bose has arrived into the big league with The Sky is Pink, her third feature as director, and first with top stars, in an emotional family drama.
Winning accolades at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and now screening at BFI London, Bose’s film has brought on the tears from many within the film industry, including Vidya Balan.
Her experience of adapting a deeply personal experience of loss when her son passed away to the true story of a Delhi-based couple dealing with similar pain is set to release amongst a cluster of big budget films in India, but for Bose, the sky is brightly lit up with hope for a success with discerning audiences. Here is a quick chat with the low-key filmmaker, who happens to be amongst India’s first original crossover talents.
The film opened to a very warm reception at TIFF this year, The date coincided with your son Ishaan’s death anniversary. Can you describe what this day meant to you?
The Sky is Pink premiered on my son Ishaan’s death day. Yes, it was very emotional for me but not in a sad way. It was emotional in a happy way because I knew that he was with me every step of the way. My second son Viv had taken a long journey from the United States to be with me too. I remember when we were stepping out on the red carpet, and I was with PC (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). It was packed, and I was actually a bit scared. Then I had to go onstage and invite everyone, and I recall standing before so many people. The Roy Thompson Theatre is set like an opera house on three levels, and was packed with 2,000 people! We told the audience here that we would actually be watching the film with them for the first time because we had just finished it, and sent it to TIFF on time.
While watching the film, PC and Farhan (Akhtar) were sitting next to me, sobbing so often. Farhan’s girlfriend Shibani was there, and she were crying too. Sidharth (Roy Kapur), my producer, told me that he has been to many screenings but he hasn’t actually heard people sobbing during one. As a filmmaker, I couldn’t be pulled into the emotions of the moment but I did love the fact that people were reacting to them during the film like I had planned. When I thought that this is a funny moment, people laughed, and if there was an emotional moment coming up where I anticipated an emotional reaction, I heard them crying and responding to it.
When end credits came up, a pink spotlight was put on us, and people below us on the other levels were standing up and clapping! People were clapping for 15 minutes, and Ronnie (Screwvala) suggested that maybe we should leave the theatre now otherwise people won’t stop. I didn’t feel tearful on that day. Instead, I felt such euphoria! My heart was overflowing with joy.
The Sky is Pink is more or less an Indian film but given the fact you are presenting it at TIFF, and now at the London Film Festival, are you hoping for a wider international release in theatres because of its universal story?
Both the story and my filmmaking style is universal. The fact that we were the only Indian film chosen for the Gala section at TIFF this year reflects that. On the day after the screening, when I was having dinner with my son, at least 10 white Canadian people interrupted me to say how much they loved the film. It’s not usual for Western people to interrupt and say something like that but they felt the need to do so. I definitely think it’s a crossover film at that level.
Now, the reality is that when you release in theatres, having lived in Los Angeles for 30 years, I can tell you that even the films that win Oscars find it difficult to get American audiences. People in America are not used to watching subtitled films. Numbers-wise, how much business it will do that is yet to be seen. If it were to be on Netflix, it would definitely be watched. All my films, including Margherita With A Straw, have released in the US, and Priyanka Chopra definitely draws in audiences there. But to be honest, that is not in my head for now. I know it will work for anyone, including those who are not of Indian origin.
I am just excited about my India release. Amu had just 3 prints and Margherita With A Straw had 284 prints but The Sky is Pink has 1,000 prints. So that’s a massive jump for me. I chose to do an Indian premier on 9 October because I want Bollywood to watch the film and for it to reach audiences here.
You are amongst the first filmmakers from India to have moved to LA and worked there. How do you assess the current shift in interest towards Indian content and Indian talent?
Definitely, there has been an improvement in the reception to Indian filmmakers in Los Angeles since I began filmmaking. They are looking at us to make content that will hold up internationally, primarily Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Paramount Pictures and Anonymous Content have chosen me to helm a show that will be out on Netflix. Because they (streaming companies) are interested in the Indian market now. It is an exciting time.
But to make feature films as an Indian is still not quite there. It’s still not quite colourblind. The way Mira (Nair) has been able to cross over is still restricted. Tomorrow, will they say, "Oh Wow! She can direct drama, and she has lived in North America so she should direct a mainstream drama'? We are still not quite able to crack that. Any filmmaker can direct a film anywhere because how you direct the actors or how you handle a film is the same. For me, if I can make a film in Hindi, I can definitely make a film in English too. Actually, that would be more comfortable for me. I think it would be interesting to see how colourblind it is. The next generation of Indian-Americans is born there, and has grown up there so there shouldn’t be a distinction but there is. Will they keep us giving just Indian things, and stuff rooted in India? Will that change start happening?
Priyanka, Farhan, and every other team member of this film has found it healing and deeply emotional. So when the young and talented Zaira Wasim announced her decision to quit acting, how did you respond to it?
I completely support her decision, and have told her that she must go to college and experience a normal life. She is just 18. She can always change her mind later. It doesn’t matter if she changed her mind or didn’t. She completed my film. I went to Jammu to complete a bunch of things that were left to do in post-production. She did everything that she needed to do way after she had announced her decision to quit acting. Everybody should get to decide what colour his or her sky is. We can’t decide for them. If she is a brilliant actor but doesn’t want to keep acting then we should respect that, as being happy in life is more important. Acting doesn’t necessarily mean a great life, and if she wants to experience something else, she should be allowed to do that. Sid, Priyanka, Farhan, all of us completely backed her decision on this. I reassured Zaira’s mother too: "My son, who my husband and I think is brilliant in so many ways, wants to be a waiter. At least your daughter has a good reason to quit acting." They are teenagers, they have a right to choose, and everyone should be happy in life.
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