Filmmaker Megha Ramaswamy’s Bunny, a surrealistic short exploring childhood fantasies and fears, is her second consecutive film at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival
When Megha Ramaswamy was six, she was fascinated with Hanuman, a monkey worthy of worship and who could fly. The young girl decided she wanted to be “a Hanuman” and waited for her tail to grow. Every time she visited the temple to meet Hanuman she noticed that he wore the same red loin cloth. She couldn’t let her friend wear the same clothes day after day, so she would leave him a spare change at the temple.
When the temple priest complained to Ramaswamy’s parents, they had a chat with their daughter. They gently explained that as a male god, Hanuman didn’t wear young ladies’ underwear. So Ramaswamy resorted to cutting holes in her father’s undergarments to customise them to accomodate Hanuman’s tail. “I was asked not to damage his belongings and a spare set was kept aside for my ‘friend’. But at no point did my parents, both teachers, discourage the fantasy. In fact, the following Ram Leela, I dressed as Hanuman with a tail that my father and grandfather specially made for me,” she says.
Growing up, Ramaswamy’s imagination was her playground, a space where the lines that divide reality and fantasy blur and overlap. An only child, her toys were her soulmates and she looked upon her pet dog as a sibling. “What does a single child do? Stories were made up to keep me amused and, over years, I became a collector of tales,” she says.
She revisists childhood fantasies and fears in her latest film, Bunny, a nine-minute short that premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the competition category. This is Ramaswamy’s second consecutive run at the festival; last year, her debut film, Newborns, a short on acid-related violence against women, had opened at TIFF. Only two films old, she is constantly looking to challenge genres, formats and perceptions in Indian cinema, for both filmmakers and audiences alike.
A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Ramaswamy, 33, lived in Pune before moving to Mumbai where she worked with Shekhar Kapur on his long-delayed project, Paani, and Anurag Kashyap on Bombay Velvet when the two films were in their early stages. “At FTII, we were taught rules to writing and structuring and I would look down upon them. Today, looking back, I am glad I learned them because I know what rules I am breaking,” says Ramaswamy, who is at ease with not fitting in Bollywood. Her only mainstream film credit is as the screenwriter of Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan in 2011, which she refers to as her “desperate attempt to prove to myself that I could straddle both the worlds”.
But Ramaswamy is not dismissive of Hindi films at large. A self-proclaimed fan of Sai Paranjpye’s work, she feels the director never got her due as mainstream cinema has largely remained a backslapping boys’ club. “Paranjpye’s black-and-white 1976-film Sikandar, about a bunch of kids from a housing society who adopt a stray dog, inspired Bunny,” she says.
Made under her banner, Missfit Films, and produced by Shimit Amin (also her husband), who directed Chak De! India (2007) and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009), Bunny is technically Ramaswamy’s debut. “I had the story with me for a long time,” she says. When she’s not scripting films, Ramaswamy writes short stories with Amin for a project titled “Curious Stories for Curious Children”, which she hopes will be published soon. These include “dysfunctional stories” such as Shallow the Turtle, about a turtle who gets rejected by every school and goes on to be a philosopher, or Ed and Ed, based on two gay butterflies.
When a marble-swallowing little girl (played by Sysha Adnani) discovers that Bunny the toy is “dead”, she enlists the help of a boy (Faizan Mohammad) and his pet dog (Ramaswamy’s cocker spaniel, Chinna) to find out more. The two new friends set off on an adventure but as the film’s synopsis warns you, “all is never quite as it seems”. The 15-minute silent short unfolds through visuals and required Ramaswamy to develop a visual code that would serve as a way to communicate the film’s emotions to the audience.
The surrealistic world that her characters inhabit isn’t limited to Bunny alone. Its presence can also be sensed in Newborns, the docu-fiction that released last September. Ramaswamy prefers to call it a “hybrid film”, and the nine-minute short is a departure from the traditional documentary format, using poetry as the key narrative tool. The visuals only allude to real cases, such as the Preeti Rathi acid attack in Mumbai in May 2013 and feature acid violence survivors. Newborns also stems from Ramaswamy’s work for Stop Acid Attacks, a not-for-profit organisation.
Serving as a volunteer for nearly a year at Chaanv, the organisation’s Delhi-based “home” for acid violence survivors, Ramaswamy interacted and worked alongside the girls. “The words aren’t mine but their own. Their testimonials have been tweaked into verse,” she says.
Her conversations with the survivors at Chaanv turned out a lot more meditative and poetic than Ramaswamy had expected. “As free verse, it breaks down the message but doesn’t spell it out. The way in which Newborns is languid, it allows a viewer to take back more than just experiences of these women. And it allows them to rise above being victims; the girls here are able to stare back at those staring at them,” she says.
Originally shot as a pitch for funding the full-length documentary, Newborns has travelled to several international festivals. Produced by Anand Gandhi’s Recyclewala Films (now owned by Sohum Shah alone), the short has won Ramaswamy the prestigious Chicken & Egg Fund (which supports women non-fiction filmmakers whose work catalyses social change) in collaboration with Indian Documentary Foundation (IDF) and is to be made into a 90-minute documentary.
Even as her distribution agent, New Europe Film sales, negotiates with museums in Europe that want to screen Bunny as an installation, Ramaswamy rues that cinema in India is rarely treated as art. “I am into design and like the coming together of different things, like a burst of something that is supposed to dazzle you. Cinema, to me, is like that.”