An expat wife dreams of taking up a job and coaxes her husband to talk to her father about it. When the topic is broached during their visit home to attend a wedding, as expected, two questions come up. Would she have the time for cooking? Is the husband facing any kind of financial trouble? Anita, a Gujarati short film, written and directed by Sushma Khadepaun, is a restrained but resolute exploration of the titular central character’s attempt to go beyond the roles assigned to a woman by the society and the disillusionment that she experiences.
Anita has been selected for the short film section of the Venice International Film Festival that opens on September 2. In 2016, the New York-based Khadepaun started developing this idea as a feature-length script. She, later, decided to make a short film to explore the characters and the key relationship of Anita (played by Aditi Vasudev) and her husband, Vikram (Mitra Gadhvi). “The story is inspired from my personal experience of moving to the US. Like many people around the world, I grew up with the belief that a woman who moves to America lives an exciting, independent life. Anita is an exploration of this myth of the independent, expat wife and questions if it is truly possible to move away from societal conditioning that is toxic yet familiar,” says the writer-director, who has an MFA in screenwriting and direction from Columbia University.
The 17-minute film, which examines the traditional society’s rigid expectations from a woman without considering her desires, was initially set in the US. However, due to production and funding challenges, Khadepaun moved it to India. The change in location made a big impact on the script. “My script is deeply affected by casting and location choices. I had 14 drafts of the script before production began,” she says. Producer Ankur Singh, who had earlier collaborated with Khadepaun on her previous short Foren, stepped in when Anita’s setting changed to India.
Once the cast was finalised, they rehearsed over two weeks in Mumbai. This was followed by a four-day shoot in Tithal, Gujarat. “The most challenging yet rewarding process was working with Aditi and Mitra in planning an intimate scene that is a six-minute long single take. It was a great learning process for all of us because it involved choreography, blocking and tremendous vulnerability from both the actors,” says the writer-director. Kadepaun, who is a screenwriting advisor for Sundance Collab, has directed three more short films including Rotten Egg and Clay.
As Anita, who dreams of a career in real estate, Vasudev carries the film’s weight. “Aditi’s commitment to the role was everything a director could hope for. Firstly, she doesn’t speak Gujarati and I had cast her as the lead of a Gujarati film. She not only learnt the language for this film but also attended my family gatherings to observe nuances,” says Khadepaun.
Singh, who has worked on feature film Loev (2016), hopes that Anita will travel to more festivals. “It will be amazing to see what audiences around the world feel about this story from a small town in Gujarat. This film is a proof of concept for Sushma’s feature film, Salt, which is set in India and the US. We hope the exposure will help us to establish the co-production possibilities,” says the producer.