The trope of two female protagonists crossing paths, one steeped in tradition and the other in modernity, isn’t new. But first-time writer-producer Delhi-based Riya Mukherjee, a long-time radio professional, and Mumbai-based award-winning short film director Sandeep A Varma, in his first international project, team up to bring old wine in a new bottle.
The Disguise is the story of Rabia and Lena in London and how they negotiate Islamophobia at the personal level by turning things around, even for a day. The 18-minute short film, which picked up the Ritwik Ghatak award for the 3rd Best Short Fiction at the 2nd South Asian Short Film Festival in Kolkata in March, will be shown at the 14th Habitat Film Festival in Delhi. Varma talks about the film and his learnings. Excerpts:
In the case of your first, and only, feature film Manjunath (2014), you had said the story picked you.
Was that the case with The Disguise too?
It’s Riya’s story. She sent me the script and I found the premise to be relevant with what’s happening in the world. We looked at it to be far more universal than just Islam — the two Muslim women in London could be two people anywhere, in any city who are trying to hold on to their roots while getting integrated.
Why not set the film in India?
We didn’t want to limit it to India, which is also a very racist country. We wanted to show the fight between the native and the migrant, the Islamic conflict in a big city, with diverse global ethnicities — hence, London — without politicising it. I wanted to show that violence is not always blood and gore but one created in the head — the masks we wear, and the inherent conflict of the need to feel accepted — and how life is affected.
In August, the UK former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said burqa-clad women look like “letter boxes” and bank robbers. Is your film a response to that?
The film is not specifically targeted at the UK. Lena (Adriana Grigoriev), a Slovakian working in London, argued that these things don’t happen in London. While shooting, she had to wear the burqa and walk in a parking lot. A car entered, and the driver hurled abuses like “you fucking terrorist”, leaving her in tears. Jiske saath hota hai, woh hi bata sakta hai (the victims are the best witness).
Manjunath, a biopic about the murder of the IIM-Lucknow graduate by the oil mafia, tanked at the box office. Any learnings?
I have a 100 per cent track record of being a flop (laughs). Not enough people could watch it in theatres here. It’s shown on Zee Network channels and with subtitles in Tokyo. The Virgins (short) has got 15.6 million YouTube views, and Ashish Vidyarthi-starrer short Kahanibaaz got praised, too. This time I want to only make a feature with a well-known actor. It’s a complete promotion game. Sonchiriya (by Abhishek Chaubey) should have done well but wasn’t promoted well. That doesn’t take away anything from the director.
The Disguise will be screened at 6.30 pm on May 25 at Amaltas, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi