In a world filled with cynicism, what are the odds that being ‘quirky’ can be accepted and embraced? However, once that’s done, a ‘rebel’ girl can call herself ‘Vivek’; a disciplined teenage boy can end up gallivanting around for the most part of a day, and the forecast of an elderly lady about snowfall in Mumbai may come true.
Writer-director Megha Ramaswamy, whose first feature What are the Odds? released on Netflix on May 20, believes that “we should embrace quirkiness and allow ourselves to have that space to imagine.” Ramaswamy, whose Instagram handle currently reads ‘motheroftheoddsquad’, delves into the dreamy and exclusive world of teenagers by following the adventures and experiences that Vivek (Yashaswini Dayama) and Ashwin (Karanvir Malhotra) have one fine day as they play hooky from their Hindi test.
Since the movie’s digital release, Ramaswamy has been overwhelmed by the response she has been receiving, especially, from the young audience. The movie’s aesthetics have spawned fan art featuring a girl in a yellow jacket, a boy in a pink t-shirt, and a talkative goldfish. “It was important that the audience connects with the film emotionally. The movie makes enquiries into the lives of children. They aren’t cardboard characters. It’s about a gentle acceptance of human beings. There is momentary questioning of characters but there are no villains,” the 37-year-old director says.
When Ramaswamy first thought of this film nearly a decade ago, she was clear about directing it herself. The film needed a feminine styling and softness. When the project took off, a crew mostly led by women worked on it. The making of the film, however, was going to take some time. Some thought the story was too cheerful. That apart, Ramaswamy needed someone, who understood the adolescent world, to write the dialogues. “The young voices needed to be represented authentically,” she says.
In 2007, Ramaswamy happened to meet Shreya Vaidya, who was then 15 years old, at a Christmas party. “We discovered that we both loved stand-up comedy. We both love Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld. We also love Larry David, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph,” recalls Ramaswamy, who has studied scriptwriting from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Some time later, the debutant director wrote the first draft of the script with Vaidya. They revisited the script and reworked it in 2017 cooped up in Poorna Jagannathan’s hotel room in New York. Vaidya was working in New York then and Ramaswamy was visiting the US to show her documentary The Last Music Store (2016) at a festival.
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The production of What are the Odds? gained momentum after Abhay Deol came on board as producer. “If anyone has understood the world of this movie, it’s Abhay. He understands how difficult it is to make a film like this. He also knows that it is important that we open doors to this kind of cinema,” says Ramaswamy. Before taking the plunge as a feature film director, Ramaswamy had already made three short films — Newborns (2014), Bunny (2015), and The Last Music Store — each one of them did festival rounds and picked up awards.
Music composer Sagar Desai, who is behind the score of What are the Odds? has been with the project from the start. “We met at a party. Both of us were sitting by a piano, playing it from both ends and singing. Sagar really gets me. He knew it was important that the background score captured the essence of a child’s world but songs in the soundtrack had to be proper rock-and-roll,” says the director about her movie which she says can be called a ‘musical’.
Shot in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate and neighbourhoods of Pune, where the writer-director grew up in, this became a sentimental film for her. “I got to revisit the places of my childhood. That’s why I could lens it through the innocence and colour of that period of my life. The movie opens doors for children to dream and romance which is very atypical,” says Ramaswamy, whose second feature film script Reshma Shera was selected as one of the official co-production projects of the Berlinale Co-Production Market in 2019. She is happy that a larger audience is watching the feature, unlike her shorts which were screened mainly at festivals.
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The movie bears a Wes Anderson-like whimsicality. Ramaswamy doesn’t shy away from admitting his influence. “He allows whimsical people to be themselves. Is it not wonderful that a girl in India is so influenced by his work that she wanted to express it in her first feature? If a film nerd watches this film, there would be a long quiz about homages. There would be flashes of John Hughes, Roy Andersson and Spike Jonze,” says the Mumbai-based director. Next, she is directing an international project, an adaptation of an acclaimed Indian novel steeped in magic realism. She is also collaborating with Geetu Mohandas to make an experimental movie set in Kerala.
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