Awe-inspiring: Priyanka and Shonali tell us to paint our skies whatever colour we want!

Here at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was in conversation with co-producer and lead actor of The Sky is Pink, Priyanka Chopra Jonas - who is an absolutely fantastic actor. She has over 60 films to her credit, and of course, I’m overwhelmed with all of the work she’s done. Joining in on the conversation was ace director Shonali Bose who I absolutely fell in love with after Margarita With a Straw. She is a director of The Sky is Pink and I sat down to chat with both of them in September 2019.

Priyanka and Shonali, I have to tell you I was overwhelmed with emotions when I watched this film. I was in an emotional turmoil - from the beginning. I was laughing, crying, laughing, crying and by the end of it, I was just in a fit. It was an emotional fit. Dealing with death personally yourselves, Shonali with the death of your son and Priyanka with the death of your father, whom you were very close to - when you're doing these scenes and emulating these characters and when you're directing these characters on screen, is there an emotional turmoil you're going through and are you infusing your own experiences into these characters?

S: I’ll start by saying that for me, when I lost my mother, I was 21 and I could not deal with her death. I resisted it, and it was very painful and difficult. When I lost my son, I was 45 and when that happened, I thought “Oh My God. I can't go through the rest of my life now again with this”. And I did something which I call “grief work”. I sat with the pain and I embraced it. All I knew is that I have to do the opposite of what I did with my mom - it was the opposite of resistance. I had to embrace it, and in embracing it, I transcended it. So by the time the real people approached me to tell a story about them and their daughter, I was in a beautiful place with death and with the loss of my son. 

I keep getting asked if this film has been cathartic for me but actually it isn't. Because I think for an artist, something is cathartic if you don't deal with it in real life. So then you deal with your trauma through your work because you can't directly deal with it. So that wasn't the case for me. I'll give you an example. On the death day. I knew everyone was going to be emotional, including my crew. So I started my morning with all of my assistant directors and directing team holding their hands and doing a light meditation for them - and it really helped them. Even though they're the crew, they were emotional in shooting that day. My DP had lost his father, he had a small brief with me. And I was very conscious that my actors were too - on that day, they all broke down emotionally with me. But I didn't feel sad, I felt strong and light - almost supernaturally strong. It happens to me with death, I just go to a very high level spiritual place where I feel very strong and empowered. And I can bear anybody’s pain, I can take on their pain and give whatever I can from my own body, from my own strength to them. It was a beautiful process for me in that sense.

Photography Credit: Asis Sethi

P: For me, it was the opposite. I felt the film was extremely cathartic for me, because I didn't deal with my dad’s death. I went into work four days later. My way of dealing was not dealing with it. And that bit me in my bum really hard a couple of years ago where all of it hit me together. And ever since then, I've had a healthier approach in dealing with my dad’s death, because the void was just too much for me. My dad was my best friend, my biggest cheerleader. We were like twins. And he was so young. I couldn't understand it. But through this movie and playing a mother who has to lose their child, which is so the opposite of how nature intended it to be. I derived a lot from Shonali, from Aditi and from my mother who lost her companion.

And I just really derived the fact that loss is so universal because birth and death are the only two constants that we really know. But this movie was extremely cathartic. There were scenes where I needed to go back to my trailer, and that doesn't happen to me. By now, I can switch on and off with my character. In fact, I prefer it that way or else I get bored of the emotion that I am playing. But this was one of those films where it just stayed with me when I went back home. The heaviness of the heart stayed with me when I went to sleep, or when I woke up. Even though I knew I was acting and playing a character, but when I held that baby I realized what Aditi felt when she held Ayesha, who is no more and what it must've felt like when she saw Ayesha deteriorating in front of her eyes and how that must make a parent feel, how helpless that makes you feel. It really got me on many levels, as an actor, as a woman. But that’s what makes it so special, and that’s what makes this movie a piece of art. It’s artistic and as an artist, that’s always what I aim for when I choose my movies.

I want to talk to you about the unspoken conversations that Farhan’s character and your character seem to have throughout this film, especially in front of your children. One of the most touching scenes where Ayesha has the conversation with Farhan’s character. He goes in and talks about the new onset of this new illness and whether she can go through with this surgery to elongate her journey for a little bit longer and she provides her answer to him. She comes and you're on the table and she starts to try to draw you. And you look at Farhan, Farhan looks at you.  No words were exchanged, but it was this beautiful moment where I just bawled my eyes out. How did you create that sort of an emotional treatment without any conversation where so much is said? What was your inspiration and how did you emotionally make the conversation so palpable, that conversation, without saying anything?

S: I love doing things like that. And it's quite a talk-y film and I treasure moments of silence in film and this was one of those that I just felt is unspoken. And the interesting layer there is that the mother actually wanted the opposite. And even though the mother wanted the opposite, when the hard reality hits that she got her way, but getting her way means that okay this is it. Even though you really want that, it hits you that okay this is it, there's no turning back, this is what it's going to be and what can you say? And then your daughter is present there, it’s just got to be between two people who’ve loved each other from when they were 16 and just know each other inside out and have every communication possible through their eyes. And then she had to do a really tough thing as an actor, pull off that whole thing of speaking through her eyes and then I asked her to just have one tear fall down - which is such a technical thing. I didn't want Priyanka to cry, I just needed that one tear, and she was like I can give it to you. 

P: Actually I remember that. Remember me, Nilesh, you (Shonali), Farhan - all of us had conversations in that scene about what happens when Ayesha comes in, and how are we going to communicate. Will there be words? There was a moment when it was going to be “what did she say” and then he would respond. But I remember us collectively having this conversation and coming to the consensus that the words weren’t required. And those are my favourite scenes. The one thing I've learned through my years as an actor is I can communicate a lot through my eyes. I don't always need words. And I think cinema teaches you that. I've worked with incredible directors throughout my life who have taught me how to be able to control my face without doing too much but being able to express to you what I want to do. And this was a moment that required that. But also a technique of dropping one tear, it used to be my party trick at one point. But obviously, I grew up and stopped doing it at parties and used it at work instead (chuckles).

Photograph Credit: Asis Sethi

Obviously this is based on a true story. You chose a very unique lens and perspective that I wasn't expecting. And of course, there’s a risk you take as a director. From the outset, the audience knows what the conclusion will be. And yet you're able to weave a journey in which somebody is now so emotionally invested even though we know the conclusion. What inspired you to take the lens and the perspective that you did and be confident in that as a filmmaker? And Priyanka, from a producer’s perspective, what are some of the risks in that type of storytelling? Especially with the time-lapse, sometimes that can be very jarring, so what was the inspiration behind this approach collectively?

S: When I heard literally a regurgitation of their life, literally for two weeks, 10 hours a day, Aditi and Niren both telling me all the details, I had all of this material in a linear way from when they were 16 - which is how I guided them. So I asked them, how did it start? When did you fall in love? And then just take me through the whole thing. And so I had all this massive material and with the first draft, I was trying to figure out how should I do it? I felt that there needs to be a narrator because how will I jump time then because otherwise, it will be too dreary.

P: This is before I was attached to the project by the way.

S: Yeah. So when I first started writing I just instantly came up with the fact that it should be Ayesha. Ayesha should be telling the story about her parents and I called her “spirit Ayesha”. And I was really worried about how the parents would react. And when I shared the first draft with them, they loved it. They loved that idea. The first 10 drafts of my scripts were actually linear. And then I just felt like something was missing and I just decided I’m going to jumble it up. By then, 6 months had passed and I had left it. I was doing some other work. I came back to it with fresh eyes. I decided that I would jumble it up. I was sitting in my house in LA and I had scene cards, and I just jumbled them all up and colour-coded the time frames. And then I started creating it like a puzzle. I thought that this will make it more interesting. I didn’t want to do it non-linear as a gimmick. I felt that the key thing is that she's going to die and you should know that. And now it's about how does she choose to tell the love story of her parents. What is she going to throw out at you? Because she’s the storyteller. Why should she tell it in a linear way because life is not necessarily linear.

P: And memories are not linear either. You don't remember things in a linear order either. To me, I think, as you might know, I love “unconventional”. I revel in it. If it’s conventional, I don't want it. I'm just not interested. When you think about Hindi movies, and there's so many that I’ve done and I will continue to do. But storytelling always has to have a perspective. When you think your grandmother or your father or about whoever told you stories as a child, there has to be a little something about it. That’s why as children, you want to listen. So with the amount of entertainment that's coming at us in today’s day and age and the amount of choice we have, especially with streaming and digital coming in, what’s going to make a film stand out? It's not going to be the same things that we’ve been doing. The audience is over that, they're not interested in that. And even if they are interested in it, it won't be something different. I love evolution and love the fact that this movie, along with a few others that have come over the last decade, are an evolution of Indian cinema. It is Indian cinema being told differently yet the same. With the same joys, the same emotions, but at the same time in an extremely progressive way of telling it from a filmmaker’s lens. Hence me being really greedy and wanting to produce it as well because I had double faith in it. I believe in it, not just as an actor but also as a filmmaker. 

You two are such strong inspiring women. The two of you have taken on roles, where a lot of aspiring filmmakers look at you and are inspired by you. In fact, all three of my crew members here have made short films themselves. Do you have any words of advice for females who are trying to tell stories? And what they can do to bring their stories forward?

P: I definitely would say to every filmmaker out there, including the three of you, is that lean on someone that would create an opportunity for you. Don't be afraid of telling the story that you want to tell just because someone else says “I don't know if there's an audience for this”. I've heard that all my life. There's an audience for everything and for any kind of cinema. That is why we enjoy the fruits of freedom of expression. That's why we fought for the freedom of expression, to be able to say whatever we want. And cinema is such a beautiful and artistic way to be able to do that. So first of all, don't let anyone tell you that there isn't an audience for the story that you want to tell.

Second of all, as female filmmakers, find another female who champions you. When girls get together, there’s nothing that can stop them. There isn't! Like Shonali found me and I found her when it comes to this film. There are many other females that I am working with going forward where I want to be the shoulders they stand on. It gives me pride and purpose to be able to do that. And there are so many other girls out there. We have found an ability to support each other more than we did a decade ago. So enjoy that. Embrace that. It doesn't have to be a solitary journey, hold hands with someone else who gives you strength. That’s always something that I find a lot of strength in. 

S: I think that's beautifully said. I just want to add that I think that I would tell other female filmmakers (and I love that you are an all-women crew) that don't be afraid to be your full authentic honest selves. I think the pressure in a patriarchal society is that to succeed you somehow have to suppress your voice and that you have to take on this mainstream voice. The neutral voice is actually a male voice. Like when you see cinema, what is neutral is the male voice, the male perspective. You need to take forward the voice for all women. And for this, you need to be grounded and authentic and speak your truth at all times. That's what is most important in filmmaking.

P: One more thing. This is really important. It takes one woman to solidify the foundation for another woman. So the work that each one of you do, or any female filmmaker does, will set the foundation for the next female filmmaker that comes out. So make sure that you’re damn good at what you do. Because you're doing what you’re doing for all the other girls. Hopefully, our daughters and their daughters, will not even be called “female” filmmakers. They'll just be filmmakers. They won't be female athletes. They'll just be athletes. But our generation is going to have to work hard on that so that we can reach that point. So be really, really good and strive for excellence.

S: I’ll say one more thing as well. In this deeply patriarchal society, women, in particular, are boxed. Everything is about getting married, in India maybe hugely so but also in the West. Even if you're educated, you have to find a husband. As if your completion is only in finding a husband and marriage. And that is a huge social revolution that needs to take place that that is not what life is about. That doesn't mean you shouldn't get married. But it shouldn't be that that is transcripted to be your path and that's your definition of success. And to tie it to our film, I would like to say, paint your sky whatever colour you want to paint it. We painted our skies what colour we wanted to paint them and that’s what is important. The Sky is Pink and your sky needs to be whatever colour you want it to be.

A: Fantastic! What a great way to end the interview. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

S&P: Thank you so much for your eloquent questions. 


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Armin Sethi

Bollywood Film Fame Canada has been a source of original content consisting of real conversations, reviews, and news of everything film, music, and entertainment for 15 years.

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