The Mind Behind Devi: Priyanka Banerjee

1. Devi is heart-churning. When did you develop the screenplay for the film? What was your inspiration?

I think when you hear about the same awful thing happening again and again, there is a point after which it gets normalised and we human beings manage to build an apathy towards it. I'd observed this in my own behaviour and even that of those around me when we read about the latest human rights violations or discussed rape cases. Beyond a point, people moved on and shrugged or shook their head at not being able to do anything about it, myself included. I wouldn't say there was a conscious moment, but this was always an underlying frustration for me. I've been a student of theatre since I was 17 so I've always been amidst playwriting. I'm drawn to some kind of surrealism or the absurd mixed in to a realistic situation. Jean Paul Sartre's play No Exit is one of those classics that every theatre kid knows and I think the idea of deceased people discussing their lives in a purgatory state was inspired from that. I remember thinking then that it might be an interesting idea to see what a group of women that have shared a similar fate like that would say to each other, if we kept them incredibly human and realistic. It may also be a good place to voice the apathy I had been experiencing. The writing emerged from this line of thinking. 

2. Character development is challenging in a short film. One of the strengths of Devi is the way each character holds her own. How did you develop that process? How did you know each character?

I would love to say that each character was a pure creation but they are all women I have seen around me! At home, at the salon, at the market, even at traffic signals. My theatre background really helped me play out the characters and actually act out their parts as I was writing. In that state of flow, when you are aware of each character's fleshed out background and their wants, the next dialogue or next emotion comes up quite instinctively. I prepared small essays detailing the life of each character before they reached the room and these were given to the cast to dwell on as well. Finally though, the characters you see on screen are majorly brought to life by our incredible cast and how they were able to subconsciously weave in the history of each character into their performance. Developing 9 characters is a challenge in a short film definitely, mainly due to the paucity of time; but I think it is also a fantastic opportunity to flesh out personalities that would normally be delegated to the background in a feature film.

3. I watched the movie a few times and each time I discovered a new facet and uncovered another layer to the story. The film makes you think. Which area of the film did you find the most challenging - script, visual treatment, character development, blocking, symbolism? 

Writing is very close to my heart and extremely instinctive so I don't think I'd be able to outline those challenges very well. However, there were many tangible challenges while directing on the floor. Visual treatment was tricky with this one because it is a surreal sort of environment which we had decided to treat very realistically. So, you want the audience to feel that something is off about the place, but also relate to everything on a humane level. We were working with a small, cramped room and blocking the 9 actors in a way that felt natural was challenging. If you notice, the entire film is a short dialogue. Not very much happens, it's just women communicating their stories from the same positions and a lot of the imagination, thinking, connecting of dots is left to the audience. Given this, we had to find a way to continually engage the audience with elements like the TV, the buzzing sound, little props and small movements. It's wonderful to hear audience members who unpeeled certain layers or analysed certain lines because that was exactly the intention! 

4. Having so much talent in one room can be challenging as well. How did you manage on set?

The cast of Devi was entirely a casting coup by our producers Ryan Stephen and Niranjan Iyengar! It was Ryan's idea to take the film to this scale as he felt the message needed to reach as many people as possible. Especially as a debut director, the experience of having this cast tell my story was magical. It needed a different level of preparation and was challenging, of course, but I enjoyed every minute. Kajol ma'am, Neha ma'am, the entire cast for that matter showed immense belief in the script which really gave me confidence. They were wonderful with their feedback, tips and how they constantly wanted to better the film. They were also amazingly supportive of each other and were constantly on set even during scenes that were not theirs. As intimidating as it can be, I think I was fortunate to be working with people that challenged me only for the creative betterment of the film. 
5. Short films are increasingly gaining momentum. As a filmmaker, what are the benefits of a short film? Why is it being used so much more now, in your opinion? 

Short films are such a unique genre of filmmaking. It allows you to tell a story or say something complete in itself in a short period of time (usually less than 45 mins). It's a unique challenge and I don't think it should get confused with a mini feature film. Features have their own beauty because they allow for long-drawn out explorations of plot and character. An audience can feel like they lived a lifetime watching a feature. Shorts, to me, are just about leaving someone with a feeling and a short dive into another world. I think that is a talent in itself and I'm glad people are so much more open to it now. I think short films have gained momentum now owing to the short attention spans of most people and how digitally connected we all are. Not every film is worth a theatrical visit now, people have become far more discerning of what deserves their time and money. In a time like this, shorts will open up avenues for so many new filmmakers and help everyone's tastes to collectively evolve because shorts are not motivated by star power, box office or huge investments of money, they are one of the few creative spaces that still remain unadulterated and can be a great resource to understand what audiences are connecting to. 

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