My short film ‘Soulmates’ questions patriarchy in society, says director Manya Gadhok – Times of India

Manya Ghadok, a talented New York based filmmaker, who is originally from Delhi has recently helmed her first short film ‘Soulmates’, which received recognition and awards from numerous international film festivals. Soulmates that features Shruti Bapna and Jatin Sarna is inspired by the horrific 2012 Delhi Gang Rape case.


How did the idea of making ‘Soulmates’ come to you at such a young age?

Ever since I was a little girl, I always saw my grandmother and mother heading the household chores throughout the day whereas my father spent his day at the office, earning money for the family. It was not just my house, the story was the same in all the houses – be it my friends, relatives or neighbours. Even if there was a working couple, it was the woman of the house, who was solely responsible for preparing meals, managing the house and taking care of each family member. The story doesn’t end here, there is so much more to it. Inculcated with such beliefs, I had somewhat believed that this is a natural norm and we are born to perform these predetermined roles. May it be to give up your home, your surname, your identity, or even be ready to sacrifice your own dreams for their wishes. This idea of giving up on one’s dreams made me uncomfortable and instead of blindly accepting practices of the past, I started to question them with “Why?”

Why do girls change their surnames after marriage? Why do they go to the husband’s house after marriage? Why do mothers leave jobs after giving birth? Why cannot fathers take paternity leave? Why is there a post ‘man’ or police ‘man’?

Suddenly a realization dawned upon me where the way of living that I had did not feel right, especially as a woman. The more I questioned, the more the reality around me felt daunting. It felt as if I was in a dilemma where I was equally responsible for promoting wrong doing by being a silent witness to it. That moment was a point where I did not want to be a carrier of such illogical practices, and hence, ‘Soulmates’ was born.

I’ve made it my mission and this fight against patriarchy has started with ‘Soulmates’, but a lot more is yet to come. Its an ever going battle that I will keep fighting for until we stop pressurising girls to get married at a certain age, push them to learn how to cook or pursue them to get a degree only to get a ‘nice husband’. I want a world where when women can walk safely at night in the clothes they feel comfortable in and not being judged through a moral lens. I want the world to understand that even if a woman is naked, no man has the right to rape her. I dream and yearn for the equality of women and ‘Soulmates’ is just one small step towards it.

How did Jatin Sarna and Shruti Bapna come on board? Were they your first choice? Elaborate on the casting process.

The casting process was not as smooth as I expected it to be. It was not until two days before the shoot that we had a finalized Jatin and Shruti. The reason might have been that no one wanted to play a role where they are portrayed as a young mother who has been raped. I believe the script was powerful and had strong imagery, with the honest but nerve shaking visuals, that might have led many to not accept the role at first. Also, it was not easy to find someone who believed in the same mission that I had. Nevertheless, it was Jatin who said yes to the project first and even encouraged me as a debutant filmmaker to fulfil my goals. Suddenly, my lost enthusiasm had grabbed its pace. Soon, Shruti, who strongly stood for women’s rights and equality confirmed her role as Anaisha too. With such renowned actors accepting the roles, I had moved from losing hope to being fully confident in my idea and my film in challenging patriarchy at its heart.

It would be unfair to not give credit to the casting director and executive associate producer of ‘Soulmates’, Kiara Kapoor. She believed in me and my script from day one! Even when my morale was down-and-out, it was Kiara who did not give up on me. She always pushed me to try more, and accordingly worked day and night to ensure that we got exactly what we wanted. Words may fall short to explain her contribution to my work and my growth as a filmmaker! This project has surely brought us a lot closer emotionally as well as professionally.

What challenges did you have to face while making the film?

Imagine being a first time filmmaker shooting at a location where one has no professional contacts or network while working on a project that had a deadline of two months that too during Christmas or New Year’s period! And you guessed it right, that was the situation for me. So it would not be an overestimate that the whole film in itself was a challenge to me.

I believe that in order to make a good film, you should have a team that does not just work with you but rather believes and cherishes the core idea of the film. As a writer and director, I was aware of some of the great works done by others in the industry. For instance, I am a great fan of the song ‘Lamha’ featured in the TVF series ‘Flames’. Even though I was in the early stages of selecting my team, it took no second thought for me to connect with Tushar Mallek, the music mix and master of the song. After sharing my insight and expectations about ‘Soulmates’, he was all in. Having a rich experience and a stable network in the film industry, he connected me with Arjun Kukreti, who has worked as a cinematographer in numerous renowned television series as well as commercials. Arjun was like a mentor to me, who helped me transfer from what I had in mind to that on reel.

Soon, Tushar, Arjun along with Kiara became like a core team of ‘Soulmates’. They utilized their professional connections and helped me in selection as well as finalization of the production team for the shoot. It would have not been possible to complete this project without their love and support. Despite being a debut filmmaker, they had faith in my skills and vision for the film – to challenge patriarchy. I believe it was the zeal to excel oneself creatively and trust that was there for one another that helped us to attain the success that ‘Soulmates’ enjoys today.

Being a woman filmmaker, what are the concepts you want to work on?

Being a woman, I believe my experiences as a woman are unique and often underrepresented or misrepresented by the popular cinema or film. This may be due to the fact that most of the film directors or cinematographers are predominantly male. Hence, this shown reality represents only the gaze of male viewer that keeps in mind the male character as directed by a male director or creator. For example, it is common for women to be represented as sexual objects and secondary characters.

Eventually, this leads to the women’s perspective being absent from this portrayal of reality. Being a female director and writer, I believe that my voice or real experiences are underrepresented and mostly misrepresented. To support my stance with numbers, in 2019 there were less than 10% female directors or cinematographers in the top 250 Hollywood Films.

Therefore, it is important for me to bring to everyone’s attention and command the need for ‘the female gaze’ – the perspective of a woman of social reality – that is largely belittled in popular cinema.

In one of your previous interviews, you did mention that every work you produce is a reflection of you.

As a filmmaker, I draw my inspiration from my lived experiences. Similarly, every work that I do is not just an idea that just happens in a day. In fact, that idea or process took years to be formulated into the work that I make. More importantly, with every project, I believe that I leave a part of me in the same – a part that I want my audience to not just see but experience.

On the other hand, speaking on a professional note, I think that the work that anyone does says a lot about the person who made it. In other words, every film by a respective filmmaker tells us a lot about the person and their personal qualities in itself. For me, I had a great attention to detail as I wanted this project to illuminate perfection in every scene possible. This did require a lot of retakes and edits but it was all worth it!

Do you intend to come and make films in India and what do you think of Bollywood?

I think learning has no one source of origin. I believe that being in a different country aids one to have a different or fresh perspective of things that one might not be able to accomplish if one is surrounded with like-minded people. I have learnt a lot in both New York as well as New Delhi. I would never choose one over the other; rather, in my ideal world, I would prefer to work six months here and the remaining six months in India. I want to pursue independent filmmaking directed towards giving voice to those who are often silenced by society.

Moreover, I do not want to ignore the fact that India is a part of me that no one can take away from me. My childhood, early socialization and familial values are my roots to my home country, India. In fact, I believe these are my personal treasures that make my personal life as well as my professional film more rich and authentic.

I want to represent human life as one and not bifurcate or rather categorize one another on the basis of countries or any such criteria. Also, I want to present a new dimension to Bollywood where something new is shown to our audience. This path has been opened and being worked upon by many like Zoya Akhtar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Luv Ranjan and many more. On the other hand, the work by Meryl Streep, Dan Levy and Priyanka Chopra as actors or writers, is a form of cinema that is different from the popular cinema, yet so important. It would be a dream to work with any of them, and together accomplish the common goals that we have.

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