Shonali Bose returns to TIFF for the third time, after ‘Amu’ (2005) and ‘Margarita with a Straw’ (2014), with her latest work ‘The Sky is Pink’, starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Farhan Akhtar, Zaira Wasim, and Rohit Saraf. It is based on a true story about a professionally successful couple, Aditi and her husband Niren. They are parents to a baby girl who suffers from a serious immune deficiency. Her rigorous medical interventions take the family to London and back to India, but her condition steadily worsens. The film, from the child’s perspective, takes an unexpected humorous turn as she looks at the twenty-five years her parents have shared with each other.

Shonali Bose talks to Uma da Cunha about cinema and her latest film.

How do you explain your interest and involvement in cinema – where did it all begin?

I became a filmmaker by complete chance. It was never my vocation or goal. I was driven by the quest for social justice all of my growing years. I looked at either law, journalism, or teaching. Alongside that fire that was burning within me, I loved being on stage. I did street plays on issues as well as traditional theatre. Everything changed when I went to America after I took my Bachelor’s degree in History.

America happened, because of a sudden tragedy. I had wanted to go on to JNU to do my PhD in History. But in my final year at Miranda House (my undergraduate college), my mother died due to hospital negligence in Mumbai. I felt so angry that I needed to leave the country. I tried to get a scholarship to study law but instead got it for Political Science, at Columbia University. Although I had a full seven year PhD scholarship, I quit after my Masters Degree because I found the Department conservative in their attitude toward India and the Third World. I then worked for a year, part time with the National Lawyers Guild and part time with a Cable Television channel. Around this time my aunt came to do a course in television to start her own TV show in India (she went on to found NDTV). This was a course at NYU and I acted in it. I saved money to take the same course in directing. I loved it enough to want to wield the camera. I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship to the UCLA Film School to do a five-year MFA in directing. Involved in activist work in Canada, I was torn about which path in life to take. I decided to quit if I didn’t like it. In the first month, after I made my first 2-minute film on 16mm, I knew I had found my calling. I have to feel passionate about something to take it on.

I loved/love having an idea about something that moves me and being able to get actors to evoke that same feeling in audiences. It was on the eve of my 30th birthday that I got this realization. Better late than never!

When I graduated, I was the mother of two. It took a few years before I could get it together to make my first film. I chose a really hard subject: the 1984 genocide against Sikhs, a subject that impacted me strongly as an undergrad in Delhi University. After a humongous struggle, I managed to both write the script and raise money to make it. Unbelievably, it had its world premiere at Berlin and won two National Awards and the FIPRESCI, and many more.

My filmmaking career had begun!

Looking back, I recall that at a screening of my very first film, ‘Amu’, I remarked to the Heads of my Department (both from Miranda and Columbia) that I was sad that I had left History, Political Science, and activism. And they both replied – who says you have!

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Would you agree that you choose themes (‘Amu’, ‘Margarita with a Straw’, ‘The Sky is Pink’) that link to great physical courage and fortitude against life-crippling misfortune, especially when it comes to women?

I realize now that in fact I’ve made a trilogy of mother-daughter films in which my female protagonists have faced very tough situations: genocide, disability, sexuality, death. I’d love to say I had a game plan and that this was my vision all along. The truth is that all three are just deeply personal films and I’ve directly or indirectly faced the issues my characters have faced. If you observe – the mother-daughter relationship and loss are at the core of all three films. And this is because of my own history both with my mother and then with my child. When I write from a personal place, I automatically make my characters female. Because I know that best and because I feel we see too few films with strong women protagonists who are three dimensional and sometimes grey.

Where did you hear about the young woman on whom ‘The Sky is Pink’ is based? Did you get a chance to meet her?

I never met Aisha Chaudhary. However, ‘The Sky is Pink’ is not based on Aisha so much as on her parents – Aditi and Niren Chaudhary. They are the protagonists. She is, of course, a huge part of the film but it’s definitely not based on her.

Aisha’s mother, Aditi, approached me to make a film about Aisha ten months after her death in 2015. She told me that Aisha had watched the trailer of ‘Margarita, with a Straw’ thirty times and hoped to live to see the film. She died a few weeks later. I myself had lost my teenage son and ended my marriage soon after, and was ready to explore these subjects as a writer. I drew a lot from my own emotional experiences… though the story was about them, I am a lot in it.

All three of your films have screened at TIFF, which is a high honour. Has it felt so to you and has this helped your film to go forward to an international audience?

Undoubtedly! I absolutely love TIFF and having a hat-trick here is thrilling. This festival is extremely precious for me (though I’m lucky enough to also have been in Berlin and Sundance) because all my films have played here and because Cameron has personally watched and chosen them all. He was standing in the wings during the Q and A of my first film ‘Amu’ at Berlin and invited it then. It’s amazing to experience the warmth and enthusiasm of the audiences here. Just being at TIFF guarantees an entry into many festivals in the world. ‘Margarita with a Straw’ travelled to over 100 and I never had to apply to a single one. It also helps with distribution in North America.

I mentioned earlier that ‘The Sky is Pink’ is connected with my son Ishan. He has blessed this film from day one. In fact it was on his birthday that I got a message from my Producer, Sid Roy Kapur, that Priyanka had loved the script and wanted to meet me. I knew immediately that this was a gift from my son. And now the world premiere of this film is to take place on his death day – September 13th. A beautiful gift.

How did this amalgam of the biggest names in the Indian film industry come to back your film: Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP and Siddharth Roy Kapur’s Roy Kapur Films, in association with Ivanhoe Pictures and Ms Chopra Jonas’ Purple Pebble Pictures?

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(clockwise from left: Ronnie Screwvala, Farhan Akhtar, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Zaira Wasim, Shonali Bose, Priyanka Chopra Jonas)

I bet my son Ishan and Aisha engineered this from wherever they are as spirits! How else could such a miracle occur! I got a call from Sid’s office around the end of 2018, saying he had loved ‘Margarita with a Straw’ and asked if I had any script I wanted to direct. I felt it was likely not their cup of tea, but the supervising producer Malvika insisted and I sent them my 10th draft. Around the same time, this draft was pitched by my creative partner, Nilesh Maniyar, at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, where it won the first prize and Nilesh was approached by European producers. I then met Sid who loved the script and asked me to give him six months to attach a star. Around the same time Kilian from Ivanhoe said he loved the script. Sid sent the script to Priyanka’s manager in December 2018, knowing she was my first choice. Her manager, Reshma, read the script and loved it and recommended it to Priyanka.

I got the call on my angel Ishan’s birthday from Sid telling me to fly to New York to meet PC. I knew right away that this was Ishan’s gift to me. She and I bonded instantaneously. I talked to her quite a bit about death and my experience of it and Ishan. It was beautiful to share this bond of death through the filming of something so personal to me.

Pri’s company came on board as soon as she said yes – as she wanted to back scripts like this not just as an actor but a producer. And Kilian was very keen that Ivanhoe get behind the film and worked that out with Ronnie and Sid. Ronnie loved the script too and came on as studio head.

So this is how it materialized! An unbelievable miracle and I consider myself the luckiest filmmaker alive to make such a deeply personal film, remaining honest and authentic, and yet have this phantasmagoria phalanx of big names behind it!

I can only hope and pray that audiences all over love it, as they did ‘Amu’ and ‘Margarita with a Straw’, — although both had tiny releases in comparison. But they travelled to many festivals from Trinidad to Tallinn and won hearts. This is a much, much bigger release and that’s scary too. I just hope I receive the same love. And I hope I can move people and touch their hearts and ease them a bit on the subject of death.

Who will be the talent attending Toronto on behalf of ‘The Sky is Pink’?

Priyanka Chopra, Farhan Akhtar and Rohit Saraf (who plays Ishaan) from my cast. Sid Roy Kapur, Ronnie Screwvala, John Penotti from my producers. Nilesh Maniyar, who has authored this film with me in every way possible — from writing the screenplay and Hindi dialogue (along with Juhi Chaturvedi), to locking the edit with me; shooting as Second Unit Director; conceptualizing all the many visual effects, and protecting my vision in every way as a hands-on creative EP. Others attending are Manas Mittal, Editor; Mikey McCleary, Original Score; Malvika Khatri, Supervising Producer (who started the journey by insisting I send her our script); RSVP Marketing team - Pashan, Zainab, Hassanain. And best of all, the real Chaudhary family: Niren, Aditi and Ishaan. Ishaan has also composed the end song of the film in a very moving tribute to his sister.