True Love Story: In Conversation With Gitanjali Rao
“And the snow fell in France, and there were five or six Indian filmmakers and we all went very happily and played in the snow. After that, I was sick – water from every pore of my body, fever, and I never fall sick in India either! That was the first time I was homesick, just for the warmth.”
“At least it wasn’t Canada,” I reply. “In Canada everything freezes. Even your eyelashes.”
“Well that’s why when I came back home in Bombay – it was 35 degrees or something – I was just sleeping in the sun. It was just like thawing after you’ve been completely frozen.”
The playful musicality of her tone of voice as she recounts endless tales of her forays in frigid France, is the endearing quality of Gitanjali Rao as a human being that is echoed in equal measure in her works of art as a filmmaker. Poignant poetic pieces that often resonate with a strong emotional quality, and a stark innocence that belies the broader social commentaries of their storylines – effectively conveyed through her choice of animation as her medium of expression. “I find emotional connects to the film far more endearing than an intellectual comment,” she continues. “I think Tamil Nadu is like that – the South of India especially connects with films very emotionally.”
This is precisely where our interview takes place today – in the sultry Southern city of Chennai (which bizarrely enough resembles winter in Paris at the moment as someone decided to test the upper limits of the air conditioner in the screening room of The Park Chennai). Gitanjali is getting ready to screen her film True Love Story at IndiEarth XChange 2014, and her feelings about it are a potent elixir of excitement and nerves. “It’s a different audience, I’m very interested to see what they think of the film – and I’ll actually have time to talk to the audience after. It’ll also be nice to have other friends and filmmakers telling me what they think of the film. Okay, I’m nervous!” she laughs.
But this accomplished filmmaker has very little to be nervous about – True Love Story has already bagged a series of awards and accolades, from the Golden Conch Best Animation Film Award at MIFF 2014, to being selected for Critics Week at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in February 2014. As expected, the screening in Chennai is a huge success. “It was a full house screening, which for any filmmaker is great because you’re not the only one watching the film,” Gitanjali beams with a twinkle in her eye after the show. “My film has a tragic end, and the protagonist dies. And there were people who came up to me after the screening saying, ‘No, you’re a murderer! How could you kill him? He’s so nice!’ [laughs] and that’s actually the response I want from the film. It has an intellectual and social context, but it touches people on a very emotional level. What was very special about this screening is I had used music from the Laya Project, and here in the audience I saw people recognising it. The music has a very emotional connect also, so I was happy screening it here – it couldn’t happen anywhere else, not even anywhere else in Chennai – except with IndiEarth, and with the Laya Project.”
Nirupama: What inspired you to use music from Laya?
Gitanjali: The Laya Project – I’ve loved it so much, and never thought I’d meet the people behind it and actually use a part of the music in my film. Let’s face it, it’s legendary – and this was like a little dream come true. I’ve seen a live performance in Bombay, and actually last year when I was here at the XChange I was working on my film. I came here and asked Sonya and met Yotam and Patrick for the first time, and I just loved that piece, and I wanted it, I was dying for it. And they just said ‘yes you can use it no problem’ [laughs] and it just worked out so well, and it’s a new group of filmmakers I was introduced to – that was really nice.
Nirupama: Tell me about when you first started to create animations on 35mm – how that background has influenced your filmmaking approach and style?
Gitanjali: What’s good is one learns the classical rules of filmmaking if you’re doing it on 35mm – the process was far more painstaking, you couldn’t afford to make mistakes. The only way is to draw so well or make animation so well that once it went onto 35, you wouldn’t need to re-shoot. That was gruelling because you had to be really good before you got into production and start working – that discipline is still a huge part of me. I don’t consider the effort too much since I’ve come from 35mm to computers now, but I see the possibilities are huge with computers which was not the case with 35. I think I’ve got the best of both worlds – learning the classical art, and then actually getting to animate when the technology changed completely.
Nirupama: What have been your experiences of sharing the same creative space as other filmmakers, musicians, artists, over the past three days here at XChange?
Gitanjali: This time I actually got to watch a lot of films and listen to a lot of music – you know sometimes for years together I’m just stuck in one place making a film, so I don’t know what’s happening in music. So here, in three days, it gives you a sense of what’s really happening in the world with music – that’s so special – and the fact that film and music come together is unique in this festival. It’s been a complete surprise for me that a festival like this even happens, because it’s so much made for the artist, but there’s also business and networking happening. I’ve been to festivals in Bombay and the big festivals where the business and networking is stressful, and the films and creative part gets diminished – what I like about this, it’s not just films – it’s music, art, films – and since people live together for three days, there’s no stress of networking, you’ve left it organic. People will get together, meet, see each others’ work, and go back with a takeaway. In three days, it starts the nasha, the intoxication starts now – and for the next year I’m going to be following some new musicians which is so exciting!
Nirupama: Any exciting collaborations you’ve forged while here?
I feel here, I can actually meet an artist and say I love the music you’ve done, can you do music for me? I can do animation for you. So I think that’s where a lot of filmmakers are going to be able to complete their projects, after meeting in a space like this. It’s nice to be able to hear somebody’s music, like it, then go and meet the person – and in a matter of half an hour, you can actually create a tie. This doesn’t happen virtually – though people say you can do it virtually, it doesn’t happen – it’s that organic feel you need. Here, you get an idea of the personality, you wish to work with the person because you’ve had a glass of wine together, spoken, and said ‘ok we would like to work with each other’. And there’s no pretense – like most other festivals.
For me, one very important thing happened regarding my work – I met the director of Films Division, Virender Kundu at last year’s XChange during a panel discussion where we were discussing how short films can be monetised. We discussed how Films Division can help short filmmakers, and MIFF was also coming up – because of this whole gathering, a new arrangement was made in Films Division where you could have late entries for films. So some of us who had not finished our films on time could get them in. It seems like a small thing but it made a huge difference – a lot of us got our films in, and my film won the award there, (the festival happens only once in two years so it’s a big thing for animation filmmakers) – now that would not have happened if Mr. Kundu was not here at XChange, if I was not here, and if we had not had that panel discussion. So I had a huge takeaway – and this year, maybe something else will also instinctively trigger off. [smiles]