In India, they would take away my passport for criticizing the system, says the Indian director Apoorva Satish
Apoorva Satish is a director of Indian origin and a graduate of FAMU International. She focuses on social and political issues and looks at the cultural traditions of her country with a critical eye. She graduated from FAMU in 2020. She is currently preparing a feature film called Change of Heart, which will tell the story of the changes in a father-daughter relationship and will be shot in India.
Kanya is the graduation film of director Apoorva Satish.
Director Apoorva Satish originally wanted to study film in Los Angeles but she accidentally discovered FAMU. What was moving from India to Prague like for her? What would she change about the Indian caste system? Why does the beginning of menstruation mean the end of freedom for women? And how was her film Kanya, which was shortlisted for the student Oscars, made?
Do you consider Kanya a Czech film?
It is a Czech film, although the subject is Indian. It depends on the production structure. And 80% of the film was shot in the Czech Republic, even though it doesn’t look like it.
How does a movie become a semi-finalist for the student Oscars?
It is mainly the credit of FAMU. In order for a film to be even considered for a nomination for an Academy Student Award, it must be shown at a minimum of three festivals that are recognized as “Oscar qualifying,” and you must be selected in the competition section there. For the first couple of months, we were rejected everywhere, but last fall, the film suddenly caught on. We were selected for the festival in Busan in South Korea, which is not a qualifier, but it is the biggest festival in Asia. That opened the door for us. Due to COVID, our world, European and Indian premieres took place in one day with hours in between, which attracted more attention to the film and suddenly other festivals started noticing it.
And then FAMU could submit the film to the Oscars.
FAMU submitted the film in the Narrative International category. Over 1,400 films from all over the world applied for this category as well. We made it to the selection of the final 15 films.
Director Apoorva Satish.
Did you visit some of these festivals with the film, or was it even possible due to COVID?
I didn’t visit. But it was still interesting. The organizers held an online meeting for us. At the festival in Los Angeles, I talked to big producers, for example, the vice president of Sony Pictures. They tried to compensate us for not being present there in person.
Since you didn’t visit festivals, do you have an idea of how the film was received in different countries? It was shown in Asia, in Europe… I ask because the theme of coming-of-age and the conflict of traditions and personal ambitions is, on the one hand, a very Indian theme, but at the same time, it is very universal.
When we started screening the film, it was “just” a coming-of-age and first-period film. But over time we realized that the story covers other aspects of contemporary life. In connection with sports and Simone Biles, the mental health of female athletes is addressed. And there was the case of the athlete Cimanouska, who refused to return to Belarus from Tokyo. These are issues reflected in our film, because it’s about how gender – being a woman – limits your freedom. It addresses first menstruation, about a girl who becomes a woman – but at the same time, it’s about a swimmer who cannot swim.
After the screenings, people wrote to me about how much they liked the film, how deeply it touched them — these were reactions from Turkey, from Iran… from countries where women have a very difficult life. And the movie also resonated with my friends who are trans.
How was the acceptance of the film in India?
Compared to the Czech Republic, the film received much less attention in India. Different films are gaining ground in India. My film does not agree with the current government. Films that are critical of the system do not make it to festivals and are not widely written about. No one dared to write about my film. This is quite a controversial comment, but we are in the Czech Republic, so I can say it.
But it was screened at an Indian festival.
Yes, at three festivals — Bengaluru, Dharamshala, and Art House Asia Film Festival.
If you were shooting Kanya in India, wouldn’t you be able to shoot it as you would like?
Probably not. My films mostly criticize the religious and political system in India. I always try to work with themes and ideas that have a political and social dimension.
What actually brought you to study in the Czech Republic?
I originally wanted to study in Los Angeles. But it was very expensive. The price for one year in L.A. is the same as for four years in Prague. I was very disappointed because it was my dream school. I went to see the university in New York and noticed that New York University has an exchange program with FAMU in Prague.
That was seven years ago, I had not heard of FAMU then, but I found out that Miloš Forman studied at FAMU, so it must have been a good school. In Los Angeles, I would probably be stuck in the competitive Hollywood system, but in Prague, as a filmmaker from India, I have my own space. I don’t disturb the balance of Czech cinema, and at the same time, I have the freedom to shoot films that have an international reach.
Do you remember your first feelings after arriving in Prague?
I was afraid. It was the first time I lived so far from home, from my family. The first weeks were interesting. My father is a very spiritual person. There is a temple near where my family lives, where many people from the Czech Republic come. I met a few in India and they helped me in Prague. They picked me up at the airport, helped me set up a bank account and other things. So the first people I met in the Czech Republic were very friendly to me. Even today, people are mostly nice to me. I found that as soon as I start speaking Czech, people are immediately more welcoming.
Do you speak Czech?
Just a little so far. But if I want to live here, I should also know the local language. Being able to communicate in Czech is a completely new experience for me. Even at the post office, which used to be a scary place for me, they are friendlier to me when I speak Czech.
How is life back home in India?
We belong to the upper caste. This is interesting because everywhere outside India people see me as a third-world country at first glance, but in India, we are upper class. However, it goes hand-in-hand with the fact that it is a very patriarchal society. There are some things you can do, but there are things you can’t do. I grew up in a very conservative environment.
Growing up is hard. When you get your period for the first time, the family organizes a ritual that is very embarrassing. You sit in the middle of the room, with lots of flowers around you, and the whole community is invited. My celebration was not that big, there were about a hundred people, but I realize that this is already a medium-sized wedding in Europe. Everyone came to celebrate my womanhood, but I had no idea what my body was going through. I had no information about what menstruation was or what emotional changes I would experience. I was alone in all of this, even though there were a hundred people celebrating that I was a woman.
Is the situation of women similar in lower castes?
It’s even worse. Women in a lower position have limitations based not only on being women but also on belonging to a lower caste. For example, a lower caste woman would not be able to come and sit here next to me on a chair. My family is not like that, but a lot of people I know wouldn’t hang out with lower caste people at all. The caste system is a big problem in India. Recently there was a case where a nine-year-old girl from a lower caste went to the crematorium for water, where one normally goes to get water. And she was raped by four upper caste men. Before her mother could come to her aid, she was burned and the girl died. They got away with it because they are from a higher caste. This is how the caste system works.
Can the position of women in India be described in general terms, or does it vary by state and caste of caste?
In every caste, women face some difficulties. I cannot be the voice of all lower caste people. I have no right to that. But I can talk about the difficulties and problems that affect me and I can spin about them in a way that is my own. That menstrual ceremony you see in the movie Kanya is also done in the lower caste. These ceremonies are held to let the family know to the community that they have a girl at home who is ready to marry and bear children.
My great-grandmother was eleven when she got married. My grandmother was born when she was twelve. My grandmother was eighteen when my mom was born. That age is gradually increasing. Mom was twenty-one when I was born. I’m twenty-nine and I’m not thinking about starting a family because my parents are progressive. But that only applies to my generation. Imagine being eleven and having a baby… It still happens in the lower caste.
I would like to make a longer film about the caste system and how it affects women. But it could be dangerous for me. When you speak out against the system in India, you or your family can get into trouble.
Into what trouble? Would you face jail time?
I could lose my passport – the freedom to travel. That’s also why I like the Czech Republic, where I have the freedom to make films like Kanya.
There is a line in the film where a mother says to her daughter: “Do you know how lucky you are to have been born a woman?” I sense a great irony in that.
I think that mother believes that. It is also shown in the scene where the girl asks her mother what she is going through. Her mother replies: Just sleep, it will pass. This is the attitude of women. Also in the film, the mother, when she is menstruating, tells her daughter that she was bitten by a dog. This is what my mom actually experienced, she had no idea her mom was on her period or what it meant. In India, when a woman is menstruating, she is not allowed to touch anything common for the first four days. She is not allowed in common rooms because she is considered unclean. My parents are progressive, so we didn’t follow this rule, but I know several families in the area who still do it today.
When my mother was young and my grandmother had her period, my mother had to cook for the whole family. She asked her grandmother why she couldn’t cook. Grandma always answered that she was bitten by a dog. So my mom was very afraid of dogs. It only dawned on her when she started to get her period.
It must be scary for young girls.
When you don’t know what’s happening to you, there’s no one there to calm you down, so you’re scared. A lot of girls think they are dying when they start menstruating. There is a great paradox in this. People may believe that the ability to bear children is sacred, but when you menstruate, you are impure. How does it go together?
Another paradox is that menstruation is taboo yet publicly celebrated.
Menstruation has a value to society in that a woman is physically ready to bear children. In many parts of India, girls have never seen menstrual pads or tampons. They don’t know it at all. They only have cotton cloths available. In some villages, even today, menstruating women and girls have to go to the menstrual hut and stay there even if it rains or there is a flood. When a family doesn’t oblige, the rest of the village doesn’t talk to them.
It also happens that girls do not know how to deal with their emotions during adolescence, they overreact, as is normal for teenagers. The family misjudges it, they know nothing about premenstrual syndrome and psychological changes during adolescence. So they decide to marry off the girl to calm her down. Then her children are born and that’s the end of her education. I can’t imagine being in that situation.
You are lucky to be able to study, travel and make films.
My parents raised me with the understanding that it is important to stand on your own two feet, not to be dependent on anyone, and with the belief that there is power in education. My father is a businessman and travels a lot. Mother does not travel, but she reads a lot and is well informed about the world. It is a great privilege for me to be able to do what I want. Many women in India are not so lucky.
In the film Kanya, you work with the symbol of water. Kanya is a swimmer, water plays a role in the ritual she undergoes. How did you come up with the idea of making water one of the main elements of the film?
I got my first period myself when I was learning to swim and my mother wouldn’t let me continue swimming. In India, children are not normally taught to swim at a young age, as you do in your country. You usually learn to drive a car before you learn to swim. When I thought about what I was going to shoot, I didn’t just want to tell the story of a feature film in fifteen minutes. I wanted to explore how to push the boundaries of a short film and I thought I could work with symbols. Water is a powerful symbol. Man is born from water. Kanya is a swimmer. Menstruation and the theme of reproductive health fit into this, and water is also a symbol of freedom.
Was shooting underwater technically challenging?
Well then! It was an intensive crash course in underwater filming. When you put the camera under water, everything works differently. It’s because of the water pressure. Everything has to adapt. I had to learn it all.
Did you figure that out as you went, or did you have experts and advisors?
On the fly. But the cameraman, who is also from India and also studied at FAMU, prepared well for it. Cameramen are often geeks, they love technology. We were also helped by a company that lent us equipment and provided people who knew how to work with it. But I learned most of it from YouTube tutorials (laughs).
Did it turn out as you imagined?
I prepared everything you see in the film in advance, we had each shot laid out in a storyboard. It wasn’t possible to shoot underwater and then figure out how to make the conclusion work. The cameraman was very clever, he knew exactly what I wanted. Even though I wasn’t underwater and due to a technical fault we didn’t even have a monitor, so I couldn’t see what was going on.
You actually directed blindly. Weren’t you nervous about how it would turn out?
I was very nervous. But it all turned out well. We seem to have succeeded when we made it to the semi-finalists for the student Oscar (laughs).
Your film is very visual. Colors, sounds play in it, you can almost smell the smells… You filmed in a Czech swimming pool and in Indian exteriors. What was it like for you to go to India with an international team and shoot a “Czech” film about India? Did you see India with different eyes than when you left?
When you live somewhere else for that long, your perspective changes a bit. You say my film is full of colour, but the funny thing is that wherever we pointed the camera in India, there were so many colors that it was too much. So we removed the colors and only three colors “play” in the film. The girl’s color is red, the water is blue, and the light is yellow. That is all. There are only these three colors in each shot. But as a result, it looks very colorful.
Indian cinema is a phenomenon. It is as big and diverse as all of India. It is not just famous Bollywood. What does Indian cinema mean to you?
Movies are an integral part of our culture. Movie stars become politicians and politicians also like to use movies for propaganda, not propaganda in the bad sense of the word. But when a party wants to draw attention to a certain topic they are working on, they look for a way to get it into a movie.
Going to a movie theater is a completely different experience in India. Actors are like gods to many people, so when they appear on the screen, the audience throws money, makes sacrifices. You can’t watch the movie properly because people are shouting all the time. Unfortunately COVID changed all that. But hopefully things will return to normal. My favorite filmmakers are not part of the mainstream. I like movies like Lunchbox.
Are there many women directors in India?
No, it’s more of a man thing. I could count popular female directors on the fingers of one hand, maybe two.
So when you said at home that you wanted to be a director, how did they look at you? Like you wanted to fly to Mars?
Yes. Dad wanted me to go into business like him. But business is not for me. I’m more creative. At the time, dad had reservations, he said it was an uncertain career. But now he loves my work and I am very happy that my family supports me. The film industry is gradually opening up to women. And that’s a good thing, because who else but women can rid movies of stereotypes associated with women? Women in film don’t just have to be housewives or subordinates to a male boss. They can be characters with distinct personalities and with flaws – they don’t just have to fulfill the wishes of their family and husband. Only women can bring this to a film.
Making-of photos from Prague.
Ilona Kleníková | 16. 8. 2021