Since her Visual Communications degree from Loyola College, Pushpa Ignatius has been surrounded by films – and film people. Her batch mates were Pushkar-Gayatri, Thiagarajan Kumararaja and Vishnuvardhan. She is married to the cinematographer, PS Vinod. She assisted Rajiv and Latha Menon, and went on to do her own ad films (Akshaya Homes, Mirinda, Chennai Silks). “But an ad filmmaker is never taken seriously,” she laughs. So she wanted to make a feature, “something to show that I am a real filmmaker. Pournami is my first short film. Actually, it’s my first film of any kind.”

Pushpa, who is 39, started writing a feature during what she calls the breaks in her life: “marriage, raising my two daughters.” She narrated it to a few actors, who showed interest, but were taking their time committing to it. Meanwhile, Pournami – which means full moon, and which runs 12 minutes, 18 seconds – happened. “Pournami is not connected to that feature film,” Pushpa says. “My executive producer, Basak Gaziler Prasad, and I were thinking about a smaller film, and I began fleshing out a story about two characters. It had flashbacks that took us through their respective stories. It even had an interval block, where the connection between the two characters is revealed. Then, Basak suggested making it a short film.”

Pushpa submitted Pournami in the Short Film Competition section, at Cannes, but it was not selected. But it got a screening slot at the Short Film Corner, which, as the Festival says, “will increase the chances of seeing your film selected by international festivals, as well as revealing your talent to potential partners and diffusers.” The story is about a sorrowful priest and a young woman he meets on a full-moon night, in the vicinity of a temple. Or as the Cannes catalogue has it: “The wishes and hopes of two characters – a young girl and a temple priest. They cross paths on the auspicious full moon night. Will the girl get what she hopes for and will the priest find redemption? These are the questions that base the core of the film.”

There’s a major element of coincidence in the story – but it’s balanced out by the “divine” aspect, with the full moon as a witness.

Yes, it’s almost like it’s the goddess’s way of resolving the situation. Pournami is a major event, when you let go of negatives and pray for positives. I guess I could have brought about the divine element even on the new moon, but the full moon has more magic and drama. It’s more cinematic.

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The two characters really come off like opposites, and not just because they are from different classes and castes. The priest is big-built, the girl is so slender…

Yes. The priests I’ve met aren’t pleasant-looking people. They are  scary… While casting, I rejected many frail-looking actors because they didn’t look intimidating enough.

A peripheral character calls the priest “kovakaarar,” an angry man…

I’ve always seen priests as strict, authoritarian figures who think they can’t do any wrong – and part of the story is how even such a man can be wrong. What if a person close to the divine gets into black magic? That’s how it started. I may not look it but I am spiritual, and I believe that doing good or bad comes back to you in the same form.

Even visually, the priest and the girl come off like two separate characters, telling their own stories…

That’s why we shot both of them in separate frames. It’s like each person comes from a different world, until the worlds collide. I discovered this world only after I came to Chennai. My father was in the Navy, and I did my schooling in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools in Vishakhapatnam and Mumbai. We are Tamilians, but I spoke more Hindi. It’s only in Loyola that I heard terms like “backward caste,” and so on. It was an important learning process.

The location is beautiful. You start the film with a shot of the temple pond, which will play a major part in the proceedings.

That fell into place during the edit. We wanted to show the reflection of the temple in the pond, and it became the opening image. We shot at the Kalikambal temple in Parry’s corner. A friend got us permission to shoot for a few hours while the temple was closed to the public.

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One of the things I liked most about your film is how casually (yet forcefully) it makes a point about gender, without delivering a “message” – when the girl says her father brought her up like a son.

This did not happen by chance. My father brought me (and my sister) up this way. He is from a remote village in Karaikkudi, but he gave us complete freedom. Whenever we visited the village, during the summer holidays, my sister and I would be in shorts and T-shirts. If someone questioned him about this, he’d say, “Who are you to ask?” So that found its way into the film.

People who make short films, art films – they get recognised at festivals and award functions, but remain strangers to the mainstream audience. Is that a concern?

For me, it isn’t about that. Success is good, but the more important thing is the process itself, doing something with full involvement.

The work is its own reward.

Absolutely. I am now working on a web series. I am enjoying the writing process. It gives me a high. The main reason I made the short film was not to break into the mainstream but to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could make a film. Also, it helps as a show reel.

It helps as a calling card, too.

Maybe not in Chennai, but yes, it does open up avenues. I can do my own thing, say what I want to say. Bollywood is a good place for women filmmakers. I love that a Farah Khan can do a full-blown commercial film like Main Hoon Na. I’d like that freedom. I don’t want to get stereotyped as a woman who makes “sensitive,” women-centric films.

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