In January 2019, Karishma Dev Dube was having a hard time putting together her short film Bittu. Two months before filming was due to begin, the 31-year-old director flew down from New York to Koti, Dehradun to conduct theatre workshops for the locals in the hopes of casting some of them. She soon found her lead in the bright, quick-witted nine-year-old Rani Kumari, but the rest of the villagers couldn’t understand whether she was shooting a Bollywood film, a play or a commercial. Her sister, Shreya, 34, hit upon a solution. “Shreya’s idea was to hang out with the community and organize some sort of activity so they could get to know me,” says Karishma. “I showed them a couple of films like Lion (2016), which had children as the protagonists, on my laptop. And then I showed them some ‘making-of’ videos so they could understand how this worked and what a camera was and why there would be a crew surrounding them.”
It worked. All of Rani’s cousins and uncles showed up to play revellers in a scene involving a wedding procession.
Bittu is now one of the 10 films on the Oscars’ Live Action Short Film shortlist, chosen from 174 qualifying entries. Through the wide and guileless eyes of its protagonist Bittu (Rani Kumari), it tells the tragic story of the 2013 accidental poisoning at a Bihar government school, in which 22 students died. Bittu’s eyes gleam with mischief at the beginning of the film, which opens with her performing Bhojpuri songs for the local men, with defiance when she argues with her best friend Chand (Renu Kumari) and won’t apologize, and with despair by the end, when Bittu realizes how truly alone she is.
“You had to fall in love with these girls to really feel for them by the end,” says Shreya, the film’s cinematographer, who arrived in Koti a few weeks after her sister. “I’m glad I got to spend time with them because the more time I spend with people, the more that helps me understand how to photograph them with love. Plus my Bharatanatyam training has taught me a sense of rhythm, how to move with the actors, how to give them their space.” She and Karishma created what they called a ‘bubble of trust’, working with minimal lighting and a sparse crew, trying to make the cameras as invisible as they could, and getting the children to focus on them instead.
Still, convincing a bunch of six-year-olds to play Bittu’s classmates six to eight hours a day over the film’s six-day shoot was an uphill struggle. “Renu was just six, she wasn’t in school at the time. There were times when she couldn’t handle it and she would just say: Main nahi karungi,” says Karishma. The sisters devised an unlikely method of positive reinforcement — Bhojpuri music. If the children gave Karishma a full hour of their undivided focus, she would reward them by playing songs on a set of speakers and letting them dance. “They would only participate if we played those songs because there’s no electricity in that basti otherwise,” she adds.
Most of the shoot took place at a local organic farm that the crew had repurposed into a government school. The kids’ parents would hang out on set for a while and then leave, so at the end of the day, the sisters would drop the children home, a 20-minute ride away. Delays, both expected and unexpected — a cast member would show up late because she had to milk her neighbour’s cow — ate into the short production time. The tight schedule meant that Shreya often had to pull double duties. “When I didn’t have time to rewatch something, I’d just ask, ‘Did we get it?’ And she’d say yes. If I walked away to deal with another kid, she would film a scene. I had to leave the set to prioritize the people and Shreya kept filming,” says Karishma.
Caught up in the hectic pace of production, the two barely found time to talk to each other on set. “Any arguments would not last more than three seconds. At the end of the day, we’d come back to the little mud in which we slept and only then would we look at the rushes and discuss them,” says Shreya. The method was effective only because they instinctively knew what the other needed on set, a bond developed over years of working together.
The earliest memory the sisters have of falling in love with the movies is of recreating scenes from Sridevi films at their childhood home in Delhi. Karishma says she rediscovered that enthusiasm several years later when she made the decision that changed her life — moving into Shreya’s apartment in Mumbai, which led to her realizing that she wanted to be a director. At the time, she was an undergraduate History student at St. Xavier’s College, while Shreya had returned from pursuing a photography course in Melbourne and was trying to find work as a cinematographer in Bollywood.
“In my naivete, I didn’t even know that there was a whole world behind the camera till I met the actors and directors Shreya was talking to. I remember being very embarrassed when I told her: Even I want to make films! She gave me the courage to apply to film school,” says Karishma, who graduated and then applied to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in 2013. Two years in, she began toying with the idea of making a short film about the Bihar poisoning, but found that it wasn’t quite coming together at the script stage. Instead, she wrote, directed and edited Devi, a short film about a closeted young lesbian who falls in love with her house help. Shreya, by then, had studied cinematography at The International Film School of Paris and produced two short films, Round Her Pure Forehead and Glass Bottom Boat (which she also wrote and directed). She immediately said yes to producing Devi too.
“We’re so close and so it was a given that when Karishma was doing her first film, I had to do everything in my power to make it happen. I don’t think I’d do anything important in my life without her being involved in it,” says Shreya. The family was just as supportive, with the sisters’ mother even making a cameo appearance in the short. The film travelled to several festivals, including the BFI London Film festival and Outfest LA where it won the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short.
Karishma then decided to revisit Bittu for her thesis, cracking the story once she decided to centre it around the friendship between two young girls, a tribute to the friendships she and Shreya had formed at a boarding school in Dehradun. At that point, Shreya had worked as the cinematographer on Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks (2019), and agreed to shoot Bittu too. An NYU grant from the Black Family Foundation and a Kickstarter campaign run through December 2018 gave them enough money to get through production.
Now, Karishma is in LA, where a publicity team is trying to get Bittu reviewed in major American trade outlets and talked about on podcasts, in print and online so that the film reaches as many Academy voters as possible ahead of the Oscar nominations, to be announced on March 15. “We’re trying to instigate a conversation and make people see that ‘Bollywood’ is not a genre and there are many more amazing films coming out of India,” she says. Back home, Indian Women Rising, a film collective founded by Guneet Monga, Tahira Kashyap and Ekta Kapoor, is helping promote the film and making plans for its release. Shreya is currently on set in Rajasthan, where her next project is being shot.
Over Zoom, the sisters’ affection for each other is apparent. Karishma praises Shreya’s “ability to speak her mind” and “the preparation that she brings to projects” while Shreya is effusive about Karishma’s “solid, strong writing skills” and “ability to fine-tune a film to a few incredible moments”. Editing Bittu was a year-and-a-half-long process for Karishma, who whittled it down to 17 minutes from 8 Terabytes of footage, with intermittent help from co-editor Colin Elliot. A lot of the film’s budget was spent on buying hard drives, she jokes.
The two reminisce about the film’s tough shooting conditions — the last shot of Bittu was the only take they had because the children were too tired to continue — but say their shared sense of humour kept them sane throughout. “The biggest strength of working with your sister is that you can always trust her to tell you the truth. If something wasn’t working, I could see it on her face, even if she didn’t say it out loud,” says Karishma. “Bittu was the first film we worked on in such a closely collaborative way, but she’s been my closest collaborator my whole life.”