Arati Kadav wants to tell magical stories. "If you've ever entered Disneyland and your eyes have widened – I want to give that experience to people," says the independent filmmaker. She's well on her way to achieving that with her first feature Cargo, an ambitious sci-fi film set in space, being selected at the prestigious SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival.
The film, which world premiered at the Jio MAMI Film Festival with Star last year, stars Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi. A deceptively fascinating examination of connection and isolation, it follows a male astronaut with the morbid job of helping the recently deceased pass on to what's next, until a female astronaut is sent to assist him.
Kadav spoke to me about why sci-fi hasn't traditionally been embraced by Hindi cinema and the challenges of making an indie film set in space.
Cargo has such an inventive and innovative premise. Where did this concept come from?
I've been working in the sci-fi space for half a decade now and before Cargo I'd written a few sci-fi screenplays, so I was very sure this was the space I wanted to be in. But I also wanted to make a story that's very rooted in India and see how I could weave in our mythology.
Before this, I was actually trying to tell a story about a bunch of superheroes coming together on a spaceship, but the budget was just blowing up so much that I decided to stick to the story of one guy in a spaceship. Then I thought about what profession to give him and then it all sort of fell into place. I loved the world-building and finding ways to connect our middle-class problems and lives to the story.
Being selected at SXSW must feel like the ultimate validation. What do you hope the festival can do for the film?
I've always been a huge fan of SXSW, so when I got the email I was so happy. Cargo is a genre film and it's nice to be appreciated by SXSW which is known to be one of the top genre film festivals. I'm also really excited to see the other narratives and films at the festival because I've been reading up on them and I'm blown away! I'm more excited to go there as an audience member and hopefully grow my story pool and get 1 or 2 brilliant ideas. Also, I hope it gives the film some traction so we get a good release.
When you were casting, were you ever worried about how actors would respond to it given it's so different to what Indian audiences have seen before?
What I really spoke to Shweta and Vikrant about was longing and departure. That's what I really wanted to convey with the film – that nobody ever truly leaves you. If you've met a person, he or she will always be there with you. And they're very intelligent actors so I really lucked out that they got what we were talking about and that this wasn't some spectacle sci-fi film, but more of an intimate drama.
Why do you feel sci-fi is something Hindi cinema has stayed away from?
All the big sci-fi films from Minority Report to Blade Runner are all from the same predominantly western school, which were all very successful so there was no reason to explore other sci-fi narratives. And now it's become such a big genre. But I think eastern sci-fi stories and fables reflect Indian society more and are more relatable to us.
I think there were a lot of false starts for sci-fi in India. They all started by trying to make films that were from the West. I think they should explore different stories. There aren't many examples of sci-fi in India but something like Mr India they got right because they made it with a lot of honesty. I think in India we don't experiment much. If one or two were to work, then everyone here would be making sci-fi films. I'm sure of that.
Is your dream to one day make the definitive large-scale Indian sci-fi film?
Yeah, that's my mission in life. People used to ask me why I only want to stick to sci-fi. But for me the mission in life is really to make magical stories. Every day I wake up and ask myself what magical story I can tell today.
The CGI to create the spaceship was very impressive. What went into getting that right?
I think getting VFX and CGI right is very iterative and there's a lot of patience required across the board. We were very clear that we would do it right rather than do it as fast as possible. We had a whole set of people working on that with our VFX and CGI teams. We did a lot of research and prep to find the right references.
There was a lot of design thought that went into everything, from the which font should be used in the spaceship to getting each and every screen and panel in the spaceship right. I was also very clear that I wanted a retro sci-fi feel with the buttons and knobs. Even for the spaceship, the design was very important. I wanted to make it like a jellyfish mechanism.
Given it's such an ambitious film, I imagine it was pretty difficult to find backing for it to get it made?
Yeah, it was. But it was a lot of people who came on board to support me from Shlok Sharma to Anurag Kashyap and Rahul Puri my co-producer because they've known me for so long and they had a certain trust.
Also sci-fi traditionally was a side genre and it was also very male-dominated. Of course, there are sensitive male writers who have written very intimate stories. For example, I'm a huge fan of Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang that became Arrival. So now I feel a new wave is coming in where people are realising that sci-fi isn't just a wave of big Hollywood studios and anyone can make a sci-fi film.
What's next for you?
I try and write every day and I'm currently working on a film and some series ideas. I'm also making a new short film which is a very surreal wacky mockumentary which I plan to shoot in another 20 days.