Actors Ali Fazal and Richa Chadha have announced the launch of their production house Pushing Buttons Studios. The announcement was followed by details of their first film Girls Will Be Girls, a mother-daughter story set in a small Himalayan hill town, written and directed by Shuchi Talati. Shuchi and Richa have been long-time collaborators, having co-directed a documentary about adults living with autism and Down’s syndrome during their time in college.
Girls Will Be Girls has been selected for a number of prestigious script labs such as the Jerusalem International Film Lab, and more recently, it is the only Indian title at this year’s Berlinale Script Station, a lab that selects only 10 projects from around the world each year.
Over separate phone calls, Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal spoke to us about their hopes for Pushing Buttons Studios, the kinds of stories they’re looking to back, and why this was the right first project for them.
What made the two of you decide to start your production house?
Richa Chadha: We’d been talking about it for a while now, and started work on this last year when things slowed down because of the pandemic. But we didn’t want to announce it or talk about it until we had something to talk about, and with Shuchi’s script we felt like this is the right time.
Ali Fazal: Yeah, we were thinking about it for a while, but it was important for us to know why we needed to start a production house. These days everyone does that and we needed a thought behind it, to know what kind of movies we wanted to make. And we want to be a gateway for all kinds of artists, we are looking into musicians, directors, writers and so on. We want to turn it into a lab, basically. The idea is that you come to us, we work with you, and you can move on. A lot of the time I have seen people I know stifled and stuck in a specific production house and they call that loyalty. But that is not loyalty, the only loyalty that matters is to your craft, and in return your craft will be loyal to you.
Why did you feel Girls Will Be Girls was the right project to launch the company with?
Richa Chadha: Shuchi and I went to college together where we co-directed a documentary about adults with Down’s syndrome. We realised we make good collaborators and she is just fantastic to work. It’s also really special for me because when I was just starting out in 2008, I acted in a short film she made for her submission into AFI (American Film Institute). And with Girls Will Be Girls, we’ve been involved from the very inception stage, and when we felt that we were ready to go into pre-production and make the film, that’s when we thought we should form a company. We’re still in the process, we’ve only just announced it and it’ll go on the floors by 2022. I’m also very happy that our first film is women-led.
Ali Fazal: I think this one had a lot of heart in it. We were well aware of what Shuchi would bring to the table and the kind of filmmaker she is. Richa has spearheaded this one to begin with and then I read the script. I am usually quite critical of content, but I really thought this was a nice, sweet, piece of life story which a lot of generations will connect with and I’m really proud of it. We have also got a great team. It’s not just me and Richa, it’s also co-produced by Sanjay Gulati from Crawling Angel Films and Claire Chassagne of Dolce Vita Film, so we have all partnered up to take this film to where it deserves to go.
Where did the name ‘Pushing Buttons’ come from?
Ali Fazal: (laughs) I mean, it is what it is on so many levels. On some level we are just pushing people’s buttons but not just in terms of being edgy or anything like that. Artists are by nature disruptors and I think that the title really fit in many ways. At the same time that’s what buttons do, they bring fabric together, to essentially tie you up and put you out there.
I know it’s still very early days, but what’s your vision for the production house? Are there certain kinds of stories you’re looking to back?
Richa Chadha: Absolutely. For those of us in the industry, a lot of the time what happens is the kinds of films we watch as an audience, we can’t find those scripts here. And if we do find fantastic scripts here, the first preference always goes to some big star or star kid. That’s just how it happens and I want to be able to facilitate the kind of cinema we watch, which doesn’t always get made in our industry. There is a strange disconnect when you’re lip-syncing to a song and being objectified and at the same time at home you’re watching something feminist and totally different. So I just want to create a balance and that’s why we were so clear with our first project.
I want to be able to facilitate the kind of cinema we watch, which doesn’t always get made in our industry. There is a strange disconnect when you’re lip-syncing to a song and being objectified and at the same time at home you’re watching something feminist and totally different. So I just want to create a balance and that’s why we were so clear with our first project.
You’ve said Pushing Buttons Studios ‘aims to tell stories rooted in the Indian ethos for a global audience’. What does that mean?
Ali Fazal: I am always a believer of local stories and the more rooted and specific they are, the more global they are. I think the Hindi film industry is slowly getting there. I know that Tamil and Malayalam cinema are already doing that. These are stories that are geographically very specific. We may also make the so-called commercial films, who knows, but the definition of commercial will change and I think is already changing.
Girls Will Be Girls is one of the 10 projects chosen for the Berlinale Talents Script Station program this year. What do you hope a lab like that can do for a project like this?
Richa Chadha: First of all, writing is a very lonely process. These programmes allow you to brainstorm and find mentors and get feedback. It helps Shuchi in refining the script and making it that much better. That’s the creative side. The other side is that these programmes are a kind of talent scout for those within the festival space who will now be watching her. If the film turns out good, I’m hoping we’re able to submit to the actual Berlin Film Festival. And the other thing is travelling to international festivals helps the film find distribution in those territories. That’s how directors go global and that’s how the world knows a Chaitanya Tamhane or a Rohena Gera and that is what I want for Shuchi.
Are these projects you’ll intend to act in or does it depend on the project?
Richa Chadha: We haven’t done that yet. None of the films that we are looking at involve us as actors. I am just happy that we’re able to facilitate Girls Will Be Girls as producers, and I just want to get this off the ground and see how people respond to it. I’m just glad that finally we are able to tell the stories that we want to.
As actors who’ve been in the industry for more than 10 years, what according to you makes a good producer?
Richa Chadha: I have no experience in being a producer. I will find out soon enough. But I think one of the key things I want for both of us is that we are very democratic in our ideas and the people we have in our team. I want a respectful relationship between every department that we work with, whether it is the writer, director or grips people or the spot department. Because I’ve seen that kind of inherent classism in projects that I have been a part of. I want to approach it like I have seen projects being made in the West where there is respect for each professional. I think Ali and I are representatives of generation equality, and that’s why we are equal partners in everything going forward.
Ali Fazal: A good producer is someone who creates the perfect atmosphere for the director. Like the other day we were talking to Shuchi and she was asking if she has to be a part of all the press, because a lot has been happening since the announcement. Both me and Richa said ‘No, you just focus on your work’, because right now she needs that focus to be away from all the noise. And the other part is creating an environment for listening. Every person in the crew needs to listen, because we have stopped listening and just been stuck in formula. The thought process of ‘Chalta hai’ needs to stop.