In the short film Rubaru, Tisca Chopra, the actress, plays an actress playing a writer. It's a meta conceit that allows her to draw on her own experiences of the industry to navigate the harsh realities of showbiz her character must now face. There are snide comments about her ageing out of the spotlight and doubts about whether she can actually act. All the while, the minutes count down to the opening night of her new play.
The film is Chopra's directorial debut, but her third short, following Chutney (2016) and Chhuri (2017). She talks about how it was inspired by a Meryl Streep interview, how it doubles up as a commentary on Bollywood and what the ingredients of a good short film are:
You wrote, produced and starred in Chutney, Chhuri and now Rubaru, which you also directed. As someone who's worked in this space for a long time, what are the ingredients of a good short film? What makes one effective?
A short film has to have the heft of a strong central idea. Because you have such little time for exposition or to explore the character, you have to hit the ground running. You have to be able to convey who the person is without saying it. In Rubaru, we started off by putting Radha Malhotra onstage. Within 30 seconds, you know she's an actress and that she's not okay. More than knowing she's an actress, it was important for the audience to know that she's disturbed. What's often said about short stories is that they have to have a sting in their tail. Chutney, Chhuri and Rubaru are all different, but each have a sharp sting. Chutney has a sharp ending, Chhuri is a lightly comic take on infidelity and Rubaru is far more dark and nuanced.
Each scene in a short film has to work hard, because it needs to be able to do multiple things. You can't have filler scenes, because there's no space for them. When each scene conveys several ideas, then you have a complete short film.
A character in Rubaru advises you to write light things like comedies, love triangles and sex thrillers over something deep because the audience just wants to be entertained. How much of this should we read as a commentary on Bollywood films?
You must absolutely read it as a commentary. She's trying to be an authentic artist and he's telling her to write something halka phulka (lightweight). Every line in the film has some meaning and some purpose. Most people haven't caught on to this though. He tells her to write comedies and love triangles and sex thrillers because that's what Bollywood's doing, right? There's horror-sex, comic-sex, horror, what is going on? What happened to stories? Real, moving, powerful, stories? Everything can't be a bhelpuri, light and fluffy. Everything has its own texture and meaning and heft. The scene takes direct aim at that. Every second or third film is a comedy. I don't have anything against comedies, I love them, but they need to be something more than ridiculous. Last year, I was in a comedy called Good Newwz, which was genuinely funny and farcical and had a heart. Comedies need to be genuine, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Basu Chatterjee films. Films like Chupke Chupke (1975) have such nuanced writing.
Your character overhears someone saying that she'll only get character roles or work as a judge on a reality show. It's an arc assigned to actresses who've been in the industry for a certain number of years. Was the film your way of confronting these prejudices?
Totally. Rubaru came about because many years ago, I saw this Meryl Streep interview in which she said that film businesses worldwide consume actresses as only objects of titillation for the male gaze. That's the largest use of women. That's true not just of the film business, it extends to journalists, news anchors, everyone. If someone is better looking, they'll get better opportunities. And there's an age at which these opportunities dwindle. Singapore Airlines retires their air hostesses at 30 or 32 and their waistlines can't exceed 24 or 26. How ageist can you be? And it's so in-your-face. If I ever had to take a job, Singapore Airlines would be the last place I'd apply because this would just annoy the hell out of me. You're not interested in the quality of service that the person is providing, you just want eye candy.
So I found the interview again and I thought that if Meryl Streep is saying she fears being out of work because she's past a certain age, what chance do lesser mortals have? And she did go through a bleak phase in her career and was ruing the day when she'd be out of work completely. I thought about this and realized that I couldn't just shut up about it, I needed to turn my pain into power and make this meta film. Here is an actress coming face to face with herself, but it's also me facing what's going on, not just in my life, but the lives of other actresses. I was also thinking about the mental pressure of actors and the pressure that they have to perform. What if they lose their nerve?
What is the allure of short films? What do shorts give you that theatre or film don't?
Opportunity. My first production and writing gig was Chutney. I wrote, produced and acted in it. And it was a small investment in terms of time and money. I don't know if anyone other than Royal Stag would've given us that opportunity. Even they didn't know at the time that the film was going to have a cult following. That gave me the opportunity to experiment because the short format lets you take chances as you're not playing with anyone's money to a large extent. If a short does well, you can expand that idea into a feature. I didn't really know whether I'd enjoy directing. It's only when I did Rubaru that I realized it's something I want to keep doing. So a short film is like an affair and not a marriage — you get in there and see whether it works for you. I've done three shorts and now I'm ready for a feature.
What were your learnings as a first-time director on this short?
I understood that a director is a curator of talent. There's no department you can take lightly, or it will come and bite you in the ass. From the sets to the lighting to the spot boys, you have to make sure that everyone is the best you can afford at that time. You also have to get people excited about your idea. Don't just hire people because they're there and they're available. You have to get people who will buy your story and then you have to get them so excited about the story that they jump up and come to set. You're extracting a bit of their soul and wanting them to put that into the film so it becomes something special. There was so much warmth on that set.
In 2014, you wrote Acting Smart: Your Ticket To Showbiz, which was a guidebook to navigating the industry. If you had to update the book today, what advice would you add?
That book has taken the form of an app called Graphy. It won't guide you about acting because I don't know enough about acting to be able to guide people, but it's about navigating the business — the image, the publicity, the PR, the costumes, how to prepare for an audition, how to get a good writeup done for your introduction, what attitude to have, on-set behaviour, managing your money, navigating contracts. It's all there.