An interview with Shailaja Padindala

The short film ‘Memories of a Machine’ was screened on 15th Oct, 2016 at the Seattle South Asian Film Festival. Written and directed by Shailaja Padindala, the film explores sexuality through a mind and body free of notions of morals and in turn, makes us think of the troubles of being a quirky, curious young girl in South India.

In the title ‘Memories of a Machine’, the word “machine” refers to both the camera and the young lady – a camera portrays images as they are and the lady narrates memories of her early sexual instincts as they were, without inhibiting filters.

Shailaja Padindala graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts from Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in 2009 and later pursued post-graduation in cinema at LV Prasad Film and TV Academy. During 2012-14 she worked as a television producer for Yenna Ingu Illai – a show about a common man in Puthiya Thalaimural, for a Tamizh television channel called Puthuyugam.

1) The short-film seems more like a leaked video than an actively directed film. And there’s a certain ease with which the message is put across to an audience. As the writer and the director, how did you manage to achieve these things?

– I worked for a news channel as a cameraperson for quite some time, running around capturing interviews of common people and their issues ranging from power cuts, water shortages and onion rates to molestation and murders. That’s when I realised that their stories were far more powerful than the ones replicated in mainstream movies. They were powerful simply because the narrative was real. And there was this comfort when they saw me as their friend and spoke from the heart but yet were aware of the camera being present and that made the character powerful to me.

The process of interviewing those people pushed me to unlearn the filmmaking that had stuck with me like grease since film school and now my work is largely influenced by guerrilla filmmaking.  We did rehearse for a bit for focus, sometimes pulling back for technical purposes and camera movement but the performance was 90% improvised in the moment, including the questionnaire’s tone and pauses. And that’s how we retained ‘reality’.

Also, this “leaked-video” style gave it a personal context – voyeurism being an innate aspect of the human mind – and it has helped me get an audience’s attention towards an alternate way of looking at early childhood experiences.

2) What made you write about this topic?

– When a child is touched in a sexual manner by an adult, it is called abuse or molestation and there are innumerable abused victims in the world dealing with such traumatic experiences. But then I thought of my grandma – she was 12 when she got married and 13 when she had her first child. Do we treat her as a victim of abuse? We do look at child marriage as an obstacle in the path to building a civilised society, but it is not regarded with the same intensity as child abuse.

This film was an attempt to explore human morals that change with time.

3) Why did you choose Kani Kusruthi to play the lead?

– I met Kani a year before I made Memories of a Machine. And she was a lot like me, there was a connect in the way she looked at this script and the nature of sexuality.

There were other actors willing to do this part because it was a “bold” character. But their perspective about the subject was objective whereas Kani believed in the content, knew the science of the context and the reasons behind the framing of the dialogues. And that’s how Memories of a Machine found Kani.

4) What was the reaction you got at each of the festivals where the film was screened?

–  The film has been selected for over 16 Indian film festivals. The Bangalore International Queer Film Festival in February, 2016 was the premiere and the film had great reviews. But in the film festivals that followed, the reception was not that good. Some in the audience were uncomfortable with an eight year old girl saying that being touched by an adult was pleasurable. At some festivals there was no discussion after the screening. Nobody spoke. Many tend to associate this with their own children and they get disturbed.

The reception the film got at the Seattle South Asian Film Festival was the one I had been waiting for. The response was overwhelming. They were awed by Kani’s performance and her demeanour and did not hesitate to ask questions about sexuality or display their personal opinions and angst and this gave me a chance to talk about my work. In fact, the discussions turned into personal knowledge-sharing processes.

5) People don’t usually talk about such experiences. What’s worse is that these conversations, even when coming from someone else, aren’t really encouraged. There’s a shame attached to it – I don’t know if society imposes this or if we’re all just too scared to experiment with society’s reactions. Did you ever have doubts about the message of your film? Were you, at any point, scared of how it will be perceived?

– Yes, I was worried that the film might be misunderstood as an idea promoting abuse when that was not the intention of the film.

I discussed my script with a dear friend, Anand Gandhi (The Director of Ship of Thesus). And he had a brilliant suggestion. He asked me to bring in an element or a dialogue in the script hinting that the maker is aware of the possibility of that misunderstanding. That’s when I decided to add a funny comment by the husband “don’t tell this to a paedophile!” And then, the entire context of the film and the questionnaire’s character just changed.

So, yes, a lot of friends and psychologists helped me weave the story carefully by just exploring the science of human sexuality without taking a stand on moralities.

I still have a set of questions, doubts about the different perceptions on moralities that the film could bring out, but as the maker of this film these are my challenges – to be able to live with these doubts and yet stand by my film on moral grounds.

6) What are you working on at the moment?

– I am an independent film maker and my next project is a Kannada feature film. I’m going entirely guerrilla for this one to keep myself away from unnecessary burdens that destroy the joy of storytelling. The first-look of the film will be out by the end of this year.

7) What is the film about?

– The film is an attempt at exploring sexuality among the middleclass. It’s a character-driven film.

I’m tired of trying to fit my projects under “commercial or art” category. Now I just want everyone, even my neighbour aunty to be able to sit through my film and actually have an opinion after, not just feel awed with popcorn in her mouth. I want to reach the single screen because that audience is me, that’s the class I came from and live amid. I’m trying to understand what might bridge the gap between middleclass morals and the realities attached to sexuality.

The film will have Kani playing the female protagonist. I gave out an auditioning call for the male protagonist last week. It’s quite a challenge to find the actor the script demands.

The director of photography of the film will be Karthik Muthukumar who shot the National Award winning Unto the Dusk and who also happens to be my buddy from school.

I’ve been open to working with anyone who is willing to lose their mind a little and that’s how a beautiful crew is emerging to bring this film alive. The crew is yet to grow bigger though. As of now we are a team of independent artists coming together for the love of art, to cut cost and sustain the joys of storytelling.

8) Since you mentioned “cost”, have you thought of crowd-funding?

– Crowd funding is one thing that saves independent filmmakers who have no savings. I’m trying to design a market within the crowdfunding module that can add extra perks that will sustain for a lifetime. Will put out more details about funding soon.

9) What are your views about the Kannada film industry?

–  The Kannada film industry has had the most turbulent of journeys in the recent past and currently, it’s in the most vulnerable state. A lot of change is happening in the content of films, in the making of a film and the market is drastically changing, giving way to a lot of independent cinema. This gives me hope that a even a ‘nobody’ like me, amid the gigantic star-driven industry, will also be able to tell stories that appeal to large numbers of people.

There is a massive need for change in films, its business and a massive need for carving an identity of our own amid other film industries.