Shonali Bose, Filmmaker
I never thought I would be a filmmaker. I grew up in India and I came to the United States when I was 21. It's the first foreign country I'd ever come to. I had funding for a PHD at Columbia University and I wanted to be a teacher. But what I discovered at Columbia was that their approach to political science and Indian history was very, just sort of colonial in its attitude. I would say it was just really about third world development, and the developmental model and how they, you know, looked at the world. And so that made me really unhappy. And so I quit after my masters. And as an immigrant you have one year to work on your visa before you have to return.I'm very political person, I've always been through my teenage years, et cetera. So I'm drawn to those kinds of things. I was doing an internship with a radical organization called The National Lawyers Guild cause I was interested in social justice as well as for, sort of a cable company. Which was sort of news, but we got to do like, two minutes intros to their news. Suppose it's about racism or police violence or whatever - we got to shoot stuff, edit it, and put it on. And that, I loved that. I found that to visually put together my politics and put it together in a visual way that would impact people in those two minutes. I loved that. And so it interested me and I applied to NYU just for a six week course in film and video. I had been an actor and an activist, so I never ever thought I'd be on the other side of the camera. I'd been a theater actor in India for instance, I did street theater, so in India street theatre is huge, and we did it on political issues, like assault on women or genocide or whatever was happening but me would take it out into universities, into slums, into the riot affected areas, sometimes dangerous areas, and we would perform. And the power of street theater is that, you know, you, you really engage with humans who are right, there you interact and you adapt. So I love that. So for me, being on the other side of camera's too stilted, I would never want that. But being a director, I was interested into how I can still impact people in a bigger way than I can with my street theater. But it was sort of that same path that I loved how I can passionately impact people on causes I care about through street theater, what could I do with films? So I did the six week course, I loved it and I decided to apply to film school and I got a scholarship to the UCLA film school. Had I not, I would actually have gone back to India and carried on teaching, teaching history in a way to bring about social change. But then I joined the UCLA film school. And as soon as I made my very first short film, I realized this was my calling. And at that time I was 29 and I became pregnant with my first baby. And I was the first woman ever in film school to have a child. So there were fathers, but there'd never been a mother, who in production is having a baby and doing film school. And that itself was radical and difficult. It was difficult because there was no space or compassion for that necessarily from the administration. But it was also radical because as a woman, I'm a mother and that can't stop me from being in these male spheres at that time, you know, I'm talking 1992 of primarily male spheres of production.
"...at that time I was 29 and I became pregnant with my first baby. And I was the first woman ever in film school to have a child."
So it's like, to give you an example, so I had the baby and then I'm two weeks into having baby Ishan. I am back at film school because I was on a TAship so I couldn't not be back and take the luxury of the time off because I would lose the money, my funding. So I'm back and I'm doing something. And there were all male crew. It was a television shot. So we in the TV studio and I'm the director and the male TD male AD on either side. And my sister was in film school with me. Like I would just hand her the baby and she rushed in with the baby because he was hungry. And I just pulled out my breast and popped him on! And I said, okay, ready to go camera two, take camera two. And there was pin drop silence. And then I looked and everybody was just frozen because there was a breast and a baby suckling! Like that was just something that nobody had encountered. These are guys in their twenties, like this is not a sight which was so normal and natural for me. I'm like, I'm not going to stop directing right now because Ishan's hungry! Ishan can be with Mama and Mama can still work. And so that was the kind of thing which I brought into a very male dominated sphere. And that's kind of defined my journey as a filmmaker, activist and a mother.
So you know, being a woman, like those are the things and you sort of have to fight for those things and you have to just make your way that, "yes, this is very, very important and a huge part of my life that I'm a mother and I have to give so much to my children and they are part of it." And then you have to sort of make your space in the world that you can do both things and be supported to do both things. And that doesn't come without a battle. It definitely doesn't. But that's how I became a filmmaker and my films have always been as I started out: true to that objective, which is I want to bring about social change, I want to impact minds and change consciousness. And my very first feature film called Amu was based on a genocide in India that people were afraid to even talk about. So it's the first thing I just took on. By this time, my second child was born just as I was graduating film school. So that itself was enough, you know, having two babies, and then taking on this really difficult subject, which I was determined to do. And it took me four years. I found the money. I was the writer, producer, director. I made this film in India. It won the national award, the highest award in India, it opened in the Berlin Film Festival. And it's changed a lot of minds. People who weren't even aware of this occurring, say in the West, understood about it. People in India who didn't even know this happened in New Delhi, basically 10,000 people were killed in over three days of a certain religious community, the Sikh community. And it was blanketed. The government in power were the ones who had carried it out. So I made the film, you know, as secretly as I could, but on the last day of shoot, we were shooting the sequence that would give away what it is about and I got a death threat. But that didn't deter me at all. In fact, I was told like, "you better stop this or else." Sort of a violent threat. And I guarded my set. I got young people who I knew, young men, I was working with a lot of street theater actors from the slums. They were working class boys and they were part of my set and part of my work. And we armed ourselves with sticks. Because the police, the police are gonna protect the politicians, they're not going to protect me. So we armed ourselves on the set and we shot that film and made that last day happen. And then I came back to America and edited. So that's sort of fierceness to do something for social justice. Come what may, no matter how difficult the odds are, has kind of defined who I am as a filmmaker. So that was my early thirties and now, 20 years later, that's still what I'm doing and passionate about.
So what would you say Shonali Bose's greatest accomplishment is as a human?
Being a mother. Absolutely. Without a doubt. My journey as a mother is something which I hope many other mothers don't have to go through. But for me it's been a profound journey. So that same Ishan, who was born in film school and he's been so tied with all my films. He died when he was 16 in a traumatic accident right here in this very home you're shooting me in. And that journey for me as a mother to embrace his passing and understand it, and understand my space in the universe was just life changing, life changing. And I think my biggest accomplishment is that with his death, I was able to just understand what mortality means and why we are here on this earth. And he helped me with that. Like I got this enormous light showered on me from him and continue to get it and was really able to work through grief. I called it grief-work, I took it very seriously in this very living room, for nine months. Just the way I cradled him when he was in my womb, I cradled his passing, I cradled that pain.
And when I came out of that nine months, I transcended it and I didn't understand that it's actually a Buddhist thing that if you embrace pain you transcend it. Cause I went to a vipassana in Northern California just after those nine months and everything was beautiful and light and everybody else in meditation was howling because suddenly you're alone with your own thoughts and your pain. But I had just taken on the most difficult pain. And so at the end, that's what I said, that for nine months I cradled this pain and my teacher said, and that's why you transcended it. So Ishan has been the biggest teacher and it's been my biggest achievement as a person to embrace my child's passing. He gives me all the time. So for instance, four months after his death, on his birthday, January 20th, I was determined to celebrate his birthday. So that was extremely hard to celebrate his 17th birthday even though he wasn't there, but I was determined. And so my youngest son and I, in fact we went down to farmer's market here on third street because Ishan loved that. And we celebrated the day. And it was magical because he gave me that power on that morning to have a spirit of celebration. And at the end of that day I just picked up a pen and started writing my next feature film, which is called Margarita With a Straw. And I feel it just came through me, my writing. Like that has been my best work to date. And that was so connected with both his passing, because it also deals with death, as well as the light I was receiving to be able to write that. And so I would say my work is very now deeply connected with me as a mother and my experiences as a mother.
So for instance, shooting that film. So on the one I gave you the example of Amu where I'm battling politicians and that's the kind of battle as a person. Here on this other set Margarita With a Straw, I'm battling pain as a person. Cause soon after I was making that film. And that's a difficult subject. Again, it's about sexuality. It's about two disabled young women who fall in love. So it's gay and taking on gay rights as well as disabled people and their right to sexuality at a time in India, again when it was illegal to be gay. But putting the politics aside, like really dealing with the human emotion of losing a child and then you're in the workspace. This is where, again, femininity and being a woman came to the surface, I found. So by now I felt had really processed my grief and I was so okay with it, but sometimes just things come at you, which you don't expect. And so we were shooting a sequence in a hospital and the sense memory of the smells and that place suddenly triggered me. And I had just called action for a shot and a wail came out of my body, like a loud wail. And my close colleague next to me put her hand on my mouth cause she knew I would not want to interrupt the shot, and I didn't. But the entire crew, of course right there, you know, it's a hundred people crew, a big film and mostly men. And they witnessed that. And then the shot finished and then I continued to cry and I didn't walk away. I didn't run off to the bathroom. I didn't, I very publicly cried. And then I went out and hugged everybody on the crew and cast and explained to them what was going on and that this might happen again as we make this film, and that they need to be okay with it. And I'm okay with it. And it just opened up this amazing experience on the set of, even men much older than me, like men talking to me about when they lost somebody and they hadn't dealt with it. And certainly with the women actors in my film. So all the women actors in fact had to really draw on deep emotion. There's a lot of howling, there's a lot of pain. And for them it was so freeing. You see, it was not artificial anymore. There was this natural organic connection with your emotional pain. Secondly, me being the leader, I was the producer, I had written it. I'm the director, so I am the big shot here. Right? And it's a hundred people crew. Everyone is looking up to you. And so you would feel as a woman, or any person, you would feel that you don't want to expose your vulnerability. You would feel that if you're just a snotty mess, a puddle, in public, how are you going to have the authority? Like how are you going to be able to rise up and still get everybody's respect. And you know, at the end of the day you have to be on time, on budget, you need to call out the shots. You need to be in command. And you fear that, can you be in command if you're a sniffly mess? This is what you think - you can't be. But see, it wasn't planned, it just happened. And when I allowed myself to go with it and sit with it, that was revolutionary. I discovered number one, firstly that you don't need to be the Hitler shouting on the set to command respect. You command respect because of your creative voice. Your creative voice is what people are drawn to and that's the kind of people you want. Secondly, being so vulnerable that I was so in touch with my pain - oh my God, it just made all the channels flow. So my creativity was at its heightened best.
"You command respect because of your creative voice. Your creative voice is what people are drawn to and that's the kind of people you want."
Like rather than being remote from it, I was at my heightened best as a creator. So that was a wonderful learning for me. And I speak about this when I speak to audiences in my Q and A's when I've done for Margarita With a Straw, which also had phenomenal success. It opened at the Toronto Film Festival and has played in over 150 festivals. I've been in many countries with it. And it's amazing, in every country speaking about it, I would have so many people from audiences come up and hug me and start talking about things because they felt I gave them the permission to do that. And I explained that we need to learn to be comfortable to do that. We need to not have to compartmentalize ourselves as women. That this is your workspace, and to compete in this man's world, you need to be a certain kind of woman - you know, "you're powerful and your power means that you have to be a certain way." For me, my power means I can be soft and be powerful and heard. And I think that was the biggest takeaway for me from Margarita With a Straw.
Well, that's amazing because my next question was literally, what does being powerful mean to you? Which you just answered. So can you describe a specific moment when you felt powerful and you had a moment of just like, wow, I'm really something?
Yeah. I would not say the crying moment was necessarily when I felt like - that was a revelation later. I think from my first set, I would say that, I was so intimidated when I walked on, because India has such huge crews just because the way labor is in India. So even so for the camera, there'd be two people who are the camera minder. So therefore you have this massive group. And I had just done film school films with like six to eight trusted people who all know me and love me and I loved them. And we've made films like that. And suddenly I go onto this massive set and I was very, very intimidated. I was terrified. I also felt they all knew more than me because you know, they'd been on many major film sets and I hadn't, I'd been on a film school set. And it's that when I first felt my power, because see I was directing something that nobody knew as well as I do. Like it was my voice. And on that first day, like I feel when I finish that first day off, knowing what the shots are, knowing when the actor couldn't perform and knowing what to do when two people on the crew, like the DP and the costume designer are having some fight, like knowing what to do and handle it and, and just understanding how then everybody's just like, it's all on you. And it felt great. Like that's when I felt like, oh my God, I love this. Like I love this power and I'm not going to misuse it. I feel I want to be a leader in a certain way, but I realized that I love it. I love that I am the leader of the set and I am running the set and it is my vision that all these people are collaborating together to fulfill and I realized that that is powerful, to be able to have a vision and and be able to make something of that vision and have that impact people. And I realized I love that.
Absolutely. I love that. And going back to Margarita With a Straw, of course you discuss topics that were essentially untouched until now and you shed light on these crucial social conversations that need to be had. How do you hope that opening up this conversation through your art will shift the culture? What was your intention behind that?
Margarita With a Straw like Amu had, again, a huge, huge impact. Now I'm talking at this time, it's still illegal and the gay rights movement is strong, but it's still illegal at the time because just when we had started shooting, it was legal to be gay in India. And then the shift happened while we were making this film. And then there were so many people, like so many people wrote to me on Facebook who said, we took our families to watch this film and then came out to them. So just at a very personal level of touching those people's lives who were able to come out because of my film, because in the film there's a very traditional mother, and then the way her daughter comes out to her. So I had very many homophobic people who I know personally who watched the film. And the film was such that it made them comfortable with it. So basically it really impacted people at a personal level. But I think on an overall level, the audience discussions were such that people who are homophobic started talking about, you know, being open to what it means to be gay and more than that, I feel, where disability is concerned because the disabled are essentially looked at asexual beings. Like that was what was cutting edge, that they were gay, disabled people. Then you have, you were talking about the sexuality of the disabled. So I had a screening at Berkeley, so Berkeley is like the Eton of disability rights, like most cutting edge most out there. And in Berkeley, the way the film was welcomed because they were like in the world, there hasn't been such protagonists who are just authentic, disabled, characters who are gay. And it's not about the fact that they're in a wheelchair or they're blind or that they're gay because they were just such full, three dimensional characters that that's who they are. So that was wonderful that the discussions, again, that happened globally again with this film was amazing. Talking both about the disability and sexuality as well as gay rights.
"I love that I am the leader of the set and I am running the set and it is my vision that all these people are collaborating together to fulfill and I realized that that is powerful, to be able to have a vision and and be able to make something of that vision and have that impact people."
With your platform that you have now, both present and future, what is your overall goal? You talked about seeing audiences deeply impacted by your films. So looking forward, what kind of work do you hope to get involved with and how do you hope to keep leveraging your platform in this way?
So as success increases, of course you get all kinds of work, which are not necessarily what you personally, have a voice to. For instance, I just have been greenlit on an original Netflix series. So that's based on a book that I didn't write. It's based on characters that I would actually never write. And this is a challenge for me because they are, you know, the nouveau riche, they are sort of right wing. And it was a challenge for me to be able to take these people on as well and find the humanity in them and not write cliche characters, not stereotype them, which is for me extremely important. Because when you have programming that's going on globally, and we are just at the tip of that where South Asian voices and South Asian content is concerned, It's extremely important what representation is, what racial representation is, what culture representation is. So even though that is not as political as my other things, I'm welcoming this. So this is my next work right now that I'm in the middle of writing the season. To see how those nuances and those subtleties are still impactful. You know, as to how Indians are going to be portrayed even if they're not my kind of Indian or my kind of politics that I want to put out there. And that's a challenge for me. For me it just is automatic that, you know, how am I going to portray women? How am I going to shoot women? Or like my feature film, which also just got greenlit, major feature film now with a major A-list star. But it's a badass woman who's the protagonist. Like when I was told the story, if somebody may have written it, it was the guy as the protagonist. It's based on a true story, that is somebody else's story. For me, I automatically made it a female protagonists. So I think, I can't imagine - like I'm 52 years old right now - that that could ever change for me. That suddenly Hollywood or Bollywood can ever pressure me to not be true and have the integrity because no amount of money can buy me out if you tell me to do something anti-human. Anti-human is what I say, not just women. So that's, that's what I feel like I will continue to be a voice that wants a different world.
What gets you up in the morning? What gets you out of bed?
I am a very late riser. The entire time that I was a mother when my children were in school, I would say that I didn't have a day job because I'm a writer, director, I'm at home and I would say that, "um, yeah I'm going to try to get away at lunch break because I'm just not going to manage that 9:30 meeting in the morning with all teachers." I went through my children's school life, you know, I engineer my idea that please nothing before 11:00 AM, you know, please! And so yeah, I get up very slowly. It's very important for me, my first cup of tea. So that's what gets me out. I just make my tea and I take like 30 minutes to just sip it and start the day with spiritual feeling. Like I just sit with my tea and that present moment of just sitting with my tea and take my time with it. And that's what I love to start my day like that. And you know, I'm talking 9:00 AM starting, you know, this is not 6:00 AM the starting of the day. Nine, sometimes 10 and yeah, that's my ideal starting of the day. I am a very late riser. The entire time that I was a mother when my children were in school, I would say that I didn't have a day job because I'm a writer, director, I'm at home and I would say that, "um, yeah I'm going to try to get away at lunch break because I'm just not going to manage that 9:30 meeting in the morning with all teachers." I went through my children's school life, you know, I engineer my idea that please nothing before 11:00 AM, you know, please! And so yeah, I get up very slowly. It's very important for me, my first cup of tea. So that's what gets me out. I just make my tea and I take like 30 minutes to just sip it and start the day with spiritual feeling. Like I just sit with my tea and that present moment of just sitting with my tea and take my time with it. And that's what I love to start my day like that. And you know, I'm talking 9:00 AM starting, you know, this is not 6:00 AM the starting of the day. Nine, sometimes 10 and yeah, that's my ideal starting of the day.
And if you were to meet an aspiring filmmaker, or change maker - maybe they're 21, just graduated college - what's some advice that you would give them?
Not only if I were to meet, I am constantly speaking with young people because I'm called in to speak at classes and teach sometimes et cetera, is I always say that believe in yourself and be your own authentic self. Because there is such a pressure, and more so today than at any other time because social media is at its highest, to not be your authentic self. To try to project something, like how many tweets are you going to get? What's out there? Like that pressure to affirm yourself in a way that there's external affirmation of you, versus your own authentic voice, or even if you're creating your own authentic voice it's in the imagined way that what may be cool or what may be political. Like, okay, let me be in this movement or that. Who are you? Why are you here on this earth? Let that be your guiding force and not what you think the notion of career should be, or success should be, or what society should want. Really follow your own passion and your own voice. And that may mean that it's not, you know, recognized in society. Like you don't reach those career goals cause that's all nonsense. Like you have a path, you have been born here and you will die, and you are on this earth for a reason and you have to discover that and shut out all the other noise. And that's what I'll always say to anybody. Be true to your own self.