Filmmaker Payal Sethi’s 27-minute-long film Leeches is a thought-provoking tale that will not just leave one bitter but also raise several questions about the still prevalent concept of one-day brides and temporary marriages in Hyderabad. The young director, producer, distributor and writer who directed her first short film Grant St. Shaving Co. in 2010 chats with Pandolin about the making of Leeches, her journey into films and future projects.

Payal Sethi

Payal Sethi

Tell me more about the title ‘Leeches’, which comes across as a metaphor. 

I would have liked to have had a different title but ‘Leeches’ was intriguing to everyone. The first impression that most people have is very different but when they watch the film, they are amazed to see that the film actually has leeches. The people who propagate the system of selling brides and one-day brides – the qazis, madams, pimps and agents – are all basically leeching off poverty, taking advantage of poor people in their own community. They are doing injustice to their own people, which is very sad and troubling. So ‘Leeches’ seemed like a natural title.

It must have been really disturbing for you to personally know these people and to encounter real life examples.

I was completely sucked into the research of the film and spent around six to eight months on it. I started visiting Shaheen, which is an NGO in Hyderabad to research the film. Jameela Nishant who is the founder of the NGO is an amazing person. She gave me the strength to make this film. Shaheen is completely run by women and needs a lot of help with funding.

There were moments when I felt helpless in many situations. There was a time when I had to be reminded that I was just making a film and not doing social work. Spending time in the slums and watching the situation of these people would really upset me. At the end of the day, I would have all these feelings of frustration, anger, and thoughts about why we were allowing people to live like this.

Crowdfunding gives you motivation, especially in the case of independent cinema, which is a lonely disheartening journey when you don’t have the machinery of Bollywood behind you

Did you decide to make Leeches after you got to know about the work done by Shaheen?

I wrote this film with my co-writer from our imagination. I had already written the script but had many questions about why people are doing what they are doing. Although we didn’t change the script at all, after I went to Shaheen and did my research, it helped me understand the characters, situations, practice, people and system much better. And then I became confident that I was not misrepresenting anybody. I’ve done my bit to try and understand things properly. With a film like this, there will be so much curiosity amongst people to know about the entire problem. And I’m capable of talking about that in a very knowledgeable way because I have taken that trouble.

What was it about Sayani Gupta that made her apt for the role?

Initially, I wanted to cast real people. But then you cannot get a Muslim girl from the basis to act for you, it just can’t happen. I spent a great deal of time in Hyderabad and when I was auditioning the girls, most of them were Hindus. When I was in Mumbai, I started auditioning professional actors because I realized that I would not find can’t find the protagonist amongst the local girls so easily. When Sayani walked in for the audition, she walked inside dressed in a salwar kameez with a dupatta tied around her head and I just froze. I saw my character come to life in front of my eyes. She was incredible in the audition. I did meet other people, but I was completely mesmerised by her audition. She is an extremely intelligent actor and a great human being. I would love to work with her again.


Actor Sayani Gupta in Leeches

Sayani Gupta in Leeches

You raised money for the film through Wishberry. Though your target was six lakhs, you managed over nine lakhs, which is quite amazing. What do you think lead to this?

I had to make a video for the crowdfunding campaign where I spoke from my heart. And I think that a lot of people felt that. Also, there were some people who came on board after the crowdfunding campaign ended. They told us that they would give us more funds and asked us what we would do with that money. That is what helped us make the film bigger. Most importantly, we honored our commitments to making the film without compromising on quality.


What are the pros and cons of crowdfunding for your film?

The pros are that you are building an audience from an early stage – even before you have shot the film, which is a huge advantage and a great marketing buzz. You feel accountable to the people who have given you their money and you can’t fail them. The film has to happen. It gives you motivation, especially in the case of independent cinema, which is a lonely disheartening journey when you don’t have the machinery of Bollywood behind you.

The con is probably the fact that the person who runs the campaign has to commit himself/herself completely to it. For instance, from planning the campaign to executing it for 90 days, it was a full-time job for me. It is a great high too when just one post leads to three contributions and people show love and positivity through their messages.

There was a time when I had to be reminded me that I was just making a film and not doing social work

You have taken the film to 33 festivals so far. Was it an intentional plan?

I did my under graduation in the US and then worked with Mira Nair for five years. Post that, I was an assistant director for some time. And then I started working with various film festivals including the Tribeca Film Festival. So I’m very familiar with the film festival world – how it works and what are the benefits for a film in terms of visibility, audience etc. Each festival has something different to offer.

The Dharamshala International Film Festival that Leeches recently went to was very unique because I haven’t seen that kind of an audience before. It is a very engaged audience who attend the festival because they love cinema. It was so nice to show your film to a diverse audience like that. The film has been to two women-centric film festivals where the discussion revolves around women. So the festival journey was always in the plan, followed by a digital release. In fact, I would urge your readers to watch the film, which is now available on Google Play worldwide, and Amazon (USA/UK). The film will also be available on iTunes by the end of the year.

Payal Sethi with DIFF's founder Ritu Sarin after the screening of Leeches

Payal Sethi with DIFF founder Ritu Sarin after the screening of Leeches

Since Leeches touches such as important issue of contract marriages, which is prominent in Muslim families in Hyderabad, would you like to take it there and show it to the kind of people it is based on?

Yes, I certainly intend to do so. I’m speaking to a few NGOs to organize community screenings.

The people who propagate the system of selling brides and one-day brides – the qazis, madams, pimps and agents – are all leeching off poverty

What is the distribution and release plan for Leeches?

I started a distribution company called FilmKaravan with a friend in 2008, and although I left to pursue my filmmaking, it is lovely that things have come full circle so that it is through FilmKaravan that we will achieve the digital release. We had previously released Sita Sings the Blues & Superman of Malegaon on DVD in the US. It was very good for us but it was also the time when digital distribution was starting. And we realized that DVDs make no sense and we should get into digital distribution. To be honest, I have always wanted to focus on production and filmmaking.

Coming back to Leeches, I want to have a premiere in Mumbai where Sayani Gupta and I both are present as we sadly haven’t attended any screening together. It will be for industry, friends and crowdfunders who are in the city. At that point, we’ll also announce that the film is live on iTunes. The people who have seen the film can talk about it, which will hopefully draw other people to watch it on iTunes. That is the strategy for our iTunes release.


Having worked with Mira Nair, what contribution has her presence made to your journey as a filmmaker?

Mira is a very get-it-done person. She doesn’t wait for anybody to help or do things for her. She wouldn’t come and ask if you need help, because she taught us how to fend for ourselves, but the fact is that if you need anything from her, you can ask her at any time. Her feedback on the film has been invaluable. She contributed financially as an associate producer to my first short film. She has always been a support.

Creatively, from Monsoon Wedding to Hysterical Blindness, 11’09’’01’ September 11, Vanity Fair and The Namesake; I have seen all these films grow from conception to release. And that too at a point when I was not even sure if I want to get into filmmaking. When I made my first short film, it all came flooding back to me. I felt that I had been in film school without even realizing it! I don’t come from a filmmaking background so for me it was a great introduction to a different kind of world. I have met the best directors, producers, writers and actors through her.

Will we see you graduating to feature films any time soon?

The first cut of Leeches was 60 minutes long. If I had gone back to Hyderabad and shot a bit more, it could have turned it into a feature. But I didn’t think that it was right because I felt that I should be true to the short form. It was a tough shoot and challenging in every single way because I’m someone who doesn’t like to make things easy for myself. I always like to choose the most challenging path because it is rewarding though it drives you crazy sometimes.

In 2012, I received the New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters from the Asia Society India Centre. They picked my story called ‘Panther’, which is a wildlife crime thriller. During the programme, I met Vijay Borade, another participant who had a lovely script called Operation Lambodar. Vijay and I talked about his script and we stayed in touch. However, when I decided to make a digital film, I chose another one of his scripts, Maya Deluxe, which is better suited to this format. The film is a drama/thriller about the life of two migrants working in a decrepit lodge, which takes an unexpected and frightening turn when they commit an accidental crime. It is a humanistic thriller that examines the scrambled existence and loss of identity of migrants fleeing to big cities in search of better life. We are close to finishing the dialogue draft of the script.

We are looking for funding for this film. The idea is to make a film that gets seen. I have seen too many first time features that never get to be seen, because the producer did not have any plan for a digital release. We don’t want to fall into that trap. We’ll aim to get selected to one of the main festivals and then release the film on multiple digital platforms. Our tentative start date is February 2017.