On the eve of leaving for her first feature film, Island City’s World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival, she’s waiting to see how the worldwide film community receives her film. As we look forward to seeing the film back in India, we get our palettes ready by talking to the Writer-Director Ruchika Oberoi on what this journey has been. And all the journeys ahead.

Ruchika Oberoi

Ruchika Oberoi

From NFDC Scriptwriters’ Lab to its World Premiere at Venice Film Festival. Tell us about the journey?

I finished writing the film in 2009. It took me almost a year to write the script. I pitched it to several studios but because of its unconventional themes, NFDC’s Script Lab was a good opportunity. I submitted and got selected. Meanwhile, I also found out about these two very good schemes NFDC has. One is for filmmakers who have already made films before for co-productions with NFDC. The other one is the one that came through while I was at the screenwriter’s lab. This one is for first time filmmakers and NFDC picks up first film projects and produces them. This was a great thing for me!

2012 was filled with gaps of wait as happens with any film project. Paper work and contract coming through the appropriate allocation ministry took time. November 2013, we were on the floors shooting it. Now one and a half years after editing it, finishing the sound and music of the film, it’s finally ready.


Which is the most difficult part of this journey? The waiting or actually being on the job and working on the film?

They are both very difficult obviously. Until the contracts are in place and signed, you’re always, on a “hoga ki nahin hoga”… But the wait is something that even seasoned people from the industry have to do. It’s also about producers trusting you and having faith on someone who’s making a feature film for the first time.

You said your film’s unconventional. How do you mean?

Island City comprises of three short films. The first is about a middle aged man, who on behalf of his corporate company, is sent to have a planned day of ‘fun’. Most reluctantly he goes, following his company’s orders. The second story is about a Patriarch head of a family who’s on the life support system. And the family, decides to seek some relief in buying a TV, which he had once banned. What follows is the family tuning into a popular soap about the perfect man – ‘purushottam’, until, the hospital let’s them know that Anil is getting better. The third is about Aarti who is numbed by her repetitive mechanical existence until suddenly she gets a love letter from a secret admirer.

As I was working on the script, I realized that these stories are about very real people in some out-of-the-ordinary, sometimes even absurd comic situations. The first two are dark comedies while the third one is more serious. Each of the films have a surprise ending. I wouldn’t want to reveal more of that at the moment. Not to say that the film is not economically viable but the themes within it are unconventional. It’s about the control you don’t really see, but definitely feel. They come hidden in policies, or certain things we can’t directly realise. A regimentisation, corporatisation that oppresses and alienates the people who live within it. In this world of scientific and technological advancements, this control seems to be stronger and sometimes impossible to recognize. These characters represent a heroic resistance. All of us in such a world, in whichever small insignificant even inconsequential way; resist. Resistance could have many meanings. It could be the little feeling inside that says to you; something is not right. Most people subsumed with this world aren’t always at peace with it. While writing and working on this film, I realised that this was finally coming together in one thread, and was becoming about the city I lived in, Mumbai.

A still from Island City

A still from Island City

What about the actors in your film playing these characters?

For the first film I had Vinay Pathak in mind. But for the other two films, I wanted real faces. Actors who didn’t really have a ‘screen’ persona. Vinay suggested Tannishtha (Chatterjee) and that’s how we cast her. She looked the character and was fantastic working with her too. Amruta and Chandan Roy Sanyal were also cast. Things actually fell well into place.


How does being a part of GRAFTII (Graduates of Film and Television Institute of India) help?

You are taught by people who have a certain body of work in the industry and everybody has kind of been where you are at some point in their lives and careers. There’s that understanding that helps you a lot. Kamal Swaroop helped me a lot with the film. A lot of filmmakers however come from no such film school, and make their films too. Each of it has its own challenges. In short it’s a difficult profession to choose in any case.

But GRAFTII certainly does help, especially in small budget films, like mine was. You have batchmates, friends who you can’t afford to pay regular wages but they work for your film out of friendship and for the belief in the project. For instance the editor Hemanti Sarkar has been my friend since FTII days. It was through her that I got in touch with Sylvester Fonseca, the DOP of the film.

Your director’s note on the Venice Film Festival site says that you lived in a Slum Rehabilitation Area in Mumbai for a long time. Was that conscious? In which case why is that important?

It was definitely not a conscious choice (laughs). Its definitely very important to break out from your comfort zone and gain different perspectives on the world. Your perspective about yourself enriches, when over a period of time you manage to live independently and encounter the ‘other’ world in some sense. It’s an alienating and difficult process. Sometimes breaking out of comfort zones is the most difficult part of it.

But this city did that to me. It ensured I broke out. I couldn’t afford anywhere else in Mumbai. But it was quite a few of us living in the community. Only audiences can tell how faithfully I have been able to represent another person’s reality. And of course a film is not just about how faithfully I represent a reality but also has a lot more to do with imagination.


A still from the film

A still from the film

Since you have studied at FTII would you like to say anything about the ongoing protests?

Definitely. I think the students’ demands are just and correct. They have raised very valid questions. At a time when this is happening in many spheres, I think the students at FTII have done an inspiring thing by taking a stand. And I don’t believe it’s a very big deal for a democratic government to give a fair listen. I feel a resolution was unnecessarily hung up on non-issues. On top of that the misinformation being spread about the students is really demoralising, in spite of the fact that the protests are completely peaceful, and very clear on its demands. FTII has won several awards and brought ‘glory’ to the country in its work. It is terrible to have the government constantly threatening to shut FTII down. This is a difficult industry in any case. But I guess this is another struggle we must fight.


Funnily this brings us back to filmmakers breaking out of their comfort zones doesn’t it? How do you think this protest will affect the film sensibilities of a generation of filmmakers?

This of course in no way an ideal thing to happen. But the fact that the students at FTII have taken a stand, and have not shifted from it, says a lot. They have a strong mental make up and uncompromising integrity. Informed by the experiences of this struggle, their artistic sensibilities will be forged stronger because a struggle is not just a part of filmmaking but also a part of reality. I believe several films have been made on the protests as well. Let’s see where this takes us. I hope it gets solved soon, and justice is brought to the FTII students.

What are your expectations from the Venice Film Festival. More importantly what are the possibilities for the release? When do we get to watch it here?

I’m waiting to see how it is accepted by the larger film-viewing community. Maybe more festivals, more audiences and hopefully I’ll find a distributor who understands and supports the film. I also hope the Venice festival will throw some light on the film. Meanwhile, I can’t wait for people to watch it here.

– Avalokita Dutt