Pia Shah’s Waterbaby is winning hearts across the world in various film festivals. The film, which draws from Shah’s personal experience inspires you to overcome your fears and has been extremely well received at various film festivals for its brilliant child artists among other things. It traveled to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Kids and has also won an award at the Worldfest – Houston. Next, it will be playing at the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart to be held from July 19 to 23. We spoke with Pia to know more about the short film.

Pia Shah

Pia Shah

What are your first memories of storytelling?

I was 11 when I wrote my first story. The story was around “The Scarlet Pimpernel“. It’s the story of an Englishman who rescued French aristocrats out of France during the French Revolution and saved their lives. At that time, I felt like I’m making an epic movie. I gathered all the neighborhood kids and made them act in this. I was the Director of Photography for it and also designed the sets by myself. The set was made on the terrace of one of my friend’s house. I really believed in the movie when I was making it. I had no idea of editing, so I shot the scenes in the sequence that they would be played. Looking back, it may sound silly or look naive, but it was such an honest and brave attempt. That made me realize that I had the knack for storytelling in me.

If you give children respect and don’t treat them like a child, you can bring out the best in them

What inspired the idea for your short film Waterbaby ?

I was writing a feature film that was being developed by National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) Lab. In recent times, there have been so many great films that have come out of the NFDC Lab, like Titli, The Lunchbox. They (NFDC) nurture so many beautiful films and my script was a part of it.

My script was around children, so I wanted to make a short film to get the experience of working with kids. I decided to make something that I understand or can relate to. As a child, I was petrified of water, I would have nightmares. My parents decided to send me to swimming classes to help me overcome this fear. But I would still do whatever it took to avoid the pool. I remember when I was 6 or 7, one day, my swimming coach just pushed me into the deep end of the pool. And that frightened me so much that I could never overcome my fear. So naturally, this idea was really accessible to me, to make it into a film. My phobia is still so bad that till today, I get these nightmares of drowning in water. That’s why the film opens with this scene where the coach pushes the boy into the pool and that scares him so much.

But I wanted this film to be about overcoming this fear and bring a ray of hope in the end. I showed how the boy is getting bullied by his classmates at school. I also wanted to show his life at home and his interaction with his mother and grandmother. But the most important thing was to communicate that even with all this in the surroundings, only he could help himself. If he has to solve this problem, he will have to do it himself.


Waterbaby | Poster

Why did you choose to add bits of animation in the film?

This was a very simple film. Essentially, it’s about an introvert boy trying to overcome his fears. The boy wants to defeat his fear because he wants to attend a pool party to talk to a girl he likes. I wanted to show that there were so many things happening around him that made him cross the barrier and jump. I often ask this question to my audience after the film’s screening – “What do you think, why did he jump in the end?” I get really interesting answers which are a mix of all these little incidents I have shown through animation, the superhero sequence, sketchbook, goldfish, his liking for this girl etc. And that’s what the real life triggers are all about.

It may seem as a magic of the moment but it really is a cumulative mix of all these real and virtual experiences. I wanted to show the superhero TV show that he watches at home and how he gets inspired by the superhero’s courage. I decided to create a custom TV show that goes well with this film, so we did a fun experiment with the animation to create the superhero. I met the wonderful animation team in Mumbai and had a great time creating this cool superhero from scratch. Kids really liked his cool glasses and his entertaining persona on screen.

I wanted this film to be about overcoming fear and bring a ray of hope in the end

One of the things that came across strongly when I watched this film was the amazing child artists. Often what happens in our films is that even the strongest films don’t have children talent that looks natural and realistic. How did you crack this in Waterbaby?

I was keen to work with kids when I thought about this short film. The idea was to find my bearing as a director when working with kids. I’m writing a feature film where I’m planning to work with kids as protagonists, so I wanted to try this out in a short film before taking on to a full-fledged feature film. For this amazing talent, I want to thank my Casting Cirector Abhimanyu Ray, who also did the casting for Chak De! India.

For the boy’s casting, I was very clear that I wanted an inexperienced actor. I wanted him to look very natural on screen. The boy who plays this role is Viraj Khemani. I had a great time working with him. He didn’t have acting experience so he did not come with any baggage. As you know, short films are made on very tight budgets and resources. Each shot and each day has to be planned very well. He (Viraj) was very flexible and understanding about this. I talked to him like an adult. I feel that if you give children respect and don’t treat them like a child, you can bring out the best in them. We developed a mutual respect for each other. I must say he’s such a trooper. He had to jump in the water for this underwater shot. We had planned different camera angles, so he jumped for almost 30 times! I’m sure he’ll have a better count. At one point, I got a little worried about him but he had this amazing energy and he would tell me not to compromise on the shot. His mother was also on the sets and she was also very supportive. So I feel I was very lucky to have this amazing team on the sets.