Dubai: City-bred filmmaker on award-winning short film
Aastha Verma hopes to engage viewers with relatable stories, like her women-empowering film, 'The Last Rights'.
Young filmmaker Aastha Verma who was brought up in Dubai is clear about the kind of films she wants to make: apart from being entertaining, they must also strike a chord and start conversations amongst the audience.
With so much content available at our disposal today, it is at times tough to choose what to (or not to) watch. And from a filmmaker’s point of view it is perhaps easier to pick a mainstream subject, which has a bigger chance of engaging viewers; writing and making a film on a topic that’s not much spoken about, or researched, could be seen as something of a gamble or risk.
It’s a risk that Aastha, who has been a part of over 65 short films - including the award-winning The Unsung Feather - so far, was willing to take when she made The Last Rights, about a young woman who challenges patriarchy to be able to perform the last rites of her late grandmother in India.
Shot in Varanasi, India, the film stars Kanupriya Sharma, Ved Thappar and Ajita Kulkarni and was nominated for several awards and featured in official selections at various film festivals in 2020, including the Topaz Film Festival by Women in Film Dallas (USA) where it received the Audience Award. It also won Best Experimental Short Film at the 14th Ayodhya Film Festival.
Balancing out serious with fun, Aastha has also been part of Punjabi actor and singer Diljit Dosanjh’s hit music video G.O.A.T - on which she worked as Line Producer, along with her team.
Aastha who attended DPS in Dubai, as well as Heriot Watt university for undergraduate studies, did a Master’s Degree in International Business Management and then pursued a second Masters in filmmaking in Los Angeles.
We caught up with Aastha who is currently in Dubai for a project, to discuss her filmmaking vision, why making The Last Rights was important, and how the city she grew up in shaped her perspectives as a creative individual.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in filmmaking.
My background isn’t entirely in filmmaking. I got into it because I used to do some photography in my early days in Dubai - when I was in my early teens. I slowly advanced to making a couple of short films - school projects with some of my friends. Then, during my undergrad days here in Dubai I got the opportunity to photograph for the school as an event photographer.
I was pretty clear I wanted to do something with the arts and when it was time for me to decide what I would like to do my Masters in I chose filmmaking. Just to kind of get on to the wagon of storytelling. Since then I have made two of my own short films which I directed, wrote and produced, and have been a part of over 65 short films as a producer or crew member.
How did your time in Dubai shape your perspectives as a filmmaker?
I think it’s a story of every other person in Dubai, an immigrant story. People coming in from different parts of the world and Dubai taking us as its own, and really just being around multicultural societies and understanding different people, meeting people from different countries, from the very beginning itself. Because I was entirely brought up in Dubai, I had that in me that I’m inspired by stories from different cultures and backgrounds.
Even as an Indian, I try to take the stories and a third perspective which only people like us who are expats, have. There’s the Western culture and there’s the very South Asian culture and we land in the middle where we are kind of aware of both, so I think we’re taking that and telling stories from our perspective as Indians. I think that’s what inspired a lot of my story telling.
Your short film The Last Rights has received quite a bit of acclaim. It’s about a woman who returns to India from London for the funeral of her grandmother, and she’s not allowed by the patriarchal head of the family to perform the final duties - the last rites. What inspired you to write and make this film, and what were some of the challenges in seeing your vision come to fruition?
I was watching the news with my mother back in Los Angeles one day. A renowned politician had passed away and his adopted daughter was on screen doing the funeral rites and I think that just came up in a conversation with my mother who has four sisters; she’s the fifth. When her parents passed away none of them could do the funeral rites and I asked her, why didn’t one of you do it. She said we never thought about it, and the men of the family were anyway going to do it. There were no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ about it.
That kind of intrigued me and I read more about it and I couldn’t find much, it wasn’t spoken about and it was definitely not done in films from whatever research I had done.
So I went ahead and I started writing The Last Rights. I have never lived in India. It was challenging on that front, kind of characterizing people, patriarchy and the notions that many in India follow as far as women are concerned, even today, whichever background you may be from.
So I think I set out with that goal (of writing this film) and in the process I was lucky to find my team, my cast, everyone who recognised this is an important story.
The people of Varanasi were very supportive (even though) they didn’t know what the movie was about. We visited the Manikarnika Ghat which is the main Ghat; we met the head priest and even he said that women don’t exist in the list of people who would perform the funeral rites. If the male bloodline ends, and none of the men in the family were available, then the priest would do it, but not a woman.
So it’s a man-made rule which was very much shaped by cultural and traditional societies in India but it’s changing now. The film resonated with a lot of people and a lot of women’s stories came out later on about how they were not allowed to funerals and had to fight for their husband’s or father’s last rites. A lot of the stories I heard later on were eye-opening.
Women are often bound by many societal pressures and at times archaic traditions. What would you want viewers, both male and female, to take away from this film?
I just want people to give it some thought. There’s this dialogue in my movie which we really thought about when we wrote. If you’re quoting traditions and cultures, then the two major Sanskrit epics in India state that change is the only thing that is constant; if you don’t believe that then you’re just pretending to believe in age-old things.
The movie doesn’t want to fight the idea of tradition and culture, but it wants to fight the evil that these are causing for our current society. It’s about picking the battles and it’s about picking what’s more important - is it the person’s dignity and their love for someone? Or is it just about, this person said it, so we’re going to follow it, whether there is any basis to it or not?
The Last Rights won a couple of awards and and was showcased at various film festivals. How did you feel about the kind of exposure it got?
I wasn’t expecting it to be honest. Because when we were making this film, I didn’t have enough evidence when we were starting out of whether people could relate to it to any extent. For us it was like, yes, if we win it would be more on the technical angle, but later on when we got all this recognition and got people talking about the film, that’s when we started realising that this is something that is going to help.
We really want this movie to reach people and women especially, who don’t know what to answer to the men who shut them down when it comes to that specific situation of the last rites; audiences in the rural areas and parts of the country which are still affected by it.
You were recently awarded Independent Filmmaker of the Year by Digital Studio Middle East. How do you feel about this honour?
It’s a great honour. It’s one thing when you’re recognised by the world but it’s another when it’s the place you grew up in, the place you call home. It was very humbling in a lot of ways and it kind of gives you a push as an artist, saying that you’re doing the right thing and you should keep doing it and working harder. Not for those (accolades) but for the people.
You’re currently in Dubai working on a project. What can you tell us about that?
We have one feature film and are currently in the middle of development and pre-production. I am bound by my word. I cannot reveal what the story is about.
Will it be shot in Dubai?
We are hoping it is. We are figuring out our finances and we’re pushing for it to happen.
Filmmaking is all about visuals, as is photography. What are some of the places or scenes that particularly captured your attention in Dubai - landmarks, or just places you enjoyed visiting?
I always loved the beaches in Dubai. If you see my film The Last Rights, well we don’t have a beach there but a riverbed.. and I think water is a very important element for me. Every Friday our parents would take us to the beach. Family friends would come along with us. We’ve had a gala time!
You have your own filmmaking company called Saadhvish Films. What is your vision as a filmmaker and what kind of films do you want to make in the future?
Saadhvish Films’ aim is to make movies that are relatable and have a message. It’s not just about entertainment, it’s about arthouse films, collaborating with filmmakers who have a vision and making their stories come to life. We’re always looking for people to join us and help us create a different kind of filmmaking altogether.
We shot another short film a couple of months ago, it’s currently in post production so we’re constantly making and creating.
The vision of the company is that we want to tell stories that are important and through filmmakers who really want their voices to be heard.