Mrinalini Basu and Emily Hagopian: Meshing Cultures

The baseline relationship is family, and I think anybody can relate to that in one way or another, whether you relate to the child or you relate to the mother or the grandfather. I wanted it to be accessible. I also wanted it to kind of normalize bringing in my own Indian heritage and meshing it with Western culture.

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Kahaniya is a story reflecting the intergenerational differences present in Indian culture, though ultimately the main character returns to her roots to carry on her grandfather’s traditions. This story can be found throughout many different cultures, where youth are wary of carrying on the traditions of their elders. Both the director and I hold this film in high regard, as it is a story we can both relate to through our cultural backgrounds.

As two student filmmakers living in Boston, we started this project with fairly little resources. Through our various connections we were able to put together a very enthusiastic team of mostly women and LGBTQ+ people dedicated to creating this story.

Because this is such an art heavy film, most of our time—and money—were spent making sure the production designer, animator and miniatures artist had everything they needed to bring this story to life. We were able to build and shoot the live action portion of the film in the Summer of 2018. Throughout the Fall of 2018 the director worked closely with the animator to create some amazing visuals in the film.

I sat down with Mrinalini Basu, writer and director of Kahaniya, to discuss her process going into this film and the significance the story has to her own life.

EH: So how did you first get into filmmaking?

MB: Oh, good question. So I’ve always loved film…a lot. There’s videos of me at like two watching movies. My uncle’s a filmmaker in India. My mom and grandma are artists. So I grew up very much around people that love visual media. My mom acted a bit when she was younger, and you know, that whole side of my family has been very much immersed in the industry. And then I used to do that thing every teenager does where you edit music videos together and stuff, and I liked editing and I liked how relaxing it was. I was always into fine art and painting and then when I was 16 I think I just kind of mixed the two. I wanted to be a physicist to begin with. And then I remember sitting there and thinking that, if I had to do the same experiment for fifty years with no real discoveries, it would be a very miserable life for me. I couldn’t do the same thing for that long. So I was like what do I like? And it was filmmaking. I liked the different projects. I liked the creativity. I wanted to be a DP, but then I found writing. I kind of very impulsively fell into it, but I think it’s always kind of been in the back of my head.

EH: Did you decide you wanted to go the path of being a director in college or did you always know?

MB: Yeah, I originally wanted to be a cinematographer. And then I came to college and I think I just got a little bit scared, because I have so many friends that have been doing this since they were like 4, you know, running around their backyards with cameras and honing their natural talents for shooting. And that wasn’t me. I’ve done photography for most of my life and I loved painting. Composition that way really interested me. I also loved lighting. I would do the lighting for theater productions in my school. I’m still not super strong on the technicalities of it all. I can do it, but I think I just got really overwhelmed, and then I took a writing class, and I really loved that. I think I realized that I liked the creative side of being a DP and the creative side of writing and I wanted to have a creative say in things and I was like well that’s directing pretty much. Being able to tell a story the way I see it in my head comes down to the director. And I also love working with other people. I really admire a lot of different viewpoints on things and trying to explain what I see in my head: a) trying to write it down in a script and then b) trying to get somebody else to understand that script and then c) getting their picture of it and my picture of it and meshing it. It’s always been super fun and very interesting and collaborative.

EH: So what was your process for writing this script and why was it important for you to write it?

MB: Oh, that’s a fun story. My grandfather, my mother’s father, passed away about two weeks into my college experience. I’d just moved to America. I didn’t really know anybody. I was really homesick. And then my grandpa, pretty much my favorite member of the family, died very suddenly. And that sucked. It took me a long time to even try and process it. Probably a year later I took a writing class and I had to write a short story. I had just seen the movie The Fall from 2006 with Lee Pace in it. And I loved the concept of a story within a story. And so I tried to process what I was feeling with my grandfather through that script. And also I knew one of the things I wanted to explore through my filmmaking was being… so I was born in India and then I moved to London as a kid, but I very much culturally feel connected to both places. And then I came here [U.S.] and, my accent isn’t British anymore really, and I don’t get to just listen to Indian music around the house like when I’m home and my parents are playing it. The music will be on and I’ll speak three languages in a day, but I just don’t do that over here. I’m very much westernized. And so I wanted to talk about what that feels like. And how weird it is to be somewhere between an immigrant and a first generation kid. And that’s why the movie goes from one language into another because I wanted to talk about how it feels like you’re losing that part of yourself, but also how it never really goes away.

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EH: What made you want to make a film with live action, animation and miniatures? Were you nervous about combining all three and how it would look in the end?

MB: Yes! Originally it was supposed to be entirely live action. I wanted to shoot it in India, but it logistically didn’t make sense to try to take classes in Boston and also to organize a shoot halfway across the world. It was very ballsy of me and it fell through. And so I was trying to think about how I would still keep the authenticity of the culture and what my idea of it is whilst trying to shoot it in Boston, which looks nothing like the India in these folk tales. And then the decision to do animation was mostly practical because there’s a lot of different ages and it made more sense. Also there’s such a lack of South Asian actors around Boston. It wouldn’t have been easy finding the actors and hiring them, let alone hiring different ages for each character. It made more sense to make it animation and stick to a character model, and my best friend and character designer is incredibly talented and it was easy to create a character base with her. I’ve always loved animation, but I never thought I would be interested in directing it, and then the live action part was really fun ‘cause I liked the idea that she imagines herself as real, and flipping it that way so the reality is animated and the imagination is live action, when usually it’s the other way around. I liked turning that on its head a little.

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EH: Did you have anything in mind like the film? Because I’m trying to think of a film that combines all three. I know of live action that turns into animation and vice versa, but I can’t think of anything with all three components.

MB: There were definitely influences, at least between the miniature work and the puppeteering in the live action. There’s a lot in The Grand Budapest. They used a lot of miniature models and trick photography. And there’s a couple other YouTube videos I’ve seen and music videos that use these techniques. There’s a song by Dodie Clark, “Intertwined”. The music video takes place in a dollhouse and it’s just shot really interestingly and very realistically despite all being in a miniature house. And I’ve always loved stop motion. I think it’s one of the most difficult and interesting ways of filming, though I don’t know much about doing it myself. I dabbled here and there when I was like 11, so it was a challenge. I found a wonderful miniaturist, so I more was just thinking about how it would serve the story, and not so much thinking about whether or not I could do it. And then we did do it, and I think it turned out pretty great.

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EH: What impact do you hope the film will have on audience members?

MB: I think fundamentally I want it to be relatable. I would hope that the story’s diverse enough that anybody can relate to it because at its core it’s a story about a kid and her grandfather. The baseline relationship is family, and I think anybody can relate to that in one way or another, whether you relate to the child or you relate to the mother or the grandfather. I wanted it to be accessible. I also wanted it to kind of normalize bringing in my own Indian heritage and meshing it with Western culture. I didn’t want it to be a huge thing that it’s this South Asian story. I didn’t want it to be divisive, or that you can only watch it if you’re only interested in foreign films. I wanted anybody to be able to watch it and appreciate the story and feel a connection to it in some way. And I think it’s cool that I managed to make it so that our entire crew was made up of people who identify as either LGBTQ, people of color or women. A lot of people were all of those things, which I was really proud of. Our entire key crew was women.

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EH: Why was it important for you to hire predominantly a team of women?

MB: ‘Cause I think it’s ridiculous that there aren’t that many cases of that happening, and if I could do it, I should do it. And I don’t know necessarily if it was a conscious choice. There are men on the crew, and it’s because they happen to be the best people for the job. They got the story that I was telling, but when there were two people almost equally qualified for the job, I went with the women because I feel like not enough people do, and women are great.

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EH: You weren’t trying to get women, just by coincidence it happened to be the case.

MB: Exactly, it was whoever was best for the job and also I wanted to create a space for women and women of color to have that kind of opportunity. I think it’s important to have a bunch of different perspectives on it. I’m South Asian. The story’s very close to my heart. It’s my culture. It’s quite literally based on my own thoughts and feelings about my family, but I wanted somebody who wasn’t part of that culture to have an image of the story. There’s no reason that there shouldn’t be women on a key crew. And it’s not so much that it’s important for me to have an entirely female crew. I think it’s more important that it’s not always all men and that there’s a diversity of thought put into a project.

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EH: Was this your first time working with kids? And how was that experience?

MB: Yes, it was. It was my first time directing kids. I’m one of the older ones in my family, I’m an older sister and I grew up around a lot of younger cousins. I think I’ve always been good with children. It was definitely interesting balancing all of the different personalities on set. But they were great. The kids were really fun to work with. And they had SO much energy. As much as that could have been draining to try and manage, it was more than anything that they made it fun, and they were funny and they were excited about what they were doing. They got along for the most part. I think they made it a more fun process than if I had to just deal with just a bunch of crabby adults the whole time.

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EH: What do you think your biggest challenge has been through this filmmaking process?

MB: A lot went wrong in the beginning. It was hard. I started the project in January, I didn’t have a producer locked in until April. We built pretty much an entire village set from scratch…twice. And it was a lot of logistics with a small crew. And I think I was putting a lot of pressure on myself because of the story and because of how much it meant to me. On the one hand I cared about the greater aspect of it, and then I cared about the social impact of it, and I cared about people liking it. But more than anything I had an image in my head from when I wrote it of what I wanted it to look like, and I got very caught up in that. And I was like “Well, I’m just a student and I don’t have the ability to do all those things.” I learned a lot about calming down. And it was super encouraging to have so many people believe in it. Like, man, we got a lot of support from a lot of really cool, very talented, capable people. And that was terrifying, because it’s a lot of pressure to have that much faith put in you and in your potential. But it was so cool that this story I’d written when I was 19 was actually good. It was nice to know that what I was doing wasn’t just interesting, but it was good, and I mean that in the moral sense. I was doing a Good thing.

EH: I feel like it’s always weird for me to find out other people like my ideas and it’s not just in my own head.

MB: Yeah, it’s super weird. Or that other people think I can do my own ideas, you know. And that my friends and family haven’t just been lying to me. It’s like a bunch of strangers that are like, “No, this is actually good!”

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EH: What was your favorite scene to film?

MB: I really like the Indigo scene, the scene where she falls into the vat. That whole day was so crazy. The wall falling down. And I had no idea because I was upstairs running lines.

EH: Yeah, I’m glad you didn’t see that.

MB: I know, and then someone shows me a picture of like 13 people holding up this plaster wall.

EH: I still want that picture.

MB: And the madness that was going on two floors below me. And then we shot it and it’s my favorite part of the whole film I think. The section of animation that goes into that and then right after it. That whole story was my favorite part. And it’s beautiful, you can’t even tell that the wall was in ten different pieces and we had to staple it back together like 20 minutes before we shot that.

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EH: What other female directors do you draw inspiration from?

MB: I have loved Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta’s films since I was a kid. I’m very lucky to have two very culturally aware and big film loving parents. There was no off-limits genre. There’s no off-limits story. There’s no off-limits language. I grew up with English, Hindi, Bengali, Japanese, Spanish films and a wealth of music. I was around really cool people, and so I think all of it has influenced me a little bit, but in terms of specific directors, there’s certain films and stories that I love for the fact that you wouldn’t necessarily know that it was a woman who directed it. ‘Cause I think that a lot of women feel like they’re pigeonholed into Rom-Coms. And then I love Kathryn Bigelow because she makes intense movies—intense, intense movies. And Patty Jenkins makes intense movies. And not that I don’t love Rom-Coms, I think that they’re very hard to make well. And I’ve probably seen every Rom-Com that has come out since 1995, and a bunch of them from before that, but I like being able to look at a female director and go, “Oh, cool!” Like I wasn’t expecting that.

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EH: What do you have planned for the future with Kahaniya?

MB: I want to ship it out to festivals. I just want to see what public response to it is. I just want to get it out there, I want people to see it. I want people to like it, or hate it. I just want people to feel something towards it. I want them to be intrigued or interested or provoked in some way. I hate it when movies bore me, so I’d like it to be anything but boring. It’s weird because I think one of the people that I would’ve loved to see it would’ve been my grandpa, but it wouldn’t exist if he was around to see it. So it’s a strange thing. I still need to send it to my parents, I’d like them to see it, especially my mom because it was her dad. And she’s in it too, so that’s nice. The voice of the mother in the film is my mom. She’d visited me from London, she was here for a week after we shot and I made her sit down for like five hours, right before she had to go to the airport and record all the audio. It was really fun. It was super interesting to have to direct my own mom. I think I was harsher than I normally would be, because it’s my mom and I knew she wouldn’t care. But she was great, she got exactly what I was trying to do. I would like to point out that mother in the film, who is slightly absentee, is not at all like my own mother, but it was cool to have her voice in it.

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EH: Are you working on anything now? Or do you have anything planned for the future?

MB: I have a couple of ideas. I’ve been working on writing a feature. We’ll see. I’ve tried to write the first draft a couple times now, and haven’t actually managed to finish it all in one go, so we’ll see what happens with that. I don’t know. I think I got a little bit exhausted. It was a very stressful year. It was incredibly rewarding, and I’m so glad that I not only can do this, but that I don’t hate the process at the end of it all, but it was a lot. I worked. I didn’t sleep for most of the year. Neither of us did. So, I’m working on trying to get back into the swing of beginning a creative project rather than being relieved from the end of one.

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Mrinalini Basu

Mrinalini Basu

Mrinalini Basu is an independent filmmaker attending Emerson College for a B.A. in Visual & Media Arts. She is the writer and director of Kahaniya. Her goal in making this film was to rediscover a childlike sense of imagination and also to explore the emotions behind being part of a diaspora and what it means to lose a part of yourself. This film is dedicated to her late grandfather, Subodh Kumar Basu. Follow Mrinalini Basu on Facebook and Linkedin.