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Karishma Dev Dube on her Oscar-nominated film ‘Bittu’ and how society fails its most vulnerable

An interview with award-winning New York-based filmmaker Karishma Dev Dube on her acclaimed short film 'Bittu' and on individualism versus authority.

April 10, 2021 / 08:38 PM IST
Filmmaker Karishma Dev Dube, at the shoot of 'Bittu'.

Filmmaker Karishma Dev Dube, at the shoot of 'Bittu'.

Karishma Dev Dube’s new short film Bittu, which is set in India in a remote village school that makes headlines after an incident of accidental poisoning, is in the running for an Oscar. The film has been shortlisted in the Top 10 Best Live-Action Short category for the 93rd Academy Awards.

This is not the first time that the New York-based filmmaker, who received her MFA from New York University, has tasted success. Her first film Devi: Goddess (2017) premiered at the BFI London Film Festival before playing at 56 international film festivals, including the Edinburgh Film Festival and Outfest LA, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film.

In this exclusive interview, Karishma speaks about individualism in a typically conservative society, how growing up in a girls’ boarding school helped shape her cinematic sensibilities, and her upcoming projects.

Tell us how you decided to make your film 'Bittu', about the 2013 school poisoning incident in Bihar.

The incident had garnered a lot of international media attention at the time. There was an unimaginable amount of footage, images of the place and people. It just stayed in my subconscious since then. In 2015, I was trying to write something that stemmed from that very specific classroom culture in government schools, following Bittu, whose character was what got me through each draft.

At its heart, Bittu is about individualism in a typically conservative society and what happens when a community fails to protect its most vulnerable, all the while following this charming, streetwise girl going through a seemingly normal day at school.

Tell us about some of the research that went into the film.

I toured government schools in North India with the help of the NGO Pratham. It was a wonderful relief to see the midday meal scheme run so well in so many places. Meeting children and educators in the state schools just made me want to tell this story more.

I did a lot of character research in the months leading up to shoot. I moved to Dehradun once we locked our location to cast, and did workshops with the kids every day. In retrospect, it was the most imperative part of the process; the work we did then got us through some of the hardest days on set.

Your work explores the subtleties of girlhood. Tell us how your earliest influences of growing up in a boarding school helped shape your cinematic sensibilities.

I think there was a strength in growing up away from home, as a part of such a matriarchal world like a girls’ boarding school. I learnt a lot of fundamental things about myself without the lens of who I was within my family. In boarding school, friendships have such high stakes, they’re your family, and you can’t really take these relationships for granted. Bittu is, in many ways, a tribute to my most formative friendships.

Even though my school was considered to be one of the foremost institutions in the country, it has a lot of surprising overlaps with Bittu’s government school in the middle of nowhere. I too had a difficult relationship with authority growing up; I couldn’t accept the blind hierarchy that comes with these relationships, it makes me uncomfortable to this day. A bit of that is present in Bittu’s experience.

Your earlier short film 'Devi: Goddess' centres on a homosexual relationship between a house help and her employer’s daughter. Tell us more about the idea and inspiration behind it.

I wanted to make a film about class and sexuality within a contemporary Indian household. The way these things are treated differs from family to family, but in Devi, I wanted to explore this tendency of shunning and revering Western influence at the same time. For me, it’s a portrait of women who live together, and are in their own way constantly pushing their social boundaries. But at the end, they end up favouring their societal standing as opposed to who they really are as people and to each other.

Did you have to face any challenges in your profession for being a woman?

Being a filmmaker is in itself challenging. It’s hardly sustainable for anyone, and there’s a lot of risk involved. Sometimes, the best you can hope for is stability in doing what you love. I think being a woman is my strength in the long run.

Who are some of your favourite contemporary filmmakers whose work you admire?

I derive a lot of inspiration from different people. I love what Chloé Zhao is doing, I really enjoy the moral complexity of Asghar Farhadi, I’m always learning from Mike Leigh, Andrea Arnold, Xavier Dolan. Thomas Vinterberg is a constant favourite.

Which are some of your all-time favourite films?

I can’t say, it’s always the hardest question. I like rewatching David Fincher’s works, they are so soothing and perfectly built. I can switch off when I’m watching them.

Currently, you are developing your debut feature film as well as producing Mary Evangelista’s feature 'Burning Well'. Tell our readers more about these projects.

Burning Well is a prodigal son story but with a lot of TikTok, egg rolls and a queer love story at its centre. We are hoping to shoot it this fall in upstate New York. I am also developing my own feature that is based in Assam, and is loosely inspired by true events.

First published in eShe magazine

Neha Kirpal