WHO ARE YOU, NANU? – Pre-Shoot Q&A

INTERVIEW WITH 2023 SPRING SHORT FILM FUND GRAND PRIZE WINNER – ANJINI TANEJA AZHAR

Logline: After her grandfather’s (Nanu’s) ceremonial cremation brings her to the Holy Ganges River in India, eight-year-old oddball Aisha befriends the phantom of her Nanu’s rambunctious 11-year-old self and discovers the journey after death.

Tell us a little about your short. What it’s about and how did you come up with the idea? 

On my arms are two tattoos; two halves of a sentence reading, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” in my Nanu’s (grandfather in Hindi) handwriting. When I was a little girl, he’d have me write that sentence, containing every letter in the alphabet, in a notebook fifty times each in print and cursive, to perfect my handwriting. My grandfather survived the infamous 1935 earthquake of Quetta which flattened the whole city, killing over 30,000 people (including nearly his entire family and birth documents), grew up an orphan during the India-Pakistan partition, endured a racially divisive Britain, and built a life for my family in the USA and the UK. His incredible story inspired me always, and he has been a role model to me ever since I can remember. There came a time, a couple of years ago when I was visiting home, and my mother sat me down for a rather morose conversation. She was matter-of-fact about it, although I knew deep down it was as difficult for her to get out as it was for me to take in. She told me that my grandfather was getting old and I was going to notice some changes. My grandfather had always been a strong, centered, wise man. Always razor-sharp. He taught me to write, he helped me with math, he taught me to ride a bike…But when I visited home, there were changes indeed. The biggest one being what brought about the feelings that inspired my film, WHO ARE YOU, NANU?

My grandfather always had a nickname for me in Hindi—an endearing term for ‘granddaughter.’ A name someone chooses for you is more than just a name; it is another way of saying, ‘I love you’ when you address someone. So, when my grandfather called me by this nickname, to me it felt like an ‘I love you’ each time it was uttered. During this visit home, he did not call me this name once. I suddenly realized he had not in a while, as his age had brought him to forget it. While my grandfather to this day is alive and well, a melancholia came with this realization: the time left with him is not promised, and as his memory begins to falter with the natural progression of life, there is so much I have left to learn about him.

My short, WHO ARE YOU, NANU? is an ode to my grandfather. The man who went skydiving at 85 years old, while I was too afraid. The man whose favourite things after all this time are taxes and yoga. The man who we will always remind, should he ever forget, exactly who he is and the many feats he conquered to give us life.

WHO ARE YOU, NANU? follows an eight-year-old oddball who is brought to India for the first time for her grandfather’s (Nanu in Hindi) ceremonial cremation on the Ganges River. During her time there, she meets the ghost of her Nanu’s eight-year-old self and together they embark on a journey to discover what comes after death, while forming a bond they never had the chance to while he was alive.

I hope that he sits in the audience of the cinema when we play at our first festival, and I hope he is proud. While I, of course, hope the audience loves this film, his face is the one I will be watching.

What made you want to enter it into the Short Film Fund?

When my producer, Monique Efta, and I were strategizing how to handle development, we discussed how important it was for us to find partners who genuinely believe in the story we are trying to tell and who care about its success and longevity. Development aide and a personal relationship were so important to us because this story is so delicate. It hits home for nearly every single member of our team; this is not a film just for fun as it is deeply connected to my heart. Intention is everything.

From what I have seen from the organization and the winners that come of it, Shore is heavily supportive of their filmmakers and projects, genuinely caring where these movies go and that they can be the best they can be beyond just offering a cash prize for production. The fact that there is mentorship, one-on-one conversation to give respect and value to the film at hand—that’s a major driving factor as to why we submitted to the Film Fund.

How did you feel when you found out that you won?

Grateful may not even be the word. There was disbelief, shock, then some feeling that surpasses gratitude. Winning the film fund officially greenlit us and that is a feeling that I assume is only comparable to winning the lottery: the feeling of being believed in, in such a tangible manner that we filmmakers so longingly yearn for. Funnily enough, I was not going to submit our film to the Short Film Fund. I had submitted scripts almost six years in a row previously with different projects. My producer was the one who urged me to get out of my own head and just do it. She had spoken to me about timing, because no project I ever submitted was really ready for what comes with this, and I have grown so much as a screenwriter and director… Project development, artist mentorship, this fund is for the long haul. She and I both knew this story was different than anything I had submitted and my vision for it was so crystal clear in a way it had never been. The stars were aligned, the timing was right, and I am finally ready; I’m just so honoured that Shore saw this in us too.

I called my family, including my grandparents who centre this movie, and they cried tears of joy. That was a priceless feeling.

Anjini on set for her 2022 short film EVERYWHERE YOU GO

Are you looking to direct your short film?

I am a director/writer, so I absolutely will be directing my short film. This is the third or fourth proper short film I am directing and couldn’t be more thrilled, however the first in which I have total autonomy over the story. I am most excited to direct my two leads, who are children, and to direct in another language. Half of the film is in English while the other half is in Hindi. This will be my first time directing in a language other than English. I am both nervous, excited, and just hopeful that I do right by my actors.

Do you want to develop the script further? If so, what will you look to change?

I am really happy with where this script is at because it took a while to get here, however there is something specific within it that I am looking to develop. I have been exploring the nuances of dialogue a lot and trying to stray away from surface level, two-dimensional dialogue. It’s difficult because my film stars two eight-year-olds, but children often say the most loaded words, even more than adults. I feel that the dialogue in my script works, and I know what I’m trying to say, but it’s not where I really want it to be yet. I really want to take a look at the dialogue and deepen it, make it more compelling, and true to the complexity of the story and characters more. We’re close, but we’re not there yet, in my opinion.

What do you feel will be your biggest challenge in terms of getting your script off the paper and onto film?

The practicality of shooting in a place like Varanasi where the infrastructure of production is so vastly different in terms of culture and process is a massive challenge. From getting approvals from the Film Ministry in India to the plethora of environmental and logistic challenges of shooting on 35mm film stock, with the understanding that we have one shot at this to get it right due to the limitations of being a short film, we are getting ready to tackle the journey forward head-on. There are other challenges that we acknowledge, such as handling a live snake on set and building a set reminiscent of the moon. Writing these as challenges is such an amusing thing because to have difficulties such as these is just a reminder of how lucky we are to be making films in our lifetime(s).

Do you think about the practicalities of filming when you write? If so, how has that changed your writing process, or have you always thought that way?

Anjini at Dances With Films

Personally, I do not consider any practicalities of filming while I write. We are always in service to the story, and we are guardians of it. I do not believe you can respectfully serve a story the way it deserves by creating limitations and boundaries before it can find itself on the page. I write as my heart desires first, going absolutely maddeningly all out, and then once I feel the sweat and blood have been correctly poured into the script, I do a revision pass for practicality. This way, I know what’s most important and how to practically tinker with the script whilst preserving the story at its core. This of course means many, many revisions, but as we know writing is rewriting.

Do you have any thoughts/preferences on camera format, aspect ratio, crew, location, and anything else for the production?

Varanasi, where we will be filming, is an ancient Holy city with a Holy river. I do not take the privilege of shooting here lightly. Death is viewed differently here, and the air is rich in spirit. There is texture in its crevices that are so crucial to capture in our camera. This story, as it explores death and ancestors through the eyes of children, is best described as a ‘dark lullaby.’ For all the aforementioned reasons, we will be shooting on 35mm film stock. From colours to texture, there is a richness that I believe only film can properly capture for this story. My cinematographer Gary Long and I have decided to box our characters in, as this is a shadowy fairytale of sorts, so that the aspect ratio reflects that of a page in a children’s storybook: a little boxy but packed with detail in its foreground and background. I have a dear affinity with portraiture-style cinematography; I love the sharpness and detail in capturing skin, the glint of eyes, and dust in the air. It fits so well for a story like this, so we are really trying to plan for each frame to feel like a painting. On an editing level, I want to use the audio of my grandfather’s voice from a series of interviews my mother and I conducted with him to ‘research for this film,’ and integrate this into the soundtrack of the film.

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Where, in an ideal world, would you like to shoot your short film?

I dreamed of shooting this film in Varanasi, India off the Ganges River and luckily for us that is exactly where we will be shooting!

What are your aspirations for the film once it’s completed? Certain film festivals? Help with getting a feature off the ground, etc.?

As any director, I have ambitious aspirations for this film. Luckily, I have one of the best teams a filmmaker could ask for who share these aspirations and have joined forces with me, determined just as much to make them a reality. Our dream is to find success in film festivals, of course, with a personal affinity to Hollyshorts Film Festival, SXSW, Cannes, and Tribeca Film Festival. Secondly, we would love for this short film to gain distribution. A part of my grandfather’s story which is loosely integrated into the film is the career that he worked so hard for at British Airways. It would be a dream to have our film land a distribution deal with that very airline as an homage to the story and its inspiration (and it would be so exciting to have our film in airplanes).

While I personally do not write features directly based on my short films (ie: same characters, plot, storyline), I like to use my short(s) to explore tones and themes that I want to dissect properly in a feature. I am currently working on my feature film that explores death, the journey of it, and acceptance through the perspective of the dead themselves. The tone is similar to, WHO ARE YOU, NANU? and I am using this short film to navigate how to tell a story like this so that I can nail this feature and get it off the ground.

Do you have any advice for upcoming screenwriters looking to direct their own material, or find a producer/director for their short script?

I am hardly in a position to be offering advice, however, if I were to mention anything it’s that only the craft matters. I feel, these days, we worry about so many external things that don’t really matter. The brand we try to engineer for ourselves online doesn’t matter, whether an audience will ‘like’ what we are writing doesn’t matter, whether it will ‘sell’ doesn’t matter (for now). Focus on the discipline, be the best you can possibly be, and master the craft. A great script always prevails, and it trumps everything else, perhaps with the help of good timing as well. This is something I am learning myself as I try to be a better version of myself as an artist every day.

Are there any lessons you’ve learned from your previous projects that will help you going forward with making your short film?

I’ve learned a huge lesson in separating myself as a writer and a director to do my due diligence on each part of the process properly. I do not really believe in the saying ‘fix it in post’ and try to avoid even nearing that idea as much as possible. When I’m writing my script, I try to write as tight of a script as possible without worrying about certain directing aspects that might interfere with the foundation of the script. That way, when I’m directing, I can pay my entire attention to the creative whilst feeling confident that the script is something we can lean on. This helps avoid holes that result in post-production damage control (which of course, sometimes, you cannot avoid 100% of the time). I think this is a huge thing I’ll be taking with me when making this short.

Another major lesson is just how deeply I understand my characters. Shorts are no different than features in that good character work is essential regardless. I believe I used to focus so much on the visual language of the film and what goes into my frame, my characters from a director’s-side were less developed. I’ve started this exercise where I write a mock ‘diary entry’ in the voice of my characters to really learn who they are, what makes them different from one another, and how I can direct them best.

Since 2015, Anjini Taneja Azhar has been writing, directing, and producing. She’s written and directed multiple award-winning shorts, produced for renowned companies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, artists like Olivia Rodrigo, and even co-written a feature for respected producers at CAA.  Anjini’s most recent narrative short, EVERYWHERE YOU GO, received its world premiere in-competition at the Oscar-qualifying LA Short’s Int’l Festival and will screen in-competition at Newport Beach Film Festival. Anjini’s upcoming narrative short, WHO ARE YOU, NANU? set to shoot in India in 2024, is a WritersxWriters Finalist and Hollyshorts Screenplay Competition 2nd Place Winner. She is a Golden Script Finalist and PAGE Awards Semifinalist. She has a deep reverence for cinema and really only feels at home writing movies, watching movies, or making movies.

 


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