Man, woman and AI: Actress-producer Sonal Sehgal's Indo-Latvian sci-fi film revolves around these three love interest

In mid-May, Sonal Sehgal’s Indo-Latvian production, Manny, opened in Florence’s 500-year-old La Compagnia theatre to Covid-regulated 50 per cent occupancy. She cannot be more grateful to a wary Hollywood and local mainstream cinema for leaving the release window open for her small-budget, psychological sci-fi drama. “I would have happily quarantined myself to be there, but flights from India are still not allowed,” says the actor-filmmaker who joined the post-screening question-and-answer session through online streaming. She was heartened when a viewer pointed out that Manny, which she has also scripted, could well be Stanley Kubrick’s epic sci-fi 2001: A Space Odyssey two decades later.

The film revolves around an author, a closet homosexual, played by Sonal herself, who travels to Latvia to work on an autobiographical novel. The film unfolds through three love interests which are real, imaginary and virtual — man, woman and Artificial Intelligence (AI). It focuses on the interdependence today between humans and AI, the connect not just physical but emotional too.

The idea grew when she was shopping online for a pair of shoes, which she eventually didn’t buy, yet found herself being chased by shoe ads on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. Another muse was a friend whom she describes as “really lazy” and who had come to rely heavily on Alexa, a virtual voice-based assistant AI technology available to millions today.

“One day, while we were chatting, he referred to someone as “bastard” and Alexa immediately reprimanded him, saying “that’s not nice”, a phrase it must have picked up from another conversation earlier and had used in a way that was disconcertingly apt. I jumped out of my chair saying I had to develop this into a film,” Sonal reminisces.

She was wildly excited but the filmmakers she approached in Mumbai were not as kicked. Since she still felt strongly about it, Sonal connected with a like-minded bunch, including Latvian filmmaker Dace Puce who had studied with her at the New York Film School and agreed to invest in the film.

Sonal, along with Dace who has also directed Manny, Kristele Pudane and line producer Renate Barone, then set about putting together a multinational cast and crew who were put through a two-week workshop during which every possible wrinkle was ironed out. “We finally started shooting in Latvia in December 2019 and finished by January 2020,” she informs. Her leading man, Jurijs Djakonovs, is from Russia but has spent a lot of time in India in his guru’s ashram in Rishikesh and in Goa where he met his Russian wife. “His first sentence to me was ‘I love India.’”

The entire post production was done online during the Covid-19 pandemic with files sent online between countries sent online, downloaded during the night, viewed in the morning and discussed between 3 pm to 7 pm, virtual office hours.

“What had seemed impossible at first turned out to be pretty smooth once we had streamlined the process and I was left too busy to complain about boredom during the three-month lockdown last year,” Sonal exults. In the six months that it has been on the festival circuit, Manny has picked up seven awards. The last was for best script at the just-concluded UK Asian Film Festival.

Sonal who started her career on stage with a Mahesh Dattani play, Mad About Money, before moving to TV (Hotel Kingston) and films (Aashayein, Radio). She has also directed a short film and authored a book. How does she juggle so many hats? “My mother reminds me that when I was four, I told everyone that I would grow up to be Charlie Chaplin and he wasn’t just an actor,” she laughs. So, what’s next for the desi Charlie? “I’ve written two scripts, another sci-fi, and a road trip movie, but given the on-going pandemic, I don’t know if we can roll this year. Things have to be normal because we cannot afford to be hit by a lockdown,” she signs off.

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