Jallikattu, India’s official entry in the Best Foreign Film category, might be out of the Oscar race, but our country still has a chance to shine as Karishma Dev Dube’s short film, Bittu, has made it to the Live Action Short Film shortlist for the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards. And, the film is receiving support from many Bollywood actors like Priyanka Chopra, Ali Fazal, and several more. Presented by Ekta Kapoor, Guneet Monga and Tahira Kashyap under their Indian Women Rising initiative, the film which is based on a true story of the infamous school poisoning incident of 2013, is still in contention for a nomination.
In an interaction with the Cinema Journal, Karishma Dev Dube tells us how she feels extremely lucky as making the Oscars cut is every filmmaker’s dream. Karishma says she makes very Indian stories, but with the craft she has learnt in New York. Nonetheless, she hopes to “represent her school and country on the platform”. Excerpts from the interview:
How did the story come about and what was the process of filming it?
I started writing the film around 2015. The incident happened a year before I went to film school and it caught the imagination of the media. There were too many images and footages circulating from the incident. It kind of stayed in my heart and I started writing it in protest, because sometimes you cannot process how these things can happen. But it didn't work on paper for me. I picked up the script again in 2017 and that’s when I centralised it on the two girls and the entire world came alive. My intention from the start was to never make anyone the villain, but I didn't want to spare anybody either. Everyone had some weakness but no one had set out to kill 23 children. I wanted to understand everything from an even moral eye. Within the setting of the school, I wanted to talk about a few other things as well. I had a similar relationship with authorities in boarding school. Like setting an example of difficult children in the classroom as teachers tend to love the ones who are easy and academic children. So, Bittu is also a victim of this systemic negligence.
The shooting was a completely different process from writing. I spent around three months on the location, the forgotten side of Dehradun. I moved to this small village and started street-casting. Rani (who plays Bittu) was just there with all the other kids. She was a little far away from what I imagined it to be, but she was perfect in terms of spirit. We had an instant connection… The entire crew built the work ethics around the kids and they did a great job. The kids were true allies of mine on the set.
Guneet Monga, Ekta Kapoor and Tahira Kashyap are backing the film. How did your collaboration with Indian Women’s Rising happen?
Since we had already submitted to the Oscars in December, and Mary Evangelista (film’s producer) and I were trying to raise money for the Oscar campaign, we started approaching people. Guneet [Monga] has always been a friendly voice on my phone ever since I won the Student Academy. So, I wanted to see if there was a possibility to raise money in India itself with a home team. She was supportive and told me about the pipeline dream of hers to put together a collective. She thought Bittu could be a perfect project to instigate that. So it all snowballed into what is now Indian Women’s Rising. We are really proud to be associated with them.
Do you think you have an advantage over other films post-winning the Student Academy Award?
I am really excited and happy that so many Indian films are in the running. I haven’t had the opportunity to see them all but what I have seen is that people are now trying really cool things. In terms of having an advantage, I think I had to put my best foot forward, Mary and I surely have. However, it is also a game of luck. I am excited that winning is even a possibility, but I also know awards are very few and far between so I just want to continue working. I don’t want to hold my breath about it.
(The final Oscars nominations will be announced on March 15 ahead of the ceremony on April 25.)