New Renaissance Film Festival 2023
Oct 3, 2023
When her son’s life is put at risk at their family’s pre-wedding ritual, a hard-of-hearing mother must decide how to seek help for her husband in order to keep her family safe. DOSH (which means “fault” in Hindi) is an immigrant story about love, family, and overcoming cultural taboos around mental health.
Hi Radha, thank you for taking the time to talk with The New Current, have you had a great summer?
Yes! I’d finally finished my MFA in Directing at American Film Institute Conservatory and was able to truly enjoy going on vacation with my little family of 4 to Italy, a dream destination of mine all my life. This meant getting both my kids passports and planning a trip that was a bit more family-friendly. The moment I got back, I started searching for film and artist residencies as a way to return back there.
What has it meant you to have your latest short film DOSH in the Challenges & Resilience section at the 2023 NRFF here in London?
It’s such an honour! NRFF’s past film festival curations include cutting edge and artistic films that blend traditional with innovative ways of cinematic storytelling, so I felt quite lucky that DOSH was officially selected. And getting the chance to show this film in the UK, particularly London, means so much to me given its global reach beyond the US. My South Asian diaspora in London and throughout the UK is quite large and active in all things art and storytelling. I find South Asian artists and filmmakers based there are ahead of the game when it comes to sharing stories of our culture in fresh and unique ways. I feel particularly honoured that DOSH was curated within the “Challenges & Resilience” block since that title alone resembles the heartbeat of our protagonist, Karishma (played by Renu Razdan), and her journey.
DOSH is an AFI Conservatory Thesis Film, what has your time and experience been like at AFI Conservatory and how much has this time helped guide/inform the type of filmmaking you want to make?
I’d been a hobbyist documentary filmmaker for nearly a decade before I’d started my MFA at AFI. AFI will forever be the place where I learned the foundation of narrative storytelling, a set of skills that I can apply to both fiction and non-fiction storytelling. My hope is to continue to refine those skills while harnessing my voice as a filmmaker in both mediums, but be able to lean into a hybrid form that infuses true stories and working with non-actors for authentic and believable performances into a cinematic form that has a character-driven dramatic arc. I’m drawn to true stories, and as a director of other people’s stories, I aim to infuse as much as my own truth in the story which reflects in the way I direct actors and envision the output of the film. The writer side of me aims to go beyond telling my own stories, like I did for DOSH, and instead adapt other people’s stories around the human condition of feeling unworthy and rising above with self-acceptance and self-love.
I have to ask, are there any nerves ahead of the festival or have you resigned yourself to being calm and just enjoy the whole festival screening experience?
I’m slightly nervous about whether DOSH will resonate with audiences who see it. I also get strangely nervous around potential technical glitches in the screening of it since sound is its own character in the film. However, my team does a good job in reminding me of the pride we feel in the film itself and that we’d made what we set out to make. So, I’m learning to “let go” now that film is no longer in our hands. NRFF is one of the first festivals screening DOSH, so perhaps I’ll be much more calm if and when we get the opportunity to screen at more festivals.
Are you able to tell me how DOSH came about, what inspired you to make this film?
DOSH is inspired by various aspects and events within my own life.
I’m Hard-of-Hearing (HoH) so there’s a certain insecurity us HoH folks feel if our hearing aids were ever taken away from us. We’d feel disoriented and a loss of sense of self.
I’m also a mother of two children, and one of my greatest fears is losing my children to a drowning accident. I had drowned in a lake when I was 7 while at a family party, and if it weren’t for their neighbor who rescued me, I would not have survived. It’s easy for parents to lose sight of their children while at events or when caught up in their own drama. To this day, my parents feel so sad and guilty about that tragic event, but I know full well it’s not their fault. I was a curious kid, and I snuck outside when I knew nobody was watching. And now as a mother, I’m aware my kids do silly things and it’s hard for me to keep track of their every move. But, I take pride that I am by far the most vigilant caretaker of them, as all loving parents are of their kids.
Most importantly, I’d been in love with (and continue to have love for) a South Asian man who was diagnosed late-onset-bipolar. Our cultural upbringing didn’t teach us about mental health given how taboo it is. We’d been taught to heal such challenges holistically - via mediation, yoga, and deep breathing - but the idea of psychiatry or medications to treat chemical imbalances were quite foreign to us, especially me. And although my love’s bi-polarism led to destructive behavior when untreated, I knew deep down that he was just a victim of a disease, and these actions did not define who I knew him to be. His behaviour that stemmed from bipolarism was NOT his fault. Instead, I blame my South Asian culture and upbring as a society for not being open about the reality of mental health. Had we been able to openly discuss the taboo, perhaps we would’ve then been better equipped to manage it and find the necessary resources to address it.
The reason for the title of this film DOSH which means “fault” in Hindi is that it’s not the fault of the person suffering the disease. Instead, it’s on us, as a society and community, to be there for one another and lift each other up when it comes to rising above our own demons.
Did you have any apprehensions about writing a film that comes from such a personal place?
I had tons of apprehension writing a film that comes from such a personal place! It takes me so long to work through my own trauma and demons to get words on a page. However, because I’d only filmed about other people’s true stories and I was rather new to narrative, I figured I can direct my own true story a bit stronger when it comes to working with actors. I’m incredibly grateful for my Co-Writer, Noorah Al-Eidi, who guided me throughout the process. I’d share my ideas of scenes with her, and somehow words came easy (and fast!) for her. I highly recommend having a co-writer or at least a writing mentor for deeply personal stories, because you may often get caught up in your own trauma and feel paralyzed momentarily, like I did, but having a cheerleader there beside you helps you get past that. Through this experience, I’ve learned to lean into being radically vulnerable. I feel by doing so, more resources and support open up to me, and I’m so incredibly grateful for that.
"...a director is responsible for the vision and actors performances, but they also need to work in tandem with the producer to ensure the project is within budget, the shoot is within logistical parameters, and crew motivation and morale is high throughout."
And with that personal connection to your films/screenplay has it been cathartic for you looking back and including elements of your own life in your film?
This experience has been incredibly cathartic. The film helped bring some closure to my past events, but not completely. But, I consider that as a win and continue to use that fuel as my muse for the stories I feel most inspired to tell.
What was the experience like co-writing DOSH with Noorah Al-Eidi?
Absolutely incredible. She was one of the first people who introduced herself to me during our first week at AFI, and I’ll never forget it. She’d pitched to be considered as a writer for my first AFI Cycle film “I Am Jaya” and since then we’ve become sisters. Her cultural upbringing as a Saudi and mine as an Indian are incredibly similar, so we were able to relate on so many levels even though we’d lived halfway across the world throughout most of our lives. I also feel she’s an incredibly talented writer. I’ve read her other works and she has such a strong sense of story and character arcs. I’d highly recommend her to anyone seeking a writer, however, I admit I’m selfish in wanting to keep her all for myself :) I cherish her so much!
Looking back at the making of DOSH, in both pre- and post-production, what would you say was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
The most challenging aspect in making DOSH was that we were the first thesis film of our class at AFI to go into production, so we didn’t have any other examples to look to in terms of lessons learned. We had to create our own guidebook while also abiding by the strictest set of rules put on us by AFI. We knew we’d serve as a precedent in many ways. So, if faculty allowed us to do something that was not part of policy, then they’d have to allow all productions to do the same. Vice versa, if we’d done something that was not approved, then every other production would use that as a complaint and excuse as to why they should be allowed to do the same. So, our team was on edge feeling as if we were being highly monitored.
However, our team eventually turned that fear into our greatest asset. We leaned into setting our own rules, and that sense of “being watched” had us work extra hard in pre-production to ensure we wouldn’t fail. Looking back, I’m glad we went first and wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
Will you continue to explore stories that help to platform experiences and narratives from the South Asian diaspora?
Absolutely yes. I feel experiences within my diaspora are so wide ranging with so many nuances yet to be explored. As a director, I feel I can tap into my upbringing and my intense training at AFI quite a bit to help bring out the best in story and in the actors’ performances. I want the entertainment industry at large to go beyond cliche storytelling when it comes to my diaspora, and I feel the best way to do so is to afford more opportunities for South Asian storytellers to speak their truth in all its hidden messiness.
What would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from making DOSH and what one thing would you not do on your next film shoot?
A valuable lesson I’d known before but felt further validated on DOSH is lean into the collaboration aspect with my principal team members. My principals - Isue Shin (Cinematographer), Sandra Rodriguez (Production Designer), Noorah Al-Eidi (Co-Writer), Gabriel Gutierrez (Producer), and Joe Murphy (Editor) are experts in their respective craft, and when working closely together, we each were able to elevate the story and its cinematic potential further. My team worked so well together because we all believed our film was made in the prep. Our level of prep allowed us to pivot gracefully when unforeseen things happened while on set.
What I would not do on my next film shoot is assume I am not allowed much rehearsal time with my actors.
For DOSH, I was fortunate to get 1 full rehearsal day with my cast at location, however, I wish to have advocated for more rehearsal days. Each actor has their own process when it comes to rehearsals, but when the cast selected is aimed to play a family, for instance, there’s a certain sense of comfort that needs to be established before a shoot in order for that level of familiarity with one another to read authentically as a “family” on screen. Many directors I admire who come from theater choose to have plenty of rehearsals with their actors before a shoot. I cherish that time, and strive to strike a balance between rehearsals - ensuring the material doesn’t become stale - while also allowing for magic to unfold on the days of shoot.
Where did your desire for filmmaking originate?
My desire for filmmaking originated when I’d first heard my mom tell me a story on how she defied arranged marriage while living in India. She’d share how she’d walk alone in the streets of Mumbai just to meet my dad on secret dates. The way she described it felt so visually real to me that I felt compelled to make her story somehow. Because I knew nothing about filmmaking back in 2013, I decided to record her on my iPhone voice memo, and then use her voiceover for a microdoc editing in licensed stock videos that enhanced the story. That film ended up winning a few awards at film fests, so I’d felt I was onto something. After I had my son in 2016, I decided to invest in a solid DSLR so that I can capture moments of his childhood. My parents barely had any photos or videos of my brother and I from our childhood, so I made sure that wouldn’t happen to my son nor my daughter. While filming them, I then discovered a love for directing by finding ways in which I could get my participants to do things a certain way in order to land a stronger story. I’m excited to put my training at AFI to good use in narrative filmmaking going forward.
As well as directing, you also produce, direct and edit, how beneficial has it been for you to get experiences from all these different departments in filmmaking?
Having produced, shot and edited my own projects has helped me tremendously in becoming a better and more collaborative director. Producing helps me understand constraints to work within financially and logistically. Yes, a director is responsible for the vision and actors performances, but they also need to work in tandem with the producer to ensure the project is within budget, the shoot is within logistical parameters, and crew motivation and morale is high throughout. That partnership sets the tone for the film and the team from concept to delivery.
Shooting helps me understand framing, lens choices, depth of field, mise-en-scene - story and intention within a frame. I find it leads to a more collaborative and productive partnership if the director knows the story, first and foremost, and key basics of cinematography while discussing effectively with the cinematographer on how the story can be elevated.
Editing helps me understand that what happens in post can lead to a completely different story than originally intended in pre or that was actually shot during production. I love editors, since their special skill is to take the best of everything that was shot and then sculpt it into an aesthetically and sonically compelling film.
Would you recommend other filmmakers gain experience in other aspects of the filmmaking process?
Absolutely! If you’re a director, shoot and edit and produce things while no one cares or is watching you. That’s when you can practice and fail, over and over again while the risk is low. I believe practice at filmmaking is absolutely fundamental to the craft. Filmmaking muscles need to be consistently trained, and with each project, we learn something valuable that carries over with us on our next project.
You’ve said that music plays an important role in your filmmaking process. How much does your background as an artist help inform your filmmaking style and approach?
Before I’d gotten into film, I was a singer / songwriter for most of my adult life. Singing is something I’d done since I was a child and I come from a musically gifted family. I tend to think of story in terms of writing a song - so instead of a beginning, middle, and end, I think in terms of verses, bridge, and chorus. Behind every word within each verse is an intricate story, behind each bridge is the heartbeat of why this story matters, and behind each chorus is the “thesis” of the entire story.
Our opening for DOSH is inspired by my love for music. I use music as a form of escape and a way to reconnect with my heart and soul. Our protagonist does the same through dance, as that’s how she finds peace within in the midst of external chaos.
Do you have a favourite short film?
I do, and it’s from the UK! “The Long Goodbye” from Riz Ahmed. He’s a fellow South Asian who is incredibly talented and someone I deeply admire for the work he does both on and off screen. His film was a perfect blend of all things I feel inspired to make - stories about family, social justice, drama, and music.
His film deservedly won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 2022.
What would the best piece of advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
It sounds cliche to say this, but go out and make things while no one’s watching in order to get that practice. And, love on your fellow collaborators. When the trust and respect are there, be ready for magic to unfold.
Finally, what message do you want your audiences to take away from DOSH?
Although DOSH is a South Asian diaspora story, it’s meant to be universally relatable in that every family within every culture grapples with their own taboos. The taboos of mental health and disability are quite prevalent and crippling across the board. We hope DOSH encourages families to openly discuss and dismantle taboos around physical and mental disability and health. Only when such challenges are discussed openly in a loving and nurturing manner can we be able to free ourselves from the burden of shame. Only then can we rise above our circumstances and find new ways to connect with and support one other to be stronger, more confident, loving, and empathetic human beings.