Neeraja Raj
Meow or Never

Meow or Never screens as part of the BFI Future Film Festival from 18-21 February, free on BFI Player

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In a madcap musical, Pucha travels the galaxy looking for the meaning of life with her AI spaceship. She arrives on a planet believing to find the answer on it, only to encounter a space pup who is eager to help but accidentally messes everything up, causing her spaceship to take off and land on the other side of the planet! A seemingly impossible quest to discover the meaning of life ensues.

Hi Neeraja, thank you for talking to TNC, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?

It’s been a very interesting past year for me, with a whole lot of ups and down - as I assume everyone else must have had as well. Having to graduate into the pandemic-struck landscape of the industry was not something I anticipated but despite the initial hurdles, I’ve settled into this new world and doing quite okay at the moment. Thank you for asking!

Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?

Being stuck at home, there were definitely lots of moments for introspection and delving deep into my thoughts. I wrote a lot of poetry and lyrics during the lockdown, which eventually led me to make music with some composer friends virtually (which will be out soon!). With the threat of the pandemic, there was literally nowhere else I could escape to, apart from my own head. And of course, books! 

Congratulations on having Meow or Never selected for the BFI Future Film Festival, what does it mean to you to be part of The Infinite Playlist section?

It’s an absolute dream. I honestly can’t believe that Meow or Never going to be on the esteemed BFI player in The Infinite Playlist section. It is for sure, a very nice feeling to be acknowledged by film institutes and organizations decades older than I am and to be assured that I'm on the right track. 

I also think it’s so beautiful that this little film that my team and I toiled over for 18 months of our lives, is now existing beyond itself, expanding into the world and reaching so many people. It’s all I’ve ever wanted for my work.

Can you tell me a little bit about Meow or Never, how did this film come about?

Meow or Never is a madcap musical in which, a catstronaut, Pucha travels the galaxy looking for the meaning of life with the aid of her AI spaceship. She arrives on a planet believing to find the answer on it, only to encounter a space pup, Blip who is eager to help but accidentally messes everything up by causing her spaceship to take off and land on the other side of the planet! A seemingly impossible quest to discover the meaning of life ensues with an overenthusiastic Blip taking the helm as Pucha disagrees at every turn, believing her spaceship to have calculated the answer right before it took off. As Pucha discovers a whole world beyond the closed quarters of her spaceship - meeting creatures from different walks of life and ideologies - she realizes that the answer to the meaning of life might not be so simple and clear cut.

Meow or Never is my graduation film from my time at the National Film and Television School, from where I graduated in late February 2020. At the NFTS, they have several different disciplines of filmmaking like editing, producing, cinematography, sound design, etc. 

To emulate how it actually works in the industry, at the start of the second year - we pitch our ideas as directors, to the different departments and build a team of our own. That was the first step in the process. This is why I really wanted to go to film school at the NFTS, it truly fosters collaborations and team-building. It helped me take more of a position as a director, working with top talents who were specialized in their own sector. Film-making, unlike novel-writing, is not an art form that can be done in isolation. The alliances with my team really built this film from the ground up.

What were the biggest challenges you faced bringing this film to life?

Meow or Never was an overambitious whimsical comedy musical stop-motion animation film idea - and I really wanted to do it justice. My greatest challenge was sticking to a schedule that was suited for the scale of the film, and to not be deterred by any obstacles or unexpected delays (like a light on set bursting, armature breaking, etc.) that came our way. It also depended on me being able to fulfil my directorial duties; in the sense that my brain would have to switch to several different aspects of film-making several times a day, depending on who I was in discussion with. So for example, a typical day would go like this: I'd see my lead model-maker in the morning to finalize the puppets' ears' design, then my editor after to see his latest revisions to the animatic, then my cinematographer to discuss what we were going to set up that day, so I can brief the animator on set, who would continue working while everything else was going on. It was definitely a learning curve but I got acclimated towards it soon enough!

Looking back is there anything you would have done differently on this film?

One of my main difficulties in life is managing my time, to be completely honest. (The pandemic had exacerbated this at one point, considering that every day felt like the same and the realization that time is a construct was emphasized more than ever before.)

I believe that I do much better when I stick to an agenda and am organized. Sometimes I just have to force myself to get started, because I can spend way too long staring at a blank paper, having a time-out with my impostor syndrome. When art is your job, you can't afford to 'wait for inspiration to strike' - you have to go out there and look for it, grab it by the horns and bring it home.

For Meow or Never, I had numerous people depending on me and my pro-activeness with time. Looking back, I wish I could have been more organized so I would have been less anxiety-ridden, rushing to finish on schedule - so my mind would have been freed up more to focus on what matters, which is the story! So ultimately, I wouldn’t change anything about the film itself - I would probably just change the chaotic way I approached it.

What has been the most valuable lesson you have taken away from making Meow or Never?

Meow or Never raised a whole lot of eyebrows when it was first pitched, but in its completion, it proved its weirdness and absurd humour in an authentic way. This was a challenge in the initial stages of making this film, convincing others that I knew what I was doing. Despite not knowing truly if I was on the right path at the time - I pushed on. I learnt to believe in myself. I learnt that it's okay that not everyone will understand you, or like you, or your stories. C'est la vie!

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

Animation filmmaking is inhibited only by one’s imagination - and nothing else. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had these fantastical characters and worlds in my head, creatures that didn’t exist in real life and places too wild - but through drawings, I could essentially, play God and bring them to life. This is probably my favourite aspect of telling stories through this medium. Like the great Brad Bird once said, “…Animation is not a genre. It is a method of storytelling. People are constantly analysing it and mis-analysing it as if it is a genre. It isn’t a genre. It can do horror films, it can do adult comedies if it wanted to, it could do fairy tales, it could do science fiction, it could do musicals, it could mystery, it can do anything.” With animation, I could essentially do anything! 

"Meow or Never is a highly personal story to me as it's a kooky amalgamation of my existential angst and my happy-go-lucky spirit, stitched together with my love of musicals."

An added perk of using animation is that, when you’re a novice first starting out in the art of storytelling, oftentimes you don’t have the funds to (for example:) hire a crane camera to shoot a particularly important chase sequence in your film. However, with animation, you could just draw that top shot. Or model a tiny set of your location and place a normal camera up high to get that angle. The possibilities are endless when you’re not restricted to the planes of reality.

What has been some of the best advice you’ve been given?

Growing up around the house, my mother always quoted Abdul Kalam, the brilliant Indian aerospace scientist and politician who served as the 11th President of India. The following advice he gave at a school lecture always sticks in my mind whenever I’m having a hard time: “If four things are followed – having a great aim, acquiring knowledge, hard work, and perseverance – then anything can be achieved.” 

Should filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?

Yes, of course. I think filmmakers should be allowed to tell any story they desire to. If they have a deep, unstoppable need to get a particular narrative out there in the world, I suggest they do it. If they have an inexplicable fear of the subject matter they’re pursuing, that makes it all the more important to showcase it to the world. Oftentimes, we need to be brave - not just for ourselves, but for others in our shoes - by telling real, true, raw stories. It’s often not very easy, but I’m so proud of the upcoming rising filmmakers who continue to do this, day in and day out.

Do you have any tips or advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?

This may be cliché advice, but it's worth repeating: if you believe in yourself and your project, hold on to that. Ignore all the naysayers, all the people who put you down because they don't quite see it. Soon enough, when you prove yourself and your vision, they'll change their minds. (But even if they don't, it doesn't matter. Like water off a duck's back, move on - you have your story to tend to!) However, make sure to welcome constructive criticism because it's always good to get a second opinion on your work. This sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but I promise there’s a difference between these two things, haha!

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Meow or Never?

Meow or Never is a highly personal story to me as it's a kooky amalgamation of my existential angst and my happy-go-lucky spirit, stitched together with my love of musicals.  It is also a love letter to my dearest friends, an exploration of our friendships. Meow or Never explores the power of friendship - and that the meaning of one's life is what one makes it to be. Ultimately, it's whatever you hold value to, in the world. I want Meow or Never to remind its audiences that life can be fun, sad, silly and absolutely weird - and all of that could mean something or nothing at all - but what helps you navigate through it, are the connections you make with others. Especially in these trying times, I hope Meow or Never brings some light and joy to all those who watch it at BFI Future Film Festival.

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