The rise of independent cinema in India has brought with it a wave of social transformation, albeit still in its nascent stages. But the young, unbridled frontrunners of these digital movements are determined to shift how we think of the economic, political and social structures around us. Student filmmakers in particular are some of the most creative and thoughtful entrepreneurs of change.
Alisha Mehta, a Mumbai-born graduate student of filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts, recognises the power of visual media in a country so deeply divided by class and privilege. Her thesis film, Lata, centres the story of a young domestic worker as she navigates the upper class home where she works. “Most of the people that service our homes are marked in our memories only by their labour – the driver, the maid, the cook – their identities outside of their labour are, for the most part, invisible to us,” she writes in a campaign letter.
Invisibility is intrinsic to maintaining the status quo of the Indian elite; we are a country of immutable social hierarchies where everyone is complicit. For Alisha, giving agency to the voices being represented was as fundamental as the narrative itself. Homegrown had the pleasure of speaking with her and her producer/co-writer Mireya Martinez about their journey as filmmakers, Lata, and their reflections on privilege, ethics and politics.
HG: What inspired you to become a filmmaker? What has your journey as an artist been like?
AM: Cinema sort of just happened. I’ve always been fascinated with cinema since I was a kid. My mom would always pick out non-Bollywood movies from the foreign film aisle. In India, the arts aren’t considered a stable life. I had been to international boarding schools in India since I was 15. I then pursued a Bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in transitional justice in post-conflict societies, which I loved. I ended up working and living in Rwanda, South Africa…all over the place. Most of my work was human rights-related which still informs a lot of my cinematic interests. After I had worked for a while, I realised that I just had to give art a chance. I reached a point where I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing anymore and there was an element of creativity that felt very blocked in me. I went to Greece for a painting, photography, art program. I planned to stay for just one semester, just to get my feet wet in the arts – but I fell in love with it and ended up staying for four years. I guess my time there gave me the confidence to finally say that, yes, I want to make a film.
HG: How did you go about it?
AM: I came back to Bombay after 4 years in Greece and started getting production experience. I assisted Konkana Sen Sharma as an AD for Death in the Gunj and also helped Nandita Das with Manto right when it was in its early stages. I applied to CalArts because it’s a more experimental school that works with different formats, different narratives. It was the only school I was interested in. So I applied and somehow I got in. I guess there began my filmmaking journey, and here I am making my thesis film.
HG: How did you write the story for Lata? What research did you do and what were some personal introspections you had to have?
AM: Understanding what it means to give a voice to someone is the thing that I, as a director and writer, struggled with the most. There’s inherent privilege that comes with me saying ‘I want to give you a voice’. The first access to the film was not research but me struggling with my own privilege and the initial impulse to make this film. It’s about the concept of invisibility; the domestic space in India is sort of the fulcrum for all these practices. We are completely in denial and unaware of the realities of class and caste that surround us and that we interact with everyday. We have built a system that works so seamlessly that I can go through my entire day without seeing an entire set of people. It was the architecture of the postcolonial home in India that fascinated me. I began to notice how all our spaces both private and public are architecturally designed to keep the service class invisible, from the basement quarters for drivers or the separate rooms for domestic helpers. We initially started writing in L.A., but it felt too distant so we came back to Bombay to finish.
MM: I think the actual writing process came after a lot of research. About 90% of what is on the page has been based on moment that has actually occurred, that we have observed without a bias as far as possible. We carried out a fact-checking process as well.
AM: Most importantly I was here to build relationships with the people I was writing about. It would be so problematic for me to sit and write dialogues about a maid when I have no idea what it’s like. Both the women that work for me, Deepa and Manisha, got more interested and involved in the process. Once the script was done we had readings with them to get their responses and emotional reactions. It was a very humbling moment because even Manisha didn’t realise that Lata is the main character – that we are meant to be watching her, especially in a non-sensationalised way. It made us realise how much cinema reinforces how you view yourself and who gets to be a hero. Ultimately she loved the script and they are both part of our team, handling costumes and make up.
HG: What were some challenges you encountered during the pre-production/planning process?
AM: With any student or independent film, finances are a challenge. We did run a successful crowdfunding campaign, and the decision to do that was actually because it’s a democratic form of funding. It allows for creative autonomy in a way that production houses don’t. I received a lot of resistance to the subject matter of this film, not just from people in the industry but even from my own family. So as much as possible we didn’t want to be tied down.
MM: We also wanted to run an all-female set as much as possible to provide opportunity for women on set. We’re a 90% all-female crew, and it was a challenge because when we asked for recommendations, the natural tendency isn’t to recommend women. The creative vision was the priority so initially we didn’t say no men, but eventually we had to put our foot down and then we just found amazing women without a problem. We also wanted to only cast non-actors from the communities we are representing.
AM: Also, our budget is small and we can’t afford to pay everyone what they’re really worth, but we are trying our best to give as much as we can. People believe in the film. Every person on the team is on board. They still choose to show up, which means that the spirit is here, and that is refreshing and beautiful. It’s an exciting energy of a successfully created ethos of collaboration.
HG: What excites you about the future of independent filmmaking, especially in India?
AM: I wasn’t sure what to expect coming back to India. Here we were, two young girls arriving at one of the most established film industries in the world. There was a lot of not being taken seriously. But I am strongly of the belief that there is space for independent storytelling and it’s continuing to grow. It will take time but it’s changing for sure. It’s not demand that drives this industry, it’s supply. The more we create, the more change we bring.
MM: In our hunt, we found so many beautiful people trying to change the industry, change how we tell stories, change the world. It’s exciting.
Lata goes into production this week. Learn more about the project, the team, release dates and how you can get involved here.
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