Nelson Mandela once famously said that “the true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” But if you look at Indian cinema, especially of late, the children are missing. We rarely have films with child/teen protagonists, or have narratives that show them with sensitivity.
“The new mainstream is brimming with dystopia and men writing about bodies of women, the same old heartland, etc... What are children watching?” asks Megha Ramaswamy. This was the question that pushed Megha to make What Are The Odds? that landed on Netflix recently.
What Are The Odds? may be Megha’s feature debut, but the writer-director is no newcomer. She worked as a screenwriter for the 2011-black comedy Shaitan, and went on to make two critically-acclaimed shorts — Newborn and Bunny. It would have been easy to make another ‘serious film’. “But I didn’t want to do it. India is being defined by its bylanes and slums. Amid this cynicism, I wanted to create a safe space for children.
Also, we wanted to show the audience the importance of a well-made film, and also stay true to their world. To have imagination and stretch it a bit,” says Megha. It wasn’t easy, however.
“The script was written ten years ago. No one was really producing children’s films then. One fine day, Abhay and I were talking about something and this script came up casually. And he said to do it, and that’s how it happened.”
One of the pleasant surprises of What Are The Odds?, is how ‘adult and aware’ the conversations between the protagonists sound. The theory Vivek has, for example, about his father deserting them, is that he is queer; she hopes that he is happy somewhere in a bright red dress, living the life he wanted. It was even more surprising to learn that the writer is 17-year old Shreya Vaidya.
“There’s a sense of peace and rebellion in the film, and in Shreya’s writing, which is refreshing. We knew we were disrupting the normal here. Usually, they are shown to be romantic, trying to date each other. That doesn’t necessarily belong to a 17-year-old’s scape of life.” Megha wanted this normalcy to be juxtaposed with the whimsy that’s also part of a 17-year-old’s imagination. “Which 40-year-old man can do this? 40-year-old men in India can only write about gangsters,” she laughs.
These were the kinds of films that Megha missed growing up. As a single child with working parents, Megha spent a lot of time with her grandparents, and in a world of stories. But she couldn’t find films that reflected her sensibilities on screen.
“What films were we getting in the 90s? Most of them were sexist, with unwarranted use of bullet-bras,” she says sourly. And thus, she turned to international films and was awestruck with the work of filmmakers like John Hughes. “I was devastated the day I learnt he was no more. In fact, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was one of the inspirations for What Are The Odds?,” she admits.
But the filmmaker is exasperated about the constant comparison with Wes Anderson’s work. “This is also why I feel film journalism is a bit warped in India. The red tracksuit is an homage to my favourite character from Saturday Night Live. The film is more in Roy Andersson’s zone. I am his biggest fan, films like Du Levande (You, The Living). When men make gangster films and pay homages to their favourite work, we say wow. But when women make something very feminine, the reviews aren’t even well researched.”
However, Megha is pleasantly surprised by the love the film has received from its audience. The film has been trending on Netflix, and the fan art has been pouring in. “I thought we were doing something very experimental, wondering how the audience would respond. We didn’t expect it to do so well. No matter how critically-acclaimed and festival-driven my past work has been, this acceptance is gratifying, especially from a young audience.”
The biggest takeaway she says, is showing a relatable character like Vivek for younger women. “30-year-old women are playing the schoolgirls, and they are talking about marriage and rape at the end of the day. Nobody is saying things like ‘I would want to vote for things like music or art, things l believe in’.”
This is why the film is getting a lot of love, she states. It should be normal to talk about art, for kids to be clumsy, to have pimples. “Our film has blood too, but it is period blood. We need to start seeing this aspect of life as well, that the world can be your oyster. We just want people to be happy, and be authentic about what they feel.”
Megha refuses to classify herself as an ‘indie filmmaker’. “I don’t belong anywhere,” she chuckles. But she strongly iterates that there is space for everyone, and it is time for us to stop being obsessed with genres.
“A lot of young filmmakers believe that there is only one way to go about making cinema. It is considered that if you make a ‘serious cinema’, you are a good filmmaker. That’s the narrative that has been pushed down our throats. A well-made fun film is also a good film.”