NEW DELHI: The world may get a booster for the coronavirus in a year or so, but patriarchy can't be cured with a vaccine, says Shaan Vyas, director of the short film "Natkhat", starring Vidya Balan.
With the runtime of 33 minutes, the short, co-written by Annukampa Harsh and Vyas, follows a child named Sonu who is growing up in a home with men who espouse the "boys will be boys" line of thought, except his mother (Balan).
"The child starts picking up things from his immediate environment more than he does from school," the director said of the film which explores gender inequality, inappropriate behaviour, and domestic violence through a story-within-a-story narrative.
In 2018, Vyas said, there was a spate of gangrapes in the country which flooded the news cycle, but there was one incident that "ticked" him off.
"I don't want to single out the incident but I was really angry. In my own naive way, I was trying to figure out a solution to what I can do around it," he told PTI in an interview over phone from Mumbai.
In his research, the 35-year-old said, he found that the law reforms were largely for the gangrape victims.
"There will be a vaccine for coronavirus sooner or later but there's no vaccine for patriarchy. I felt the solution was for the change to begin at home," the filmmaker, who has produced films like "The Lunchbox", "Masaan" and Oscar winner short doc "Period.End of Sentence", for Sikhya Entertainment, added.
Vyas said initially when he was writing the short alone, he came up with a "very male draft", but after Harsh came on board, "Natkhat" became a "gender equal" film.
"It was a very dry, skeletal draft. Anukampa gave the film its heart and soul.
It appeared more like a man writing about masculinity but missing the female perspective on oppression.
We sort of balanced our energies from right the very beginning," the Mumbai-based producer said.
Last year, director Taika Waititi used a child at the centre of his directorial "Jojo Rabbit", an anti-war satire set in Nazi Germany, to underscore the horrors of blind nationalism.
Similarly, Vyas said he chose a child to drive the point home.
"The society in which our children grow up gives them sensory cues about men being the dominant gender, inequality and discrimination on the basis of colour, which is a very relevant thing today.
"The roles, even in schools, are assigned differently to boys and girls. People with power, like cops, politicians, are male. Plus innocence of a child gives you a little freedom in storytelling. Children can believe things at a certain age."
Interestingly, child actor Sanika Patel, who Harsh found via Instagram, plays Sonu in the film.
"I thought she's recommending Sanika to play the other girls in the film. But Anukampa wanted her for Sonu."
Vyas was initially taken aback but it soon felt like a eureka moment as he was apprehensive about teaching a boy the very misbehaviour which the film targets.
"I felt now I don't need to teach a boy. The acting process changed with Sanika. We asked her to emulate the boys her age, who are pretty much bullies. So many good things happened because of her. It brought a lot of sensitivity to the film.
"Whenever she was acting, she was aware that this is what boys do, which is a bad thing. That 'I will never do this in real life, but I will teach them a lesson and make sure they never do it again'."
The title may be a direct reference to Lord Krishna but the director said the film didn't have that commentary in the beginning.
"The mother refers to Sonu as 'Natkhat Lala' and that came from the fact that this is a religious family from north India. It became a function of the fact that character inhabit that phrase more than a direct reference about Lord Krishna."
Sonu's life in the film mirrors the story his mother conjures up to make his child aware about the dangers of patriarchy.
Vyas said they initially wanted to root the story in mythology but since nothing fit, they decided to create their own story.
"It was again Annukampa who came up with the use of existing fantasy element tropes of kings and queens, which made the story children friendly."
Other than Sonu, every character in the family is identified as in relation to the child.
"Women in our countries are not really called by their names, more by their roles, so this was another conscious decision. We had names for the characters in the script but the opportunity to name them while shooting didn't arise. It sometimes becomes tricky to write names while writing dialogues," he added.
Balan, who turned producer with "Natkhat", brought a mass appeal to the film, the filmmaker said.
RSVP's Ronnie Screwvala is also attached as co-producer.
"Having her onboard as an actor and a producer makes the film accessible to a wide range of audience," he said. The film doesn't stop at lip service with an apology from the child - potential bully-turned-empowered young person - but goes one step ahead showing him implement the change he is now driven to see.
"I think the difference between intention and action is something most men struggle with a lot. As a man, when I was writing the script, I felt saying 'sorry' should be enough. It was contested very ably by Annukampa that 'No, sorry is not enough'."
Vyas is working on another short which he wrote under lockdown.
"I would love to keep producing as well as empowering other voices," he added.