INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Shakti Bhagchandani
Shakti Bhagchandani is a writer and filmmaker currently based in New York. She is the first screenwriter/director from the UAE to have had her films play at the Sundance Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinematek, Chicago International Film Festival, Palm Springs International Shortfest, and others.
Having experienced the cultural differences between where she came from and where she is now has given her a heightened sense for storytelling, and Shakti’s stories challenge the comfortable expectations of society. Her recent narrative short film How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom follows the story of three sisters amidst the toxic world of pageantry and patriotism.
Shakti skyped me from New York where we talked about growing up with educational restrictions in the UAE and her transition from theatre into filmmaking.
Adelle: How has your upbringing in the UAE has influenced you as a filmmaker and storyteller?
Shakti: I’m very lucky because my mum loved to read and write. She used to write poetry when I was younger so I grew up reading her poetry. I started reading very young and really veraciously. I was the only one in my family that loved to read so she and I bonded over that.
My mum never censored books for me – which is what my school was doing. At the beginning of every class we’d have to black out all the bad words and partake in censorship. At home, my mum never did that. I was always curious about what was behind those blacked out words. I didn’t understand why stories had to be fragmented like that. My mum also encouraged me to write, and all throughout high school I was writing short stories and poems and then when I was in the ninth grade I had this one incredible English teacher who gave me To Kill A Mockingbird. She was the first teacher to give me a book uncensored and that changed my life. I knew, “I want to be a writer.”
Talk me through some of those first stories that inspired you and captured your imagination.
To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most important book. Also, there was another novel my mum gave me when I was too young to read it, it was called The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. That was one of the most beautiful books I ever read. It was very controversial material. One of the early films I saw (which was a pirated copy) was Boys Don’t Cry which I couldn’t believe. It changed my life in trying to understand how identities are and how people can’t be put in boxes, we belong in so many groups.
All of your past theatre shows and films are in black and white not colour, why have you made that choice?
It used to be a joke in my family that I was colour blind because I was always really bad with colours and couldn’t identify them the way that other people could. Things that had too many colours would confuse me and I didn’t like looking at them. I didn’t realise until quite recently that I feel so much safer in greyscale than I do in colour.
What was your experience growing up in the UAE while also trying to find your way creatively as an artist?
Well, I got kicked out of high school because I failed. Our school was in the British system and I had done really well and been a good student. Then in my first year of A levels I just failed everything. I got so disaffected by how myopic my education was. There was no literature and arts or anything aside from cold science and math. I completely checked out of high school.
My Mum said to me, well you’re just going to end up living in Dubai for the rest of your life now. You’ll never go to college or anything. I begged her and said, please give me another few years to get my life in order and I’ll find a way to re-sit my A levels somewhere.
Then you went on to study abroad in the UK. So it sounds like your mother was very liberal and open.
My mum is so liberal compared to everybody else in her own family and most people in the UAE. She’s kind of secretive about the fact she is liberal so when it’s just her and I together she is really open minded and wants to live through me in a way. She wanted to write when she was younger and that was never an option for her.
It’s so important to have supportive people around you, especially as an artist when you’re trying to go through doors that are all closed.
Especially because art isn’t something you pursue in the UAE. It’s just not. There is a local art world now but it is subject to censorship and banning. You’re never really allowed to appreciate art in its fullest. Some art and film do exist in free zones – the Dubai Film Festival and the Abu Dabi Film Festival, they are in free zones. For those specific days and in that specific location there is no censorship but it’s only people who can afford to go or who have been invited who will be able to see a film uncensored.
So that instantly segregates a whole portion of people.
Absolutely and everybody else will just go to the regular cinema and will see a film cut in half. For example, The Wolf of Wall Street was cut down to 45 minutes when it was screening in cinemas in Dubai versus its original 180 minute run time.
Did you have your own frustrating experience when networking for your projects in the UAE?
In the hopes of getting funding for a few feature films I was developing, I submitted scripts to several local institutions and they would respond with, “this isn’t consistent with the religious, moral and cultural values of the UAE.” This is the refrain that you hear all the time. We don’t have anybody who is skilled in the UAE to work in the film industry, so these people are all ex-pats too. They are Western born. These are the people who told me that my film wasn’t consistent with the values of the UAE. I would get a document with a list of things you couldn’t have in a film.
In one example I pitched an idea about a woman who cross dresses as a man, who then falls in love with another man. A Western producer was the one who responded to me to say, “this isn’t consistent with the values of the UAE.” It was the first time the veil was truly lifted. I really realised that all the things I felt growing up, all the things I was curious about and not able to research or read in books. Watching films with black screens pasted over the top of them. All of it I had known but I hadn’t had it affect what I wanted to do up until this point.
How bizarre that a Westerner is the one being a gate-keeper for a value system they are not a part of.
If you move to the UAE from the west for the opportunity you have to turn a blind eye and essentially say, “the liberties that I have in my own country the people don’t have here and I’m ok with that.”
When you returned to Dubai after college in the UK, how long were you home before you realised that to grow as an artist you needed to live elsewhere?
I was there for 4 months. At this time I realised too that theatre wasn’t the right medium to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Theatre can be shut down. They need physical spaces and people involved to be there at a specific times, everybody becomes vulnerable. Whereas film has always been able to worm its way into our lives because of piracy and torrenting.
The internet changed everything. To be able to pirate films was huge. One of my favourite shows growing up was South Park and we were watching it when we were so young. It’s how we accessed the rest of the world.
Exactly, so before people had to actually smuggle in physical media and DVDs. Then suddenly the internet meant you didn’t have to risk that anymore.
That was huge. That’s why I think theatre isn’t able to enter our subconsciousness in the same way. It relies on spaces and people to be somewhere physically. People can be thrown out and the lights can be turned off and police can come and catch you. I love theatre but it isn’t the right medium right now.
You are quoted in another article recounting an incident when a school teacher told you to “stop cooking imaginary rice.” What does that phrase mean?
It means stop making rice you can never eat. “Khayali pilau,“ it’s a Hindi/Urdu saying.
I was in the eighth grade and in our first English class for the year we were doing a writing exercise and the teacher gave me an A for what I wrote. It was the first time I got to write creatively, I was so happy. I went up to her and she said I was very talented, so I said, “I really want to write a novel when I grow up and win the Booker Prize one day.” She laughed and said stop making imaginary rice. What was so heartbreaking was it didn’t even matter that she knew I was good.
She acknowledged you were talented but still told you not to bother.
It happened one more time. We had another creative writing exercise later in the year and I wrote about my Dad having a heart attack. She loved it so much I went up to the front of the class and read it aloud. I went up to her again and said, “now do you think I can be a writer.” She said again, stop making imaginary rice.
That’s sad because teachers are meant to inspire and lift you up.
Something people don’t realise is it’s not just men that do the policing. Women are also policing women. Your teacher, your aunt, your friends mum. They’re the ones telling you not to speak up, not to talk to boys, to cover your hair. So, a lot of my women teachers made me feel I could never break this.
You’re paving a path that hasn’t been trodden before. What advice would you have for other young filmmakers in the UAE and the Gulf?
The number one thing would be – it’s not imaginary rice. You can eat that rice! I would also say not to be so certain. I grew up my whole life being confused about everything. Why do people love who they love and why people wanted to look different. I used to think that confusion makes me stupid and as I’ve gotten older, well I’m still confused about everything but I’m proud that I’m confused. It’s wiser to be confused than it is to be certain. Certainty is shallow. Be confused and question everything.
*This transcript has been edited and condensed for length.