Director Aarti Neharsh’s debut short film, The Song We Sang, explores the idea of choices one makes. Do we regret our decisions or consider them as transformative moments? By Ayushi Sharma
When two people meet in a chance encounter and instantly have a connection, we often attribute it to luck and discredit the beauty of a conscious choice leading to that epiphany. Filmmaker Aarti Neharsh’s debut short film, The Song We Sang, produced by Green Chutney Films, explores the idea of such choices. Would you regret them or would you consider them as transformative moments? Two stranger women, Krishna and Alia (played by Serena Walia and Ayushi Gupta), meet on a festive night of Navratri. Romance blossoms between them as they walk the night in the lanes of Ahmedabad, exchanging mythology trivia, laughter, street food and experiences of life only to realise it could lead to more.
Recently, you had said, “Two women freely roaming the city, sharing a safe space in the absence of a patriarchal gaze and falling in love was something that I’ve longed to see on screen. This was a very instinctive thought for this love story...” What did you want to showcase through this simple yet powerful vision?
I majored in film and TV in college. One day, one of my friends, who was also studying with me, showed me some beautiful pictures that he had taken of Pune at night — the empty streets and the glaring lights. I had just bought a new DSLR then and I remember being really motivated to try my hand at street photography for the first time. So when I was in Mumbai, I took my DSLR out and decided to spend two days walking down the lanes of the city without a definitive plan, taking pictures (I had mapped out an itinerary of the locals I was going to take to make good use of my time). But when I actually got down to doing so, I didn’t find it as fulfilling and liberating as I had hoped it to be. I found myself looking back every five minutes, pulling down my shirt everytime I bent to take a photograph, avoiding dark lanes and quiet corners and prioritising my safety over a good shot. It resonated deeply with an American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath’s words: “Yes, my consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars — to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording — all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel West, to walk freely at night...”
In this film, I tried showing an ideal version of this reality — one where the city is a safe space for love, a dreamworld (which hopefully becomes a reality) where two women can immerse themselves in their conversations and just enjoy their night the way they wish to.
You said that while writing the film, your co-writer Chintan Bhatt and you were conscious of the nuances of the genre. How did you rein everything in?
Conversational films were always something that both Chintan and I have been drawn towards, especially when it comes to love stories. We’ve been huge fans of films where dialogue has led the way for two people to come together. To do justice to this genre, it was important that we understood the heart of the film. The chemistry between Krishna and Alia was always central and we approached every conversation, trying to make sure that they seem both magical and believable at the same time. This set-up of a first-meet romance automatically gave us a structure that we could play within — one where they go from awkward silences, getting to knowing each other to gradually stripping down their guards and becoming vulnerable. We used elements like stories, anecdotes as well as some powerful songs in their conversations such as ‘Kai Baar Yuhi Dekha Hai’ from Rajnigandha and ‘Na Jaane Kyun’ from Chhoti Si Baat to give a warm and nostalgic mood to it. Also, people have commented on how this was an ode to Basu Chatterjee’s films. I want to take this moment to mention that this was actually a homage to the stunning Vidya Sinha who played the female lead in both the above-mentioned films. She, unfortunately, passed away last year while we were making this film.
Keeping in mind the mood and the cultural backdrop that form the texture of the film, how does the Navratri backdrop connect with the storyline?
Having my roots in Ahmedabad, Navratri has always been that time of the year when this otherwise stiff city loosens up a little and comes to life. I was never a good dancer and so I was usually more drawn to what happened outside the loud garba grounds. People like me are usually out on the streets, laughing, flirting and eating without any time-bound commitments. There is a sense of liberation during these nine nights of the festival (very much contrary to the celebration of the unflawed “divine feminine” that Navratri originally stands for). Considering this film is about an instant connection between two women and a night of romance, this cultural set-up fit really well. Also, I am a sucker for pretty ghaghras so maybe that might have subconsciously played a role.
Do you think films around the queer community still provoke debates and controversies despite attempts to normalise conversations?
I am a huge fan of conversational films, especially when it comes to love stories. But I wouldn’t say I chose a topic to tell this story. It stemmed more from choosing a genre that I was keen on exploring as my first film. I don’t think that creative endeavours are always driven by thoughts like what ignites controversy and what doesn’t. Of course, there is the politics of the film, which is pretty apparent in what the story is and how it is told. But I think ultimately, for me and my team, this was an honest attempt to explore a love story in a world that was closer to ours. It was an initiative to bring something fresh on screen by exploring our understanding of the craft of filmmaking.
Having said that, it was a conscious choice to show a queer love story, normalising the relationship by not contrasting their love with any external backlash. The protagonists are not seeking societal approvals or trying to convince the world of their sexual orientation, but are unapologetically walking the city and just breathing in the night of romance and comfort.
Chance encounters have been a common leitmotif in films. What was your approach while exploring this idea?
Both Krishna and Alia have lived very different pasts. The fears that they hold today, their hopes and desires, to a large extent, have been shaped by the choices they have made so far. We are after all a product of our choices — be it conscious ones or even the ones that might have seemed inconsequential at the moment. These two characters are never passive receivers of their surroundings but are constantly making choices. Their decision to ditch the garba event and choosing to roam the streets with each other is in itself a way of making them responsible for this time together. I believe that is what makes the night even more special and romantic. Besides this, there are also certain choices they might not be aware of, which have led them here. We have tried to explore those possibilities not just in the narrative of the film but also in its structure.
Since it is a short film, exploring the warmth of an instant connection, heartbreak and choices, how do you think they make an impact on the masses?
When has duration not been a problem? (chuckles) The best reactions we have gotten on the film so far have been that it has made them feel something — be it warmth of an instant connection or a heartbreak that made their eyes moist. Like I mentioned, while writing and even while editing the film, our one truth was the chemistry between Krishna and Alia. From writing every conversation that leads to something bigger to maintaining the pace and rhythm of the story, choosing small moments, glances, reactions in the edit — everything was choreographed keeping in mind the one aim to make these two characters and the energy they share come alive. It was actually interesting to not have my editor (also the co-producer of the film), Manan Bhatt on set and also, to have him step in creatively only when the film was at its post-production stage. This helped in giving it a fresh and unbiased perspective in the edit — something that is always the hardest for a director because you are just so attached with every good moment captured that you just don’t want to let them go! So to pull all of it off in 20 minutes was definitely a challenge but a fun one.
How do think the streaming platforms can impact the short film space?
Streaming platforms can hugely impact the short film space as I think short films are where the next crop of cinematic storytellers will emerge. And just how streaming platforms are now relieving feature films of various limitations, dependencies and length boundations, they can really help budding production houses by providing them a financially-viable model for short films. This will also allow young and independent filmmakers to focus on the craft itself.
Being a debut film for me and my team, it has been challenging because such a model for short films is unfortunately still close to absent but I am very hopeful that it will improve in the coming years with OTTs and so many streaming options.
Such an issue might not find a place in the mainstream cinema. How do you think short films are the right medium to present such ironies to the audience?
I humbly disagree to the claim that such films might not find a place in the mainstream cinema. I believe and hope that our understanding of mainstream cinema itself will evolve with the advent of not just new-age filmmakers but with a healthier competition between platforms and theatrical releases. Our country has so many different pockets of people with such varied stories to tell. It is a matter of time that with the tremendous exposure to world cinema and foreign content, which is accessible so easily now, there will be a surge of demand for feature films which are unique on our shores as well.
Having said that, like I mentioned, the short-film space is an important avenue that needs an equally strong model to sustain, especially considering the digital age and the changing needs and modes of watching films.
Were there any stereotypes that you had to hear?
Stereotypes exist in every field and in everything that one does. Isn’t it? But I think identifying those stereotypes presents an opportunity to pave something unique. It is important that we realise that stereotypes are not norms but are meant to be identified rightly and broken. One way of doing that is by creating something that challenges that thought.
(The film will have its India Premiere at 11th edition of Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival.)