Director Karishma Dev Dube says she first approached her short film Bittu out of anger, but she eventually made up her mind to anchor the story in friendship and in her own childhood.
Dube’s 17-minute short film is set on the day of the tragic poisoning with school meals in Bihar in 2013, from which 23 children died. He focuses on the bond between two girls, Bittu and Chand, to humanize the life that could have been.
Bittu is one of the 10 films that are shortlisted Best live action short film segment the 93rd Academy Awards. The film will be vying for a spot in the final five, which will be announced on March 15th.
In an interview with PTI over a phone call, the New York-based filmmaker recalled experiencing “inexplicable anger” while reading about the tragedy in a newspaper.
“It just never left me, the feeling of anger that I felt. I remember the face of a deceased child, ”said Dube, who completed her MFA at New York University’s Graduate Film program table.
The 31-year-old filmmaker said she initially tried to structure a story about the tragedy in 2015, but nothing came right. She then directed her acclaimed 2017 short film Devi, before returning to Bittu that year.
This time she started from scratch and realized that the story will only work if she personalizes it.
“It didn’t work when I tried to do it from a place of anger. It only came together when I started humanizing them and making them more personal. My intention was to re-imagine what their life must have been like before something terrible happened, ”she said.
In Bittu, Dubey uses a spirited nine-year-old in the title role to subtly comment on the country’s toxic educational space, its discriminatory attitudes towards children, and her own conflicts with authority as a young student.
Most of the years Dube grew up, the character of Bittu is rooted in her sister Shreya, who is also involved in the short film as a producer and cameraman.
Bittu embodied what Dube had experienced between the ages of 10 and 18 at Welham boarding school in Dehradun.
“I was a shy kid in school and grew up much more freely. I had a difficult relationship with authority in which I denied how certain power dynamics exist in India. That came out in Bittu. It’s also a lot of what I couldn’t and what I imagined, “she said.
“My sister was, as the faculty would call, naughty. But she was much more open and could use her voice. From a young age I could tell the difference in treatment for myself and my sister – a shy child and a street-smart girl beyond her years. I have never forgotten that. “
The director wanted Bittu not to have an exploitative look. She wanted to honor socialmediagossips who become statistics in a tragedy.
“We scroll through our phones and see tragic events on the news where this type of violence normalizes and socialmediagossips become characters. India is a big country so socialmediagossips who experience these things firsthand become faceless and invisible.
“I wanted to create a world in which I could make a film about these socialmediagossips, but not too didactic or preaching either. I didn’t want to make the rural area of the country, the death or the violence of the incident sensational.
With an in-house NYU grant, Dube put together a production team to bring the film to the ground.
She flew from New York to Delhi in 2018, where she was born and her family currently lives, and opened a Kickstarter campaign to fund her production. Another scholarship towards the end of the film helped her complete post-production.
In India, Dube found the perfect location for Bittu in Koti, Dehradun. That she already knew the place only helped Dube, who turned an organic farm into a state school and moved there in January 2019 because of one of the most important aspects of the Bittu casting.
The team created a structure of playful workshops with local children and acted out them to find out who could give directions and meet the bill two months before it went to theaters.
“Rani entered the process after a few weeks. She was amazing and we had an instant connection. She was sharp and eager to learn. I found Renu Kumari, who plays Chand, in the same community, which was important to me – to find two girls who already knew each other. “
However, Dube initially had doubts with locals unsure whether their children were selected for a film, given the skeletal crew of just 21 the director had put together.
While instantly connecting with the children, Dube had to work hard to gain the adults’ trust in the community.
“At first they were confused. I didn’t do a Bollywood movie, I didn’t have a lot of money. It took adults some time to know and trust me what I was doing. They didn’t even believe me that a crew would come until they got there! “
The team shot bittu for eight hours for six consecutive days, with the children’s parents, sometimes even their siblings, on-set.
“Because of this, the children felt a conducive atmosphere to play the way they wanted. The overall goal of the theater workshop was to help them turn off the world and just listen to me, hear my direction. We created a confidence bubble between me, the kids, the camera and my sister. “
Prior to the academy’s announcement, Dube called the movie’s trip “bizarre” because it’s unusual for a short film to be so widely used.
“I always pinch myself. I still wake up in shock. I am stressed and also anxious. The film was always bigger than me from the start. I am grateful that we have made it so far, literally on the basis of nothing. It has been confirmed for me as a filmmaker.
“I am hopeful, I have a great country behind me, and all of your hopes, blessings and energies go far. I want to take it home Even if I don’t, it’s okay. I am proud of what we have achieved, ”she added.
Bittu is presented by Indian Women Rising (IWR), a cinema collective recently formed by Ekta Kapoor, Tahira Kashyap Khurrana, Guneet Monga and Ruchikaa Kapoor.