The climax of Bollywood cult classic Sholay (embers), has repeatedly brought audiences to tears since it first released in 1975. The emotional scene of thespian Amitabh Bachchan’s character Jai dying is a watershed moment in Indian cinema. Nineteen years later, as Jai breathed his last in the arms of his best friend Veeru on a TV screen in London, eight-year-old Reshel Shah Kapoor switched between awe and tears as the iconic character died repeatedly when her mum rewound their rental VHS tape during the family’s weekly movie nights. A revelation took birth in the mind of the young girl: ‘films are magical.’
Twenty-four years later, Reshel still resides in that world of endless creative possibilities. The embers of Sholay blazed into a flaming passion for filmmaking that bagged the British-Indian documentary filmmaker a repertoire of awards, accolades and a sense of purpose that she instils daily in young cinephiles as the senior film lecturer at the SAE institute in Dubai.
‘My mum had to explain how all of it’s fake,’ the 32-year-old laughs, reminiscing her naivety.
As we settle into conversation in the breakroom at SAE’s Dubai campus in Knowledge Village, the naivety is absent but the wonder still hasn’t left Reshel’s eyes. Movies and the stories they tell move her and currently holding pride of place in her life is God Children. Her 56-minute documentary feature film that won the 2018 BroadcastPro ME award chronicles the lives of Arshad and Pranshu, two young boys from rural Punjab who have been deified by their communities for being special needs children. In rural areas, the innocence of children with life-threatening congenital deformities is drowned in a quagmire of superstition and poverty.
Since its release last year, the documentary has done the rounds of film festivals, has been picked up by British distribution company Journeyman Films and even had a premiere screening at Dubai’s Cinema Akil. Reshel finds all the attention she’s receiving as a director flattering and validating, but the real gratification comes from being able to give 17-year-old Arshad and 10-year-old Pranshu a platform to speak their truth. Like any good storyteller, it’s the protagonists who matter to her.
‘They are magnificent! The moment [I met them] there was an instant connection and that helped us capture raw emotional moments in the film such as Arshad’s anger at being denied the opportunity to lead a normal life.’
Can a gritty documentary film that’s grounded in facts stranger than fiction, with no closure or happy ending, break through the collective bubble of escapism that most films promise?
Reshel’s rationale is simple: ‘If God Children is only seen by a 1,000 people, at least a 1,000 people have heard their voice.’
Recent studies hold a more uplifting view. Data from the British Film Institute show the number of documentaries produced in UK cinemas grew from a meagre four in 2001 to a whopping 86 in 2015. Time magazine called documentaries ‘the hottest genre of summer of 2018.’
Reshel’s romance with the multi-faceted genre has lasted more than one summer and she has for years (since her first documentary film Black Sheep in 2015) championed the creative, technical and stylistic opportunities of the genre that quite often plays second fiddle to fictional feature films. The fact that it does all that while unearthing the truth behind a person or event is the icing on the cake.
Reshel breaks it down: ‘It’s pure reality because it’s the contributors — the protagonists — who are telling the story. There might be days where nothing happens and then next day three main events unfold. We just capture that and piece together the puzzle of subtext behind everything during the post-production process, which is actually the most creative aspect. Then you work with your composer to bring those emotions through music and you colour the film a particular way to tell a message’.
Unlike fiction, very few elements of documentary films can be manipulated. But done well, they push the story forward sublimely. Explains Reshel: ‘Where the interview is going to be set up, what the contributor wears, capturing personal ticks that reflect an unsaid emotion, that’s the beauty of documentary films.’
She goes to great lengths to make something poignant of the stories that inspire her — working after school hours editing footage from 6pm-5am and scouring inaccessible places for her protagonists are just some. For Black Sheep, a stirring examination of gender equality offered to India’s transgender community, Reshel spent 40 days in Mumbai’s slums after a chance encounter with them at her wedding celebrations. The film won her the Human Rights Filmmaker Award at the World Human Rights Film Festival in 2016.
To get God Children off the ground, she travelled to hinterlands of Northern India in the dead of winter and spent a month recording Arshad and Pranshu’s daily lives. ‘The buzz from learning the truth’ is the true north to Reshel’s story-telling compass. Today, with the spotlight usually on those from the world of glamour, Reshel has chosen to illuminate social causes instead, from issues related to women and children’s rights in her documentaries such as The Undertaker that’s about social worker Ashraf Thamarassery’s decades-long effort in repatriating dead bodies of expatriates.
‘The idea has to be something you want to learn about. I always tell my students to find something that triggers them — it could be something you know a lot about or something you know very little about but want to learn more about.’
That motto sums up how Reshel stumbled into the idea for God Children. Working late one night at SAE, the conversation between Reshel and her colleagues turned to the evolution of religion during the course of a midnight milkshake run. The conversation triggered a memory of a news report she’d read from six years ago about Lakshmi Tatma (now 13-years-old), a young girl who was born with four arms and four legs because her conjoined twin didn’t develop fully in the womb. The village saw her as an incarnation of Hindu deity Lakshmi but her parents wanted to operate her, and went into hiding because a circus company wanted to make a sideshow of her. ‘That the need for hope has to live in a human child is quite scary.’
The next day, in the midst of invigilating an exam, a quick Google search on similar children in India led Reshel to 10 similar cases and YouTube videos of Arshad and Pranshu, where they professed to enjoying their divine roles. Equipped with nothing but their first names and the imprecise knowledge that they’re located in Punjab — a state of 27.98 million people — Reshel texted her Associate Producer Mohammed Hamati with the impossible task of finding the boys.
‘It’s like a needle in a haystack. And yet, he found them in three weeks.’ A week later Reshel and her team of colleagues from SAE landed in Chandigarh and met the boys. ‘We instantly realised they didn’t like being deities and didn’t crave the power that position entailed.
‘The clouds opened and lightning struck and I knew I’m the one that’s meant to tell the story,’ Reshel says, quoting her idol Werner Herzog on what inspiration feels like. She’s never met him in the flesh, but she considers the feted German filmmaker a major influence and a mentor of sorts. ‘I mean I’ve tweeted him but he’s never responded,’ she chuckles sheepishly, quickly transitioning to conviviality from the outrage she felt minutes ago at the injustice society had meted out to Arshad and Pranshu.
This infectious refusal to cow down to the harsh realities of the field makes her both a good filmmaker and lecturer, who manages to ‘convince at least one student every semester to change their mind about documentaries’.
It’s not just documentaries she’s batting for but also the students. In her own words, she aims to be ‘an armour and a support system’ for them, like her older sister who convinced their apprehensive parents (accountant mother and businessman father) that filmmaking was Reshel’s destiny and she should be allowed to pursue a BA (Hons) Film Production at Bournemouth Arts University. ‘She enrolled me into a film summer camp to ensure I was serious. I’m indebted to her deeply.’
Occasionally stepping into her sister’s shoes and convincing prospective and existing student’s parents that filmmaking is an employable industry, and assuaging their fears of a liberal arts degree culminating in nothing but debts, is part of her role as lecturer at SAE.
‘I get their fear. Funding is hard to come by and it’s the recognition I received from Broadcast Pro ME that’s generated a lot of interest — I wrote to 300 production houses and thankfully Aum Media’s Kish Pagarani responded and joined the team as my executive producer. A lot of people believe that filmmaking is for free. No, we can get paid well and we get good jobs out of it.’
She sights examples of filmmaking opportunities within the UAE — such as Ras Al Khaimah’s fine arts grant for documentary film making, or Sharjah Children’s Film Festival opening up to filmmakers who are 30 plus. ‘Diff becoming biannual was heartbreaking, but I believe that the film industry isn’t in one country, it’s in you. You go where the story goes.’
Reshel is a prime example, having returned to India thrice now to chase stories; she moved to the UAE nine years ago on the strength of a simple Google search on ‘where is the film industry growing now’. The reasons that instigated that search and her decision to strike out and join a production company in the UAE are anything but reductive: ‘When I graduated, the recession had hit the UK hard and funding for film and art was reduced. From 12,000 jobs there were only 120.’
Her three-year stint as a producer helped her learn the ropes of team management, communication, multitasking and scheduling, leading her to the lecturer position at SAE.
Things are looking up for Reshel after the Broadcast Pro ME win. She has a film underway in India that dissects the pros and cons of how children of female prisoners who are raised within the jail until the age of six integrate into normal society when they’re separated from their mothers and sent off to boarding school. The other film, which is in development stage, is a women-empowerment docu-series that aims to correct the misrepresentation of women in hijab and focuses on the people underneath the veil.
Documentaries, Reshel knows, don’t always offer the hopeful escapism of fiction, but they can inspire change: ‘When you watch a documentary, it takes you somewhere you’ve never been, you meet new people and you see the world through their eyes. To me that’s the truest form of hope.’