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TORONTO:Indo-Canadian filmmaker Brinda Murlidhar is basking in the aftermath of her debut film Knot Not!
Premiered in October, the film is many sub-themes rolled into one – it is about the transplantation of Indian culture in foreign lands, it is cross-cultural conflicts in the homes of the diaspora community, it is about the rampant subjugation of the Indian wife, it is about the beauty of the Indian culture where people rally around in times of crises and finally it is about the younger Indian generation in foreign lands having its way.
Brinda has not only superbly directed the film but also played one of the lead roles in the film. Here is an interview with her:
Q: Tell us something about your background. Is it from theatre/drama? When did you get interested in drama/theatre?
A: Stage, theatre and drama have always been a major part of my life. My father late M.V. Ramachandra Rao was a writer and director. His inspiration was his older brother M.V. Narayana Rao. Their passion for stage and cinema kind of had everyone in our family involve in theatre in one way or the other. A very big chunk of my childhood was spent watching my father conduct rehearsals, and they are my cherished memories. My sister Vatsala Narayan studied drama as her major and I used to accompany her for rehearsals. Later, during my school days one of my teachers introduced me to Samudaya a progressive theatre group. Although started as a hobby, I had the opportunity to take up theatre seriously and pursue my passion. I was also a drama artist at All India Radio Mysore.
Q: How and when did you meet your husband?
A: Again it was the theatre that brought us together. I met Murali the very first day I went to audition for Samudaya’s Production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Woman Shezuwan. I was thrilled when I bagged the protagonist role. Well, Murali was the quirkiest actor I had ever met. He was famous for creating most outrageous and out-of-the-box moments out of any character he played. Our entire team used to wait for what hilarious moments he would spring, especially in any serious situation in a play. We both worked together on stage for couple of years, before deciding to tie the knot!
The rehearsals were held every evening from 7pm to 9:30pm or so for 3-4 months in the campus of Sharada Vilas College, Mysore. There were only couple of girls in a team of 30-40 men and they used to make sure that the girls safely reached home. Incidentally, Murali was assigned to drop me back home after the rehearsals. I used to be on my bicycle and he would accompany me on his Luna Moped. It was hilarious for me and annoying for him. Because on a hilly road, his rattling Luna would be dragging while I used to zoom past him on my bicycle and tease him to catch me up!
Q: You worked in Dubai for some time? Did you follow theatre there?
A: We were in Dubai for about 5 years. It was good in terms of learning to live a structured life and getting some economic stability. But artistically, it was as dry as the desert sand. In the circles we were in, we did not find a suitable platform to pursue theatre. So nobody even knew about our theatre background.
Q: When and why did you move to Canada? You wanted to go back to India but your husband wanted to come here. Why did you both differ?
A: Murali always wanted to move to North America to pursue his IT career. But, I was very reluctant, because of two things. One, my parents were getting old and I did not want to move any farther from them. Secondly, I missed our theatre life. Moving to an unknown country and having to start everything from scratch with no hope of ever getting back on stage was a terrifying prospect for me. Murali had found out that Canada’s immigration policy was very conducive to bring our families. But, I insisted that we go back to Mysore and pursue our halted acting careers. After months of debate, he finally said he had studied the art scenario in Canada and that we could do lot of theatre here. That is when I knew how bent he was to move here. Although, at that time, I laughed it off saying it was a farfetched idea, I am so glad we came to the right place at the right time. We moved to Canada in October 2000. I feel we are very fortunate to be in this beautiful country that has allowed us to live a life that we dreamed of.
Q: How did you start theatre in Canada?
A: Well, the credit goes to Kannada Sangha Toronto (KST), that we call our home away from home. It is a socio-cultural organization for people from Karnataka. KST was our first stage and our Kannada friends here were our first audience. Whatever we are today, we owe it all to the tremendous encouragement we have received from the KST and its wonderful members. Our association with KST started within a month of moving to Canada. Our first stage production was a Punjabi Bhangra dance in Kannada language that we staged in 2001. Since then, we went on to write, direct and produce plays, musicals for not only KST, but also for Rangmanch Canada, SAWITRI theatre group and so on. I also worked under Canadian Director Sally Jones of Rasik Arts, whose contribution to Indian theatre in Canada has been immense.
Q: You formed your own non-profit to promote theatre/drama among the Kannada community in GTA. Why?
A: Well, KalaaRanga Performing Arts is a progression of our stage works. In the process, we met with many other Indo-Canadian artists. While there were many schools and organizations for music and dance, we did not find any strong platform for stage artists. Murali and I soon realized the potential and the need to create such a platform. This was the reason why we had moved to Canada, and also it was how we could pay tribute to my father and our mentor Samudaya. Along the same principle, we formed KalaaRanga to provide a platform where aspiring actors regardless of their experience or background could come together, get trained, and showcase their art. That is how KalaaRanga was formed. It gives me great pleasure to say that over the years we were able to create opportunities for many many artists. KalaaRanga has successfully produced over a dozen productions from one act quirky plays to intense dramas to mega Bollywood musicals in Kannada, Hindi and English.
Just before I took up Knot Not!, I was working on a pun-filled political satire, hoping to produce it in at least 5 languages with as many teams. If I had done that, I would have been the first one to talk about the impact and influence of The Topi and the Chair, much before the the Topi became a political power emblem in Indian politics!
Q: I guess the idea for Knot Not! came from your husband Murali. Right? And there was an ultimatum by him to you – either this way or the highway.
A: Oh yeah! Murali has a quirky brain. You have seen the movie and there is a defining turning point in Knot Not! That moment is the one he enacted and showed me. I laughed my head off, just like our audience did roar with laughter at that point in the movie. That tiny act, lead us to the story of Knot Not!
Hmm… Murali’s ultimatum!! Around 2006, we got associated with local TV/Film productions in GTA. I did few commercials, short films, a documentary. I helped local filmmakers with scripts, casting, production design, editing etc. I loved editing, it was a new craft. Beyond that, I did not think I had it in me to make a full feature film. But Murali kept insisting that I could do it. Well, for me, stage is not just a passion, it is a way of life. I was happy even if I was doing a small stage production. In 2012, while I was working on my play ‘The Topi and The Chiar’, something snapped for Murali, he said he was no longer interested in supporting me. I was shocked, but I was working with two writers to translate it into Tamil and Hindi, so kept working on it. Then, finally on our anniversary day in October 2012, Murali gave me a very big jolt. He said, there was no point in us living together, and that he was going to walk out of our marriage, unless I immediately took up film-making. I didn’t believe he would carry out his threat, but I was wise enough to understand the meaning and objective of his ultimatum. I put my play aside, and in December 2012, he sent out audition call for artists. And that was that.
Q: How did you develop it into a full-fledged film? I guess you built it around what Murali suggested and fleshed it out piece by piece into a two-hour film.
A: Yes, although Murali’s one minute idea was hilarious, as I started discussing his thought process behind it, I found that he had in his mind, a very deep, very poignant subject. I was instantly drawn to the subject and decided to write a quick script before the idea faded. I called it ‘Venki’. This was in 2009. It had just 5 characters, even the two female leads Patricia and Lakshmi were not in it. We wanted to make a short film of 20 minutes. But we did not get the right cast, so it was shelved. But when I took to filmmaking in 2012, this was my first choice. As we progressed, we capped it to be 45 minutes long. But the layered storyline and the depth of the characters lead us to believe that we needed more time to tell a meaningful story. Our cast and crew supported us.
Amongst them, I should credit Knot Not!’s star Bala Ramanathan who plays Srinivas Iyer, the main antagonist, for strongly insisting that we go for a full feature.
Q: How did you settle on this name – Knot Not!?
A: Frankly speaking, I had no idea what to call this complex story. I had to come up with an enticing title, something that audience would take a second look at. In exploring the subject, I felt that the root cause for children to rebel lies in the bad marriage of their parents. In this case, inequality in the marriage was evident. While one spouse ties themselves to the age old societal rules of the marriage KNOT, the other simply does NOT give a damn. Hence, Knot Not!
Q: How did you choose your cast for the film?
A: Most of the younger generation in the film applied through Mandy.com, while others were sourced out by our friend and zealous community leader Jay Srinivasan. Some are our KalaaRanga artists. Although I had only 5-7 characters, rest of the characters were inspired by the actors themselves. As the audition progressed, I was actually floored by their talent and passion. Just could not say no, so I ended up having 14 characters. I am happy all the characters have come together nicely enriching the experience of Knot Not!. I did not plan to be in front of the camera, I was the last one to audition and get included.
Q: How long it take to shoot the film?
A: Well, if I did the movie today, with the lessons I have learnt, it may take me just about 6-8 months to get the product out. All of us were first timers, including me as the writer and director. We had acting workshops, rigorous dialogue rehearsals and on camera rehearsals. With all that, we managed to shoot 80% of the film in 5 months, considering we were filming mostly on weekends. But, one of our lead actors had to move to USA on work and things did not work out schedule-wise, so it was back to the auditions. Hats off to rest of the cast, who gave their time to shoot it all again. After the filming was completed, we found that our audio was not of good quality in many parts of the film. So, with not enough finances to engage a studio, we built the audio-booth ourselves, and dubbed the entire film. That added considerable time. So in all it took us well over 3 years to complete the movie since we started filming in May of 2013.
Q: There are a couple of defining moments in the film. For you, what were the high emotional moments of the movie?
A: Thank you, yes. Many of our audience point out several moments in the film that have greatly impacted them. My favourite moments, hmmm… well, the beautiful chemistry between Bhaskar and Lakshmi as the father and daughter. I love their horoscope scene together. It is a very funny scene, but gets highly emotional in the end. It reminds me of my dad, who did everything to cheer me up whenever he sensed I was in low spirits. He took great care to comfort me in a goofy kind of way just like Bhaskar does for Lakshmi. So that would be my favourite. Then the finale with its twists and turns, always touches me. There are many more, but, I can’t talk about them without giving away the storyline.
Q: How was response at the premiere?
A: It was incredible. After such a long and rough journey in arriving at the finish line of Knot Not!, my first wish on the Premiere day was to make my cast, crew and their families happy. I wanted them to feel their time was worth it. Then, our audience, most of whom were there, mainly to support us. While I was thankful for that, I was hoping Knot Not! would not disappoint them. Response: Our cast is ecstatic, our audience said we exceeded their expectation and some of them even came for second screening.
And then, there was your media fraternity, who were there to scrutinize our work. I was hoping to impress you guys. You all are giving us good reviews. Thank you.
As a stage artist, I have learnt from my mentors that the ultimate owner of an artwork is its audience. I just prayed that Knot Not! would be worthy of our audience’s ownership. Our entire team is happy that the verdict from the Premiere and the next two shows have been overwhelmingly positive and gratifying. It has given us confidence to go forward.
Q: How have you planned for its release and dubbing into other languages?
A: At this moment, we do not have a distributor. We have just completed our limited screening. In Canada and USA, we want to take it as wide and far as possible. We are talking to various local distributors. Currently we have screenings scheduled in Alberta. In India, we have started talking to regional distributors. There are some interesting propositions to dub into other regional languages. We are working on it.
Q: How excited are you about getting the invite for the Delhi film fest?
A: Oh, very excited! Story of Knot Not!, originates from India and we can’t wait to take it to our Indian audience. Our first screening will be in the heart of India, Delhi! It is an incredible feeling. We are very thankful to Delhi International Film Festival for recognizing us and inviting us to showcase our film there.
Q: You say you are what you are today because of Murli. Why?
A: Well, by virtue of my DNA and upbringing, I became an actor. For that I thank my father and my theatre mentors. But I did not know that I had it in me to be a writer or a director before coming to Canada. It was Murali who first recognized those talents in me. Because of his insistence, I took to writing. He is a thinker and an amazing analyst. Through him I learnt the art of organizing my thoughts as a writer, and how to approach directing. An artist’s work will go unnoticed without proper vision and direction. I am very happy, that it was Murali’s vision that has given me the right direction and made me a filmmaker today. He says sky is the limit and I believe him! And that’s my Knot Knot!