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Nidheya Suresh: Young Indian filmmaker trying to find her feet in US
A film-maker requires a healthy mix of determination, focus, imagination, vision, and resilience.
In a world where new entrants into the workforce are seeking off-beat career avenues, filmmaking is one of the most courageous paths one can take, especially if one is determined to rewrite the rules of cinema.
Along the way, filmmakers need to decide how to attract the right set of artistes and investors with a portfolio that offers a sneak peek into the world they would like to build. Building up a film portfolio is one of the toughest tasks any new filmmaker faces, and what better way to do it than by doing it all with independent films?
A young Indian independent filmmaker, Nidheya Suresh, is trying to make her way in the Mecca of filmmaking, Los Angeles, in the United States. She has dabbled as a director, a producer, and writer and has attracted a fair bit of attention and acclaim for her work.
In an interview with NetIndian, she shares her insights and lets us into her world of short films and more.
Nidheya, 26, hails from Kerala but has grown up all over. She was in Australia till she was three, then lived in Kerala with her maternal grandparents for kindergarten. Till her 5th grade, she was in Bengaluru with her parents and sister before they moved to Hyderabad. She then did her undergraduate studies in Chennai. “So, I have lived in all four southern states in India!” she says.
In Chennai, she did her Bachelor’s in Journalism but that did not satisfy her “creatively”. She also fell deeply in love with film and television around then, and decided to pursue an MFA in Screenwriting in the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. She was exposed to producing and directing but did not get the full grasp of the disciplines until she graduated and made her first short film in 2017, called Idée Fixe, which she directed with her producing partner Ahlan Williams.
From then on, they have been consistently writing, directing and producing their own content, and have made four films since.
Nidheya says she likes to tell stories across different genres. She is most proud of her short film “Maa” which won accolades such as “Best LGBTQ Film” and “Best Indie Filmmaker”. It was her first solo directing job.
She says she tries to not get boxed into a certain genre. Her first film, that she did with Williams, was a thriller, while “Tabitha” was a horror movie. “Maa” was an LGBTQ drama, while “For Better or For Worse” was a relationship drama. Her latest film “Bandaid” is an immigration drama.
Nidheya says she constantly pushes herself and challenges herself to make films that she never thought she would have made.
Her parents and her sister are her support system, who believed in her even when she wanted to give up. She is particularly close to her mother, with whom she shares a common love for books, murder mysteries and a “twisted sense of humour”.
“I honestly believe that I am what I am because of her. My dad is wonderful, too, and has always been blindly and unconditionally supportive of me and my ventures,” she says.
Nidheya grew up watching Bollywood movies and Malayalam comedies and has a special spot for them. “I don’t watch them much anymore, unless if a certain film or topic interests me, or if it is directed by one of my favorite directors. My favorite Bollywood movie is Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. I can rewatch that movie over and over again. Regionally, I grew up on countless Dileep comedies that I can’t really remember the names of, but remember enjoying very, very much.”
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
How did your journey towards film-making start?
When I was finishing up my BA in Journalism in India, I was continually looking for options to pursue my Master's. I had always wanted to write creatively, and during those years in undergraduate studies, I had fallen in love with American television. So, when I was looking for options for my future, my friend suggested that I try screenwriting, as it would merge my two passions. When I heard that, it just made a lot of sense to me, and I took off to the United States to pursue that dream.
How would you describe where you are in your journey?
I think I'm at a stage where I'm confident and comfortable in this journey. When I started, I was a nervous wreck, and unsure about most things, but now, I feel like I belong on a movie set, working and coordinating with a bunch of people to create art. After making five short films, I'm starting to attempt longer forms, like web series and feature films, so I'm excited about that new chapter.
What kind of films do you aspire to make?
I would love to make terrific psychological thrillers and whodunits, because growing up, those genres of books were (and still are) my absolute favorite. I want to make a Gone Girl type of thriller that is both satisfying as a mystery and a great film. I'm a massive fan of the superhero genre, so I want to write/direct a Marvel movie someday. I'm very passionate about women's issues and rights, so I hope to make more socially conscious films dealing with the problems faced by women around the world. I would also like to do what actress Reese Witherspoon does and someday adapt all my favorite books into movies or television shows. I love reading, and there are so many brilliant books out there that I would like to adapt.
Take us through a day in your life in the process of film-making.
A lot of film-making involves so much pre-production, having rehearsals, casting sessions, hopping on calls, and having meetings with the cast and crew. But a day on the set typically goes like this for me. I wake up extraordinarily early. If filming starts at 8, I'm up by 3. It takes a lot of time to finish any last-minute work, but mostly I want to be ready in case of any last-minute issues. We usually start filming around 8 am, so the crew gathers early, we set up for the scene – lights, camera, production design, etc. And then once the actors are ready to go, we have rehearsals and then start filming. I am a massive fan of getting shot coverage, so we shoot each scene exhaustively. The days are tiring, but always worth it. Every time I am on the sets, I feel alive.
Each of your films so far portrays a dark premise. Is this a conscious part of your storytelling, to artistically represent the darker sides to life, or are you responding to issues less addressed in mainstream cinema?
Yes, darker stories have attracted me since I was a kid. I have been very intrigued by the human psyche, and why people do some of the twisted things they do, and I like to explore these themes through my films.
If you could go back in history to make a film that exists today, which one would it be and why?
Ah, this is a difficult question. Okay, so out of emotional attachment, I would make the Harry Potter films. Those films and books were an enormous part of my childhood that I really would have loved to have had some role in making them. I also think I'd like to have made Chak de India and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The former was so inspiring that I had even briefly considered playing hockey. The latter is simply one of my favorites. Of the recent movies, my answer would be this year's Oscar winner, Parasite.
In your pursuit of film-making as a passion, what were your biggest obstacles? How did you overcome them?
A lot of my obstacles were about my self-confidence. Initially, I considered myself only a writer, so I wanted only to write scripts that someone else would direct. But, of course, starting in the industry, it's essential to have work that gets you recognized, so I realized I had to direct some of my scripts as well. I was not too fond of it at first, because I felt it didn't suit my personality. So, I doubted if I was meant to be doing this. But the more I did it, the more comfortable I became with it. I think it was persistence and listening to my parents' advice on pushing forward that helped.
When I tried making Maa in Mumbai, I faced a different obstacle. I tried coordinating everything from here in Los Angeles and intended to be in Mumbai for five days to film it. But the closer I got to filming, the more I realized that it was going to be tricky, because I hadn't met most of the cast or crew personally. I had to trust the judgment of others, and I wanted to have my say in the production. The process of indie film-making in America is so different that I decided to make it here instead. I'm glad I did because it turned out how I'd envisioned the film.
Tell us about your upcoming films - For Better or Worse and Bandaid.
For Better or For Worse, written by my friend Ahlan Williams (we both co-directed it), is about three couples who go on vacation together, where buried secrets and scandals come out. It's different from my other work, where it's more about relationships and friendships than anything else. Bandaid, which I had been working on in various forms before I finally shot it (it started as a stage play), is about Randall and Sania, an interracial couple in the United States. Sania is a hardworking and smart Indian woman, and their relationship is under threat of the looming issue of legal immigration, and her visa approval.
This film feels very personal and is important because it explores the complicated, layered decision-making process when it comes to an issue like immigration and staying together forever.
You've indulged in the writing, directing, and producing processes of film-making in all your films. Which of them have you found to be more comfortable than the others?
Writing is something I've always loved to do, so it's the one that comes most naturally to me. The others were new facets of film-making, and it took a while to grow fond of them. No matter how much I enjoy directing and producing, writing will always be my one true love.
What are your other passions and hobbies?
I love reading. My mother used to read to me as a kid, and it's something that I love to carry on. I try to read at least 52 books a year. So far, in 2020, I've already finished 20 books, so I'm exceeding my expectations. I also love attending conventions like Comic-Con and WonderCon to indulge my nerd interests. I enjoy baking and trying new recipes, but now I'm indulging in cooking and making new things for my parents and sister.
If not a film-maker, what do you see yourself doing today?
I would be a novelist. That was my dream since I was little, and I know someday I will publish a few novels as well.
Who will Nidheya Suresh be ten years from now?
In ten years, I hope to have directed and written award-winning feature-length films, which also received commercial success. I want to be a showrunner on my television show, and also have a book or two on the New York Times bestseller list.
Which movies this year should have won the Oscars and which ones deserved their wins?
Oh, I think Parasite and Bong Joon-ho deserved all their wins. I was thrilled and clapped so hard for them that I bruised my finger in the process. It was such a strange moment, where I felt wholeheartedly happy and excited for someone who wasn't even my friend or relative.
But I think Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story should've got more recognition, and Lulu Wang's Farewell a nomination - Farewell is one of my top five films of the year. I was devastated that it didn't even get nominated.
Will you come back to India to make films? Which Indian film industry would you like to work within, if so, and why?
I was actually supposed to film Maa in Mumbai, but coordinating everything from here turned out to be a bit of a hassle. But there are some personal stories that I would like to tell. Like there are these two films I want to do, one a short and another a feature, about my bond with my late maternal grandpa, which I definitely want to film in Kerala (maybe even in his house). I plan on writing that script in English, and collaborating with my mother to translate the dialogue into Malayalam. The Kerala film industry is very much geared towards good content as opposed to “masala” films, so I would definitely want to make films in that industry.
Which film-makers and other artists would you like to work with, Indian or otherwise, and why?
Gosh, I would LOVE to collaborate with Zoya Akthar, I’m such a huge fan of her work. She strikes the right balance between making an entertaining movie that is also of really high caliber. Her film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is one of my top favorites! I would like to collaborate with actors like Ayushman Khurrana and Radhika Apte, because I love the content they produce. And of course, Shah Rukh Khan, who is my absolute favorite…that would be such a dream come true. In Hollywood, I want to work with Robert Downey Jr (whose Iron Man/Marvel movies really helped me cope with my grandpa’s death), Troian Bellisario from Pretty Little Liars (tv show), and the female directors, Greta Gerwig and Lulu Wang. I love both of Greta’s films, and Lulu’s debut film moved me beyond pieces, so I want to work with both of them for sure.
Tell us what you wish would improve in the film industry, in the US or in India.
Honestly, I want more female talent behind the screen as much as in front of it. My film sets are super diverse, but it was only during my fifth film that I got to work with a female cinematographer – Alyssa Rivas – and she was an absolute blast to work with. In India, I wish we could move towards more nuanced filmmaking. I think that the Kerala film industry already does this, I just wish Bollywood would adapt to it more.