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Interview Hindi

Meet Neha Sharma, the filmmaker who chronicled Narendra Modi's kind gesture in a short film

Young writer-filmmaker’s maiden short film Vaibhavi tells the tale of a UP couple, who strived to get their daughter named by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Neha Sharma

Mayur Lookhar

All great artistes have humble beginnings. Often their tales of initial struggle come to the forefront only after they have achieved success. Neha Sharma is not a very well known name yet, but the young filmmaker made an impression with her maiden foray into filmmaking. The girl from Chandigarh made the short film Vaibhavi, it is based on the true story of Vibha and Bharat, a humble couple from Uttar Pradesh. Their daughter, Vaibhavi, was named by Prime Minister Modi. 

The film earned a special mention at the Kolkata Film Festival. Given the focus on Modi, the film might be seen as good PR for the Prime Minister. The beleaguered Modi could very well do with some PR now, but Vaibhavi is a tale of the victory of human spirit. No matter who you are, how big or small your aspiration is, the film encourages one to dream.

Hailing from Chandigarh, Sharma was raised in the Middle East and worked in a bank in Denmark, before her passion for writing brought her back to India. She penned thriller stories in CID but the popular crime thriller didn’t satiate her appetite for human interest, socially relevant stories. 

“We are surrounded by all kinds of interesting cinema these days and Vibha's story, particularly, struck a chord with me as I wanted to narrate a story which is more socially relevant,” says Sharma.

It might be too early to say, but Sharma comes across as one with a sound head on her shoulders.  Speaking to Cinestaan.com, Sharma shared her thoughts about the film, her struggles to get the film made, slams those film makers who see poverty as a form of art, and shares an interesting anecdote from her life in Libya.


"What's in a name," said Shakespeare but I guess the great English playwright will never discover the true meaning for he never would be able to see your film Vaibhavi. 

(laughs) That is a very nice way to put it. It's like two extremes. What he said was on another extreme, what we talk about – the name and the importance of it is another extreme. I'm glad you said it in this way. It's quite delightful to hear. 

The greatest joys in life are often discovered through the smallest things in life. Would the materialistic world never be able to get a sense of joy of Vibha and Bharat’s joy, who had Narendra Modi call and name their child?

A still from Vaibhavi

Absolutely, we live in times where we like to discover the dark characters. We like to discover women who are more rebellious, expressive.   

Was the story of Vibha and Bharat so moving that it would make you leave the comforts of your corporate world and make a film on this humble couple from Uttar Pradesh?

It sounds like it is from point A to B but there have been so many things that (had) taken place in between. I had a career in content management as a consultant. I have been associated with well known IT firms within India such as Wipro and IBM. Thereafter, I moved to Denmark working for a European bank after which I transitioned into writing for films and television. There’s a certain complacency that sets in and you feel there is more to you as a person.

I got back to writing stories, writing for Indian Express, for whom I had freelanced for during college. A lot of my poetry was so personal that I would not even publish it. I have one or two writer friends in Mumbai, one of them proved to be a great support system. They thought that it was the right time to make a move.

i started writing popular shows on television namely CID and a silent comedy called Gutur Gu. I'd also worked for some digital mediums.  After that I moved to produce and direct my own short film, Vaibhavi.

I chanced upon the story of Vibha and Vaibhavi on a portal. It stayed on my mind for sometime. I then decided to get in touch with the couple. It wasn’t on y mind to make film on them straight away but after I got in touch with them, I thought their innocence was great, that somebody is very calm, not like modern day feminists who are so strong in their aggression and bumptious in their personality. I thought she was somebody who was very calm and without making too much noise she got what she wanted.

Watching the film, I was just so stuck with innocence of Rakhi Mansha. Tell us how did you discover her?

 It was quite an adventure. The woes of film making take over in this conversation. I’d approached one of the popular television actresses for this role, who herself was pregnant at that time, I was very happy that she would be able to relate to the whole narrative.

Unfortunately, my experience was rather sour. I was ditched 48 hours before the shooting. Too many tantrums came in the picture. It was going to be just a day’s shoot, I didn’t have fancy budget, I could not have hired one or two people to take her care. Though, we had assured her that we will take care of her. 48 hours before, she opted out. 

I’d seen Rakhi perform earlier, an associate creative had recommended her. She has done theatre and had a small role in one Mira Nair film. We had a table read in a cafe, it was a miracle that happened to me with Rakhi coming on board,  I’d had three-four table reading with the previous girl but it all collapsed. Then you had this girl who seemed tailor-made for the role. When Rakhi began reading those lines, I thought she kind of got the tone and the voice the way the story had to be told. She was very promising and I’m glad that she appeared.

I could be wrong but the last few visuals appear as though this is a short film made to promote Prime Minister Narendra Modi. How would you react to this? 

I knew this was going to happen. The time when I was doing the screenplay, it was there at the back of my mind, there were concerns that the film may look like this. A lot of people are currently demonising Modi for GST (Good and Services Tax), demonetisation, there was a filmmaker who asked this question and my answer was if you were one of the those people on the same side as the government then you wouldn’t be asking me this question. 

Well, I don’t know about others, but I’d like to assure you that I’m neither pro nor anti-government. I’m just a neutral observer.  

I’m also coming from a neutral point of view. When you talk of things like this, there’s always a risk of being misrepresented. No matter how much you wish to criticise him for his policies but this story does not have any element of whatever is working you at the moment, The story could have been set in any country, with any prime minister, or anyone in a position of power.  

For me, in this particular story, both Vibha and the prime minister are equally important. Both are two set pillars that strengthen this particular story. If it was not for Vibha the limelight would not have been on Modi. If it wasn’t for Vibha then we would have had no story. Had she picked a college professor then it wouldn’t have been a triumphant story. 

Documentaries/films that depict the misery of the poor in India are often criticised. Besides, there’s a perception that such filmmakers, especially from abroad would make films on the poor, make their money but give nothing back to the poor. 

I’m so glad that you said it. There are two things. I agree with you, as we saw from the Slumdog Millionaire controversy, that people from the West love to showcase our poverty..

It is a sad portrayal and it comes from cynicism both from the West as well as from Indian filmmakers who take misery as a form of art. With my film, Vibha and Bharat are not poor people. Though they hail from a lower strata of the society, their are a very progressive couple. The kind of leeway that Vibha is given, the kind of dream she’s harbouring, how she takes pleasure in irritating her husband is all because she has a voice of her own. We are not here to show her misery. 

I’m not taking about your film per se, but what I’m referring to is films where the makers haven’t adequately compensated the people on whom the film is made. We saw this during Budhia Singh and today there are stories of Anita Narre being unhappy with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha makers. 

We are talking about an industry which his hugely disorganised. You derive creative pleasures by celebrating somebody’s misery. I’m sure that at the time the production house approached the family, they gave all the details, it’s a very great emotional fervour, but later when the film became a hit they must have thought about the capital involved.. .ahh..

I agree with you when you make film on poor people, they have to be reimbursed better, it is really sad. It reflects both on your personal and professional ethics. By the end of it, it is cinema, a medium to make big money, so ethics will always be under scrutiny. I think anybody who gets approached for a film needs to have their creative and commercial aspects sorted before hand. 

So have you pledged something big to Vibha and Bharat say if tomorrow Netflix acquires your film for a big price?

(laughs). I have not been approached by Netflix yet. Till now I haven’t made any money from the film. It has screened at festivals but there are no cash rewards there. As of now, I don’t think I will be able to compensate them financially, but I’d definitely like to meet them and share some goodies. 

Tell us about your life before you made this film? 

I hail from Chandigarh. Soon after my birth, I was taken to the Middle East. My father was an engineer, working in Libya.  I do have great memories of living in a dictator land. 

So did you happen to meet the great man, Muammar Gaddafi? 

My father did. I spent a few of my childhood years in the dictator-led Libya owning to my father's professional commitments in the Middle East. It is interesting that the dictator was code-named 'Captain' by the Indian community. In fact, the feature that I have scripted, Haq, contains glimpses of my own childhood in a way that it is reflective of a feeling of intrigue and nostalgia at the same time. One evening, we were returning from a souk (market) and there were some 30 families in a bus. At one point the bus was asked to stop. The cop told my mother to draw the curtain and shut it completely.  I moved aside the curtain and saw someone getting shot in the head. 

Is this (Haq) a short film or a full length feature film?

This is a full length feature film about two and a half hours. It is actually based on the life of a boy in a conflict region. I have based the film in Wazirstan, the Pak-Afghan border. It is bound screenplay, lot of research has gone into it. It is a story of humanism. You were a terrorist, the moment you would put down the gun, both of us could have a cup of tea.

Just one final question a hypothetical question. Tomorrow if you would want some person to name your child, who would that person be? 

(laughs). It becomes fiction. Vaibhavi though is a true story. 

But as a writer, there’s no barrier to our imagination. 

In the beginning you said ‘what’s in a name’, I might as well pick the same guy (Shakespeare) . I have been a student of literature so why would I spare him.