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Our relationships are always untying like the ribbon knot: Director Rakhee Sandilya

In a frank and fascinating interview, director Rakhee Sandilya spoke about her debut feature film, Ribbon, starring Kalki Koechlin and Sumeet Vyas.

Shriram Iyengar

For any filmmaker out promoting their first film, media interactions are often the toughest part. Rakhee Sandilya does not seem fazed about it. A documentary filmmaker, she is frank about her ignorance about the vast cyberspace, or the latest trends of the day. But she is passionate about her cause, films, and research subjects.

Speaking to Cinestaan.com in a fascinating interview, the director revealed the genesis of her first film, Ribbon. Starring Kalki Koechlin and Sumeet Vyas, the film revolves around a young urban couple's journey through a pregnancy, bringing up a child while balancing their own work commitments and societal pressures. Sandilya told us that she chanced upon the story while working on her documentary, 'My Baby Not Mine'.

"Having a kid is like making a commitment for the rest of your life. Now, after the child's birth, you also have to guarantee his security," she said. But the film also delves into the complexities of maintaining a relationship. "Our relationships are like the ribbon. (We are) constantly tying and untying them," she added.

Ribbon is set to be released on 3 November.

Excerpts from the interview:

This is your first feature film, and it is quite a choice for a first film. What drew you to the subject?

I am, basically, a documentary filmmaker, and real issues that are prevalent in our society is something that always drew me. There is some sort of attraction that happens between me and real issues. I am somebody who researches a lot. I like to interact with people a lot. I want to know a lot about other people, and what is it that is bothering them which I can put it in my story and tell it out and loud.

I was working on a documentary film, My Baby Not Mine, which covers the life of surrogate mothers, the life of four different women through four different stages of pregnancy. The attempt was to try to understand how they connect with the child within them. I came up with some amazing stories through that documentary.

When I was in Mumbai, I saw some of my friends, working and looking after their kids at home. That's when I realized the complications of this issue. So, I started talking to people, and it soon developed into a feature film.

Ribbon is a unique title for a film about an urban couple. What is the reasoning behind the symbolism?

I'll tell you the secret. I wrote the screenplay, and I was trying to find a good title. But every title I found was very cliche. They were a very direct representation of the film that I had made.

Ribbon is a very symbolic element that I remembered from my childhood. I remember my mother used to tie my hair up with a ribbon before I left for school. By the time, we would come back from school, the ribbon would be opened up and loose. My mom would get so angry.

It struck me that relationships are often like the ribbons we tie. After marriage, our parents usually feel that this knot is done. It is set and is fixed forever. But that knot is not a secure one. Over a period of time, it unties and loosens up. If you love somebody, then you knot it again.

Our relationships are very much like the relationship the ribbon has. Tying, untying the knot. That's why we decided on the title as Ribbon, and the tagline came to be 'Life between loose ends.'

The portrayal of fear, vulnerability of the soon to be parents is an interesting starting point for the trailer. Yet, it is the story of a very urban couple looking at a successful career. How much do emotions play into this couple's life?

A lot. I can tell you I have some friends who don't want a kid at all. There is the feeling among women that 'If I become a mother, who will look after the family? There are loans to pay, EMIs, too many responsibilities.'
Having a kid is like making a commitment for the rest of your life. Now, after the child's birth, you also have to guarantee his security. In India, we are so possessive about our kids that it becomes a life long plan, like insurance.

I think we have to ease out a bit, and accept that kids are a part of our life. We should be more accepting towards the working woman, and have a great support system for them. Becoming a mother is a huge challenge that women have to face in their lives. At that point of time, you actually lose confidence, go through depression. We need to support them at that point of time.

Why did you choose Kalki (Koechlin) and Sumeet (Vyas) as your idiosyncratic urban couple?

Kalki represents the modern woman. I wanted somebody who actually represents the woman of today. She stands for a young, urban woman. As I started writing the script, and her character, Sahana Mehra, became clearer on paper, the only actor I could visualize was Kalki.

Kalki Koechlin and Sumeet Vyas in Ribbon

My co-writer, Rajeev Upadhyay, would always say that you should not think of one actor for a role. What if she says no? But I always worked with the idea that she might do it. I was very convinced that she would like the script.

For Karan's character, I wanted someone very normal, representing today's generation. Someone that gives you the feeling of being one of you, or like you, a typical engineer struggling through the corporate world.

You wouldn't believe that I had no idea about Sumeet Vyas. I am a little cut-off from the internet. I am more into my own world. When my friends suggested that I should meet Sumeet, I didn't even know who he was. We just had tea and biscuits, but during the communication we had for about half an hour, I realized that he is the perfect Karan.

The film focusses on the dynamics of relationships, and the struggle for the working woman having to explain her capability to her peers at work during her pregnancy. This conversation is particularly relevant today with women across the world fighting for an equal treatment in the workspace. How much did these issues play on your mind while crafting the character?

A lot actually because I see so much of people talking about women's liberation and positioning. People are positioning women in society as though they have achieved this, and that. Where? Women have always been progressive. They had such a great role in the war for independence. They have always been very modern.

It is only later that conservatism set in. Now, women have come back to centre-stage asking for their rights. Yet, I think that we need not ask for our rights. We are as good as men, and equals.  Nobody needs to give them their rights. We are good enough to take care of ourselves. We just need society to not undermine the role of a woman when she enters a marriage, or becomes a mother.

It always amazes me when people say 'I've given my wife the right to do this or that'. You are no one to 'give' them the right. They are perfectly capable of having it themselves.

How many of these issues find their way into your work as an intrinsic part of the story, and how much of it is a purposeful effort as a filmmaker talking about issues facing women?

It's just the story, and it emerges out of it. I am a very young and new filmmaker. The reason being everyone in my team is very young and dynamic. The team that I selected to work with me, my DoP Vikram has shot Fandry (2014) before. I had a team who balanced it out.

What about the perspective that comes into the story?
As a woman, yes. You write from your personal experiences, for things that you have faced or seen people of your generation facing. That does play out in the film a lot. However, I do have my co-writer, Rajeev Upadhyay, who balances it out and brings in the male perspective for the film. The moment I drift towards a very feminist idea, he interrupts with a warning (laughs). It's not that black and white, let's keep it grey.

It was necessary to have both perspectives for the film. It is very balanced. It is a couple's journey and in that journey, you see them supporting each other. It is the way the society is structured that lets them down. When they try to fight it out, they crumble and their personal life gets affected.

The success of recent small budget good content films is a great sign, and the exposure to digital content has quite a lot to do with it. As a filmmaker, what do you make of this growing change across the industry?

For filmmakers like me, who are making films, the change has a lot to do with the advent of the internet. We are not making mega-budget films. I am a poor filmmaker, and probably will remain that for a while.

There are beautiful interesting stories of middle-class people and that needs to come out a lot. For that, you don't need mega budgets. Those stories can be told, it is possible today, because of the internet. The remotest villages have access to the internet through cell phones.

That has enabled us and the content is reaching them. It is a great thing. It has given us confidence that if you are able to connect with your audience, you will be able to tell your stories more effectively.