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Interview Hindi

More avenues have opened up: Cargo director Arati Kadav on the benefits of lockdown, sci-fi, and stories

Arati Kadav, whose work was selected for the SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival, speaks about the silver lining around the sudden festival cancellations, living in a suddenly dystopian world, and spreading more sci-fi.

Shriram Iyengar

Having made her debut with Cargo (2019) at the 21st MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, Arati Kadav had been travelling with the film around the world. However, like the many science fiction novels that she loves, the world itself came to a grinding halt with the coronavirus pandemic. That, in turn, has led the writer-director down other avenues to continue with her experiments in sci-fi.

"It is very humbling for us, as humans," said Kadav about the lockdown caused by the pandemic. "We always feel capitalistic about the entire world and nature, but at times like these, we are reminded that we are not always in control. Nature wins hands down."

One of the side-effects of the global pandemic has been the shutting down of film festivals, disrupting Kadav's plan to showcase Cargo across international markets. "We have got a lot of love and attention from the international festival community," she said. "We have been selected for around 14 international festivals, many of them still to come. But because of the uncertainty around COVID-19, a lot of them are postponing. Some are trying virtual festivals, and trying to come up with solutions."

SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival eventually announced the competition winners, minus the audience awards, for its 27th edition. Cargo was being screened out of competition there.

Set in a spaceship, with two demons ensuring that human souls go through a smooth transition into the afterlife, Cargo is a philosophical take on life through the lens of a science fiction tale that combines modern science and ancient Indian symbolism.

Shweta Tripathi (left) with Arati Kadav and Vikrant Massey

At the MAMI screening, Kadav said she enjoyed 'world-building'. She said, "It just came naturally to me. I started reading a lot of sci-fi, and reading fantastical. With Cargo, while there is all that fun, there is also a philosophy. Innocently, we were discussing this in our family and someone told us that the way most religious texts are written through stories is to help us make sense of the world. They said through your sci-fi, through your stories, maybe you can make sense of this world. Cargo is my philosophy that I just threw in the world, it could be right or wrong, but it is what it is."

The film was set to be screened on 17 March at the SXSW International Film Festival, known for its radical independent films and science fiction platform, before the pandemic turned everything on its head. Kadav, meanwhile, has turned her attention to other projects, even as she awaits the OTT release of Cargo. Following are excerpts from an interview with the filmmaker:

Hi, Arati, how are you? It is a very different time right now that we are speaking in, with the pandemic and all...

It is unprecedented and so tough. Nobody knows how to deal with it, or to set a roadmap.

Almost feels like a sci-fi movie, or a book by Stephen King...

Exactly! I had written about an alien story where the microbes take over the world. Everyone rejected it. Now, everyone feels like that was related to this! It is how things change. It is also very humbling for us, as humans. We always feel capitalistic about the entire world and nature, but at times like these we are reminded that we are not always in control. Nature wins hands down. 

It also puts your film in a very different perspective. When I first saw it at MAMI, there was no foreshadowing or an afterthought of death. Now, we see the news all around us.

Even in Cargo, I wanted to tell people how important it is to value the small moments in our life. It is something we will reflect upon when we are locked inside our homes, with our families. That was what I was always aiming towards with the film, that kind of philosophy.

The film has been travelling to quite a few festivals, unfortunately that's come to a stop now.

Yes, we have got a lot of love and attention from the international festival community. We have been selected for around 14 international festivals, many of them still to come. But because of the uncertainty around COVID-19, a lot of them are postponing. Some of them are trying virtual festivals, and trying to come up with solutions.

Overall, what I realized is that there is a lot of curiosity about the film. They found it unique because we put in a lot of Indian elements. Normally, when they see a spaceship or a single-location space film, there is a more Melancholia kind of setup. Ours is a very vibrant story and filled with a lot of people and world-building.

So they were very fascinated by it and wanted to meet me and know what is the demon world and the hidden folklore we had tapped into. I think it is really good because even though South By South West film festival got cancelled, a lot of people have reached out and are talking to us about the film. I think it is a very promising experience.

The Indian mythology connection would have been an interesting addition for an audience used to seeing sci-fi films through the perspective of the United States or Europe.

Yes. At the Miami Sci-Fi Film Festival, they told us that is why they chose us as the opening film. For them, this film checked too many boxes. They never expected a spaceship film to become like this. While there are a lot of sci-fi film festivals, they also do not see a lot of women directors. That was very attractive for them as well. 

A still from the film Cargo

I can't escape that, being a female filmmaker. They were also finding new references. As a fan of [the BBC sci-fi series] Dr Who and [French filmmaker] Michel Gondry. I like scrappy sci-fi as well. I don't always go for sleek machinery, but clunky machines that are falling apart. Some also mentioned Dr Who, and [Hollywood filmmaker Stanley] Kubrick, since the film is set within a spaceship and so colourful. They were seeing a lot more, and it was very exciting for me as well to receive such feedback.

Every film, evidently, takes shape on its own beyond what the filmmaker sees...

Yeah, for me, I had to separate it out because I am a writer-director and was very involved in the post-production as well. I am so involved in it that once it is done, I still find something that could have improved it. It never ends, in a way. We also keep evolving. The only way to keep sane is to let it go. Start seeing it as something outside of you. It is very tough. As a writer-director, that film stands for who you are.

This is my first film. There is a very different attachment to it. It is also the people who came in for the film, really loved the film, and were passionate for this film to be what it is. It is a passion project, and every person who came in was passionate about the project. We were doing something unique and that's why I am more in love with the film.

With technology now a rescue point, like in sci-fi films, are you looking foward to digital screenings, or is an India release a possibility?

We were looking forward to an India release after June-July. We had some very good festivals lined up and hence were not looking to release it online right now. Theatrical release, we are not looking at. In fact, I was thinking that we should release it on OTT platforms now.

For an independent filmmaker, the challenges are not gone. Though the OTT platforms are there, it's not like they are dying for an independent film. So, let's see, it should be out by June-July, I hope. The reason we wanted to visit festivals was to make it marketable for OTT platforms.

It is also a very fertile time for a writer, I suppose.

More avenues have opened up. There is a sudden focus on the writer and the content. I have been wanting to make sci-fi for so long. But since the only outlet was a theatrical release, one could not hope to make a film like this and expect that people who invest money will recover. The only responsibility, as a director, I take is that the people who have invested their money in the film recover it. So, nobody did even touch a sci-fi concept because it was not a tried-and-tested formula.

A still from Cargo

Now, producers are willing to experiment or try it because OTTs are absorbing the box-office ups and downs. We have that option now.

Are you working on anything else?

I have almost finished working on my next film, which is also based on sci-fi. I was thinking of maybe travelling to other festivals and showing Cargo around, but since I am on lockdown, I thought I might as well write another one. There is no harm in having an extra script.

I am also trying to work on a little 360 degrees when it comes to sci-fi. I am also working on a sci-fi podcast, with stories that are funny. Another thing I am actively trying to do is reach out to sci-fi writers who are really good but haven't found the right platform. I think the more we make sci-fi, it will benefit the whole community.

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MAMI Mumbai Film Festival Coronavirus