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Interview Hindi

Am partial to domestic dramas, says Ambiecka Pandit of her National award-winning short Custody

The short film is being screened as part of the virtual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which begins today.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Lawyer-turned-filmmaker Ambiecka Pandit’s debut short film Custody explores one unforgettable night in the lives of three couples in Mumbai.

Eager to take a break from their work and parental responsibilities, the couples get ready to hang out together and celebrate New Year’s. But one mistake has catastrophic consequences.

A whodunnit with a difference, Custody won the Best Short Fiction Film award at the 67th National Film Awards earlier this year.

Speaking about her decision to quit law and become a filmmaker, Pandit said, “I was exposed to world cinema just before I went to law school. Back in the day, I was on a steady diet of 'Bollywood', so when I was exposed to world cinema, I don’t think I understood everything, I had to google the films and read the interviews by the directors, see Q&As and somewhere down the line, it started interesting me that film as a medium is a culmination of so many disciplines.

"Throughout law school, I kept watching films, reading interviews and reading about films and that’s how I got interested and knew I wanted to do this someday.”

Though she worked as a lawyer for a few years, Pandit eventually made bold to quit the field, used her savings to start out in the industry, and became a filmmaker.

Reflecting upon her decision, she chose to describe the road as ‘arduous’. “When I started out, it was quite a shock," she said, "because I was not earning anything and I was almost four or five years in a law firm and then to start from scratch as an intern, it not just hurt my pocket, it hurt my pride as well. So, in the beginning it was quite tough. But I really, genuinely enjoyed the work and I think that’s what kept me going.”

A still from Custody

After assisting some well-known filmmakers on ad films, Pandit embarked on her own venture, Custody (2021). The idea for the short was triggered by a news report she had read.

“There was a news headline which said, ‘Man inadvertently kills best friend’s baby’. This had happened somewhere in Israel, I think. It was a headline which stuck with me and when I was thinking of making a short film, it kept coming back to me and the questions and points of enquiry grew from there.

"What inspired [the film] was this one headline which carried so much emotional weight. I couldn’t fathom for the life of me how that man was living with that guilt or whether he even considered himself guilty," she said.

The headline was the spark that led to a deeper probing of what the situation could be like and grew to encompass larger concerns.

“The main points of enquiry for me in the film were the individualistic versus communal responsibility and the overarching question of morality: how do you decide what is right?

"It started off with today’s generation of millennials and I made this film when I was in my late twenties and my friends were starting families," she continued. "We belong to this millennial generation which is self-absorbed. For some reason we valorize individualism in this generation. Whether it’s picking up your bags and moving overnight to pursue a passion or working round the clock, it’s very me, myself and I.

"I was very curious to know how people from this generation and this mindset are going to be at parenthood, with parenthood being a proxy for duty, for having roots, for giving and being responsible for someone else," she explained. "That’s how it started and that kind of grew into — what is right? Is it right to be this individualistic? Where do you draw the line? That came about when I started thinking about it, but the primary question [in the film] is individualism versus community.”

While the film got good reviews and critical acclaim, winning the National award was unexpected. Expressing surprise, Pandit said, “I didn’t expect it because, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. Short films are not something you see on a regular basis. It’s catching up now, but 3½ years ago when I was writing Custody, I didn’t have access to those many short films, so I didn’t know what to expect.

"When I made the film, I was aware that it was different from other short films. Custody seemed a little more complex, it had a story within a story and it’s a longer film, but I didn’t expect this kind of reception. People have enjoyed the craft as well as the film, so that’s nice.”

On the genres that excite her, the filmmaker said, “I am partial to domestic dramas. I was born and brought up in the city, so I am familiar with this class of urban India that’s blossoming today and I think there is so much to explore about the human condition amongst this class of people.

"Once I get more confident with my craft, I would definitely like to explore the concept of horror in social dramas, the Michael Haneke kind of horror in social dramas, not the jumpy, scary horror, but I think I’m always going to be in the drama space.”

Pandit has completed another film, the Marathi-language short Under The Waters, produced by Vikramaditya Motwane, Shiladitya Bora and Suresh Triveni, which is being sent to festivals. She is now working on a long-format film.

Custody is being screened at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles being organized virtually from 20–27 May 2021.

Related topics

IFFLA National Awards