Interview English Hindi

I think I’m a little too dramatic for festivals, says Ashutosh Pathak of his short film Khabsurat

In an exclusive chat, the writer-director talks about the themes that appeal to him as well as his upcoming feature.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Ashutosh Pathak’s short film Khabsurat (Repulsive), starring Naina Sareen and Shardul Bhardwaj, is an incisive look at society, patriarchy and a woman’s sexuality through an incident that takes place in a young woman’s life. An aspiring dancer, Barkha (Naina Sareen) gets her photographs clicked by a friend. An ordinary incident gets blown out of proportion when a video of hers start circulating online. As her family finds out, her cousin, Shivang (Shardul Bhardwaj), is sent to bring her back home and take control of the situation.

In an exclusive conversation, Pathak spoke about the short film and what inspired it. The title, as he explained, is not a word one can find in the dictionary. “It’s slang, not a proper word. I’ve heard it in college and at work, so I thought it makes sense because I wanted it to be about beauty, and not specifically say that it’s not beautiful. It’s somebody’s perception of you. It’s always only different by a degree.” 

Khabsurat marks the beginning of the collaboration between Pathak and Vikramaditya Motwane, who has produced the film. Pathak is also directing a feature film that Motwane is producing, and the short film came about as a way for the two of them to establish a working equation in terms of content and tone. 

“When making the film, I was looking at individuality. Who are you as a person? Can you stand alone? When you stand alone, what is your definition? If there is nobody you are answerable to, what do you do, versus when somebody tells you what you are, then, what is the definition that you carry around in your heart? That’s the lens with which I look at all gender politics," Pathak said.

He added, "I have written and thought about this for some time now. It’s what your strength is, your clarity is as a person that will either help you beat this trap or succumb to it. I wanted to tell a cosmopolitan story. I find that the majority of conflict points, where you are forced to confront decisions that may be different from yours happen in the cities because young people are moving to cities, looking for opportunities, and there you come into conflict with the world, its opinion of you, hold on you, all of that… If you get into any kind of trouble, there’s always the lens of where you came from, looking at you and that’s what the film is about."

For Barkha in the film, the city offers spaces and opportunities, but looking at her body and experimenting with it leads to an outcome that brings about a clash between where she’s from and her situatedness in the city. Pathak elaborated on her character, “I also went through the cycle of leaving home. You come away from home and you find a whole new set of people who think differently and then there’s the opportunity of doing your mistakes, even, that’s somewhere why this character appealed to me.”

Naina Sareen in a still from Khabsurat

“You are the ideas that were put in your mind or the ones that you absorbed out of the history where you came from,” he said, adding, “We are not born with rebellion…you slowly conform, no matter how woke you are. It’s not about people from small towns. Even you and I walk to a certain pattern but we are not aware of it. The day we do become aware and form an opinion, there’s some kind of trouble for somebody. The theme [of the film] is very wide-reaching and it excites me to think about it.”

In making Khabsurat, the writer-director decided to view the situation as closely as possible, focusing on the equation between the two central characters. He said, “The key point when somebody is influenced the most doesn’t happen in a room full of people. It doesn’t happen after a big event. It’s mostly the quieter voices that suppress you or encourage you. With that, I thought I could do something in this space for a short film. I come from an animation background and I love satire and comedy. I wanted to delve into something much quieter and obvious.”

Cinestaan Curates: Khabsurat is a nuanced depiction of patriarchy in our daily lives

Talking about the stories that excite him, he said, “The one thing which is really intriguing me right now is grief. In the last couple of years, due to the pandemic, all of us have had some losses and to some, we reacted emotionally, to some we did not. In fact, I think our bar to not react has gone up because we cannot survive otherwise if we start feeling for every tragedy that happens. As a theme, that really interests me right now. Given the opportunity, I will write about that. My feature film is also about a cosmopolitan relationship between a young couple, so this breakout of choices and recognition of your body, your mind is a theme that really fascinates me. I find that lots of the issues pertaining to relationships; they just come out of this fact.” 

Khabsurat was screened as part of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) and the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal (SAFFM). Despite this, Pathak expressed his reluctance in seeing it as a festival film. “There is an onus on short film festivals to look for themes which mainstream cinema cannot talk about and also, something which is rare…My film…is a moment in a girl’s life; that’s how I planned it and that’s what I made. It’s not going to give you the satisfaction of an ending. Festivals try and empower voices that you’ll never hear [otherwise]. I’m surprised every time a festival takes my film, I think I’m a little too dramatic for festivals. In this case, we looked at the film we had made something good but we didn’t know if a festival will pick it up or not.”

Pathak’s earlier work includes the short films Shut Up and Tasveer which have featured at FFAST Paris, SAFFM, DIFF, and River to River, Florence. The latter is a short animated movie narrated by Ali Fazal. His live-action narrative feature, Kiss Me Cassat, was a curated script as part of National Film Development Corporation Screenwriter’s Lab 2017. He is currently working on his debut feature.