Small-town boy Siddharth Chauhan is one step away from a shot at the Oscars
Shimla, the former summer capital of the British Raj, is blessed with a scenic location. Its unique combination of snow-capped hills, spurs and valleys, accompanied by colonial era structures, creates an aura that is far removed from other hill stations in India.
Having grown up in the region, filmmaker Siddharth Chauhan knows the place like the back of his hand. Now, his latest movie Pashi, shot entirely in Shimla's Dhanoti and Khalwan villages, has made it to the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) to be held in August. This comes on the back of his film PaPa winning the Satyajit Ray Award for Best Film at the London Indian Film Festival last month. At just 26 years of age, Chauhan is one to watch out for.
What's most impressive, as Chauhan tells Catch, is that RIIFF is an official Oscar-qualifying film festival. "The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chooses some of the best festivals from around the world, which maintain a certain standard of films, to be Oscar qualifiers. This is since there is no direct entry to the Oscars in the short film category." Pashi is the only Indian film to be selected for the prestigious festival this year.
Chauhan says his childhood memories in his village Dhanoti inspired him to make this film. A few of the parts were shot in Dhanoti, while the majority of it was shot in Sunta Lodge, a wooden mansion in Khalwan village. The screening at the Rhode Island International Film Festival will be Pashi's first outside India.
The making of Pashi, though, wasn't easy for Chauhan. Despite winning many awards before, Chauhan had to invest his own money to make it. He even had to borrow equipment from his friends. Chauhan tells Catch that he didn't want to approach any studios for the making of this film as he wanted to stay independent.
Talking about the honour of making it to such a festival and the difficulties of being from Shimla, Chauhan says, "As an independent filmmaker with no professional training, and as owner of a production house based in Shimla, making films is a huge challenge for us. But we have never given up on our vision and have always believed that good aesthetics and innovative content can take us places. This is truly a dream come true and an unparalleled honor for all of us."
Still unsure whether or not he'll be flying down for the Rhode Island Film Festival, Chauhan spoke to Catch about Shimla, his career trajectory, and his latest short Pashi.
Sahil Bhalla (SB): What inspired you to take up filmmaking, and at what age?
Siddharth Chauhan (SC): I remember always being an extremely confused and lost person, and for the same reason I loved engaging myself in activities, especially in the field of arts. At 16, I was in a deep dilemma because I liked to do a lot of things. The options I got from my parents or friends were just too limiting!
One day as I was watching television, I saw the making of a film – I don't remember which one, and it triggered a very strong thought process in my mind. I had finally found a career option which could amalgamate all my interests. That's how I arrived at it. It took me a long time to admit and accept it, though.
SB: Have you ever studied cinema, or is it all self-taught?
SC: I have never taken up any filmmaking course. However, that doesn't mean that I haven't learnt anything. Knowing that I would be lacking on many fronts in terms of exposure, I consciously learnt from many books, people, online, and by making my own films.
Honestly, learning about Buddhism from Dr. Daisaku Ikeda and working in the 'Gakkai' for others' happiness, has actually served as my formal training in developing various life skills. Filmmaking too was just an offshoot.
SB: Why did you gravitate towards independent filmmaking rather than mainstream films?
SC: I grew up watching mainstream films. It's only a few years ago that I started watching different kinds of films from various countries. It opened my mind to new possibilities. I find the mainstream to be extremely repetitive and boring.
SB: What is it about short films that attracts you?
SC: It's the only thing I know I can do, and afford to move towards my goal of making films and growing as a filmmaker. I guess it is simply a limitation in which I am trying to find my freedom.
SB: What has been your most memorable festival experience, and why?
SC: The International Documentary & Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK), 2016, was the most memorable festivals for me, because of the premiere of my most challenging film, PaPa. PaPa won the Satyajit Ray Award for the Best Film at the London Indian Film Festival, 2017, which was also pretty memorable.
SB: What is your latest film Pashi about?
SC: In the regional 'Pahari' language spoken in Rohru (Nawar Valley), especially around the villages, Tikkar, Pujarli, Dhanoti & Khalawan, ‘Pashi’ means a trap. It is an ancient technique used by villagers for hunting birds and animals. The film is about a child's obsession [with this technique], and the extent to which he will go to get what he wants.
SB: What was it like finding out you were selected for RIIFF?
SC: I am very happy. I couldn't have asked for more. My team and actors are actually happier than me. They believed in my vision and supported me in a film which was extremely difficult to justify in words.
Knowing that we could be in the running for the Oscars (not just in our day dreams) is extremely relieving. I can finally look into everyone's eyes and jump into my next project confidently. This news is also a good slap for so many experienced actors who rejected the script and were not willing to take the risks which were integral to an ambitious film like this.
SB: If you win an award at this festival, you'll go straight to the Oscars. What will that mean to you as a budding independent filmmaker from Shimla?
SC: See, on one hand, for the world, I know it is the best thing which could have happened to anyone's film. If you seriously ask me, I do not believe in taking my victories too seriously. Nor do I believe that an award or even an Oscar is the standard for judging the 'greatness' or 'brilliance' of a film.
It really won't mean much to me, other than giving me a few thrills and some good publicity, but it will mean a lot to others who will then look at me with different eyes. It will just make my work a bit simpler and definitely earn me some more goodwill.
SB: Are all your short films based on local subjects? What about the Himachal region is it that makes you want to explore more of it for your subject matter?
SC: In fact, none of my films, have been on a local subject other than Pashi, and that too was just a coincidence!
When I sit to write or imagine, I give myself full freedom and the sky is the limit. On a serious note, I am very much aware of our rich culture and many unexplored subjects.
SB: Would you ever want to step into the big league and direct a feature-length film?
SC: Yes, why not, absolutely. In fact, I am almost ready with the script of my first feature-length film, and will soon start its production.
SB: Seeing your career trajectory, one can safely assume you don't want to go into Bollywood. Is that correct, and, if so, why?
SC: Not at all! I have never made such a promise to myself. It's just that my goal and choices have been different so far. I don't know what lies ahead for me. Whether I go into Bollywood, or get Bollywood to Shimla, either way, my goal will be accomplished!
SB: Name three of your favourite films.
SC: Amores Perros by Alejandro González Iñárritu [Mexico], The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke [German], and Winter Sleep by Nuri Bilge Ceylan [Turkey]. They are all brilliant films and unique in themselves.
SB: Which director do you most look up to?
SC: No one. I learn different aspects of filmmaking from different filmmakers. If I do look up to someone, it is my mentor Dr Daisaku Ikeda, who has taught me the art of learning and winning in life.
SB: Anything else you'd like to say as you embark on the biggest moment of your career yet?
SC: Believe in your infinite potential, believe in your dreams, and experience life as you single-mindedly strive to accomplish them!