- Filmmaker and Social Entrepreneur Nawneet Ranjan’s debut film that features several non-actors from his social impact organization Dharavi Diary, won Audience Choice Award at this year’s Oscar-qualifying Cinequest film festival.
When filmmaker Nawneet Ranjan went to Mumbai after spending a few years in Los Angeles, he worked in juvenile homes, and on social impact programs. His interactions during that time with friends in the film industry and those working in nonprofit sectors gave him the idea for his directorial debut “Kora Kagazz” (“Tabula Rasa”).
Winner of the Audience Choice Award at the 2023 Oscar-qualifying Cinequest film festival, “Kora Kagazz” tells the story of Divya, a juvenile home warden (Swastika Mukherjee), and Vivek, an actor struggling to create art (Rajat Kapoor), who meet Sandhya, a 14-year-old girl, with a dark past (newcomer Aishani Yadav). It explores how together they rise above their difficulties.
Ranjan also recruited over a dozen teenage girls, who are a part of his Mumbai-based social impact organization Dharavi Diary to face the camera with no prior acting experience. The organization was established following his short film of the same name, which looks at the situation through the eyes of four residents.
In a conversation, with American Kahani, Ranjan talked about his inspiration and the message behind the film. He talks about the power of storytelling, his dedication to creating content that sparks meaningful dialogue, and his fervent hope for a more supportive environment for independent filmmakers in India.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
What was the thought behind naming the film, and what inspired you to tell this story?
The Hindi title of the film — “Kora Kagazz” — and the English title — “Tabula Rasa” — means blank slate. [Tabula Rasa] is actually a Latin word. We used this title to show that whatever happens in our lives, we can always restart and clean our slate, and find inspiration from each other with the hope and desire to make things better.
When I lived in Bombay, I worked in juvenile homes and worked a lot with social impact programs. So during that time I used to interact a lot with my actor friends and talked about how to get roles. In India, and even in the U.S., I have seen people in the creative field struggle to just get on with life — the ups and downs with relationships — and the kind of choices one makes.
I always feel that storytelling is such a powerful tool, so I thought about putting a creative person who is going through a tough time and has to make a choice in order to survive. He takes up a job, which he hates. But then this person is completely transformed because of this experience.
I have seen people working in nonprofit sectors and see how hard they work. It is very satisfying, but they give their heart and soul and it takes a toll on them. We can learn from each other’s stories and be better individuals, and reconnect to our roots by learning and unlearning from each other and making better choices. So the story, in one line, I would say is about how three individuals who meet far from home, find home. This has been my inspiration.
You worked with over a dozen young adult female actors in the film. What was this experience like for you?
All the young girls in the film are non-actors (except for Aishani Yadav who played Sandhya). It was their first time acting as they were part of our social impact program called Dharavi Diary. Most of the girls live in lower-income communities in Mumbai like Versova and Dharavi. The program empowers the girls to get better skilled and to get a college education so that they can find better opportunities for themselves. They can become independent, and help themselves and their families, and break the cycle of poverty.
We did a lot of workshops to make the girls comfortable. In the beginning, it was a little tough. We always tried to treat the camera like a fly on the wall. We created a safe space where the girls felt that there was no wrong way of acting and made them be themselves. I just gave a little brief just before the shots so they didn’t get overwhelmed. It was very fluid and very organic. The senior actors, Rajat Kapoor and Swastika Mukherjee, also made them very comfortable. We completed the shoot in 24 days despite having so many non-actors in the film.
Being an independent filmmaker is not easy. What were the challenges while making this film?
Arranging funds is always difficult. So we went chunk by chunk and worked on it [filming] in different phases, a few months at a time. It was difficult, but we pulled through. And getting distribution for this kind of film is a challenge, so we are trying to make it happen. With this kind of subject, which is a little offbeat and mindful entertainment, it’s tougher to get it [distribution]. Though it has gotten a very good response, we are trying to find an executive producer globally, to get us foreign deals on streaming platforms.
Do you think there is a support system for independent filmmakers in India, given the vast growth and influence of OTT platforms in India?
It has gotten very difficult now — more than what it was after Covid. Most of these big-budget films are now going on the OTT streaming platforms, so people are not going to the movie theaters. Earlier the OTTs were very keen to get independent films and were giving priorities. But now post Covid, it is more challenging to get independents on board.
I think both government and private participation needs to happen, which will give more opportunities to independent filmmakers in India. We don’t have smaller theaters that screen independent films. I think it should be made mandatory that all theaters need to showcase these kind of independent films. Or both private and government sectors should form a body, and screenings at subsidized ticket rates. They should also create multiplexes that showcase independent films. India is such a diverse country, deep-rooted in storytelling. We have a rich historical past. If we create these kind of spaces for independent films, then that would be great.
“Kora Kagazz” recently won the Audience Choice Award at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California. Tell us about this experience and your film festival journey so far.
We got a very good response at the Cinequest Film Festival. It was very satisfying when people watched it, and the way they supported and spoke about it. We have a screening in Los Angeles at the Cinelounge on Sunset Boulevard later this year from Dec. 10 to 16. The film also got into the Big Apple Film Festival in New York which runs from Nov. 3 to 9.
What are some memorable moments you cherish during the making of the film?
I would say the performances. They are so real. I could not cherish the shooting of the film. At that point in time, I was running short of time, and when you are producing as well, it’s challenging. But when we were editing and the film was completed, and now watching it with the audience, it’s very satisfying.
In terms of how it has shaped up and the message we were trying to get across, that’s very satisfying. We were always looking at a mindful kind of entertainment, which people can continue that dialogue for a while. Even after one month of screening [at Cinequest], people are still talking about it. So that’s very satisfying.
Sunil Sadarangani is a Los Angeles-based multiple award-winning producer and writer.