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Sundance London – Interview with Shuchi Talati and Preeti Panigrahi (Girls Will Be Girls)



Conducted By: Blake Simons

Nestled high in the mountains of the Himalayas is a boarding school, where 16-year-old head prefect Mira falls for seemingly sensitive boy Sri. But the school does not approve of female-male relations and frowns upon friendships between them. Assuring her mother that they are just friends, Mira instead spends time with Sri at her home. But the mature-for-his-age boy strikes up a rapport with the young girl’s mother…

A strikingly assured feature debut from writer-director Shuchi Talati, Girls Will Be Girls is one of the standout films at this year’s Sundance London, filled with gorgeous 4:3 cinematography, staggeringly nuanced performances and chemistry, and a slow, gracefully unfolding narrative.

We sat down with Talati and lead actress Preeti Panigrahi during the festival to discuss the importance of foregrounding female talent in screen industries, the vulnerability in the film’s performances, and how they found the energy of these characters on screen.

The screenplay was developed through multiple screenwriting labs, including Berlinale Talents. How did the project develop and evolve through these processes and programs?

Shuchi: The film went to three labs. The biggest change was the mother character. I had an amazing mentor, Clare Downs, who recognised that, from the early draft of the script, the film always ended with the boy leaving and the mother and daughter being left alone.

But Clare said, I see where you want the film to go. To me it seems like the real love story in the film is between the mother and the daughter, not between the daughter and her boyfriend. To really earn this, the daughter has to really see the boyfriend for who he is, and she has to change her point of view on him. And if that happens, then you will get to the ending that I feel like you want to get to.

She said something that really unlocked everything for me. She said ‘You know, this boyfriend character, he’s very charming. And underneath charm there is sometimes a river of contempt.’

That hit me in a deep place and transformed the third act of the film. I think that was probably the biggest gift of those labs.

I also read that you worked with a predominantly female crew. How did that impact your creative process? Is that what we have to thank for the incredible vulnerability of your lead performances? Because there’s a rawness there that feels like it wouldn’t necessarily have been achieved with a more male crew.

Shuchi: Yeah. I think because of the story, which deals with the young woman’s romance and her sexual awakening, it was important to surround the young actors with as many women as we could. Which is hard to do in an industry that can be often very male.And the gender disparity is only magnified in an industry like the Indian film industry.

So we had a dear friend of mine, a long-time collaborator who was behind the camera, the DP, the AD, script supervisor, production designer, lots and lots of women. And I think that allowed for that safe space. Maybe I should let [Preeti] speak about that.

Preeti: It was very special every time all the women took over the set. And it was very relaxing to get our pants down and be in an intimate position in the film [laughs]. But I want to take this moment to also appreciate all the men who were there on set, especially Shuchi’s husband, Kent. He was very supportive and very encouraging. Our gaffer, Sajid, he was there. It was just a bunch of extremely sensitive people who would protect and ensure that actors are not disturbed at all. It was one of those sets where nobody was yelling at anyone to get the film done. It was more important to take care of people working on set rather than wrap up the film quickly.

Shuchi: But in trying to get as many women on set as possible, we realized there are some departments where it’s impossible because there aren’t any. We couldn’t find any women working in the lighting department. So one of our co-producers, her name is Tanya Negi, she had an idea. She was like, what if we did a training program for women who want to be in cinema lighting? Which is an amazing idea. I think it’s really smart, it’s brilliant thinking, except that we don’t know how to run a training program, and we were in pre-production for our film. But we applied for a grant from Berlinale.

We got that grant and then we ended up getting support from a big rental house in India called Light and Life. And then it very quickly came together and we put a call out for applications, not knowing if anyone would even apply. Like, do women think about being gaffers?

And forty women applied. We trained nine. One of them was actually in our lighting department on our set. It was really an amazing full circle, and several of them are still working as gaffers.

It’s rare to see a female adolescent gaze on a male body captured in a film. The framing and the perspective on that is really refreshing. And your approach to adolescent sexuality in general is so refreshingly honest and genuine.

Shuchi: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think adolescent sexuality, but I think sexuality in general, it’s a space where we’re so tender and vulnerable.

Often in cinema, I think sexuality or sexual encounter is written as a plot point. Like, these two people are falling in love and then they have sex and then their story continues. But that’s not how it is in life. It’s such an emotional exchange.

And you can very easily get hurt. Like, if you try to kiss someone and they don’t kiss you back the right way, or if they don’t remember what you like. You can really hurt people. People express anger. There are all kinds of things that happen during a sexual exchange.

I think in this film, as these two characters are getting to know each other, for me it was very important to write each sexual encounter as an emotional exchange. And through this see: are they getting closer? What are they learning about each other?

There is one sexual encounter that I would almost call a breakup scene. I thought of these as really no different than conversations. When I was talking to the actors, I said to them that that’s what I wanted to capture. I wanted to know what this meant.

And especially as a teenager, it’s so scary, you don’t know how to kiss, it’s really not hot sometimes. You’re still feeling your way around. There’s so much shame and tenderness. I tried really hard to capture that.

I give so much credit to Preeti and Kesav, the two young actors, for bringing their own experience but being so willing to do such vulnerable work.

Could you tell me about casting and how you discovered this amazing actor [gesturing at Preeti] and what your experience working together was like?

Shuchi: The casting was a long process. I worked with this amazing, amazing casting director. His name is Dilip Shankar. He’s a veteran. He cast all of Mira Nair’s films, including Monsoon Wedding. He’s this amazing character. He knows he’s a veteran of Bollywood and he knows that scene very well. But he’s also a very fine actor, a theatre actor. He knows that circuit super well. So he understood from the very first reading and very first conversation that we needed these characters to feel like full flesh and blood humans.

As we started the casting process, we did audition a lot of actors who had credits because India is such a big industry. There are a lot of young actors who have done work and have multiple credits. But we also were branching out and doing open calls at universities, reaching out to drama programs. It was several months into the casting process that we got Preeti’s audition through an open call. We were both immediately taken.

The audition scene was the scene where Mira and her love interest Sri have their first real conversation and they flirt on this rooftop under the stars. A lot of girls tended to play it very coy. They would bat their eyelids in a way that just didn’t feel right.

Preeti played it like Mira. She played it as the head prefect who had a lot of dignity. Even though she really liked this boy, she would not debase herself, she would not bat her eyelids. We were both very excited by the choices that she made. There was something very real about her, and kind of unselfconscious. She didn’t feel like the Instagram generation or the TikTok generation. They are so used to their angles and posing in that way. There was something just real and refreshing.

Once I met her, it felt she was so like the character. She had just such direct access to Mira’s psychology. She came to every meeting with her little notebook and took notes. I had to say so little to her during the shoot because she just understood the character.

Kesav Binoy Kiron, who played Sri, also came to an open call. He was in engineering school. He managed to thread this fine line between being boy enough and man enough that he would be interesting to Mira but also to her mom. He would be charming enough that you could feel that they would all be taken by him, but also nice enough that you don’t feel like ‘oh, he’s a bad boy, stay away from him’. There is a kind of vulnerability to him, and I think that was a hard combination to find. Kesav had it from his first audition. I feel so lucky that we found both of them on our timeline.

Girls Will Be Girls screened at Sundance London on June 8th. The film releases in the UK this September from Modern Films.

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