Take What You Have and Shoot It However You Can: Award-Winning Independent Filmmaker Shilpa Krishnan on Budget Filmmaking and Creating Content

Originally from Kerala in India, Shilpa Krishnan Shukla is a powerhouse independent filmmaker, juggling her full-time job as a global marketing director in Singapore. Her journey to filmmaking is dotted with accolades from film festivals around the world.Recently, Filmwallas had the chance to sit down and speak with Shilpa about her filmmaking journey and her recent film, Tashi..

What made you realise you wanted to pursue filmmaking? Could you share with us your journey to becoming a filmmaker?

I have always been involved with theatre productions. In 2005, I graduated from NUS and a filmwebsite Passion for Cinema, had a 1-minute short film contest.I thought it was a good opportunity for me to test the waters, so I took my camera, shotdid sound design and editing all on my own. I ended up making two 1-minute shorts and both of themgot selected into the top 25 films out of hundreds ofentries.That encouraged me, and I went on to make varying lengths of short films, spanning from 3 minutes to 6 minutes.

Eventually, I decided to make my first feature film, which was around 2 hours long,Mausams.Initially, Mausamsstarted as an idea for a home video. I pulled my husband, colleagues and friends to act in it, and it wasn’t taken seriously – wewere just having a lot of fun. Masuams took me one and a half years to complete. When it was done, I thought I should give the people who worked on it an opportunity to see it on a big screen. I booked the Arthouse and we managed to have an incredible turnout – sold out shows for 10 days across 2 weeks!

Someone from the audience suggested to me to apply for film festivals with Mausams. I was initially hesitant because I was under the impression that film festivals were looking for artsy films and Mausamswas just meant to be a fun and light-hearted project. When I decided to submit it to film festivals, the film got into 4 film festivals in Bangladeshi, USA and India and got awarded the Silver Screen Award at the Nevada Film Festival. That was really heartening and exciting but working on Mausamsexhausted me, so I scaled down and started making Malayalam short films, sitcoms and webseries.

Some time down the road, I had my baby, and told myself I had to make sure I didn’t take a break from filmmaking. Within 1 year since her birth, I shot a short film, just to keep myself inspired. Eventually, I made my second feature film, There’s Always Tomorrow. This film was a bit more professionally done as I got a little help from technical professionals. The film went on to 33 film festivals, clinching 17 awards.

As you mentioned, your first feature film in Mausams, was a zero-budget film. Could you share with us some difficulties you face when filming Mausams?

In Mausams, I had a lot of cast members and a lot of help from friends during post-production. The production value was pretty low, and it was evident, it being a home-video. But now, technology is more accessible, my second featureThere’s Always Tomorrow was shot on a Canon 5D which I borrowed from my friend.

Apart from budgeting constraints, from Mausams, I learnt that managing a huge cast was very difficult and when making There’s Always Tomorrow, I kept that in mind as I had to consider my full-time job and parenting duties. Thus, when I wrote the script, I structured it around only two characters because I wanted to keep it simple and manageable.

The lean and mean team of only 2 cast members and 3 production crew behind There’s Always Tomorrow.

Right, compared to Mausams, There’s Always Tomorrow was a rather minimalistic film, revolving around two ex-lovers trying to navigate the complexities of their identities and relationship. What was your creative process when crafting the tone of the film and creating its characters?

Being minimalistic is a necessity for me, as I am my own producer. When I started out writing the script, I knew I didn’t have lots of funds, so it had to be super simple. Thus, I looked at having only 2 cast members and that scales down the production a lot. The minimalism starts from that.

I thought about what kinds of stories I could create with just 2 characters, and there are plenty of movies out there about ex-lovers and often one of them is unhappy or bitter over the past, or they get together at the end. I wanted to make films that I would personally enjoy watching. I don’t like tragic films or films with too much negativity and I try to veer away from that personally.

So, I asked myself what would happened if there was none of that bitterness, what if the ex-lovers were completely satisfied in their current respective relationships and lives, and where would that take me? That was my starting point.

Was There’s Always Tomorrow your first Malayalam-English bilingual film? What drove your decision to make a bilingual feature?

Yes, it was my first Malayalam feature film. Before that, I did a fair number of Malayalam projects, like short films and web-series in Malayalam.

When I talk to my friends who are Malayalese, we speak half English and half Malayalam, and I think and write like that. Nobody talks in pure Malayalam outside of India anymore,the film was shot in Abu Dhabi, so it felt organic and natural for the script to be bilingual.

So, would your newest project, Tashi be bilingual as well?

Tashi will be in Hindi and English. There’s an elderly lady in it and sheconverses in Hindi, so herchildren and other characters speak to her in Hindi, but converse in English amongst themselves.

The cast of Tashi, Shilpa’s upcoming family drama, shot in Singapore..

Tell us more about Tashi, it was shot in Singapore, right?

As of now, we have completed the shoot. It was done in a week in Singapore, and currently the editing process is done in India.

In Tashiis a conversation-heavy family drama, revolving around an elderly lady, her two children who are around 40-year-old, a domestic helper and a paying guest. It’s about how these five people interact and what they take away from each other.

The production team and cast of Tashi.

During the creative process of making a film, have you ever had to reconcile the difference between what you envisioned and desired with what you achieved? For example, you mentioned budget constraints, how did you move through it?

There are a lot of instances where things don’t go as you plan during the shoot. But what I put in a great deal of effort for post-production.

One example is during There’s Always Tomorrow, we were shooting a sunset scene at a desert outside Abu Dhabi and we only had 1 hour before the sun set. As the desert was 300 kilometres away from Abu Dhabi, it was the only day we could afford to shoot that particular scene.

When we shot it, the actors werea little nervous, stressed out and forgetting lines, so we shot whatever we could. Once we got back to the city centre, I went through a mental edit to see if we had sufficient footage to edit in such a way that their nervousness doesn’t show. We had just enough footage to cut it and thankfully, we did not need to reshoot.

But, even then, considerable amount of time was spent on getting that sunset scene right. When I felt the pause was not right between the lines, we added another line of dialogue during dubbing. I am super granular when it comes to editing. In terms of output, I am proud of how all my works have turned out.

Shooting in a desert during There’s Always Tomorro.

There is so much time and effort that goes into the production and post-production of your works. Apart from being a filmmaker, you are also the global marketing director of a multinational conglomerate, how do you manage juggling your creative passion and you full time job?

The thing is, for filmmaking, I don’t do it every day. For example, for Tashi, I took 1 week leave from my full-time job to shoot and my husband and helper took care of my daughter.

I just try to focus on what I am doing at any point of time. For example, at my full-time job, I come in early and leave early around 4.30PM, so that I can spend time with my family.

Whenever I have time, for example now in December and work is less hectic, I write my scripts. In fact, all my feature film scripts were written on flights, as I travel a lot for work. On long flights, I have no distractions and I can focus on writing.

What advice would you give to filmmakers about to make their first short or feature?

The biggest thing I hear is “We don’t have a budget or a team”. And the first thing I ask is “Do you have a script?” because that is the fundamental thing. People put so many barriers between themselves and making a film that they struggle to get through it.

My principle is: take what you have and shoot it however you can. For example, before Tashi, I never used lights in any of my shoots. In There’s Always Tomorrow, we had a campfire scene at night, but the light from that fire was not bright enough, so we had to improvise and used the headlights of our car instead. We used what we had at that point of time.

Even if I didn’t have the car then, I would have shot the scene anyway, because you work with what you have. That I think is the issue with most people, they have a certain look and feel they want their film to be instead of focusing on the storytelling. Most of the time, the budget that you need is for the look and feel of the film, hardly for the story telling.

If you have a script, take your iPhone and shoot it. There are so many free editing software and open-source music websites out there. It’s extremely enabling. That was what I did when I started out, I used my Handicam way back in 2008 as phone cameras were not that advanced yet. I edited it on Windows Movie Maker and did sound design on my own. I recorded the sound effects of footsteps and crushing a paper using my Skype microphone. It was messy, but I worked with what I had back then.

Shilpa’s newest work Tashi, an English-Hindi feature film, is currently under post-production. (Picture credit: Kathaah Productions).

What is one thing you think would make the film industry better?

From an independent filmmaker’s standpoint, there are two things I personally struggle with, one is production and one is distribution. While I completely believe in making films with what I have, if ever I need to, I acknowledge the importance of having avenues for independent filmmakers to acquire budget for their films.

The second is distribution, of course, there are many online platforms, but they don’t have much reach yet. You can put it on YouTube, but it compromises the quality and there are piracy issues.

There needs to be a distribution platform for independent filmmakers, so that it will no longer be just the few bigwigs who have control over everything, because take for example, the Indian film industry, it’s always the same few production houses and actors.

I sincerely believe that online platforms and video on demand services will be a lot more popular in a few years’ time. And that will be the single most enabling change that the film industry can have.

There is so much content right now online, and with better distribution opportunities, it would really help the film industry. When people ask me what I want to do with Tashi, I am not sure of its future, perhaps I will put it up on some online platforms or send it to film festivals.