Building castles in the sand

Marta Owczarek reviews Sandcastle by Shomshuklla and talks to the director about her film debut

Marta Owczarek, 3 December 2013

Sandcastle is Indian theatre director Shomshuklla's debut feature, nominated for a handful of awards at this year's London International Film Festival (LIFF) in Ealing. It focuses on women's place in Indian society, somewhere between increasing freedom and lasting tradition, between the "two colliding worlds of acceptance and breaking out of the modern Indian woman".

The film is about Sheila (Shahana Chatterjee), a wife, a mother, a housewife and an aspiring writer. Her story, like a book, is divided into 22 chapters, each a conversation she has with someone important in her life: her editor, friends, husband and perhaps most crucially her alter ego Maya (Malvika Jethwani), a character who comes along, who she creates, who is and isn't her at the same time. The formal choice of division into chapters, and the ambiguity of the character of Maya (whose name means "illusion" in Sanskrit), suggests a potential mise-en-abyme interpretation, as during the course of the film Sheila completes a novel which shares the main themes with the cinematic story framing its creation. It is also, we can infer, about Sheila/Maya and the tension between the pair's attitudes and their consolidation in the end.

In the prologue we see Sheila in what looks like a beach café, savouring a coffee over Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men, but in fact thinking distractedly about her own book and her own life. She is feeling lonely and emotional, and in need of talking to someone about her feelings, but rejects the idea of seeing a psychiatrist. She reminisces about making sandcastles as a child, when suddenly a woman comes along, sits with Sheila and starts talking to her, giving her advice, guiding her through her dilemmas. What is instantly striking is that the women speak in a mixture of English and Hindi, choosing each depending on sentence or sometimes even single words. The whole film is subtitled - otherwise it would be understandable only for fluent speakers of both languages. The linguistic hybridity is done in a flawless, natural way and is hence completely believable, especially as another facet of the traditional versus modern trope that manifests itself in different ways throughout the film.

Sandcastles are about rebuilding, cyclical rebirth, about letting go of old and embracing the new

The chapters that follow are achronological: we learn the context of Sheila's life before the appearance/creation of Maya. The ways that past and present are filmed differ, so it is clear when what is shown is a flashback. Sheila's ambition to become a writer dates back to her youth, but we see obstacles she would constantly meet on her way, including her family who do not understand her passion. Her brother explicitly doubts her talent, dismissing his meanness as "just teasing". We do, however, see his better side when the question of Sheila's marriage comes up and the brother defends her in front of their mother. We see how Sheila meets Vikram (Rajat Sharma), her future husband, a traditional man who doesn't even want to kiss her not to break the rules. Yet Sheila decides to marry him, partly out of fear of ending up with someone unsuitable. She then never explicitly regrets the choice, but we see her trying to challenge her husband and him reacting badly to Sheila's attempts at greater independence.

It is with the liberated Maya's help that Sheila can confront Vikram more effectively, and get what she wants. Sandcastle-2.jpg Maya is her catalyst in the transformation from the moth to the butterfly, a transition she is scared of but one she wants to happen. When we first see Sheila speaking to her editor about her book, she is so agitated it is hard for her to sit still, and the viewer is feeling exactly the same because of the erratic camera movements, rapid cuts between the people and random objects in the office, Sheila rubbing her hands together and biting her lips. This way we are connected with Sheila on an emotional level, the level of communication she misses so much in her relationship to her husband, or even some of her friends, and the one which she gets so much out of when she is with Maya.

Maya challenges Sheila not so much to be more like her - the singing, dancing, colorful, confident and sexual woman - but to find her true, secret self: her own voice. The way Maya is influences Sheila and gives her strength to make changes in her life, but primarily it aids her to make her own journey of discovery of what it is she really wants and who she is. Unfortunately, because of the emphasis on conversation and on the guidance the character of Maya provides, their interactions sometimes turn to exchanging monologues and repeating slogan phrases, too abstract or too clichéd. What contributes to the lack of subtlety is the very theatrical acting, too exaggerated for the screen, with individual characters speaking for too long, and dialogues stretching to the point of losing the viewer's attention.

The evident highlights are the musical scenes, which don't resort to the Bollywood style, easily identifiable by global audiences, but retain their own unique character and provide much needed change in communication between the characters. This is Maya's message to Sheila - to communicate, and part of it is indeed delivered through Maya's unconventional, lively, cheerful and sensual musical performance. Despite the excessive wordiness of the film, its main message is interwoven into all of its fabric: sandcastles are about rebuilding, cyclical rebirth, about letting go of old and embracing the new - themes as close to Hinduism or Buddhism as the philosophical Maya, the "illusion" of the world, where the truest part is secret and has to be uncovered. And even if Sheila's dilemmas may sometimes sound naive, they still ring true for women just about everywhere.

Q&A with Shomshuklla

Sandcastle_crew.jpg

Shomshuklla (left, among her crew and cast members at the London International Film Festival this year) is an impressive figure: she is a playwright, actress and director with her own theatre company Kali Theatre, a prolific poet with many published volumes and a famous classical Indian and Indian pop singer as well. She has also done interior design and now moved onto another creative realm, combining her versatile talents: cinema. She came up with the story of Sheila, a modern upper-middle class Indian housewife who seems to have it all but yearns for a writing career, authored the script and directed the feature, all for the first time in the service of the Tenth Muse.

How did you manage to shoot the film on a very tight budget? Did that influence the production in any way?
It only meant that we knew we couldn't miss anything - there were no retakes. You can get lots of money and do a bad job, and we simply thought: let's do a good job. I was very comfortable with filming, partly because I have worked with video before in my pop singing career. Also all the actors were trained theatre actors and knew their lines perfectly.

Who did you want to direct your film for? Did you intend to present a story of an Indian woman or is Sheila's situation a universal one?
I certainly believe this is a universal story: it's a journey women are making all over the world. It is not only about India. But I didn't want to make a box office film, one that easily sells to masses. I wanted to make an intelligent and niche film, one that would be different. My main goal was to stimulate the inner life of Indians, but also for the film to have universal impact.

In Bengal, the worship idol is the mother: a strong-headed woman, one who rebels. Men are built by women, and women are also built by women

Could you tell me a bit more about the way the way the film is shot? Was it your idea to intersperse conversations with shots of objects, to change perspectives rapidly, to give an impression of agitation?
I wanted to show exactly the way we behave, so that the viewer can experience the film like they experience life, what they really do. Like now in our conversation, you are scratching your head or we rub our noses - it's all part of how life looks like. I wanted to show reality. Theatre is like real life, and cinema can be too. How you see things - your eyes move, they're not always on a symmetrical level. The shooting of different objects during conversations was actually Abraham Cherian's idea, he was the director of photography and came up with it. When you're talking with someone you wouldn't necessarily look at them all the time, your eyes wander.

Is that also the reason why the film constantly switches between English and Hindi? Is that reflective of reality?
Yes, I wanted to show how people actually talk in big cities in India. Our country is huge, and we all speak different languages. Sandcastle_poster.jpg Our crew, for instance - let me draw you a map - some of us are from the east of India, and some from the south of India, and we work in the west, so our common language is English, sometimes Hindi. So that was again an attempt to convey a reality of how people live and how they communicate.

You also tackle racial and class divides in the film. In one scene, Sheila talks to a woman whose skin is visibly darker, and she admits she is illiterate.
I did not want to show it as a divide, but rather as a common struggle across those barriers. The dark girl is a cook, and she is illiterate, but not unintelligent, and she suffers and struggles the same as Sheila. The poor are more vulnerable so they are stronger, so the cook is able to give Sheila courage because she knows life and has the confidence to deal with it. The rich are often so comfortable they are not exposed to suffering so much, so Sheila is grateful for the cook's advice.

For most of the film Sheila is taking, or sometimes not taking, the advice of the character who is her rebellious alter ego, Maya. That means "illusion" in Sanskrit, doesn't it?
Yes! Maya indeed means "illusion". She is Sheila's agitator and supporter. She is also fun - she sings and dances and makes life more cheerful. Her and Sheila have some conflicts, because women always suffer from more conflicts, they are multitaskers, have to do more work, and fight many battles within themselves, and that is what Maya represents. Sheila resists her sometimes, does not let her take over her life, and in that gains more courage, knows that her inner calling cannot be broken. But Maya is also like sunshine, and sunshine is life.

Maya is also the agent of the erotic, initiating some frank conversations about sex with Sheila.
Yes, the erotic is part of it. Maya's symbolism here is to enjoy it as part of your life, to not restrict life.

And what about Vikram? Maya stands up for Sheila to him, and although at first he seems to be unconvinced, he goes to Sheila's book launch in the end - is he redeemed as a good character?
Not really. He is there like a shadow. He is always trying to be a man with a big ego. Next to him, Sheila tries to behave like a woman, like a housewife. Without Vikram, she would probably be a feminist like Maya. But I wanted to show a moderate voice, a woman with grace, dignity and courage, and one who finds her own voice.

Are you yourself a feminist?Sandcastle-1.jpg
No. I think men should be around, just not boss you around. It's important to take the best out of men, but not become overshadowed by them. They are like rain - and life is a mix of rain and sunshine.

You mentioned before that where you are from in India, mothers are worshipped as gods.
Yes. In Bengal, the worship idol is the mother - a strong-headed woman, one who rebels. The mother was an important figure for Tagore: men are built by women, and women are also built by women. A creator and destroyer, like the goddess Kali, after whom I called my theatre company - she builds and nurtures, is a symbol of death but also empowerment.

Did you intend the film to be like a self-help manual? To show women how to find their own voices?
Yes. I wanted it to be a self-help manual to give courage. Progress has to be more complex than people imagine, but I think courage is very important for women. And men should try to understand it.


Video is official trailer of the film from YouTube. All images taken from the film's Facebook fanpage. First image is of Sheila (Shahana Chatterjee) and Maya (Malvika Jethwani), two young women talking. Second image is of the film's director Shomshuklla among her crew and cast members at the London International Film Festival in 2013. Third image is a cinematic poster for Sandcastle, a watercolour of two female faces. Fourth image is of Shanana Chatterjee as Sheila, a young woman sat at the table probably in the restaurant, with her arm outstretched.

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About the author

Marta Owczarek

Marta Owczarek is an activist and journalist living in South London, as well as a sex-positive intersectional feminist, vegan, queer and keen consumer of culture. She really enjoys films made by women with women as central characters, films that engage with feminism and show different perspectives. She tweets @martalucysummer and sometimes posts on her blog Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.

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