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Film-maker Payal Sethi speaks about Indian Cinema and her success
Award-winning film-maker Payal Sethi speaks to Lipi Bharadwaj and shares her path to success,..

“LIKE MOST New Yorkers, I lived in a tiny shoebox apartment that served as bedroom, living room and kitchen. My mother, who hadn’t been to visit in the ten years I'd lived in this country, flew in to live with me. She was shocked at first by its square footage, but soon grew to love the cozy space. My mom and I are very close and she told me that she has been telling dad how much fun she was having living with me and he wanted to come and stay with us the following year. Logistically, this meant that one of us (most likely me) would have to sleep in the space between my futon/bed and the fridge. I panicked, but immediately felt guilty, thinking of all that they must have made sacrificed during my childhood for my happiness.” This is how Payal Sethi's first short film, 'Grant St. Shaving Co.', was born. She adds, “People always say that when you write, you don't really know where it comes from, but definitely I can trace it back to that incident. When I sat down to write the story, it just poured out.”

Through Grant St. Shaving Co. Payal looks at a father-daughter relationship with New York's busy life as a backdrop. It tells the story of Vimal, an old widower who comes to visit his daughter in New York, and breaks an antique razor – a present from his late wife on their first anniversary in the same city. As Vimal travels on the streets of New York, looking for a replacement with a friendly Indian delivery-guy, he relives the moments spent with his wife during their first anniversary. It's a journey down the memory lane to find the shop where he first bought the razor. The razor, eventually, brings the father and daughter back together. Grant St. Shaving Co. is Payal's first film and has already won many international awards and has been screened in many film festivals in Europe and America.

Payal's experience with Mira Nair, and later with the film-festivals helped her choose which festivals to apply for. She found the Internet to be a great resource as well. That is how she found about The Smalls where she even won an award. She says, “Any film which looked interesting and had presented good films before, I would just apply to it. Applying in many European film-festivals is free of cost, which is really good, because not all film-makers can afford to apply to film-festivals!”

Payal describes working with Mira Nair as “being in a very rigorous film school.” She started working with Mira on the suggestion of the Head of the Columbian University's film department, where she was selected as a student. Describing Mira, she says, “Mira is a wonderful person and an inspiring filmmaker. It was only when I made my own short film that I truly understood what I had learnt from her. It was an incredible learning experience.”

She worked with Mira for five years as production and development executive on movies from Monsoon Wedding to The Namesake. After which, she held various roles within the New York independent film circuit, such as the Manager of the Sloan Fund at the Tribeca Film Festival. Finally, in 2008, with a friend, Pooja Kohli, she started her own film production and distribution company, FilmKaravan.

It was started during the Tribeca Film Festival. Payal recollects, “We started FilmKaravan because there were a lot of Indian films in the festival and we were very proud of that fact. But at the same time, we realized that not many in the community knew about it. So, we started to unofficially promote the films through our blogs, newsletters, and emails. Then, we went a step further and threw a party for the film-makers there; we also had a press conference where we announced about the company.”

Payal adds, “As a film-maker I can tell you, after the film is made a director wants to have nothing to do with the distribution and festivals. A filmmaker is exhausted after the production. So, we came in to take the work out of it, to help the filmmakers!”

FilmKaravan has brought out couple of amazing films like, 'Superman of Malegaon', 'Sita Sings the Blues', 'Mira Nair's AIDS Jaago' etc. The company has put the DVD distribution on a hiatus now, since, selling it online is cheaper. They are still marketing films.

Her next project is a feature entitled 'Ooty Queen,' a heart-warming story of female bonding and empowerment through beauty, with a heavy dose of humor and a touch of camp. Payal describes 'Ooty Queen' as a very “quirky” film. It is the story of a rebellious teenage girl who wants to be a beauty queen but her mother wants her to get married. So, they decide that the girl has to get married after she participates in the beauty pageant. They are helped by their housekeeper, Muthu, who is a cross-dresser.

Payal says, “It takes all kinds of meanings of beauty and beauty isn't superficial, that's what the protagonist learns. Whereas, the mother, who is a widow, rediscovers her beauty and sensuality, and the servant expresses what beauty means to him. It is about different kinds of feminine energies and our conception of beauty.” As a kid, she used to go to Ooty to visit her grandmother, who also had a cross-dressing housekeeper. She wanted to capture the beauty of the city in her film. She says she would definitely enjoy the production part of the film the most, “Once you are on the sets, the adrenaline rush that you experience when you see what you have written come to life is amazing!”

Currently, she also manages Abhay Deol's international projects and is working on a script for a movie company that he is planning to launch.

Payal is inspired by international filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai and Godard. Satyajit Ray is one filmmaker she believes has truly transcended the way films are made. She also is impressed with Nandita Das' Firaaq. Payal has grown-up watching Dev Anand movies and feels Bollywood is quite young. She says, “I am very impressed how the industry is self-sustainable and self-sufficient. Even small filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee, Rajat Kapoor don't really have to look for a market outside India.”

Payal Sethi who wants to be a full-time filmmaker says, “If we can make Indian films, not just Bollywood, films in every language, that translates to a world-wide audience, in a way that China and Japan have been able to, it would be great. Hopefully, I would be a part of it. India has all kinds of cinema, there should be! The diversity is what makes it interesting!”

Festivals & Awards(Grand St. Shaving Co.)


The Smalls, London, UK, September 2010

Florence River to River, Italy, December 2010

Silver Palm Award, Mexico Intnl. Film Festival, Mexico, May 2011

Official Selection

Court Metrage – Short Film Corner, Cannes Film Festival, France, May 2010

South Asian International Film Festival, New York City, October 2010

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, March 2011

San Francisco International Women's Film Festival, April 2011

Short Shorts Film Festival Asia, Tokyo, June 2011

Asian American International Film Festival, New York City, August 2011

Note: The article was earlier published by Channel 6 Magazine.

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