It was while her children were in middle school that Shelly Chopra Dhar enrolled herself in a film school. And in spite of being the sister of illustrious filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Shelly admits she’s a late entrant. But the 50-plus director of Sonam K Ahuja’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga believes that when it comes to dreams, they don’t come in bottles with an expiry date! Not only did the director make her dreams come true, but she proved to everyone that in achieving them, age is but a number. The debutante director talks to us about her journey into films.
Your brother, Vidhu Vinod Chopra is a well-established filmmaker. What took you such a long time to enter the film industry? Tell us about your journey…
Well, I’m settled in the US. My background is in computer software and I was working in the field for 15 years. Later, I took a break for the family and my priority changed. I had enjoyed computers because designing software was equally artistic. While on a break, I dabbled in ceramics. I learnt music, pottery and painting. I’m very excited about the arts, learning and doing new things. That’s part of who I am! Things that I don’t know or understand, attract me even more.
It was around then that Vidhu was working on Broken Horses in LA. He wanted me to help him with administrative work on the film, which I really enjoyed. While doing the behind-the-scenes, I fell in love with the process of film-making. And when my kids went to middle school, I enrolled myself in a film school. I was the oldest student there. I feel that there are priorities in life that change with every phase. So let’s just say I have enjoyed every phase, including this one as a filmmaker.
So, when did your film take shape?
I started with assisting on Ferrari Ki Sawaari, then 3 Idiots, and Broken Horses. After that I started working on my own scripts.
Your film’s lead protagonist played by Sonam K Ahuja is a gay character. Wasn’t that a risk for a debutante? Especially considering a mainstream ‘love story’ film has never had a lesbian protagonist?
Yes, and it was the reason that the subject was considered a risk. But it got me thinking and believing even more that this story needed to be told.
Your first film has earned mixed reviews. Do you think the audience connected with it?
Yes. And it feels amazing when your story telling gets validated by the audience. You feel like you have achieved what you set out to do. When the audience actually understands your story in the way you planned for them, it is fantastic.
What do you have to say about the LGBT community’s representation in Bollywood?
The subject is very close to my heart. I’m nobody to speak about anyone’s work. But the LGBT community has not been represented well in our film industry. Pathos and compassion towards them in commercial cinema is lacking. I’ve always felt the portrayal of the community has not been showcased in the right spirit. It has either been shown in a derogatory fashion or in a comical manner. Both are harmful. When people go to watch these films, they come out feeling that it’s okay to laugh at them. Or they expect them to behave in a certain way!
Our films stereotype them. On the other hand, the films that do portray them sensibly and sensitively belong to parallel cinema, that has a limited reach. So, my only idea was to make film that was entertaining and not preachy. And without putting anybody down, I wanted to present them in a light that they deserve to be shown, with respect and dignity.
Your film was shot before the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality, right?
Yes, and I wish they had done it way earlier. From the film’s point of view, yes, I would have made it a little differently.
Women filmmakers are expected to make films that are socially-driven or socially conscious. Do you endorse that thinking?
The term filmmaker or director is a gender-neutral term. And women or men, filmmakers should be spoken about for their films and craft. Having said that, I would take what you are saying as a compliment. We, as women, are more attuned to sensitive issues. But I feel that every filmmaker, irrespective of gender, is in a position of a great responsibility. As filmmakers, we must remember that whatever we show to people, there will be a take-away for the audience.
Even if 10 per cent of the audience is taking away something from the film, it has to be something positive. It better be good. As it is, there are enough issues in the world. And the last thing you want to do through your film is to further negativity. So I better do something that will help, if not say or do anything detrimental to society. And this, I do not know, if it comes from being a woman or a responsible filmmaker.
What about commercial aspects?
Who says that a film with a message can’t be an entertainer and work at the box office?
What are you working on next? And will you be juggling between the US and Mumbai? Or are you shifting base here?
As of now, I haven’t locked a script. But we are already working on it. All I can confirm is that my next will be entertaining too. And if there is a nice little message that you can take home, that’ll be better. I will be down from the US to make my next. For now, my family is there.
What would be your advice to women?
Never be intimidated by age or what people or society will say. If you have belief in something, do it. And when you do something truthfully from your heart, you can never go wrong.