Interview with Director Veena Rao on MUMBAI MORNINGS
by Jackie Lam
CineVue got the chance to chat with director Veena Rao about her short film MUMBAI MORNINGS, which centers around Abbas–a humble but driven, Indian jewelry polisher-turned-ultramarathoner. Through stunning cinematography, Abbas shows us a different side of Mumbai that has opened to him as he runs through the city he calls home.
MUMBAI MORNINGS is part of the AAIFF ’16 WE ARE BEAUTIFUL Shorts program, which will be showing on Friday July 22 at the Cinema Village East Theatre at 7 p.m. Veena Rao will participate in a post-screening panel. Buy tickets HERE.
CineVue: Your film is beautifully shot and feels like a love letter to Mumbai in a way. How would you describe Mumbai to someone who’s never been there?
CV: How did you meet Abbas? how did you build a relationship with him? do you keep in touch?
VR: I had a few ideas of what I wanted to make in India, but they fell through. My cousin’s friend was on the team that he’s on and she told me about his story. I met him and he was interested in doing the film. I started showing up at practices. I got up with him one morning and filmed him at home and going to work.
CV: What was his reaction to the film?
VR: I think that he really liked it, but he did ask where his team members’ interviews go…Anytime you make a film about somebody, it’s difficult to communicate to a non-filmmaker that this is the best story. I did initially have a cut that was longer and included more of the team, but I felt the story was about him and he was the interesting element.
CV: Do you still keep in touch with Abbas? What is he up to?
VR: Yeah, we’re FaceBook friends and he’s on WhatsApp…We’re in touch digitally. He has been in several races since we filmed, including the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in January. Recently he ran a big ultramarathon in South Africa, which when I interviewed him–it’s not in the film–he said was one of his dreams. It’s called the Comrades and he ran that on June 4th. May 29th. That might have been his first time out of the country. He’s doing pretty well.
CV: What do you think his dream is?
VR: I asked him about that. He wants to give up his day job and run full-time and coach. So far it hasn’t been economically feasible.
CV: Are you a runner?
VR: I’m not. [laughs] I mean, I run a little bit because I feel I have to be in shape, but I don’t really like running. There was another reason I was very impressed with Abbas because of his love of running. To me it’s drudgery and work. To him, it’s freedom and he’s really good at it; it’s brought him community and friendship and it’s his passion. It’s really admirable…I got to understand running better through somebody who loves it and I see its appeal.
CV: What was the most challenging part of filming?
VR: I ended up going during the summer–Mumbai’s really really hot, like right before the monsoons, just disgustingly hot & humid. Luckily I shot during the early mornings and evenings, so it wasn’t that bad. The heat was kind of logistically a little bit difficult. The one day I had alloted to shoot him on the train was a Sunday because it’s less crowded on the weekend. During the weekday it’s like New York subway times a hundred.
Unfortunately that Sunday I was sick, but I had to get the shot, I wasn’t going to have another Sunday. After projectile vomiting in a very sweet teammate’s bathroom, I went out…And managed to get it done. Everyone on his team was really helpful…Someone had a pickup truck so I could get that tracking running shot.
CV: How long did the project take from start to finish?
VR: The shooting took a couple of weeks, on and off. Editing probably took the same amount of time. From start to finish, it was like six months, but I was working around other people’s schedules a bit–my sound designer and composer were also working on other projects at the same time.
CV: What’s next for you?
VR: I have a few…ideas in progress. Nothing concrete, but I’m hoping to shoot something in the fall. I’m in the research stage…so I’m not sure what’s gonna pan out. I’m leaning towards another portrait piece.
CV: Would you ever make a feature?
VR: Yeah, I would love to make a feature. The issue for me is that knowing how long a feature documentary takes, the minimum is three years, and it has to be something I’m really really into…I haven’t found the story yet that should be a feature.
CV: What draws you to documentaries over narratives?
VR: I love both–I love films in general. Sometimes I wish there wasn’t such a delineation between doc and narrative. I know why there is, we need some sort of categorization to talk about films. But I think that I’m attracted to people and their stories and I feel like I wouldn’t be able to necessarily write that story. There’s an authenticity there that I personally find very difficult to recreate.
Sometimes with amazing direction and actors that happens in narrative films. In some cases, the authenticity in documentary can never really be achieved in the same way in fiction. I’m attracted to revealing the beauty and extraordinary nature of certain things that happen, and my skill set gears toward doing that with documentary. Also, [I love] the connection I feel I gain being a part of people’s lives just for a little bit. That experience brings me a lot of joy and the ability to experience valuable things outside of my experience.