After winning top awards at SVA’s 24th Annual Dusty Film & Animation Festival, the short film Kush by recent alumnus Shubhashish Bhutiani (BFA 2013 Film and Video) is now set to screen the 2013 Venice Film Festival. (UPDATE: On September 8, Kush won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival. The jury was chaired by Paul Schrader and composed of Catherine Corsini, Leonardo Di Costanzo, Golshifteh Farahani, Frédéric Fonteyne, Kseniya Rappoport and Amr Waked.) The only Indian film selected for the venerable festival this year, Kush is inspired by the true story of a teacher leading a field trip in 1984 who was forced to protect a Sikh student when violence erupts following the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards. SVA Close Up caught up with Bhutiani via email recently to discuss the film and its recent success.
How did you react to the news that Kush was accepted into the Venice Film Festival?
I was in disbelief. It was quite something, my dad actually called me early in the morning because Italy is ahead of the U.S., and he told me to check my email. And then to see the letterhead and the invitation… It was a new feeling I experienced, an amazing honor to be screening alongside filmmakers I’ve long admired, at a platform that is truly global.
What was the inspiration for the film?
I came across the story of Kush in my economics class in 11th grade. I went to a boarding school in the Himalayas called Woodstock School, where our teacher actually experienced the story on the way back from a field trip. She told us the story, and I knew it should be a film. I didn’t know I would make it at that point. With research and time, I adapted it to the themes I wanted to deal with, and the setting I wanted to show.
What was the experience of shooting the film like? And how did you cast and fund it?
Shooting the film is a blur and extremely vivid at the same time. Everything felt so organic and in the moment. The story evolved with the shoot, and to see the energy of so many young people was contagious to the whole crew. I think the adults became as passionate as the kids did. It wasn’t easy for us, as a lot of us were working in India for the first time, and some were working on a film for the first time. We definitely did things that wouldn’t be allowed on a film set, like tying Mike McSweeney (BFA 2012 Film and Video), the director of photography, to a car with a rope and driving behind the bus to get the shot.
Casting of the film was done on a grassroots level, with a lot of the kids coming through the Sunday school my mom teaches at—kids who’s parents are friends with my father, and so on. The funding was done through private funding of family and friends, and SVA’s grants were extremely helpful as we won the Dusty Film and Animation Pre and Post Grant as well as the William C. Arkell Memorial Award. We were plain lucky and somehow it worked.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this movie?
I learned a lot of things through the process of making this film. I learned how much responsibility you can give kids. Kids are extremely intelligent and best when left alone. They have their own way of doing things and the more you try to direct them the more you lose the magic that they can offer. In terms of filmmaking, I learned a lot by the extremely talented people that supported me from the Director of Photography, Editor (current BFA Film and Video student Tom Knight), Sound Designer (Steve Burgess, BFA 2012 Film and Video), and my Thesis Advisor (BFA Film and Video faculty member George LaVoo). It felt like a crash course in making movies from a practical standpoint. But most importantly, I learned the value of support and persistence. There were many times this film could have fallen apart, but somehow the team kept it together and we just tried to keep making it.
What are your future plans for Kush? And do you have any new projects on the horizon?
My hope for Kush is for it to be seen by as many people as possible and to be seen all over the world. I hope people connect to it, as I’d like to believe it is universal in its themes. I hope people feel for the characters and are inspired by the story itself. I am currently in development for a feature that is set in the place I grow up in the Himalayas in India that I would like to direct and we are out and about looking for the funding.