Ambiecka Pandit: Society should not be entitled to comment on sexuality

Filmmaker Ambiecka Pandit discusses her recent Marathi short film Under the Waters, including its themes, her casting and filmmaking choices for it, and more
Ambieka Pandit-Under the Waters
Ambieka Pandit (L), Shivraj Waichal (M), Nishant Bhavsar (R)

Ambiecka Pandit’s Marathi short film Under the Waters on Mubi explores the sensitive topic of childhood abuse in a family setting. While it is not a new topic in a filmmaking sense, Ambiecka made a deliberate decision to use a family dynamic to tell the story for a specific reason. “I wanted to explore how the abuse of a prepubescent child by an older male from his own family affects his psyche. Or, more specifically, where the lines between assault and affection get blurred for such children. The purpose of the said setting was to create a contrast and show how one’s family impacts them at a young age. Most parents of prepubescent children in India do not focus much on what their kids do or ask them what they feel. They have a peripheral influence on the lives of their children, although they internalise what they want from their kids. I kept the children in the foreground and the adults in the background in the film to show how the latter’s presence subliminally affects the former’s worldview,” explains Ambiecka.

The filmmaker also has an explanation for the title, Under the Waters. “Technically, a swimming pool or an ocean is both a private and a public space at the same time, much like society's opinion on your sexuality today. Society dictates what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable in terms of sex, although it is a private thing that nobody should be entitled to comment on,” says Ambiecka.

The film starts with Mihir (Shivraj Waichal) teaching his younger cousin Sarang (Nishant Bhavsar) how to swim and stay afloat. But soon, Mihir sexually abuses the child, and the latter does not know what to make of it or how to respond to it. The location then suddenly shifts to a family setting, a world where kids hang out and bond over fun and games. However, the mundane backdrop is in stark contrast to the conflicting emotions that Sarang goes through, including a sense of longing and desire for his older cousin.

Discussing the age-appropriateness of the film, Ambiecka says, “The short you see on Mubi now is the same film that went to film festivals, such as the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and the Dharamshala International Film Festival. I did not necessarily make any specific changes to the screenplay to make it age-appropriate. The film was always meant for adults to understand so that they could make it a better experience for prepubescent children going forward.”

The filmmaker first shot to fame with 2019’s Custody, which won the Best Short Fiction Film award at the 67th National Film Awards. Under the Waters is her sophomore short film, and the best quality of it is how it makes the audience feel like they are a part of the conversation. In other words, watching it unfold is like being a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on a family’s conversation. Only a handful of filmmakers imbue their films with this quality. “I have filmmakers I look up to, and Mira Nair and Anjali Menon are among them. I also like the works of Andrea Arnold and Michael Haneke. In terms of style, I chose this approach to tell the story of Under the Waters to ensure that I do not leave a voyeuristic gaze on the characters; rather, I just wanted to make it seem like an observer from afar looking at the events in a child's life. I feel this is the most dignified way of telling the story. I achieved it through a combination of camera placements and realistic acting so that the audience feels like they are in there with the characters throughout.”

Speaking of acting, Shivraj and Nishant have a very awkward chemistry in the film, but Ambiecka says that she used an intensive workshop before production to help them bring about that sense of discomfort and that they eventually stayed together and became like the family members you see in the film. “I deliberately decided to cast children not aged below 18 years. Although Nishant looks younger, he was 19 when we shot the film. By the time we shot that underwater scene, they had become such good friends and developed a comfort level. However, they are such good actors that they could also manage to bring that disconcerting dynamic.”

The filmmaker is in talks over the possibility of directing a feature film. She has also directed an episode in a series titled Black Warrant that is about an unlikely jailer in Tihar Jail and that will release later this year.

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