'As a woman, I live out my worst fears every day'

Actors Shruti Haasan and Sanjith Hegde, and director Nag Ashwin, dissect their recent short film, X-Life, that is a part of the recent Netflix Telugu anthology, Pitta Kathalu
Actors Shruti Haasan and Sanjith Hegde, and director Nag Ashwin, dissect their recent short film, X-Life
Actors Shruti Haasan and Sanjith Hegde, and director Nag Ashwin, dissect their recent short film, X-Life

Nag Ashwin’s X-Life, one of four stories in the recent Netflix anthology, Pitta Kathalu, is about a futuristic, albeit familiar, world in which people live out their lives in the virtual world. The film is a critique of not living in the real world, and is an appeal to truly love. Given all the Black Mirror echoes, that’s where I begin this group conversation with director Nag Ashwin and the film’s actors Shruti Haasan and Sanjith Hegde…

Nag, surely, you must be a fan of Black Mirror.

Nag: I discovered it only recently, and yes, I love it. However, this idea of exploring an alternate, virtual world through a film… This was among my earliest scripts, but we did not have the technology to make it then. When Netflix approached us with the idea of making short films about power struggle, I thought I could finally make this film.

The visual finesse of this film is quite impressive, especially given that it’s a short film.

Nag: Thanks! It was quite difficult for us to execute it, given all the constraints. In fact, we have as many as 300 VFX shots in this film. While a short film typically does not allow for such a visual canvas, it helped that everyone who was working on this project, believed in it… believed in me.

Sanjith and Shruti, could you talk about how you came on board such an unusual project?

Sanjith: I met Nag at an awards function in 2019. When he later invited me to read a script, I thought it was an opportunity for me as a musician. When I realised he was asking me to act, I immediately communicated my reluctance. I loved the script though; it seemed really cool. I was just not sure I had it in me to do the job as an actor, but well…

Shruti: I think this film is the symmetry of many things coming together in an exciting way. X-Life does stand apart in my film experiences over the last decade. The combination of Nagi (Nag Ashwin) and Netflix was exciting. As actors, we are constantly hungry for good directors. I mean, it’s the only type of hunger we are allowed anyway (laughs). Anyway, these days, I am convinced that it’s not just the good director box that needs to be ticked. There needs to be healthy camaraderie, an alignment in vision… Nagi is from my generation, so that helped.

The costumes were quite striking in this film and were relevant symbols of the futuristic vision of this film.

Shruti: It’s interesting you point it out. Initially, I thought we would go one of two ways: Gattaca, or the vinyl and latex route. Nagi, however, went the Japanese minimal way. And it makes sense because in the future, we will likely return to cottons, and raw and organic fabrics. With all the technology we have today, we are already opting instead for electric cars, vegan diets… I’m just glad we did not all have to step out wearing shiny space suits in this film (laughs).

Among my favourite shots in the film is one that captures the reflection of a company logo on a wet terrace at night. Do you plan for such visuals?

Nag: We totally winged this one. We were rehearsing on the terrace and I spotted the water and suggested we shoot the reflection. While editing a film, we see so many things, things we may not have necessarily planned. For instance, it was accidental that in this film’s beginning, Sanjith is standing at a higher level than Shruti. This gets reversed towards the end, when Shruti’s character outwits him. It struck me during editing that this accident may come across as a deliberate plan, but it works.

Does taking part in such a film cause you to worry about your own use or overuse of technology?

Sanjith: Yes, for sure. I have been trying to cut down on my phone usage—you know, Insta, YouTube… After doing this film, I did take a break. I guess the film did affect me on some way.

Shruti: I think I have a healthy understanding of the perils of technology. My father (Kamal Haasan) was using advanced tech at a time when it hadn’t even taken off… I have always thought of it as a cool tool that I can put to my benefit. I also took to social media quite early—MySpace, Twitter… I was there when a few people were, and it was quite lonely (laughs). I think what people do not realise is that our information has always been at the mercy of the powers that be. I think technology is just a replacement for the old ways of keeping track of our private information.

The background score of the film is quite eclectic, though there’s  clearly a sense of homage to yesteryear sci-fi films.

Sanjith: I was nervous about how I, and my friend, Suryapraveen, had done the score of this film. Nagi gave us complete freedom, and his only brief was, “Do it right.” We initially went for an 80s retro style score, dominated by synth sound—you know, like Blade Runner… And then, I think we went all over the place with it. We were bringing in guitars, alaaps (laughs). As long as it all works.

Nag, the end of the film shows people as having woken up from their digital slumber. Is that the optimist in you? I would think that a more realistic version would show these addicted people being furious about having lost access to the VR world.

Nag: You are right. That would have been the more realistic way to approach it. I might have gone that way, had this been a two-hour feature film. I might have used the climax of this short as the intermission point and had the second half track how the world adjusts to this change.

Shruti: Let’s make it!

Nag: (Laughs) I guess I was opting for a hopeful end with this film. You don’t always have to provide a hopeful end, but hey, it’s nice to spread hope.

What about the short film format lends itself to twists, do you think? Netflix anthologies seem rife with short films that are developed around a twist.

Nag: I guess it just makes it easier to write the third act. The twist also gives you the experience of having been on a journey. Going linear is a different approach, one that’s likely a lot harder to execute as a short film.

There’s a digital button in this film that when affixed on a person’s forehead, makes them live out their worst fears. What fears of yours are likely to come up?

Nag: Mine is a boring answer, but I guess it will likely be something related to a film shoot. You know, something like me walking out of the sets after a rewarding day’s shoot and being told all the data has been erased…

Sanjith: I feel like that button is already on my forehead. (Everyone laughs)

Shruti: As a woman, I think even without such a device, we live out our worst fears every day. It’s not like such dangers elude me because of my life and its protective layers. Nag is worrying about his memory card getting erased, but as a woman, I’m worrying that I don’t get killed by the end of the street.

It’s interesting that you are touching upon some of the themes in Nandini’s film from this anthology.

Shruti: Yes! Even in our film, my character’s transformation does not feel like a twist to me. It’s the story of most women. You begin by asking for help and then decide you are better off figuring the system out in your own unique way. The journey of my character in this film, in many ways, is a metaphor for what most women go through.

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