Karishma Dev Dube on her Oscar-shortlisted Bittu: I enjoy portraying pivotal yet seemingly small moments in the lives of girls
The director on how her NYU thesis film made it to the Oscars shortlist
Karishma Dev Dube’s Bittu is on the top 10 list for Best Live Action Short nominees at the Oscars. Released last year, the 16-minute short film is inspired by the 2013 school poisoning incident in Bihar. But, it does not tell that story straight. Bittu (Rani Kumari), barely 10, is a hell-raiser at her local government school. Her best friend, Chand, watches out for her – but bristles when she crosses a line. “It’s not my fault that you keep failing,” she tells Bittu in a quietly wrenching scene. The film immerses us in their friendship even as the climax becomes eerily clear.
Bittu was shot in the Koti village near Dehradun in Uttarakhand. It picked up the silver medal at the 47th Student Academy Awards (the final Oscar nominations will be out in March). Here, Karishma talks about the film’s reception and creating beauty from ‘seemingly small moments’.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Congratulations on Bittu making the Oscars shortlist. How are you feeling at the moment?
I feel a lot of gratitude at this time. I didn’t make this film alone, so I’m proud to represent the work of my amazing cast and crew on such prestigious platforms.
The film is presented by the Indian Women Rising collective (founded by Guneet Monga, Ekta Kapoor, Tahira Kashyap and Ruchikaa Kapoor). It’s the first project showcased by the group.
I approached Guneet to help raise some support for Bittu’s awards campaign. Guneet had been wanting to create an avenue of support for emerging filmmakers in India, and Bittu became a catalyst for IWR to be born. I hope more people with resources in India will emulate this effort. There is a dearth of institutional support for cinema at home.
Around 23 students died in the midday meal poisoning case in Gandaman, Bihar. When did you decide to explore the story from a fictional standpoint?
I don’t think I stopped thinking about the incident ever since it happened, especially the face of a girl in that media footage — angry and resolute. I wanted to make a film that details the experience of a child losing everything because her community failed to protect its most vulnerable. Ultimately, the film became a lot more about the friendship between the two girls.
It’s indeed the main focus in Bittu, not the poisoning.
I. Most of my work intends to explore the subtleties of girlhood. As a writer, I enjoy the microscopic exploration of the characters within a larger narrative. With Bittu and Chand, I had the opportunity to rediscover what it was like when I was growing up away from home in boarding school. When your friends are family, every little thing feels like high stakes.
The Bihar incident caused a furore over the state of midday meals. Has the situation gotten any better in recent years?
I visited a lot of schools that incorporate the midday scheme. The ones I visited were well run. From what I saw, it really is the responsibility of the local community to implement the program, and there I met many people who worked hard to sustain a safe space for their kids. Having said that, such poisonings have happened since 2013, and since I made this film. When it concerns children so young, in places that are often cut off, there has to be a stricter system of accountability, despite the autonomy local bodies have to run the scheme.
You have used birds as an ominous portent in Bittu. Was that incorporated on spot?
Shreya Dev Dube, my sister and DOP/producer of the film, and I were always looking for a visual placeholder that felt more meaningful than just the b-roll of the location. The birds were circling the set throughout the shoot, and we both just organically pointed the camera to the sky. I always thought it was evidence of the kind amazing energy that has been carrying the film from the start.