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"Fact Is Stranger than Fiction!"

Contrary to popular notions of documentary film-making being flat, easy or boring, acclaimed Indo-Australian film maker,Safina Uberoi says they are in fact far harder to make, riskier in that they donít have a script and therefore unpredictable and exciting.
Safina Uberoi is an Indian-Australian film maker who has trained in India  and Australia.

Propelled by a rebellious streak in not wanting to be an academic like her sociologist parents, Safina Uberoi wandered into film school almost by chance. But once there, she knew early on that film making was what she wanted to do for life.

Trained in both documentary and feature film making, from Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and Sydney’s Australian Film, TV and Radio School,Uberoi says she finds herself returning to documentaries on the strength of its ability to ‘resolve personal or social puzzles’. “You start with this question - and then you try to work out why it happens, or find out what makes an ordinary person do extraordinary things.”

In this first part of the interview, Rajyasri Rao asks Uberoi about her acclaimed film, “My Mother India”, the challenges and rewards of filming ‘reality’ and the ironic presence of an anthropological lens in her approach to film-making.

You are the daughter of two acclaimed sociologists –Professors J P S Uberoi and Patricia Uberoi. What got you to consider and choose film making?

I was trying NOT to do Sociology! I was actually quite interested in social questions but I was determinednot to do what both my parents did. In part I was rebellious, and in part I was daunted by their eminence. I wanted to do something different and was always dabbling in the arts- painting, sculpture, theatre, dance- I enjoyed so many of these things but wasn’t really brilliant at any of them. A boyfriend actually persuaded me to apply for film school (at Jamia, Delhi) and I was a bit surprised when I got in. But my first day ended in an epiphany: I remember standing outside the class and knowing, just knowing, that film making was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!

For what reasons have most of your films so far, including the internationally acclaimed, “My Mother India”, and your more recent “A Good Man” been documentaries?

“…my first day (at Jamia’s film school) ended in an epiphany: I remember standing outside the class and knowing, just knowing, that film making was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!”

Ironically, now, looking back, I can see that my film-making career has been deeply influenced by my parents. All my films are very informed by an anthropological lens. I get terribly interested by the puzzles which people and society present. So even though I trained in fiction, and have made short fiction films, I keep falling in love with documentary subjects. I just love the way documentaries unravel. You start with this question- and then you try to work out why it happens, or find out what makes an ordinary person do extraordinary things.

Unlike fiction, you don’t have a script, so it is much more risky- and it is much more exciting–as you never really know where you are going to end up.

“My Mother India” traverses the question of identity and explores your own mixed cultural and bi-national parentage.You say somewhere that while seeking to tell a story about your mother, you end up telling a story about yourself. How did that happen?

The best documentary journeys are, for me, characterized by absolute clarity about the ‘question’ and a total willingness to discover unplanned, unexpected and even unwelcome ‘answers’.

“I just love the way documentaries unravel. You start with this question—and then you try to work out why it happens, or find out what makes an ordinary person do extraordinary things.”

With ‘My Mother India’, I started off trying to tell a story about my two grandmothers- my Punjabi matriarch,‘Biji’ and my stalwart Australian, ‘Grandma’ on the other.

In the end I made a film about my mother and her story, but seen very much through my eyes. I found that this approach was much harder, because it was much closer to the bone. But that was precisely why it worked- by looking at two inverted journeys (my mother from Australia to India, me from India to Australia), and by making these journeys those of my much-loved mother and my own awkward, burgeoning self, I was able to pose more confronting questions to myself about who I am.

Your more recent documentary, “A Good Man” set in Australia has also won rave reviews for its rawness and sensitivity. What got you to pick the story? What do you think has changed in you a as a film maker between “My Mother India” and “A Good Man”?

‘A Good Man’ was an incredibly compelling story. Any documentary film maker would have jumped at it! A farmer who has looked after his quadriplegic wife and their only son for 14 years suddenly finds that his wife is very unexpectedly pregnant, and he decides to support his expanding family by opening a brothel in their small country town. I mean seriously- who could make that up?! Fact is much stranger (and more fascinating) than fiction!

“The best documentary journeys are, for me, characterized by absolute clarity about the ‘question’, and a total willingness to discover unplanned, unexpected and even unwelcome ‘answers’.”

I believe style services content. A very different subject deserves its own unique style. ‘A Good Man’ is a very different film in terms of style from ‘My Mother India’. The film about my family was self-reflective, so the style is much more ‘fiction-like’. With ‘A Good Man’, the story was so remarkable, that I wanted the style to be invisible. So we deliberately shot it to look like ‘television’.

I don’t know how I have changed. I hope I have become more adept at using sound and image to tell story. But I do know this, that all my work has both pathos and humor.

Do you have any plans to make a ‘regular’ feature film?

Yes I do. But I keep saying this and then another irresistible documentary story comes along. I get lost in filming it for two or three years and then emerge swearing to do fiction next…We shall see what happens this time.


My Mother India - Trailer

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