Indian filmmaker Aastha Verma, who grew up in Dubai and lived in the UAE for than two decades, is keen to throw her weight behind women’s rights and challenge patriarchy — one film at a time.
Her latest award-winning short film, ‘The Last Rights’, is about a young Indian woman from London (actress Kanupriya Sharma from ‘Piku’) who challenges the tradition that only a man relative can light a person’s funeral pyre; in this case, that of her beloved deceased grandmother.
The film is based in the city of Varanasi and shows how a progressive woman takes on her conservative family elders who tell her never to forget “her place in society” and who admonish her for questioning social mores.
“I wanted to tell a story which has not been done or seen before … My short film will make you think about these issues specifically related to women and how it’s important for these women to have a voice,” said Verma over a Zoom call from Los Angeles, where she now lives. She has directed and produced the film under her own banner SadhVish Films.
Verma’s own reality as an expatriate growing up in the Middle East and trying to grapple with the norms in her native country has also found its way into her short film. The movie tackles alienation that an immigrant feels once they go back to their roots.
“When Kaashi comes back from London, she realises that there are many norms that she’s simply not used to … All the Indian women who grew up outside of India will have certain opinions and certain experiences, so when they go back to India they have certain perspectives that are different from those back home … Imagine not being able to say our goodbyes to our loves ones due to societal issues... we can bring about some kind of change,” said Verma.
During the filming, she met many women from different faiths who told her that they are not allowed to be near the graveyard or the funeral pyre.
“But soul has no gender,” exclaims Verma.
“With ‘The Last Rights’, I wanted to talk about not just women’s rights, but also highlight how women are treated in their own country and what happens when she tries to challenge their opinions and bring about change… We talk about how certain traditions are damaging our society and our thought processes rather than allow us to grow,” said Verma.
The 24-year-old director, who studied in Delhi Public School and graduated in International Business from Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, was a freelance photographer in the UAE before embarking on a filmmaking course from New York Film Academy. But filming for ‘The Last Rights’ in Varanasi was one of her life’s greatest adventures.
She remembers getting disapproving looks when she shot for her film in Varanasi and recalls a priest giving her 10 reasons why women shouldn’t be allowed to light a funeral pyre. The charged conversation convinced her further that a movie like ‘The Last Rights’ needs to be told.
“My dream is to tell stories that go back to my roots,” said Verma. She also in the process of making a full-length feature on the same subject and hopes to start filming by the end of 2021. For now, her short film will have its European premiere at the River to River 20th Indian International Film Festival at Florence running from December 3 to 8.
“It’s an incredible feeling to know that acclaimed directors such as Anurag Kashyap [‘Manmarziyaan’] have showcased their work at this film festival. And I hope you all get to watch it virtually too.”
‘The Last Rights’ will be screened virtually on demand on the River to River festival website.