Interview with Filmmaker Aastha Verma (THE LAST RIGHTS)

THE LAST RIGHTS was the winner of BEST FILM at the March 2021 FEMALE Filmmakers Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

– It was a question that came to my mind a couple of years back while my mother and I were watching the news about the demise of a respected Indian politician and how his adopted daughter was performing the funeral rites. The news emphasised on how that was unusual. I just happened to strike a conversation with my mother and that made me curious to do some research on this matter. The more I dug in, the more I realised it is something that happens all the time but it’s one of those unsaid, ignored matters in our Indian society.

The initial concept of a woman performing the funeral rites isn’t for the faint- hearted, but I wanted to try it, and give a voice to women who – because of their gender – were denied this right, or even threatened to be killed. The Indian society is not easy to crack, as a writer. Traditions, set up by and only benefitting men, have been normalized and are vigorously defended.

Later in our process we asked a priest why women cannot perform the rites, and he started listing the family members who can perform them (none of them were women). He argued the last rites have nothing to do with being a man or a woman as the soul doesn’t have a gender, which I found hypocritical, or contradictory to say the least. It’s because the soul has no gender that a woman should be able to perform the funerary rites without any issues.

I just wanted to give women a reason why they should be doing this – and fight harder for their rights. I was motivated by just one thing alone – if one woman could watch this film and is able to perform the funeral rites of her loved one – I think I’ll be successful in why I wanted to tell this story in the first place.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

– There was very little evidence of this existing as an issue. A lot of these women did not have counter-arguments when things were said to them to stay away from the funeral sites, let alone be allowed to perform the holy ceremonies. The whole process took about a year and a half. Once the idea was laid out, there were several shapes the story took, specially Kaashi’s character representing where she is coming from and who she is. Finally, the best suited personalities in these characters were laid out along with the story that is now on screen.

3. How would you describe your film in two words!?

– Smashing Patriarchy

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

– The challenge of never having lived in India. Because I was born in India but raised in the Middle East, to re-create a world I had never lived in, my research had to be most accurate to reality. It was an arduous task to write characters as real as possible and do justice to personalities in the city we were shooting in specifically.

During the research phase of ‘The Last Rights’, the struggle was in finding solid evidence, as there are indeed stories of women who went through this, but they are spread from word-to-mouth, barely documented. And yet, that is very reflective of their social status in India, even in my own household. On average, women aren’t bluntly denied their rights, but subtly, in a very passive-aggressive manner. We are never explicitly stated as inferior or weak, but we are seen as frail and in need of protection, which is quite patronizing.

Part of the preparation process was taking the team to the Shamshan Ghat, the funerary riverbed where the rites are performed. The local priest’s brother essentially snuck us in, acting as a chaperone, as my team and I looked around and took notes about how the location looked. We had originally brought cameras to simply film the location so we could then study it at home, but they had been confiscated. The reason for such secrecy is that women aren’t allowed to be at the Shamshan Ghat. The Production Designer and I were the only women there, and all men there that day looked at us like our presence there was heresy. The challenge was figuring out how to portray an act that I had never been able to even witness firsthand; the very reason we were there was to see how exactly the rites are done, beyond what is simply written in books. There was an irony to it all: I was making a film about this very inequality, and wasn’t even allowed to be at the Ghat physically without a chaperone.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

– So far we have just been getting comments online and to hear people talk about the film was fulfilling. The fact that the film resonated with people even outside the culture, and understood different aspects of what I wanted to share with the film was extremely humbling. Some of them even pointed out things in the film that nobody but I knew when I was writing and we were shooting it. It is rewarding as a Director to see some of those things getting noticed.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

– I knew for the longest time I was not made to sit on a 9-5 desk job (really respect those who can!), and I just wanted to create content. Whether it was in the form of pictures, artwork or design. I just wanted to tell stories. I was into photography in my mid-teens. At a later stage in life as I was switching careers, I looked into several options and I realised that movies have always been an essential part of who I am. I was a movie buff from an early age. Regardless of what part in the world I was, I was consuming content, no matter the quality of it, origin or industry it was coming from. My father has had his fair share of experience in media in his early days and 25 years later, all they had to do was budge me to that side of the path and there it was. I decided that’s the best way to tell stories, with films.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

– It’s difficult to pick one but it is Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are your feelings about the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

– FilmFreeway is extremely user friendly, they always update their listings and have the largest collection of film festivals. Their filters are super useful too, to submit to the categories that are custom to one’s movies.

9. What is your favorite meal?

– Nothing can ever go wrong with a classic Indian staple meal of Chhole Bhature.

10. What is next for you? A new film?

I am currently working on two feature length films, one is based in Dubai: a supernatural drama titled “Anima” and another film currently in development, loosely based on “The Last Rights”, but with a more complex plot and subplots that will further explore the subject the short film tackles. Besides that, I am also currently writing two short films that I intend to shoot later this year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s