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“The Post-Pandemic Climate Has Been Especially Difficult”: Producers Richa Chadha and Claire Chassagne on Girls Will Be Girls

Two Malaysian girls ride a scooter during dusk.Girls Will Be Girls, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Attending boarding school in the Himalayas, 16-year-old Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) begins to embrace her emerging sexuality in Girls Will Be Girls, the feature debut from Indian writer-director Shuchi Talati. Mira’s exploration of desire is stunted by the middling presence of her mother (Kani Kusruti), whose disapproval likely stems from an inadequate coming-of-age process during her own youth.

First-time producers Richa Chadha and Claire Chassagne—based, respectively, in India and France—share the challenges and rewards that came with working on Talati’s film.

See all responses to our questionnaire for first-time Sundance producers here

Filmmaker: Tell us about the professional path that led you to produce this film, your first? What jobs within and outside of the film industry did you do, and what professional experience best prepared you to be a producer?

Chadha: I have been acting in Hindi films, or what is popularly called Bollywood, since 2012. Even as an actor, I was drawn to roles that challenged dominant narratives about gender and class in Indian society, which, as we know and must acknowledge, suffers from its share of feudal problems. I wanted more creative control as an artist and often I found that suggestions from actresses were neither welcome nor entertained. I wanted to tell stories that were about the Indian ethos and morality, but present them to the world, because what is rooted becomes universal.

Chassagne: I have been working as the assistant of a producer for several years. I started as an intern and now I am a producer in the same company, Dolce Vita Films, specialized in international co-productions of world cinema films. I learnt a lot being an assistant, then post-production supervisor. It’s a small company so I had very varied tasks that gave me an overview the job of a producer. I then started to produce short films, and was sent out to co-production markets to scout for new projects.

Filmmaker: How did you connect with this filmmaker and wind up producing the film?

Chadha: The director, Shuchi [Talati], and I were classmates in graduate media school and made our first student documentary together. We have been friends and share our artistic dreams with each other. I always felt she had a unique voice and perspective that was unaffected by what the world thought about her. In a sense, she was almost stubborn about her artistic vision. As I grew in stature as an actor, I found the means and the maturity to get behind her as a director, and here we are!

Chassagne: I met Shuchi and Richa at a co-production market in Goa, India. I had a very nice meeting with them, the project resonated very deeply with me and I was really drawn to Shuchi’s personality and vision. For me, it’s very important to get a special connection with the director on a human level, because when you start producing a film, it’s going to be a long road, with ups and down, so you need to be able to build a strong relationship. When I read the script, which was very beautifully written, I was definitely sold and started to develop and produce the film with Shuchi and Richa

Filmmaker: How long a process was it to produce the film, and if you could break it into stages, periods of time, what were they?

Chadha: In 2018, Shuchi and I decided to enter the script into the NFDC Film Bazaar. We named a (until then non-existent) company after my cat and made a pitch to find investors and co-producers. We met Claire and [additional producer] Sanjay Gulati, but the next few years must have been challenging for Shuchi, as she submitted the script to three labs and worked to refine it everyday.

We had to postpone twice, because the second wave of the pandemic was horrid in India, but still managed to take it on the floors in Oct 2022. We finished our edit by the summer of 2023 and then submitted it to Sundance, and I am so thrilled because Shuchi is based out New York and it’s been her dream to have her feature at Sundance!

Chassagne: It was a long process, definitely. When Shuchi presented the project, she already had an advanced draft that she had been working on for years. We met in November 2018 and I started to work on the film in 2019. The first step was to help Shuchi with the production of a short film she directed, A Period Piece. I found a little bit of money in France to pay for sound post-production. A Period Piece was selected at SXSW 2020. Even if the edition of the festival was physically cancelled, it still happened online, through an Amazon screening, and then went into a lot of festivals in the U.S. This definitely helped in establishing Shuchi as a director to watch.

The project was then selected for the Jerusalem Film, which is a “finishing” script lab that spans over nine months, with regular follow-up from mentors, and ends up in a pitching session, where the directors have a scene from the film that they need to shoot beforehand. During the nine months of the lab, the script evolved into what is pretty much the story now. The shooting of the scene was very important for Shuchi because she reconnected with the reality of shooting with India, since she has shot her previous shorts in the U.S. It was quite an important reality check because it’s definitely a very different ways of shooting, Indian crews are usually very large compared to U.S. ones. Shuchi learnt a lot from this experience and it prepared her for the shooting of the feature.

The project was selected at the Berlinale Talents script station in 2021 and then to the Berlinale Talents Co-Production Market in 2022. It was a very important market for the film, because we met our sales agent Fiorella Moretti from Luxbox and a wonderful executive producer, Alex C. Lo, who became the first investor on the film. The film got two awards there, one of them being given by Arte Cofinova, an equity fund linked to the Franco-German TV channel Arte. By that time, we already had secured an important grant from France, CNC’s Cinemas du Monde, and Arte Cofinova decided to invest as well. We then received the Sørfond Norwegian grant for world Cinema Film, through our coproduction partner Hummelfilm.

Filmmaker: Did you have important or impactful mentors, or support from organizations, that were instrumental in your development as a producer?

Chadha: Because I have been acting in the prolific Indian film industry for over a decade, I had producer friends that I could call with my questions and they definitely helped me out. I wish I found a mentor, because I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes as I did, but this was my first and I learnt on the job.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult aspect of producing this film?

Chadha: For me, the most difficult part was raising funds when one investor suddenly left us in the lurch three months before we had to film. It gave me sleepless nights because when we found money, it always came with strings attached. India, which has seen a drastic shift to the right in the past decade, has also witnessed everything that comes with a decline in democracy. A subversive film about female sexuality had no takers, unless the gaze was male. The post-pandemic climate has been especially difficult for an indie film. So I decided to invest some of my own money, because we were out of time.

In addition to this, I confronted some very hilarious prejudices that weren’t so funny at the time. Our French co-producers thought the character of the mother was too beautiful and exotic to ever be insecure or competitive with her daughter. One of our Indian co-producers asked which “fair man would marry a dark woman.” (Please bear in mind that India was colonized by the British and we’re quite raciest with our own. Being light-skinned is equated with beauty, fair skins are extremely popular). I’d say it was challenging to match expectations across cultures and continents between the various co-producers.

Chassagne: At the end of the spring 2022, the sky was looking pretty bright as the pre-production was starting. Until the one investor pulled out and we were left with a huge gap in our budget, then a very stressful time started where pre-production was going on, because we had a small window to shoot the film right after the monsoon. Indeed, winters in northern India are very cold and it would not have been possible to shoot the film in the winter. We were preparing to do the film in a “guerrilla mode” with some love money, and Richa investing in the film as well.  Hopefully she found an investor last minute when the shooting was about to start. We also learnt that the film was eligible for a tax rebate from the Indian government. It was sort of an all good end good situation!

Filmmaker: What single element of the film do you have take the greatest amount of pride in, or maybe were just most excited by, as a producer?

Chadha: No matter what the fate of the film will be, I will always be proud of how we managed to tell this story, in these times, in our country, and took it to the world.

Chassagne: The post-production happened mostly in France, and I was very happy to introduce Shuchi to a very great team of mostly female technicians, which was what Shuchi wanted. The editor, Amrita David, edited Saint Omer (Venice Competition 2022 and French entry for the 2023 Oscars). She is also Indian, and she is probably one of the only editors in France who speaks Hindi! (The film is a mix of English and Hindi.) The sound design was done by Carole Verner and Laure Arto was the re-recording mixer. They were very detail-oriented and Carole even sent me with a recording device to record some sounds when I went on set! They did a tremendous job because the sound was taken on location and India is very noisy—cars honk all the time because traffic is terrible, and a lot of dogs barking as well. They had to recreate the ambiances from scratch it was definitely a lot of work. Finally, I loved how the the DP of the film, Jih-E Peng, bonded with the French colorist, Mathilde Delacroix. After spending two weeks together, all they wanted was just to continue working together. It might happen on another project, we never know.

Filmmaker: What surprised you or was unexpected when it comes to the producing of the film?

Chadha: I was surprised by how much of production is actually about handling people and egos. I had previously underestimated the importance of peoples skills, but as it turns out, any EP or producer without them is setting up for failure.

Chassagne: Each new project comes with its surprises, and when you coproduce with another country, then you discover a new culture, and a new way of how films are produced. I think what surprised me most was the size of the crew on regular Indian films! On this film, it was kept very small for an Indian film, but it still looks big to me.

Filmmaker: What are the challenges facing young producers entering the business right now at this unique historical moment? And what could or should change about the film business to make producing a more sustainable practice?

Chadha: I can’t speak for the world, because it’s my first, but in India, we pay an entertainment tax! It’s like the government wants to tax people who are entertained. Then there’s a 51% exhibitors tax and a fixed media cost of releasing the film that could potentially excess the cost of production! Which means a small film could be still be shot for $1 million on a shoe string budget, but the cost of releasing/publicizing/distributing it could be upwards of $1.5 million! This creates a huge bottleneck for indie producers. In general, it’s difficult to find takers for anything non-mainstream, this is only made worse by the “system,” which is a boys club. But we shall chip away at it, like glorious woodpeckers.

Chassagne: For me, we still lack a lot of inclusion and diversity in film. When you are looking to support young authors, with fresher takes on feminism and race for example, you will feel that one part of the industry is still not understanding and not supportive. You know that you will have to fight this as well. It’s changing, little by little, but it does take time.

Filmmaker: Finally, what advice would you pass on to a future young producer preparing to embark on their first production?

Chadha: Just take the first step. The director entrusts you with their script, which is their baby! And a baby is a huge responsibility. Remember you’re also responsible for the crew’s health, mental well-being and food. It will still be a thankless job when it’s done well, but should you screw up, there will be hell to pay.

Chassagne: Communication is key. It is very important to communicate with your partners on a regular basis. If you don’t, then misunderstandings happen, and it creates problems.

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