His Father’s Voice: Interview with actor and producer Ashwini Pratap Pawar
“His Father’s Voice” is a new movie based in India about a young dancer returning to his divorced father and reconnecting with his first love. The movie is from India but it now gaining fans in America due to its inclusion in several film festivals.
Producer and actor Ashwini Pratap Pawar recently discussed this movie and her experiences starting in it and producing it via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you start acting and then how did that turn into a career in producing?
Ashwini Pratap Pawar (APP): I have seen the script of this film transform, moving from one aspect of a long story to another, changing in structure, and all that it wanted to say, changing as Kaarthikeyan changed, over a period of twenty years! In 2016, it reached a stage when he felt a strong need, to finally manifest it as a feature length film. This moment also carried in it, a state of inexplicable urgency. I have accompanied Kaarthikeyan for the last ten years, as an artist, steeped in a meditation about love, its depth, its breadth and its subtleties, through painting, Indian classical dance, poetry, and, human relationships. “His Father’s Voice”, happens to be my first film as an actor. Looking back, it has been a most inspiring experience, because of my respect and faith in Kaarthikeyan as a Writer, Director and Cinematographer.
As autonomous artists and as passionate lovers of the classical arts, both of us wanted to create this film with our inner spirit intact, and non-compromised. When we went to the Film Markets both in India, and in America, we recognized that finding somebody to produce this film, on uncompromised terms, was an utter waste of time. On the other side, these film markets also clearly did shine light upon what we were up against, and also how there was a way out if we were prepared to face head on with an invincible courage and faith, all the challenges and the precious opportunities for our growth that lay silently veiled inside it all. That is how I stepped into the garb of a producer, and we both are delighted to have birthed this soulful film.
MM: How did you get involved with “His Father’s Voice”?
APP: Kaarthikeyan, the Writer/Director of this film, is also my husband. We work intimately with each other on most projects. “His Father’s Voice”, is the largest and longest project we have handled together, spanning over nine years. It has been a completely new experience for me. I have witnessed every constraint and limitation on our creative journey, metamorphose into a blessing for the larger good of the project. Because of this project, we have been fortunate to collaborate with many gifted people from the classical arts, as well as from other specialized technical fields. For example, I’ve been fortunate to be able to work intimately with the dance choreographies; the color grade of the film; with the art director; with the sound designer; with the music director; with the editor for videos of the dance related sequences in our music album; as well as the web design and marketing team.
MM: Can you tell us about your character in “His Father’s Voice” and why was the role compelling to you?
APP: The script of this film is centered around many aspects of love, and the unabashed, honest expression of it. As an author and director of this script, Kaarthikeyan saw me in the role of ‘Parvathi.’ Her character is fluid like water between the stones. She is an aesthete, a lover of beauty, and of all that is sensuous, sensual and sentient. There is a seamless flow to Parvathi’s character in this film. When she dances, sings, paints, or teaches, her articulation of it all, in her body and voice, fills me with a sense of wellbeing. Her intimate relationships have a quiet strength to it. She breaks conventions, at the same time honors her cultural roots that stem from rich traditions. Also, Kaarthikeyan deliberately tailor-made this role for me. It helped me feel at ease in front of the camera, and also allowed me to bring my own artistic strengths to this particular role. I could paint, draw, sing, dance, be bejeweled in finery, and celebrate being a woman, and all the roles that come with it: mother, lover, friend, sister, and muse.
MM: What was the filming process like and what was your favorite segment to shoot, why?
APP: The filming process was a unique experience. On one hand, it was a parallel utopian universe washed with creativity, beauty, sisterhood, brotherhood, that was riding upon an unbridled passion. On the other hand, it demanded our sweat and blood, muscle and sinew, resilience, patience, and a complete surrender to the vision and intuition of the Director.
Most of us are first time actors in the world of film, but many of us in the main cast and supporting cast, also have had years of training on stage, as professional Indian classical dancers. English is also not our mother tongue. Much of what we are trained to do on stage as classical dancers, was a hindrance for what was expected of us as actors. For example, we had to be natural, subtle, contained, and memorize words/sentences, more than body movements. We had to work with silence and stillness, than move energetically to music. We had to accept and overcome our vulnerabilities at the speed of lightning, and do our best over and over again. Some of the easiest scenes were the hardest, and the longest, most challenging scenes, got completed with unexpected ease and lightness! All of us who came from the field of dance and music, have cultivated tenacity and resilience in all that we do, but at times we were absolutely lost, and deeply vulnerable to what was being asked of us by the Director. The Director had to work hard to help us feel empowered in our character, roles, again and again. The budget restraints also compelled many of us to wear multiple hats. This added to the physical and mental fatigue. But looking back, when I watch the completed film today, the memory of the labor pain is very faint. I want us to be pregnant with another story, and to birth another beautiful creative child into this magical universe.
There were many favorite segments to shoot, but if I had to narrow it down to one, it was the scene which destroyed something vain in me, and in that fecund emptiness, an actress was born. This scene was shot under the banyan tree, when Parvathi and her husband, Nagarajan, are seated under an old banyan tree, having a heart to heart talk as a couple. The narrative of this particular scene crosses over many timelines: the past, the present and the future. This scene was shot over two days. It was intended to be complete in one morning, in the golden glow of the morning light. The first day, despite waking up at 3:30 am, the makeup and hair, took longer than usual, and when I entered the set, we had lost the soft morning light, the director intended for this scene. So, I had to return to the green room disheartened and annoyed with myself. It was not a pleasant feeling. The next morning, we both were ready in time, but when we got to the tree, a thick cloud of mosquitoes had settled around the bark of the banyan tree. No amount of mosquito repellents could drive them away. Both of us were getting bitten. My co-actor had the gift of tuning off from the bites, but I couldn’t. This made it extremely difficult for me to focus on my dialogues, and to allow the essence of this beautiful scene to be invoked through me. After many retakes, the pressure, the disappointment, the frustration inside me reached a pinnacling point. I felt angered by the director’s hawk like gaze on my voice, my expression, my body movement etc. At the height of inner rage, I let go of fighting it all. And then something inside me dramatically shifted. I disappeared. Parvathi entered in my place. And the take that followed was approved. I knew why it happened. It was a profound lesson for the actor in me. I understand now, why they say that it is the director who is responsible for bringing out the best in an actor.
MM: What was it like to also be a producer on this project and was it tough to juggle your acting and management roles?
APP: Being a producer and an actor simultaneously surely had its challenges and blessings. Coming from a business family, I’ve many role models within my kith and kin, who handle large scale projects with clarity, responsibility, and intelligence, for the larger good of society. Though mine is a patriarchal upbringing, the women clan in both my maternal and paternal family, have been the stoic forces behind the men folk. I was groomed as a woman to manage home affairs. I do not have work experience in our family business, but I have had the good fortune to witness and imbibe the supportive, fearless, and loving roles that the strong women have played in our family. These women, I believe have been the driving force for the men in our family. With our autonomous artistic spirit intact, Kaarthikeyan and I, divided our roles. His rich experience as an Executive producer for a number of European feature films, helped him lay out my responsibilities with clarity, and he also gave me a crash course into film production, and the role of a Producer. Very quickly, our budget constraints forced us to accommodate all crew and actors on the set. The film is set in the garden surrounding our primary home. Our nine-year meditation on the evolving script, also allowed us to work closely with a gifted team of landscape designers from the local Botanical Garden, along with local carpenters, electrician, rural architects, and engineers, all of whom helped build interesting spaces for the performing arts, that eventually lent themselves beautifully to the final draft of the script. Around eighteen crew members, stayed with us on set, over a period of three months. In preparation for this, I turned to the experienced women in my family. Together, we penned down the food menu for the entire shooting schedule. We hired additional cooks, and reorganized the kitchen to cook meals for 40 members daily, over this extended period of time. There was conscious awareness in all of us to recycle and be as eco-friendly in all our choices when making the film. Only re-usable cutlery and crockery was used. The ingenuity of our local home electrician, made it possible to shoot most of the film on solar power. Our local garden staff, became assistants to the various film departments: light, sound, art direction, and production. Their enthusiasm, inventiveness, willfulness, and energy was contagious. All actors and set designers, worked closely with our art director, whose fashion design background, also helped create a skillful local tailoring unit on set. In the beginning, before more helping hands stepped in, while penning down a pragmatic plan of action for the pre-production, the overwhelming mental work got me physically sick. But when I saw all my effort serve its purpose beautifully, in the nick of time, I could resurface to tend to the actor in me.
A huge part of my role as a Producer was behind me when the pre-production was more or less complete. Then came the more manageable and inspired space to nurture and care for the actor in me. From being used to a macro space, I arrived at a micro space inside our home, where Ashwini stepped out, and Parvathi stepped in. I reorganized the cupboards, and created a nesting space for the actor in me to relax and to rejuvenate. Mounting inspiring quotes of spiritual masters at a desk in my room, I indulged in healing aromas, oils, and floral essences to help rest the mind and the body. I consciously delegated responsibilities to others and worked on letting go of control on the day to day minor happenings on set. Though, I still remained the primary person to be turned to, a lot eased off after the thorough job of getting the pre-production in place. The challenges as an actor, had its own weight due to the limited crew in the hair and make-up department, especially when a scene demanded the presence of more than three cast members. As an actor, in time, I felt deeply supported by the cast and crew. And when I heard the director say, “And it’s a wrap!” on the last day of the shoot, this moment was bathed in gratitude and jubilation. Gratitude for the down pouring divine grace throughout the shoot, and jubilation to have faced with courage and resilience, all the fears and difficult lessons head on. As a team, all of us arrived at a healing resplendent inner glow, because of this collective extraordinary creative experience in our lifetime!
MM: This film is Indian in origin, so how did you get it to America and why has it appealed to US audiences so much?
APP: As a writer/ director, Kaarthikeyan intended this film for an audience that is culturally and spiritually awake. When we brought the film to the attention of American Distributors, Linda Nelson, the CEO of Indie Rights, loved our film. We signed up with Indie Rights, and we are working with them, to help it reach an audience worldwide. Our film is premiering on the 19th of April at the Arena Cinelounge, in Hollywood! Christian, the owner of Arena Cinelounge, re-affirmed our belief that this film will appeal to a wide and ethnically diverse audience.
This film appeals to audiences, because it is a true representation of the culture of India, of the inherent spiritual quest behind Indian classical music and dance. There is a simplicity to the plot. The music and dance sequences that weave throughout the film, are an inspired blend of Western, Indian Folk and Classical Music. This adds a charm to the story, that is best experienced on a theatrical screen with surround sound. The English translations of the Sanskrit language used in the Indian classical dance & music, also help give this film a broad appeal. The music, the dancing, the setting, is exciting for American audiences who are curious about other cultures. And because it is so authentic, it appeals to people who are looking for a genuine, and uplifting experience. It speaks to their innermost soul. It is a film to be experienced, felt and enjoyed.
MM: What other film projects are you currently working on and what are your acting goals throughout 2019?
APP: Multiple collaborations happened with amazing creative people from all walks of life. Today, because of the extraordinary journey of our film, as Producer, Actor, and Artist, my being overflows with inspired energy. I experience a surging inner passion, and a readiness to work with more creative collaborators from all over the world. To site a very recent example, we worked with a gifted photographer for the film’s main movie poster. While working together, as artists, both of us opened to a sisterhood, that goes beyond our common cultural roots. Both of us are born in the same town in India, though our paths have never crossed before. She and I, have lived and worked abroad for many years. In our world travel, the experience of living in America, especially NYC, has been the most transforming of all places. She lit up while working with me, and I too experienced a fire in my belly while modelling, and dancing for her. Together, we both intend to work a dynamic creative project, bringing together both our talents. Also, dance, painting, journaling, and music are an integral part of my life. This physically and mentally invigorating practice of the classical arts, continues to inform my life in delightful ways. It also keeps me in readiness, for my next film, with Kaarthikeyan, for 2019.