The Sky Is Pink director Shonali Bose's cinema draws from the personal

Shonali Bose
The sky is pink, the highlights in her hair are blue; Shonali Bose does not like the question, “What’s next for you?” “I have no idea what I’ll do next,” the film director frets, during an interview in Toronto a few days before the world premiere of her latest film, The Sky Is Pink, at the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF. “I envy other filmmakers,” she adds, “They are making one film and they have so many ideas and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, how lucky’. I’m so immersed when I’m making a film and I have a panic attack when the film ends that I won’t know what to do next.”

Not having it all planned out hasn’t hurt Bose, however, because The Sky Is Pink is her third film in a row, after Amu and Margarita with A Straw, to premiere at the film festival. It is also Bose’s biggest film yet in terms of marquee wattage, starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Farhan Akhtar as a couple whose marriage is tested by the biggest crisis parents can face – the prolonged illness and death of their teenage daughter, played by Zaira Wasim. No spoiler alert needed here: the film is narrated by the daughter who declares at the outset that she is dead.

A still from The Sky is Pink
The Sky Is Pink is based on the real life – and death – story of Aisha Chaudhary, who was born with an immune deficiency disorder and battled pulmonary fibrosis until she died at 18. It’s a film that Bose didn’t have to plan for, as the project found her rather than the other way round. Shortly after Aisha’s death, her mother Aditi approached Bose through a mutual friend and begged the director to make a film about her brave daughter who had become an inspirational speaker during her short life. She also told Bose that Aisha had been eagerly waiting to see Margarita after watching its trailer 30 times, but had died just before the film’s release.

But Bose was more fascinated by the strength of Aditi’s marriage with Niren Chaudhary. “I’m very interested in the fact that your love survived the death of your child. So I want you and your husband to be the protagonists,” Bose insisted. It was a story that had hit close to home for the filmmaker, who had lived through the same trauma in 2010, when her teenaged elder son died following a freak accident at their home in the United States. Her own marriage had not survived that loss. But by the time she met Aditi, she had come to terms with her grief. “I’m in a very peaceful place with death, his death, and accepting of it. So it wasn’t a need as an artiste for catharsis,” says Bose. 

She doesn’t like to think of her films as messaging, but the one takeaway she wants for her viewers from The Sky is Pink is this: “If people understand that death days are like birthdays, that would be wonderful for me.”

Bose, 54, found cinema the way The Sky is Pink found her, by accident rather than design. Studying at an elite boarding school in Sanawar, Himachal Pradesh, and later History (Honours) at Delhi University’s Miranda House college in the late 1980s, she was a firebrand feminist and social activist. It ran in the family: her maternal aunt is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat. “When I was three years old I would say ‘Lenin Mama zindabad’, walking around our house in Kolkata,” Bose says with a laugh.

Producers, director with the cast of The Sky is Pink
While at Miranda House, Bose had her life planned out – she would go on to Jawaharlal Nehru University to do her masters and then a PhD, and stay in academics. Her plans were abruptly upended by her mother’s sudden death, and she felt she had to get away to cope with her grief. While she was studying political science at Columbia University in New York, her uncle and other maternal aunt, Prannoy and Radhika Roy, who would go on to set up the media company NDTV, came to stay at her dorm – they were in town for a short course in film and television at New York University, as they prepared to launch The World This Week, a pioneering global news show on Doordarshan. After they left, Bose enrolled in the same course for directing, found she loved it, and was soon bound for the famed film school at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The first script she wrote became the National Film Award-winning Amu, based on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi that had left a lasting impact on Bose while she was at college. “Miranda House was the time when so much happened to me,” she muses, referring also to her first lesbian experience with a visiting American student. “I didn’t even grow up knowing gay, I had no clue,” Bose recalls, adding, “I felt no personal shame, but I couldn’t come out and that hurt.” A few years later she realised she was bisexual, and marriage followed after another lesbian relationship. Life was complicated. “Even while I was married, I was attracted to a woman again and I discussed with my husband whether we’d have an open marriage,” Bose says. “We decided we won’t have an open marriage but I thought about it because clearly I’m bisexual and I didn’t get enough opportunity to explore this,” she feels.

A still from Margarita with a Straw

The exploration became part of her second film, Margarita with A Straw. “I’ve always looked into my own life for personal, emotional stuff in the scripts I’ve written till now,” she explains. The other constant has been her social activism, which, she says, continues through her cinema.

Life has taken Bose back and forth between India and the United States, sometimes with a plan, sometimes without. As she ponders her next project, she awaits the October 11 release of The Sky is Pink, a surprisingly unsatisfying film that is often annoying in its overuse of family nicknames and fails to generate much sympathy for its characters despite its star cast, the story’s strong emotional quotient and the director's own powerful previous work. Still, the Toronto audience at the premiere gave it a rousing reception and could be forgiven for asking, “What’s next?”

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