Filmmaker Supriya Prasad Rauniar and her siblings were never allowed to watch films as children. The TV cables would stay locked up inside a box made just for that purpose. But an intellectual through and through, she started writing from a young age. She would pen down her thoughts and fears when she was in II grade, her journals a source of comfort for her, writes Eleanor Mikkimchi Sangma.
“Completely focused on studying and securing high marks, that was my childhood”, says Supriya Prasad Rauniar. Even as an engineering student studying away from home, she often felt guilty whilst watching a film. “It felt like I was wasting precious time that I could spend studying. Then your first crush happens and you start writing poetry out of those emotions”, she laughs. Those initial poems inspired her to continue writing.
She names her English teachers as having played a huge part in shaping her as a storyteller. “Even my father used to write poetry but he never pursued it actively”, she adds.
The poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, which she had learnt in one of her English classes has been a faithful companion throughout her journey. She refers to the poet as “uncle” in her head and says he instilled in her an unwavering desire to keep moving forward. When she was working as a software engineer, she would often picture “Robert Frost uncle” taunting her about not doing what she loved, which was writing. “When you’re from a small town, you’re not aware of opportunities in the writing field and cinema was a far-fetched dream”, she says.
Her perspective changed when she was admitted into Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). “It’s like a new Me was born”, she says. It helped her navigate through her ambitions and goals in life. FTII also opened her up to the world of global cinema, beautiful films from South Asia, Iran, Turkey and other countries. “If you just watch their films, it’s like a window to a new world. It’s such a beautiful experience”. She says she has not looked back since.
Her first documentary Portrait of a Willow Woman was almost one and half years in the making. It is a story about a woman, by a woman.
The year was 2018. Deeptimoni Hajong, the protagonist, would often come by Supriya’s home to sell them vegetables. An old woman of 82, she had struck up a friendship with her mother after regular visits. They would often sit and chat. Her mother would call up Supriya who was in Mumbai and tell her about the lady. “I was intrigued by her story ‘cause she’s so brave and young at heart”, she says. She finally met Deeptimoni when she visited home for winter vacations. She is ageing and has four children, two of whom have mental health illnesses. “Despite her circumstances, she has accepted life peacefully. You’ll never hear her complaining, and that is what attracted me to her as a person”, Supriya tells me.
With this profound memory of a woman who would become her muse, she went back to Mumbai. Back then, the filmmaker was working at a company that was doing nothing for her creative potential. She eventually left that world because she wanted to capture and tell Deeptimoni’s story. However, there was a major setback in the form of lack of funding.
As if decided by fate, she met Director Aditya Kripalani, a senior from FTII. “We were sitting in a restaurant having dosa when he agreed to produce the film and I just couldn’t believe it”, she says. Another hurdle was her parents, who were initially against it. However, days of convincing ended at long last with her father accompanying her in search of Deeptimoni.
The budget did not allow for a cinematographer, much less a whole crew. “I’d never even picked up a camera except for a couple of exercises in college, but I had to do it myself”, she says. She was inspired by Assamese filmmaker Rima Das, who is known for being a one-woman crew. With limited knowledge, a low budget and only a single camera in hand, Supriya walked one step closer to her dream.
“When I saw her, one whole year of dreaming about telling her story to the world came rushing back to me and I literally had tears in my eyes”, she describes the reunion with Deeptimoni in Hadigaon. She received the lady’s permission and started filming. “She was not someone who was intimidated by the camera”. Without any interventions from the director’s side, she let her camera capture Deeptimoni in her element.
In the harsh winter months of December and January, Supriya shot her very first documentary by herself. She would then work with an editor in Mumbai over the course of a year whilst juggling a full-time job, as her vision of telling one brave woman’s story started taking shape.
In 2020, after a job opportunity with T-series fell through due to COVID-19, she came back home. She would spend the initial lockdown period sending her documentary to various film festivals. “After almost a year of submissions and more than 80 rejections, I was feeling demotivated by that point”, she admits. Finally, in March of 2021, she received an email confirming her first selection from Dhaka. She was just on the brink of happiness when seconds later, there was another email. “It said the first email was sent by mistake and to ignore it”, she tells me, confessing that she burst into tears. She felt like the universe was playing with her. Supriya was dejected but took solace in the fact that she had completed the documentary, which was her ultimate goal.
“Because of that film, I discovered the director in me”. She always knew she was a writer, but this one lady and her bravery had unravelled a part of her she never knew she had. “This is how one brave woman can inspire another”. The cycle goes on, with her story inspiring others and theirs inspiring many others.
A couple of months later, she finally received her first prestigious selection from the Indian Film Festival of Stuttgart, Germany followed by the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, Tasveer South Asian Festival, US and more. Eventually, she received two awards from UK and Africa for Best First Time Female Director and Best documentary.
Supriya will be attending her very first physical film festival, Film Southasia (FSA) as a director in Kathmandu this month as most of the previous ones were online owing to COVID-19. Out of 3,500 submissions from South Asian countries, only 55 made the cut. “The line-up includes big names who have won national awards, who have made it to Cannes and Berlinale (international film festivals). Having my name along theirs is a big achievement for me”.
Born to Meena Prasad and Gauri Shankar Prasad of Tura, she says her parents are finally making sense of her profession and many people are reaching out to congratulate them. “They do feel proud although we keep arguing about my profession from time to time”, she laughs.
Speaking on why she feels such a connection to it, she says cinema transcends boundaries. One can learn about people across the world, their culture and their beliefs through films. “It sort of binds you together without the barriers of ethnicity or colour”, she says. Cinema has been a tool of social change for many, through its ability to tell powerful stories.
The director is working on her next documentary which will be an ethnographic study of the Whistling Village in East Khasi Hills. She is also working on a feature film titled The Honeybee Girl and a short fiction film to be shot over the next few months.
She says her purpose is to tell stories which are raw and honest and, “stories that my guts scream at me to tell the world about”. They could be inspired by her childhood or based on important societal issues. “Right now, I’m very much inspired by stories I can draw from my own life, but maybe in a few years I’ll find myself writing about psycho killers”, she jokes.
To aspiring filmmakers, she suggests reading literature, analyses of films and watching films from all corners of the world. She also urges them to start making films. “Even if it’s documenting your own story with your phone, do it. There will always be stories everywhere”. She says the best way to explore the world of cinema is through documentaries as they allow people to study characters and see how they function around society. “If you can do that, you can do fictions as well”.
Storytelling is an ancient art form that is essential to all cultures around the world. Stories exist because people exist and people, in turn, live on through stories even after they are long gone. This is the magic of stories, whether oral, written or visual.