Karishma Dube’s Bittu begins with sound before image, a vague squabble over black before it drops you into the middle of a world in motion. The opening shot is not held long before cutting to the next. It is one among many, does not announce itself as the beginning, and is not so contrived and defined that you can remember exactly when the film began. Suddenly, the viewer’s immersed in a story that started well before they became a witness to it. The opening shot introduces the film’s namesake little girl, Bittu, as played by the phenomenal first time performer Rani Kumari, entertaining a crowd of adult men with lewd poems and jokes with her best friend Chand [Renu Kumari].
Bittu is a perpetually runny nosed girl, fierce and funny, a force to be reckoned with for the fact that she doesn’t hesitate being herself. Attending school somewhere in Koti Village in the mountain outskirts of Dehradun, she’s punished for this confidence and perhaps for not conforming to traditional gender roles. She’s alienated in her community while Chand remains a part of it and this dynamic presents obstacles to their friendship. But tragedy hovers over this tale of rambunctious adolescence: Bittu is a reimagining of the accidental school poisoning that took the lives of 22 children at a Bihar School in 2013.
Dube casted children from the villages outside the city of Dehradun and shot in a farm that her crew converted into a government school. The cast was almost entirely made up of non-professional child actors from the area and their needs, experiences, and personalities reshaped Dube’s approach and original story. To gain their trust, Dube needed time with them and their families and to give something back herself. Her sister Shreya Dube, a D.P. and producer on the film, was an essential collaborator. Their sibling intuition and frank, unfiltered arguments got them through days that were again largely dependent on the needs of the young performers. The result is a stunning ensemble and an immense turn by the film’s young lead Rani Kumari, all signaling the emergence of a major artist in Karishma Dube.
Dube talked with us about set hierarchies (despite being the director to her sister Shreya, the D.P., Dube’s quoted here as saying she worked “for” Shreya and not vice versa), provides a thorough overview of her process working with first time performers, particularly children, and gives advice about how to carefully and respectfully collaborate with vulnerable communities for a film production. The Bittu team recently launched a fundraiser, “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty & Patriarchy with Education,” for their two young leads to provide them basic needs: food, clothing, healthcare, education, etc.
Filmmaker: The last shot of your previous short, Devi, in which Devi’s mother treats her daughter with the cordiality of table manners the morning after an unresolved argument, resonated with me.
Karishma Dube: I guess it came from the feeling of not wanting to shut down the topic of conversation when someone else has decided to. There’s some of that in Bittu as well. I have this massive resentment towards these inherent power dynamics that exist at home in India and I guess here as well. But there’s so much more of a hierarchy there in every interaction, not even between employer and employee, but within the family. When the doors are shut they’re shut, the decision has been made outside the conversation. I also went to boarding school so that happened to me a bunch, so it’s a massive trigger for me. I can’t deal with people making decisions for me, or even just like uprooting me from my bedroom. [laughs] It’s embedded in me in a weird way.
Filmmaker: How do you try to dissolve the hierarchy of a set?
Dube: It’s funny because I kind of learned the set culture that exists over here, because I hadn’t really been on set in India. I’d been an intern on a set that was a co production between here and there, so it was more unconventional. Here there is a strict adherence to departments and you cannot seep into others. But I learned it first at NYU, which was very foundational for me, in terms of learning and formalizing my practice as a filmmaker outside of being a director. I learned these very strict demarcations between departments, but I was also, at the same time, making these movies with friends of mine, and almost always the same friends, we would alternate roles with each other.
There is certainly a formality that comes from this American way of working, but there was this informality that exists among friends. I learned a lot from class, but I learned more from my friends because everyone comes from different experiences in the industry. I took that practice and held it very close, because there’s always a paper trail and I kind of got used to the way things are done here.
In India, it’s very different. There are more bodies on set. There’s no insurance that comes with equipment, so three bodies will take care of like one C-Stand. I had a lot more people on this set. It was also my first collaboration with Sheya [Dev Dube, D.P and producer]. Mary [Evangelista, producer], who was down there from my world here in New York, and I tried to implement these same practices that we cemented in school. But it wouldn’t work for many reasons. We didn’t have much prep time with the crew. It’s not something we could sustain while production was going on because that’s now how they work. Even the role of a line producer was very different. It was more like commercial shooting, the team I ended up hiring, the idea was to throw money at it. So it was a massive shift from the way I worked.
But it’s interesting, between my sister and I there’s always been a hierarchy because she started film like four years before me. I remember when I first brought it up to her it was more like me asking her for permission. [laughs] But from the get go she’s been really supportive and instrumental in trying to curate in me a taste of my own before starting film school. My taste was very divergent from hers. She studied in film in Australia and Paris and I was here in America. So when we came back together it was more equal because we were both bringing in different things. I noticed that as a director and D.P that we weren’t really fighting for or serving anything else but the film from the very beginning. There was no formality between us, so we wouldn’t be scared to have an argument about a scene or a decision with light. The argument that was best for the film always won. We’re also very close, so we fight well. People would get a little tense, but we’d be fine in thirty seconds. We communicate really well. I also realized that we already had so much pre-production together. Having watched so many films together over the years, we had an inbuilt chemistry.
We hardly even spoke to each other on set. Working with kids was a first for me as well. I kind of banked all my trust on these kids and the relationship we had. They were more comfortable doing scenes when I was physically closer to them. So very often I would stand right behind the actor or just opposite them behind the camera, and they would be acting off of me. We had very little time and we had to keep moving on, so there were many times that I had to rely on Shreya to tell me when we had the shot and could move on. I didn’t have the luxury of staying close to the monitor for everything, so I don’t think I could have made Bittu with anyone else.
I think we both have a lot of different skills and tastes that we bring to the table, but we also overlap in very fundamental ways. We have high standards for our work, so there was never an option of “yeah, I’m sure there’s something there.” We needed to know.
So this set was not what I imagine a standard set looks like in India. Everyone had two jobs because we had a lot of kids on set. We were shooting on a mountainside, so everyone was doing what they were supposed to but also babysitting. The schedule, the shotlist, everything had the kids at the forefront of it. We wanted to make sure this was the kind of environment that they realized was work, but good work, that they came to set and it felt like home and they had an extended family. It’s an environment conducive to a good performance. A good performance in this sense, was to act like no one was watching. I think that helped give the two girls and the rest of the kids the confidence that they could be themselves without too much pressure.
So I think the hierarchy was very different. Every day that passed I thought, “This is not how I work.” [laughs] I had no control in some sense. But actually it was the only way to do it. It was very egalitarian and collaborative, everyone’s work is apparent in each frame, and I’m very proud to have made a work like that.
Filmmaker: So the shotlist was made with the children’s needs in mind?
Dube: Well not initially. I made my own shot list, because I’m just used to doing that and I had a lot more time in the space. I asked Shreya to shoot this film, not so much because she was my sister, but because I was kind of always waiting for the right opportunity to work for her. I always felt like nothing was good enough for her. [laughs] I do love her eye, it elevates almost everything she does. I knew that there was no one else who could shoot this in the way that she could. Of course I’m very tied to my country, I have a beautiful life there, these characters came out of my chest. But I’ve lived here [in the U.S] for six years, and I knew there’d be something about going back to a place we grew up and studied not very far from, something about our relationship to the space would come out in our images as well.
I wanted her voice more than anything.I wanted her images to bounce off of my words and my eye. I was very happy that she came wanting to make her own shot list as well, so I kind of left her alone to be in the space and make that. Then we would set up days for her to get to know the kids as well. She had her own team, I tried the best I could to make enough room in the budget for her to do this in the way she wanted to. So she had her own gaffer and A.C. and that was really freeing for her I think, under these challenging circumstances, that she could do things as she likes to. Once she finished her shotlist, we married our shotlists together and it became something else.
When we were on set, to be honest, we just did the best we could for the girls from that shot list. It was more than going down the shotlist, it was more, “this is what the scene is about, and I can’t move on without it.” It was also about what the kids were good at. I didn’t want to block it too much, so I really gave Shreya a tough job, because we didn’t know what was going to happen very often. The camera had to react to the kids. There was a lot of risk from the very beginning and it’s present in every take. That’s why I needed a team that I knew well on my first outdoor shoot in India.
Filmmaker: Is this your first film with non-professional actors? I read that you did theater workshops with the first time actors on Bittu. What was your approach with those?
Dube: My first film with dialogue, it’s called Pia. It’s on vimeo, but I didn’t let it out into the world because it really felt like the first time I was making a movie. The story was also very personal to me. I had written something that was still in my world and with people I knew well, even though it took place here. I felt at that point that I couldn’t speak to an immigrant experience of someone who was basically born here, but I could speak to people who had moved and shifted their lives to a new place and adapted to this rapidly evolving culture. I knew I could write a mother daughter relationship that felt like they were coming from two different worlds. So I wrote about this Bengali single mom who wants her daughter to goto Durga Puja and wear a dress. The daughter is a little overweight, but more importantly cannot be easily categorized into these lazy categories that come from Indian wardrobes, so she kind of puts up a fight.
A lot of my friends put up casting calls on backstage and I was stressed because I had about a hundred people to audition every weekend. I worked really hard on it and found no one. There were a few people but they didn’t have the heavy accent I was looking for. So I was kind of lost for a long time, but then I eventually asked my aunt, my mom’s cousin who lives here, to play the mother.
By some miracle, I was on some tier two set in New Jersey and found this girl that sort of looked the part, had this wonderful soft energy about her but was very intense as well. I called the producer and she happened to be the daughter of this other guy I had worked with on my previous film. So I met her for a coffee. She hadn’t really acted before but was down to do it.
I would start the scene and it would not end up being what I had in mind, but somehow I found a way of finding the scene by embedding it in their experience. It was the first time I worked with first time performers, and I realized that—and I don’t think the film is perfect—but there were moments where they were just themselves to camera, and I couldn’t believe that I caught it.
I think a little loose framework of that spilled into Bittu. Of course it was different because there were so many kids in this film. I really didn’t know what I was doing from the very beginning. But I knew that I could find the right kids, because I had spent so much time on paper with the characters. At that point I was also very prepared to transform the script around whoever I found.
So I found my location after like a month and a half of finding the right school. It was like a cute organic farm that I could convert into a government school. I just moved there, to that city, and started visiting government schools in the area. That didn’t work because students have a certain performative quality when they’re around their teachers. So I started spending time in these little villages and settlements with my friend and actor Nirvana Sawhney. We created a few games really, that were very comparable to workshops. A lot of kids were out of school. Even the kids that were in school were on holidays at the time, and a lot of them had never been to school.
In the afternoon they’d all be playing anyways, so they were very keen to learn these new things no matter where we went. In our minds we were just auditioning each kid, seeing who can take direction, who feels closer to which part. It was like a couple of weeks into that process that I went to this other community and Rani [Kumari] was like the first kid to walk out. She comes right up to me and she’s like, “What’s up? You wanna play?”
She was very small and her hair was going in different directions, and she had this really expressive face and total confidence in who she was. She was not shy of me, which was the first thing that really got me. And I was like, “Yeah, I wanna play. I have friends around we should do something.” So she went back in and in like five minutes she brought back this big group, she was also like this little leader. Then I would ask her questions about how things worked, did she go to school? Where are your parents? She gave me the dirt on everyone and helped me navigate the space.
I tried to dwarf myself in her world, to be at her level, so she didn’t feel she was reaching out. I was reaching out to her in some sense. I wanted a sense of equality between us. Physically, she was very different from what I had imagined, but I knew something worked so I kept going back everyday with Nirvana. Two weeks later, Nirvana left and I knew Rani was going to play this part. So I started casting everyone else based around her, even before bringing it up to her. I knew there were some lines that she needed to know by heart. She’s very sharp in her class, unlike Bittu she’s very good at English. I would teach her some lines like the poems or the joke, from the very beginning, like a month or two before we shot. Before playing the next morning I would ask her to repeat it and she had already learned it. And we would teach the rest of the girls too so it felt like a group activity.
I tried to find Chand by taking certain scenes from the script and making them into like street plays so the kids could play and Rani could do it with different kids so that I could see their chemistry. I tried to bring her own friends to it but it just wasn’t working. Then I found Chand a few weeks into that. She was very small and just adorable. Very put together, very careful about what she touched and what she played with, very much like Chand already, but grew up next to Rani her whole life. So they already had an inherent power dynamic that was love-hate, which worked well for the part. She was not in school at the time, so she was lacking in basic social skills. But her brother was interested in cameras, so they both just really wanted to learn and I ended up having a really good relationship with her mom. Her mom would always push her to go and learn something new everyday. So she would come out and try really hard. We were learning from each other a lot, so she was willing to venture out of feeling too coy.
When I put them together I explained to them a lot about who Bittu and Chand was. I created these fictional people so that they knew it was not them. Everyone would take turns playing each character. I taught them the basic dynamic between Bittu and Chand, but I didn’t rehearse too many scenes. The only scene we really rehearsed was the scene by the fire, where she’s trying to make up with her and they fight. I wanted them to know that these things would happen when we’d work so that they’d know it was just a game, so they didn’t take it too seriously.
Otherwise we just created a lot of memories, I got to know the people in their lives, so that when we got on set I could be like, “Do you remember when that teacher said that to you? Or remember when you teased that boy? You have to tease him like this.” Or when Rani had to be clueless in class, I made sure I didn’t teach her the song that we had taught the other kids. She’s just so sharp, she would know it and have wanted to sing along. So she was genuinely confused. For the fight scene, there’s this Bollywood film where these two girls learn how to wrestle, so I showed them that and then I showed them the making of it. I showed them a lot of the making of films with child protagonists, so that they understood the concept of the camera. I showed them how this boy could hold his laugh for ten seconds. So we had them count for ten seconds so that they held an expression. I got to know their expressions, so I knew how to push them on set. The wrestling movie was called Dangal, so I would say, “OK, we’re going to play Dangal Dangal!” [laughs] So they were really into mimicking things they already knew, rather than performing. It also helped them to know that I had a relationship with their parents. I was an adult they could trust, and I wasn’t using typical force as a form of discipline, which they’re used to, so there was an openness between us that tied us together on set.
Somewhere down the line, Rani just started acting like an astute actor. It was brilliant to see her switch into Bittu. I would ask her to bring it down by like 20 or 30% and she was able to do it. I would ask her to hold an expression and she could hold it for as long as I needed. We were so close that sometimes when she saw that I was stressed out she would just keep doing the scene for me. I kept every promise I made her, and I think that helped us keep going.
It was a little different with the adults. The only professional actor was Saurabh [Saraswat], the teacher, he’s kind of the silent leader of the class and did a wonderful job dwarfing himself to play on the same stage as these first time performers. He trained other actors too. He helped me a lot with translating the lines to suit each actor, rather than sticking with what we had written so that it didn’t feel like they were overperforming.
The principal was played by this woman [Krishna Negi] who worked at the local salon in this place where I used to drink tea everyday after working with the kids. She used to sit outside her shop in an all red outfit and knit when no one was coming to her salon. I needed this woman to be very stern, but Krishna was very cheerful, happy, and lovable. When I asked her to not make any expression she was able to do it, and had this great stare. After I worked with the kids I would go and work with her in her shop. Sometimes I’d see her practicing with the vegetable guy beforehand. [laughs] She was just really down to do it, which is really the only thing I needed from an actor besides the fact that they looked the part.
She was the oldest actor on set, so it was kind of hard for her to practice that attention you have when the camera’s rolling and everyone’s holding their breath for your performance. But Nirvana came back, and I realized I just needed her to be very confident and she would figure it out. So before her scene I would leave her with Nirvana who would keep doing the scene over and over for three hours. She had the biggest leap in performance. When I asked her to run, in the wedding procession scene, she just ran for her life and was acting at the same time. When it was time for her closeup where she had to say, “It’s time to leave town” she was asking to be sprayed again and stayed in character out of breath.
The shopkeeper is the local bartender. He was supposed to be [the principal’s] husband, and she was supposed to be the more dominant person in the marriage. But I just couldn’t find someone to play that. I would go drinking with my cousin, Rahil, who was basically my everything before the whole crew arrived. Monu [Uniyal] served us every night. He was very shy and nervous, but also had a Youtube channel and was really into making his own reggaeton music. One day, he was like, “Can I sing for you?” He just transformed. He had this need to perform and loved an audience. I asked him if he would do it and he was totally down. He was different, because he was trained in the hospitality industry by this resort. So I had to tell him to walk differently, get a little rougher, be this other guy. But I tried to preserve as much of him as I could and I rewrote the lines for his demeanor.
Filmmaker: We even hear him mention his YouTube channel in the film off screen.
Dube: [laughs] He did! There was a bigger scene where he actually sings a song. The first time he came in front of the camera, in that scene where he’s going through the stuff in the store and he goes, “Mama?” Shreya and I just busted out laughing. He was just this gentle giant who was so funny. It was a moment where I felt my sister and I were connected in a way everyone else wasn’t. Somehow I just got together a dream cast. I really wanted to have actors who felt like they were in the place and had a relationship with these mountains. I wanted to make a film with this community, and they were so generous to me. I think I did. When we were shooting the wedding procession scene I would kind of end up in the crowd egging people on. It felt wonderful to have them open up so beautifully, be so generous to the camera and dance with me. I can’t wait to go back to see them, it was so special.
Filmmaker: Has the cast seen the film?
Dube: Not really, I mean some of the cast has, but I didn’t want them to see the film on Whatsapp, because they don’t have water and electricity where they are. But I’ve seen the film with the two kids, they were watching it and I was with them on Facetime. The community knows the film is doing very well, they’re very proud, and they’re rooting me on. But I hope to be back home soon, and I want to organize a big screening so that we can all watch it together so that I’m there when they have questions or comments.
Filmmaker: You’ve been working on this film since 2015, what was the road to funding like?
Dube: I didn’t make a film after Devi for very long because I just didn’t have the money. For Devi, of course, I had a small allotment for school, and I was able to put a lot of my own money into it because I was in school on a full ride. It was like my one agreement with my friends: if I need to make a film can I rely on you guys? They really kept their promise. But I made it really cheap and I shot it in the house I grew up in. All the actors were very generous and did it for free.
I didn’t make Bittu for a long time because I didn’t have money and I knew it needed a lot more. In retrospect I think that was the right choice, because I wrote it for much longer. So when Mary [Evangelista, producer] came on board, we knew we had to do a crowdfunding thing, which neither of us had experience with. We had a small allotment from NYU, $5,000, which they give for every thesis film, and then I applied for this production grant, which was the first grant from the Black Family Foundation—an in house NYU grant. I got that pretty early in the year when I was developing the film, so I was able to buy my ticket to go home, have meetings with people, give them a bit of money to get started on it. It really helped me take off and spend those three months prepping to go home and come back with a movie.
It turned into a lot of pre production because I was already in it when I started the kickstarter campaign. It helped me pay my line producer, and pay for trips to find locations and stuff. We aimed for $10,000 with the kickstarter, and then made more than what we asked for, $13,000, but that was not enough. [laughs] It was tough, because we were shooting in a very unpredictable location. We were in a valley, so the weather was unpredictable. So I needed really big flags that I couldn’t afford, and I needed time for these kids to get used to it: I could have used 10 days but we shot over 6, 8 hour days. I really wish I could have paid everyone a little bit more for their time.
And then I somehow made that film and raised more in private equity for things I didn’t foresee like hard drives and a generator. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to donate stuff to the schools that had been helpful and stuff like that. So it was easy to raise money in Delhi through family and friends when they knew what I was doing. Somehow I came back with a film, I was pretty broke, and I didn’t have money to finish it.
I felt very disconnected from everyone when I got back. You obviously have a lot of proximity to poverty growing up in India. I had become embedded in Rani’s world in this town where it’s so intense, and suddenly it was over. I think I felt what actors feel sometimes. [laughs] So I couldn’t get myself to edit it, I just had too many feelings with the footage. It was like documentary amounts of footage. I couldn’t sort it through, so I left it and started raising more money and started to write something else. I wrote myself out of those vibrations.
And then we found another grant for post production through NYU. It was sponsored by the Reise Organisation. So I had a chunk of money where I could hand it off to people I trusted. My co-editor Colin Elliot, who Mary introduced me to, came on board for the summer and edited for over two months. We didn’t find the film then, but I just couldn’t have done it myself. He couldn’t speak the language, but he was wonderful and fell in love with the kids. We found this version of the film that felt like, “OK, now I can do it.” He found the building blocks of the film. So I took over again in the Fall and was able to put time into it because of the money from the grant.
I spent another 9 months, found the film, and with that money I was able to work with my sound designer and send the film back to be graded in India because I wanted Shreya to do that. I finished the film last year, January 2020.
Filmmaker: Why wasn’t the film clicking at first in the edit?
Dube: It was a 14 or 16 page script and my first cut was like 25 minutes. By some miracle I managed to shoot every scene I had written, but it was just not how I imagined it in terms of time and flow. I kept cutting it in the way that I had written it, and there were scenes I really loved that I had to take out eventually. It was just not flowing like a short, it was breathing like a feature. Bittu had a lot more moments of being sassy before being kind of beaten down by her world. Colin helped me realize that we just didn’t have the pauses that I had written into the script and the moments between characters because they were kids. I had to create these moments of tension and hold it there, and find the footage that could feel like that when it wasn’t really like that.
I had to get rid of everything distracting for the first couple of months and put together a version that felt like I could watch it without stopping and saying, “That just can’t work!” Then in the second half of the year, I was perfecting what I was left with. From 25 it became 17 minutes, after 6 months I had let go of these moments that I loved so much. Then it felt like there was a rhythm to it that was not in the script but that I found in the edit. Then it took me a long time to find the last sequence, after the wedding procession. I couldn’t find the right energy to it, it suddenly felt like a different film, even though that’s how it was designed to be. I wanted it to feel like a rude invasion in this world, as a kid would experience it. I knew it needed music. I went to a few composers and it just didn’t work. That took a long time. Then I picked up the phone and spoke to this friend of mine, Arooj Aftab, she’s like this amazing Brooklyn-based, Pakistani artist who mixes a lot of Sufi music with like a new age lens on it. She has strong roots in traditional music, loves lyrics like I do, and has a voice that’s like a balm.
She loved the film already and I think she was just waiting for me to call her after the process of elimination. [laughs] I wanted it to feel like the music is holding you like a blanket to get you through this tough scene. She was recording her new album at that time, which comes out in April actually, but I felt relieved knowing she was going to do it. She had a song on the album that she thought should be it. She sent it and I knew it was it. I loved it so much I wanted to fit in the whole song but I couldn’t. I had to cut it for the film. But the moment her voice was on the film it started working in a way that felt completely appropriate. That’s when I found the right cut of images as well, over her voice. I think it still feels soothing for people who don’t understand what’s being said, but when you do understand it kind of elevates the whole thing. It’s almost like a chance for you to keep breathing. It was too good to be true. That’s when I knew I was done with the film and should just stop. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Do you have words of advice for filmmaker’s who want to build a film in a vulnerable community and collaborate with the people in it?
Dube: To be honest, I was making it up as I went, but I started to realize what was working and what was not. It helps to have a love for the place and the people so that you know how to portray them in a way that feels true to what you observe and love. I just learned a lot from them and listened a lot, then the work primarily became transferring my fictional world to their reality. It could only work if I knew the script very well and what I wanted to achieve in each moment, because then I could find the right things from their life to propel that objective forward. I think trust is the most important thing, they have to believe what you’re doing has good intentions and at the same time you aren’t something they can’t touch and feel. To the very end I felt like I was reaching into this community that I wasn’t a part of. But I had done everything I could for them to believe I was willing to go far and deep into who they were to do justice to portraying them.
By the end of it we were comfortable eating meals together, and I told them a lot about my life as well: who I was, what I wanted, what has happened to me, who my sister is, who my friends are. They met my parents as well, so they didn’t feel like it was a one way street. I was giving them a lot of myself as well. I’m available to everyone in that community whenever they want to call me, so I don’t feel like I took something and left. They’ll only do it for—not the material—but for you as a person.
And then I think just being open to changing what you’ve written, making it conducive so that they don’t have to travel too far out of themselves to speak the lines that you’ve written. You have to be open to letting go of things and trusting that the people you’ve casted will take it to a better place. I kind of had to leave this training behind from NYU. It does help to know the rules before you step out of them. There are these formalities of what you can and cannot say to an actor. “You must not give result oriented direction!” What I learned is that it takes whatever it takes. Some people needed a line reading so I would give it to them. I had to act and they would mimic me. Some people wanted to be talked to more, some people didn’t want to be spoken to. Some people needed that formality that I’d been trained in, and some people just needed to mimic what I did. Adapt, make up games for kids in between takes. Sometimes the two girls wanted to switch roles so I’d give them two takes to do that. [laughs] It’s really just about listening and doing whatever it takes, being open and willing to change everything about the way you had imagined it, and trust that they’re going to take it somewhere better.