Exploring filmmaking and pole dance with the cast and crew
Upayana: screenplay, editing, and directing; Azdah: pole dance, concept and acting; Shidhanta: lighting and moral support; Rishabh: audio mixing and mastering, composition, and sound FX.
“Truly stunning work! What was that all about?“
U: If you are asking me for my interpretation, then you won’t get it. Not because I want to keep it a secret but because I don’t have one. After I publish my work, a lot of people usually come to me with their own interpretations and I always tell them it’s about what you feel while watching it. I feel like I shouldn’t interpret my own work. That would pollute the experience for my audience. It would sort of unconsciously manufacture an interpretation for the viewer. There’s no need to always have one specific interpretation, like this piece of work is a project, a film, a short film, a video. It doesn’t have to be just one.
A: This is a very difficult question. I don’t know, it was December, the shadows were perfect, the weather was such. Lots of things, I guess!
S: Whatever you want it to be haha! For me I feel it kinda felt about the female experience and how there are like a lot of fears and stresses and challenges especially for those who are working in the field which draws a lot of eyeballs like pole dancing or film making. So it felt like a movie about breaking past all that and freeing yourself to do what you feel like.
R: This one is hard to answer with words, I think for me this project was about capturing a feeling/emotion more than anything else. My interpretation of the film happened through the music and was deeply influenced by the colours of the scenes—cold colours made me tense, while warm colours brought with them a kind of resolution, so I worked around that.
“For the actress, did you get to do any improv on-set?“
A: I would say there was lots of improv. Whenever we were planning what to do next, we vaguely had in mind the location and type of scene we were going for. For the scenes in the forest with the cards hung on trees, we went to this forest—Jahanpanah City Forest—near my house, at around 7 in the evening to search for spooky locations. We decided to hang the cards on a tree, which was something we pretty much thought of at that very moment. I remember marching from my house to the forest in my Gothic folklore glory and all the people on the street staring. It was such fun! While we were shooting in the forest, a guard came to us and said that shooting wasn’t allowed. He left shortly after and in the five minutes we had we quickly improvised her, my character, falling down the rabbit hole through the side of a tree. It was all very fun. All the frolicking parts with the shadow were also improvised in my room. The movements were not fully pre-planned, I would say I moved with a thirty per cent idea of what I wanted to do in terms of the choreography with the pole, as well as the acting. The rest was a lot of improvisation and a lot of retakes. Because with each improvisation we would, sort of, find something or the other that we could cook up a little more or flesh out. I really enjoy creating associatively like that.
Stills from beings of Light and Sound.
“For the director/screenplay writer, what were some of your influences for this movie?“
U: So, I won’t be able to give you specific movie or book references. I observe things as I go about my life as an individual, and subconsciously some things get registered in my brain. And then they reappear in my dreams. Yes, I think I’m one of those people who make movies out of dreams. Dreams make everything super surreal. I just piece them together once I wake up. But if you do want a name, I would say David Lynch’s movies are one of my biggest influences. I haven’t watched all of his movies, I haven’t heard all of his interviews, and I haven’t even sat through all his movies like Mulholland Drive and Rabbits. But I genuinely feel like that guy is doing something. He doesn’t care if people get it or not; he doesn’t care to justify his work. He just does stuff which makes him happy and moves on to the next weird idea—at least that’s what I think.
A: So, there is no strict answer to this but Upayana and I wanted to make something together for a while and we began to talk. I liked her style a lot. I was feeling rather lonesome one day in my house and just leafing through a Literary Witches oracle deck I own. It uses paintings and symbols of female authors with a single word associated with them. To give some examples, for Anne Carson, the word is Intellect; for Sylvia Plath, the word is Dark; for Mirabai, Devotion…pretty Eurocentric. There’s Mirabai but she’s more myth than author. You draw subjective meaning from the card to the word to the image, and I guess that’s how meaning-making of it begins. So I was looking at this deck and it struck me how otherworldly it was. It triggered in me so many pools of unconscious thought. So, I sent Upayana some pictures of it and she began to cook up some scenes and chain of events. For me, honestly, I can’t really say what the inspiration was because in some sense everything you see/read/watch from childhood filters in but I had recently been enjoying Susanna Clarke’s work, the book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and I think in retrospect I vaguely see some traits reflected. But as Upayana said, it is very associative and continuous…dreams, shadows, and the unconscious.
Oracle deck cards. Courtesy: Azdah.
“Can you tell us about the music? What inspired the choice?“
R: Both Upayana and Azdah were just vague enough for me to do my own thing. I asked them to cue me in on certain scenes where there would be some kind of sound effect required, and used that to phrase the soundtrack. I wanted to make a hybrid of fairy, goth, ragtime piano and roomy drum sounds to deliver a kind of spooky hollowness to the film. Melody Prochet (Melody’s Echo Chamber) and Blonde Redhead are some of the artists I was inspired by while I was making the soundtrack.
“For the gaffer, two things define cinematography—light and shadow, tell us how the shadows were shot and how you chose the contrast ratios.“
S: During the shooting of the shadow parts we were utilising only a single light source that was a sun lamp owned by Azdah. There were serious constraints with regard to placement and coordination of this one singular lamp. An example of this would be during the bottle scene. We only had a very small portion of the wall to cast the shadow. If the source was too close to the bottle it would appear too tiny, losing the details. If it was too far, the shadow would be too large and overshoot the designated area. Most of the shadow and light work revolved around manually finding a careful balance. The contrast ratio was also something we just eyeballed. Our production was all in-house so we used blue cellophane paper over a phone flashlight to mimic moonlight lol. So, fine tuning luminosity or contrast was completely out of our hand. It was more of making sure that the light wasn’t too strong on Azdah or washing out the shot. Desperate stuff like that ha-ha.
“There was a lot of symbolism in the movie. Can you tell us more about the oracle symbol cards? And did the choice of the aspect ratio of the film have anything to do with the dimensions of the cards?“
A: So a part of the oracle deck is the author section of course, but the other part of the deck is called ‘the witch’s tools.’ It has all kinds of symbols in it—Knife, Ghost, Toad, Cat, House, Wall, and so forth. Like the author section, there is only one word associated with each of them and you make of it what you will. We chose some of the images on the cards based on what would happen next. Take for instance Virginia Woolf. The word associated with her was Vision. And the word Cat, which we chose because of my cat’s presence in the film. The whole film was shot and edited on Upayana’s iPhone. I guess our devices determined dimensionality in some sense. The last scene was shot overhead, with her standing on a bookshelf and stool to record the last concluding dance sequence. How we arranged the flowers and the cards was determined by that overhead angle and how much it could cover within the frame.
Oracle deck cards. Courtesy: Azdah.
“Given that the oracle deck—Taisia Kitaiskaia’s The Literary Witches Oracle—was the inspiration for the film, and that the script came about through revisiting “certain images and motifs that stayed” with you all, it shouldn’t be surprising that these are familiar images embedded within the audience’s own subconscious. The film brings back childhood memories of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and simple playground fun. But some celebrated tales do have insidious outdated messages and for that reason, we now have feminist and queer retellings. So who or what makes a ‘Literary Witch’?“
A: That is a compelling question and I am struggling slightly to articulate but I will try my very best. Hmm. As you correctly pointed out, there are dark undertones to most of these tales. A sense of child-like fantasy, of looking at the self, it’s somewhat shattered like a Lacanian mirror stage. I don’t know what it is but there’s something ceaselessly erotic and beckoning in the whole thing. Fairy tales etc. Like, fishnet stockings under an immaculate white dress. I feel that I enjoy creating a suspension of disbelief kind of thing. It was Upayana’s vision. I just had the initial brimming of an idea and from there she directed and did everything, save for the dancing and the music. I’m glad we converged at some level, when I sent her pictures of the deck.
What makes a literary witch, I suppose, is that a literary witch exists in fable and navigates within the fable. Sort of like a mirror producing your own reflection, but at some point the reflection begins to act differently. This answer is probably overly literary and wordy but I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are very few ways, in our day-to-day-life, for fantasy that allow for agency and imagination and suffusing yourself in what is termed the non-real. A literary witch does not really operate within this world. It’s a world inside a mirror, the mirror has somewhat shattered or splintered and rules are inverted out there. I guess in that sense one could say she has more scope for agency. That sounds a bit trite, but it’s what comes to mind. That’s also why the whole thing was so much fun. It was Upayana and I obsessing over what to do next and how to shoot next and shooting in my room alone. I really enjoyed that space and time with her and the whole process. Those were my happiest five days in between December and January.
“Can you tell us about the costuming, and make-up? Did the filming location come first?“
U: The script came first. Then came the location. Then the costume and make up. I did the costume. I wanted Azdah to look super dark and mysterious but we still chose white because it lent a sort of fairy-like aspect to it (?). We wanted gothic but we also wanted fairy. Hence, we used a white flow dress as well as fishnet stockings, black boots and leg warmers. We actually layered two dresses on top of each other and a turtleneck for its crochet neckline. We love details.
A: The costume and layering was entirely Upayana’s expertise. We layered different dresses and for the pole sequence we kind of had to improvise as pole needs skin grip for performance. So we had to shorten the dress accordingly. Plus, in the beginning I wore my yellow bodysuit.
“Filming with animals isn’t easy. How was the experience for everyone and the cat? And, for the sound mixer, how challenging was your task working with the cat’s meow?“
R: The film did not have any live audio recorded, so all of the audio was done in post-production. From rustling leaves to the cat’s meow, everything had to be added on top. I really like this process because it forces you to see sounds. I have lived and still live around several cats, so I could hear the meow in my head, just had to play with the local neighbourhood cat for a couple of minutes with a field recorder to get the right sample.
U: The cat, whose name is Pinky by the way, wanted to be in the scene. She just sat there refusing to move, you know how cats are. Little emperors we call them. So, we had to oblige obviously.
A: It’s a funny story. So we were shooting in my house, and this stray I adopted, Pinkus/Pinky (pronounced: Pink-uhs) was in my room at the time. She tends to follow me sometimes when she feels like it and it so happened, by happy coincidence, that as we were shooting the scene, she decided she wanted to peep out of the door with me. Earlier we just had her in the frame, but this was a cool improv on her part. Haha!
“For the actor(s), how did you prepare for the roles? Not many may know this but we have a director cameo.“
U: I often act in my own films. I even make my dad act sometimes!! But I was so glad I had someone this time who could be on-screen while I worked back-stage. I wanted to have a really sharp, pointed face so that the shadow looked intimidating and otherworldly. Azdah had this mask hung on her mirror, which Shiddhanta suggested we use to sort of show a two-faced person (not literally). So, we went with that. I could hardly move my head at all during that scene because both faces only show up at a certain angle. Shiddhanta had to keep shouting instructions the entire time.
A: Lots of improv. To be honest, the acting part came easy. I was more nervous about the pole routine because the pole stopped spinning in the middle a lot and it was getting very hot inside the room. I didn’t really have time to warm up properly so grip was not great and I had to keep going with increasing momentum so it made me very tired. We also did a lot of retakes because we wanted it to look perfect from all angles possible. Tempers were also kind of running high on that particular day. We had to rest a couple of days after that. Also, as we shot in late December/early January and really didn’t have a ‘team,’ so to speak, things had to be done quickly. We were relying a lot on natural light and we were working with the 10 pm Covid curfew and Shidhanta’s exams.
Stills from beings of Light and Sound.
“I’d like to talk about the female gaze. This work…it’s like Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, subverting female fairy tale character archetypes…it’s like escaping Plath’s bell jar. It’s hypnotic and liberating. It’s women as subjects having agency and shaping their own identity. But is it all within a dreamscape? And does it matter if she awakes to a different reality?“
U: To be very honest we did not think of it that way. I was planning to show a vase initially but we could not find one so we settled for a bottle. I wanted to include that scene purely for the visuals and how creepy it looked. Azdah is already in a dreamscape. And the entire theme of the film is that she is trying to escape it. It’s basically inspired, again, by my dreams where I am always running away from something or being chased by someone. So, the whole time Azdah is just trying to escape this dream which doesn’t end. In the end she just accepts it and becomes a part of it. Now we can definitely look at this from a feminist perspective. But imagining her emerging out of the bottle into a different reality is itself like a dream which hasn’t been realized yet.
A: I wouldn’t say it matters in the sense of mattering. Like, I know we are a bunch of upper class artists with day jobs in a metropolitan city. It was fun to make. I think in terms of the female gaze, fantasy can allow for some sort of subversion. Octavia Butler etc. Ursula Le Guin. I don’t think that was the idea behind it though, as it just sort of came to us and we went with it. In that sense, the female gaze was somewhat inherently present, I think. It was not consciously thought about. Similar to the male gaze, you see it in retrospect. I will not pretend to have had much thought about this in the making process.
“For the actress, as a dancer and instructor yourself, what was life like before pole dancing (and why pole dancing)? What are the kind of changes you see in your students after they really get into it?“
A: I have sort of struggled with an eating disorder my whole life. I began doing aerial silks and general exercise-y stuff in 2018 and found that the dopamine rush made life a little more bearable. After I started pole in 2020 during the pandemic (because I really missed silks, and the skill set is quite transferable in terms of elements, grace and the muscle groups used) I found that along with the physical benefits I became more comfortable with my body as I had to see myself half naked almost all the time, but my focus wasn’t on my nakedness as much as becoming more dance-y with the pole, trying to get stronger and more flexible to perform better on the pole (as opposed to a weight-loss oriented approach before). Learning more about dance itself, even apart from the pole. I started recently exploring contemporary and jazz/contemporary floorwork with Mukta Nagpal and Ashish Rao from Program Trinity. Although I am just a beginner baby in contemporary and floorwork, they really changed how I think of movement and somatic stuff and dance and movement as expression. I thought I was All That because of pole dancing, but it really is humbling and deeply enriching to be in a beginner space again. Haha!
I have always been very detail oriented, and both pole, contemporary and jazz require a high degree of technical proficiency for graceful and complete muscle memory/ movement. Contemporary is very ballet based on occasion, which is a highly technique driven form. I like that sort of structured approach and gradually getting better at something and honing that sort of muscle memory in your body. I also love getting stronger. I could never do pull-ups before or straight armed inversions before but training pole regularly allowed me to excel at those skills. I feel like my obsessive thinking found a nice and healthier outlet to channel itself. So yes. Life after pole has been interesting. I see similar things reflected in my students too, both physically and mentally. A whole new set of possibilities opened up to me, I became more comfortable with my body and its nakedness and how it was perceived, I found several valuable friendships and mentoring processes within the pole community and overall it has really changed my life. I would not go back to before. Those days were really dark.
Stills from beings of Light and Sound.
“It’s also a dance form that’s been highly eroticised along with its practitioners–more sexualised than admired for their art. Do you get a similar response on social media?“
A: Oh haha, hundred per cent. At any given moment, on an average day, at least twelve different men are trying to slide into my Instagram DMs with mostly sexual intentions. It can be pretty dangerous sometimes, one of my friends, a pole dancer, once discovered that someone had taken the pictures and videos from her profile and photoshopped them to make the whole thing very pornographic, and this was completely without consent, a hacker with a grudge because she ignored him or something. We had it reported and taken down but it was a scarring experience, for her, of course, but also the rest of us.
I don’t use my name on my pole account on Instagram, because I quite legitimately believe that if my place of employment or someone looking to hire me were to find out the specifics about it, some pretty ugly rumours would begin and it would become yet another uncomfortable space and I really don’t want to put myself through that as I love pole so much, and I don’t want to scar it for myself unnecessarily. I will continue to perform and keep my account public and make as many projects as possible. But I have had to draw a lot more boundaries than I did before I started putting my stuff on the internet. It is what it is. It is uncomfortable and a hundred per cent true.
“We see the protagonist of the film going down a tunnel (rabbit hole) and making her way through the woods (where anything might happen). Is this also a coming of age film?“
U: A lot of people came to me with this interpretation. Like I said before every interpretation is valid.
“It’s intriguing that our corporeal existence and desires are so deeply influenced by a virtual space that reduces us to beings of distorted ‘light and sound.’ It’s also a space wherein we spend a large proportion of our time morphed as such. Could you, Azdah, talk to us about your own experiences with ‘body-image’ and whether or not you gained/lost weight (for better or worse) for the film?“
A: I didn’t lose weight but I will say I wanted to. As I said I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for most of my life so my body image fluctuates a lot, it waxes and wanes, and my body changes accordingly. After we finished shooting, though, I realized that the whole body thing I was thinking about in terms of the film was a bigger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts situation. My insecurities have not disappeared but making this made me look at my body less and look more at the film and what we were trying to create. I think that is also the boon of being immersed in a creative space with people you know and respect and trust.
“Collaborative indie short filmmaking can be either one of the most stressful art forms or the most rewarding. How has the project impacted your creative life since?“
S: It was both stressful and rewarding haha. I am from a tech background so creativity is mostly associated with finding creative approaches rather than making something. I am actively seeking more such projects and groups in and outside of college to work with. It feels good to work with creative people in a different field.
U: This kind of stress makes me happy. I love freaking out about not finishing it on time, I love overthinking about a two second hand movement in a particular scene, I love stressing about editing the whole thing. Film making is a stressful stress buster. I hadn’t worked with anyone before for the fear of not being understood, made fun of, or being influenced to change my ideas into something that “makes more sense.” Now I know that at least if not everyone, the people I worked with get me and we can always work on more such projects. In a way it has encouraged me to share my thoughts and ideas and actually believe in myself and my art.
R: Working with other people helps break the patterns that I create, and forces me out of my comfort zone. I don’t usually make music like this, so fulfilling a shared vision is a great way to put myself in new sonic landscapes!
A: For me, more confidence in my abilities and so a greater flow of ideas. I like how I now know how projects are made and how they come together. I’m very happy that I now have friends I can make things with.
“Upayana, why film?“
U: I won’t say it helps me express myself, that’s a given. The truest and the most basic answer is, it makes me happy. I have done a lot of things in my life—singing, dancing, and painting. At one point I stopped doing these things because I never enjoyed doing them. I thought I have no hobbies and it is what it is. But in 2020, I was sitting with my friends in my room with scented candles, lo-fi music and everything, a whole mood. And we started making shapes with our hands in the shadow. Then I thought let’s make a monster with our hands, and then let’s see how it looks if the monster eats one of us. And we went from there and that was my first ever video. I still can’t believe I’m giving an interview as a director/screenplay writer of a short film. The sixteen year old me would be so proud of the present me.
Stills from beings of Light and Sound.
“What has the reception been like?“
U: The response initially, personally for me, was a little underwhelming. When you put so much time and effort into something, and you don’t get the expected response, it’s a little disheartening. So, I was ranting to Azdah and she was like “Upayana, people are going crazy over this it’s so good!” and then she started sending me screenshots of all her friends, colleagues who were appreciating it. Her pole community had never seen something like this before. So, I realized when seen by the right audience, if it’s good, it’s impossible to ignore. And now we are here giving an interview so it would be unfair to say that reception has not been good.
A: I kind of liked it. All my pole friends and my pole mentor Aditi thought it was super cool. I think I died right then. And now you’re interviewing us! I could DIE.
“What are you all working on now? Upcoming project?“
U: I have been super busy with college. But I still end up staring at a wall while working on my assignment. Staring at the wall and thinking about tunnels, of land of lost things, time machines, world inside a suitcase, toothpaste, forests, angels. So yeah, I would say I’m definitely always working on something new. Also, looking forward to working with the team again on newer stranger themes and visuals!!
S: Nothing for now, hopefully next time Upayana makes another film she will call me again and I guess that would be my next project.
R: I’m working with a group of musicians on a band, we haven’t decided on a name so I don’t have much to say about it yet. I also run, and live in a shared art house in Hauz Khas called Indimints. We can be found on Instagram at @indimnts.arthouse. I hope to get to do the sound for more of Azdah and Upayana’s projects because it was a ton of fun.
A: Working on some performance showcases, getting better at pole and dancing (always), expanding my teaching practice, and making more stuff with Upayana and Rish! I guess I should also start working on my social media. It is pretty sparse. Sigh.
Screenplay, editing, and directing: Upayana Singha @misnamingmyname_
Pole dance, concept and acting: Azdah @azdah.pole
Lighting and moral support: Shidhanta @ssfrogstar