A QUEST FOR A QUEST…ELIMINATING CHILD MARRIAGE

HIMANSHU VORA

WRITER/DIRECTOR

On a rainy day in Mumbai in July 2008, I set out to write a new screenplay. I was in search of a meaningful and impactful theme, I didn’t know what yet. Fortuitously, I happened to speak to a friend from Rajasthan, Piyush Sharma. We exchanged ideas around woman empowerment, a relevant topic in some rural parts of Rajasthan. We narrowed it down to child marriage, specifically around a young girl who runs away from home to escape it.

It was one of those ‘aha moments’ – I was so inspired that in a couple of weeks I found myself in rural Rajasthan! It was a 10 day trip, and my motivation was to feel the place, understand it, the people, the situation, the stories and return and write the script. When I returned to Mumbai, Rajasthan had such an effect on me, I was back there within a week, absorbing more material and envisioning scenarios for the movie. It was magical.

Back in Mumbai again in late September, my senses primed with the wealth of the culture I had just discovered, I started writing the script. The draft took about a month to write, and I sent it out to some friends for critique. They were honest to revert with the harshest but valid feedback about the content, storyline and flow of the script. Looking back, I did rush it, and incidentally the Mumbai terrorism attacks of Nov 26 occurred as I was trying to complete it, which affected my ability to keep the story line light hearted. This taught me that art cannot be rushed, and collectively my friends and I humorously referred to this script as version 0.5.

So starting January 2009 I decided to develop the project at a more realistic pace. I planned another trip to Rajasthan. I tried to get additional staff on the project, but budget constraints hindered this plan. This resulted in it being a one man show during that period.

I was able to connect with people in the region who were able to help out because they believed in the story and my ability to make it a reality. I was impressed by their hospitality, help and selflessness. This notion is another one I have experienced as a Filmmaker in India – one of movie crew and staff compensation. Through my experiences, if this movie does amount to something, then I pledge that every contributor will get their due. This experience has been paramount in my decision to raise funding and make the movie independently.

The other strong motivation has been the overall idea. It has completely captivated me and has been my primary muse and motivator, where others would have given up, it keeps driving me on.

As I kept on at it, I met people who were willing to fund the movie as a business venture, with the goal of making a profit. I differ with that philosophy being the reason for making a good movie. I look at it as art, which mainly needs to be appreciated and if it makes money in the process, that’s secondary.

As soon as my script’s first draft was ready in late 2009, I decided to make yet another trip to Rajasthan. This time was easier than the last few times – we followed the script almost to a tee, going to places and meeting people that corresponded with its different parts. I had heard about a white Christmas, and this was my own – in the white sands of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.

I adapted the script based on things I found on this trip, resulting in a second draft by March 2010. And in the unbearable summer heat of May, I took another trip there coinciding with the traditional festival of ‘Akha Teej’. It was the most extreme heat I had experienced in my entire life – 47 degrees Celsius (116 F). Some locals and other filmmaker friends had warned me about the inhuman heat and unpredictable sandstorms at that time of year. For the first time ever, I gave in to brand UV sunglasses, a hat and very high SPF sunscreen lotion. I did encounter sandstorms and captured some on video too. And they should really be called sand tornadoes!

I also attended a theater workshop nearby in Jodhpur, which was so enriching that I modified my script based on a few pointers I picked up there.

The next day was the big festival of Akha Teej. This festival has several religious significances, the most important marking the day that the Hindu Epic Mahabharata began being captured in scripture. Incidentally, it is an auspicious day for marriages and even ‘mass marriages’, where many couples are married together for efficiency and to save money. I was shocked to witness so many child marriages in temples and even along the side of the road. I had read about it and written about it, but to see it before my eyes in broad daylight was simply unbelievable. The legal age for marriage in India is 21 for males and 18 for females. There was no doubt that the young boys and girls before me were below those ages. There were policemen not so far away and they nonchalantly turned a blind eye at the ongoings.

Still reeling, as I walked to the walls of the next village, the villagers stopped me in my tracks, taking me as an authority who would derail the proceedings. Outside, I ended up treating around 100 kulfis (Ice Cream on sticks) to the children of the village I was in. They thoroughly enjoyed the kulfi, and that was a defining moment for me – they are just children, in no way ready to be married off.

This trip was a journey of discovery as I traveled to various places in villages, in schools around Jaisalmer to find the protagonist of my story, Pinky. Counting the auditions in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer over a week, I auditioned around 150 girls to play the part, which I pared down to a final shortlist of 10.

I had planned the shoot to begin over the summer of the next year (2011), which would also be off-season for tourism, cutting down our production budgets and saving on our accommodation and food. That would also be the summer vacation for several children who would have roles in the movie.

Everything was going per plan, but unfortunately in late 2010, a friend who had promised to fund the movie had something come up, and he was unable to invest in the movie. It was sudden and to an extent, a major setback in my efforts to make this movie.

That past year, this movie had been my main focus and I stopped doing other projects from which I would make money. So an attractive alternative at that point was to go the crowd fundraising route. I looked into a few services that offer this, including Invested.in, Kickstarter, indieGOGO and Sponsume. Invested.in worked out best for fundraising from India, so I got setup on that. Unfortunately, it did not pick up enough traction so I extended the fundraising period. The total raised from this channel was in the range of $250, which was barely enough to pay an assistant makeup artist. This affected my spirit and motivation and I tried not to feel too defeated. Looking back, I analyzed what worked and what didn’t in this campaign, and factored it into my next attempt. It was certainly not Invested.in, which is a great site for various types of projects.

I was patient during this phase, and the support of my friends and well-wishers has seen me through. In early 2011, I teamed up with an old friend, Amish Gandhi, who is now in the media world in New York. Together, we have revamped the project and now have a brand new campaign on Kickstarter to showcase the project and raise funds for it. The quest continues, but this time I am more hopeful than ever.

Sometimes movies can have more social impact than attempts by jaded governments. I believe in the power of grassroots movements creating change for a better world with untroubled children. They need to live normally and in peace to realize a better future world. We don’t want them to grow up as laborers making toys for other more privileged children. We don’t want them serving food at roadside stalls. We don’t want little girls carrying little babies begging on the streets. And we don’t want little boys and girls getting married. And to think that this is all a reality in today’s day and age is quite stunning.

With this in mind, I created a strong and courageous character who at the tender age of nine has the daring sense to escape her own home for a better future. Her story unfolds through her meandering route across Rajasthan, as she encounters obstacles, victories and learns life lessons.

I hope to be able to make this movie and keep you engaged, entertained, and motivated to make a difference in society. As Greg Mortensen said, “If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community.”



ABOUT HIMANSHU VORA:

When I was a child, my first forays into the creative process were submitting story ideas to comic book publishers. This artistic bug then developed into a hobby, which led me into digital animation, which got me started on visual effects for movies, which in turn motivated me to study filmmaking at Vancouver Film School.

Along the way, I’ve worked on some exciting films including Assistant Director on Hyderabad Blues II, Iqbal, Cycle Kick and a few more.

I’m glad to have found my true calling of movie making, and I live every moment breathing pictures. My purpose of living.

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