Nidhie Sharma is a Filmmaker and also an Author. In an exclusive interaction with The Week, she speaks about her transcontinental journey into storytelling and her passion for the action and sports genres.
You’ve been credited with writing the first fiction book on boxing in India. How do you feel knowing you’re the first woman to do so?
I wrote a story that I passionately wanted to write, around a sport that I love and that’s about it. It never crossed my mind that I was setting some sort of precedence and frankly I have never felt limited by the constructs of gender, thanks to my gender-balanced upbringing.
In fact, when Harlequin Harper Collins published the book, I was repeatedly asked “why boxing”. It was only then that I realised that people were wanting to understand why I had ventured into combat sports storytelling, which is widely considered a male domain. Despite the fact that we are living in a post foraging society, our theories on social roles are still rigid and gender stereotyping an accepted norm.
You are a Filmmaker and Author but what came first?
My journey into storytelling started with films. I am a film school graduate, trained in direction and screenwriting.
Could you tell us something about this journey. How did it begin?
On a flight from New York to Los Angeles, without a place to stay at the other end! My filmmaking course in New York had just ended when I got to know of a gig in Los Angeles. An American Indie feature was being made and they were looking for an Associate Producer. Indies are great training grounds for filmmakers as you get to learn how to put together a film from scratch, without a studio. I applied and interviewed with the Executive Producer Gildart Jackson and landed the gig. The very next day I bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles and in the six odd hours that I was still in the air, my resourceful film school buddies had found me a place to stay and even paid the deposits.
The Associate Producer gig turned out to be extremely enriching. The film was called YOU and it was directed by well-known Actor-director Melora Hardin. It had the cast of Desperate Housewives among others and we filmed all over California and Beverly Hills. Melora, who was nursing a new born baby girl on the sets while directing the film, totally blew my mind. When I saw her and Gildart on the recently released web series The Bold Type, it brought back a flood of memories and gave us lot to talk about.
You have directed documentaries. How did that happen?
I was still working on YOU in LA when I got an email from Current TV. The company was being helmed by Al Gore, who is a fierce climate change activist and had produced the Oscar winning Documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. They were looking for unique stories from India and asked me if I’d like to pitch some ideas to them. The thing with documentaries is that you have no control on how they’ll turn out and I was not trained to direct a documentary. Like it’s famously said, ‘in feature films the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director’. I took on the challenge and pitched a host of ideas of which they picked three so I flew to Delhi to film the first. I was planning to tell the story of a group of young rag picking children in Delhi, mostly boys, who deposited whatever they earned in a kiddie bank inside a children’s shelter where they spent the night. The bank inside the shelter was being run by one of the boys, a nine-year-old, who’d record the daily earnings in a register. The money they saved daily was deposited in a Big private Bank at the end of the month. What was eye opening for me was how each one of them was sending most of their measly earnings home and living on nothing. I felt heartbroken too. Why should children have to live this way? Picking rags and being exposed to bullies and street mafia. But that is what it was. That documentary was a huge reality check about what life was like for a child on the streets.
On the day of the shoot, the cinematographer didn’t show up so I put the camera on my shoulder and shot the film. Thankfully I had hired a film school student who helped me with lighting or it would have been a total disaster. Kids Bank of India turned out to be the most watched short documentary pods on Current TV and that still gladdens my heart. I think my experience on the Indie set and my fiction film directorial Mask in the Mirror made it easier for me to produce and direct the three documentaries.
You’ve worked on the Anil Kapoor starrer action thriller 24. Tell us more about it.
My boxing novel Dancing with Demons had just released when I got a call from a Producer at Anil Kapoor Productions. She had heard about my book and the boxing scenes in it. Now, I had been a big fan of the Original 24 with Kiefer Sutherland and also knew that with Anil Kapoor at the helm, it would be mounted at a grand scale. This was a no brainer.
I met the Series director Abhinay Deo, who knew about my boxing book and that I had previously worked with critically acclaimed director Sudhir Mishra. Abhinay watched the pre-visualisation boxing footage that I had shot for Dancing with Demons with combat sportsmen in Copenhagen and believed I had the right skill set for 24. Unfortunately, they had finished hiring directors for the second season but I was offered the gig as an Associate Director-broadly the directorial second in command. I grabbed it with both hands. It turned out to be a really good decision and as luck would have it, I did get to direct.
24 was the first Indian series to be produced at par with any international show there was. It was super slick and well-crafted from a story and execution perspective. The best teams were brought on board. We shot over 1200 pages of screenplay across 100 locations with over 300 actors. It was a mammoth production and it took us almost an entire year to shoot 24 episodes. These days one season of a web series is shot in roughly 60 to 70 days. So you can imagine how gruelling the 24 shoot was, especially since it was a high-octane action series with explosions, counter-terrorism action sequences, hand-to-hand fights, chopper chases and a lot more. In fact, if you’ve worked on a series as massive as 24, you can handle anything. The adrenaline rush that comes from filming action is unparalled.
What are the challenges of action filmmaking? Could you elaborate.
This is a challenging genre to pull off well. Action needs precise planning and execution and an expert team of stuntmen and women, cinematographers and technical crew who can execute the director’s vision. Action storytelling also needs a mind that can strongly visualise action, can break it down into smaller shots while also keeping an eye on the story and performance. The stakes are very high on such expensive projects and the per-day costs are huge. You need guns, ammunition, explosives, cars, drone cams, helicopters, blood squibs, prosthetics, specialized stunt teams, fire work et cetera. For action to look clutter breaking on screen, it needs to be shot from multiple angles with multiple cameras. This means more time and more money and a lot can go wrong. One misstep, a little extra gunpowder, an incorrect fall during a fight and people can lose their lives. This is why the action filmmaking community worldwide hires specialists and people with actual experience with directing action. There is absolutely no room for error.
Is there any bias against women in action storytelling or filmmaking in general?
I did not face any on 24. In fact, I was given a leadership directorial/creative position on an almost 300-member crew, mostly comprising of men. I think, there are enough people out there who don’t link your abilities to your gender but to your talent and ability to handle story and scale. I believe we attract our tribe and I was really fortunate to have found mine on 24.
While I was hired as a directorial second in command for the series, over that one year of filming, I landed the opportunity to direct incredibly gifted actors like Ashish Vidyarthi, Neil Bhoopalam, Sakshi Tanwar and many others. It happened because of exigencies faced by the directors, but the makers chose not to bring in replacements and I was asked to step in. They had shown faith in me and it was a dream come true. I believe I manifested this gig.
While we do know of gender biases in filmmaking worldwide, let me just close this argument by quoting one of my favourite directors Kathryn Bigelow, who has made Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, “If there’s a specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies”.
Could you share your favourite moment from filming action?
There are so many unforgettable moments but I do remember this elaborate action sequence we shot on the outskirts of Mumbai while filming 24. The story needed helicopter borne snipers to chase after and fire at the protagonist and antagonist, who were in a moving ambulance. This sequence was going to be patched in CG with a drone shot on a highway and was a very important part of the story.
I was in the action vehicle along with the doubles, the director of photography and two others when the radio communication between the action director on the ground and the pilot suddenly snapped. There was no way to communicate with the pilot to line up parallel to our moving vehicle so the snipers and the chopper could be filmed from inside the vehicle. Time was running out and we were close to last light. We could not come back to shoot this again, so I threw open the rear door of the ambulance and stepped near the edge to signal the chopper pilot to line up with us. At this point, the ambulance was hurtling away on the arid ground and the chopper was right behind us. I still remember how the anxious gaffer gripped my jacket tightly from behind so I wouldn’t fall out of the moving vehicle. The pilot, by some stroke of luck, understood the hand signalling and we circled back one last time to get the shot. At that point, I got back inside, pulled out my phone and filmed the precise moment we nailed the shot. That crazy clip is still on my phone and puts a smile on my face every time I watch it. I think I’m addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes with filming action.
How is writing for Action and Sport different from other genres?
That’s a really good question. Since both these genres are extremely visual ones, it is imperative that you know these Universes well. One needs to write in such a way that the material can be filmed or the readers can see it clearly when they read it. For action specifically, the screenplay must describe the sequence in detail so it can be broken down into accurate number of shots. Often writers write sequences that either cannot be practically executed or they underwrite it; they will describe in two lines what most likely will take three days to film, thereby entirely upsetting the production schedule. The same applies to Sports writing. You need to know the sport well and it is imperative to describe the ongoing game in as much visual detail as you can. When I was writing the boxing sequences for Dancing with Demons, I wrote each single round blow by blow, and then pared it down. I also put on meditative music, so essentially, I was writing at counter point to what I was describing. The boxing bouts in the book were later called highly visual with a lyrical quality about them.
What are your plans on directing Dancing with Demons?
The screenplay has been adapted, the storyboarding done, I also have a team of boxers and sports bodies associated with the project. Movie making has many moving parts and when they all fall into place, you’ll see the film on screen. As a storyteller, you have to keep writing new material as you’ll never know which story will hit the floors first.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Ever since the Pandemic happened, I have stopped looking that far ahead but I can confidently say, I will still be telling stories. In July, I have a new adventure book titled INVICTUS that’s coming out. It is man vs wild real-life account from my own life and later this year a sports-based web series that I have written on for a leading OTT platform. That for me is cause enough for celebration.
Finally, would you like to share some tips with budding storytellers?
My own journey has only just begun I’d say, but here are few things I can safely share. Write what you feel passionate about and you will find a good home for it. Complete what you start and please don’t take rejections personally. Producers or publishers pick projects for a variety of reasons and a rejection isn’t necessarily a rejection of your craft. Often, it is timing or your project doesn’t fit into their overarching strategic plans. Storytelling is a capricious line of work, fraught with uncertainty at every stage. Prepare yourself for that. Pick yourself up every time you fall. And persist!