Talk to Roopa Rao, 35, for five minutes and she comes across as a bubbly, fun loving girl. Keep talking for half an hour and she will start making you think with her insights on love, life and all that lie in between. Rao redefines same-sex love in her web series titled The Other Love Story that has got rave reviews and more than 35 lakh views on YouTube. She believes that what matters more in a relationship is the human connect and not the gender. “It is how in tune you are with each other that determines how fulfilling your relationship will be,” she says. “Gender comes into play only when you get to bed. And you are not in bed all the time.”
She won the best director award for the 12-episode series set in “an era of love letters and landline phones” at the NYC Web Fest in New York; the series was nominated in six categories. It was also a semifinalist at the Miami Short Film Fest.
Rao had toyed with the idea of doing a series on the intimacy between two young girls for quite some time. She felt it was a story that needed to be told and wrote a short story about it soon after her graduation. But translating it into the visual medium turned out to be challenging. “I didn’t want to be the one who got into trouble,” she says. “So, I ended up procrastinating for a long time, hoping someone else would take up the project.” Nobody dared to talk about the taboo topic so Rao made up her mind and started working on the series last year.
In retrospect, Rao feels it has been a tough yet exciting journey. Since the series dealt with an unconventional theme, it was hard to find a producer. Dogged by the persisting fear of failure, Rao decided to crowd-fund her project last year and raised Rs4 lakh. After a long wait, she got a producer. There was friction on the home front, too. Although she is very close to her mother, Rao never told her what exactly the series was about. “I had told her that it was about two girls and that I would be bringing in romance between them,” recalls Rao. “She didn’t really understand until she read about it in a Kannada tabloid.” It took her some time to come to terms with it. She had questions. Rao made her sit and talk about it.
Would things have been easier if she had been a man? She says she wouldn’t even have attempted it if she had been a man. A lot of elements in the story are from Rao’s own first love. “I have been in love,” she says. “I have had a very intense love story in my life. I know what first love is like.”
An ardent fan of Vishal Bhardwaj, Gulzar and Mani Ratnam, Rao lived in Kolar in Karnataka until she was 12. “My dad was friends with a ‘theatre uncle’. So I would go to the projector room and sit there all the time. I have watched pretty much all the movies,” says Rao.
Rao and her family then moved to Bengaluru. After completing her studies, she worked in an IT company for six years. As she realised she was born to make movies, she quit her job and went to the Asian Academy of Film and Television in Delhi. “I did a one-year-course in film direction,” she says. “Then I interned in the UK for a while with a documentary filmmaker.”
She came back to India in 2010 and started making documentaries and short films at a frenetic pace. “Short films,” she says, “are an excellent platform where you can harness your craft. One of my short films had a dream within a dream kind of concept. Another one was on multiple personality disorder.” Before doing The Other Love Story, she co-directed a few Kannada and Tamil feature films.
Rao enjoys the unlimited freedom that the web offers. “For storytellers, it is like ‘wow’,” she says. “There is no censorship on the web and so, you don’t have to worry about your scenes getting cut.” She got obsessed with the idea of doing a web series ever since YouTube started getting monetised in 2009. Another reason why Rao chose web over feature films is that it is the preferred medium for youngsters, her target audience. “They are all hooked to their phones,” she says.
Rao has been pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming response she got for her web series. Girls reunite after watching it. Parents soften their stand on ‘rebellious children’. A few weeks ago, one of her old friends called her. She used to be close to another girl and moved out of her parents’ place. The anxious parents took her to the police station and mental health centres. Six years later, her aunt happened to watch Rao’s web series on YouTube. She immediately called the girl and reassured her that there were others like her and that she was not crazy.
So what does Rao attribute her success to? “Grit and clarity,” she says. “Also, we could deliver a story that a lot of people could relate to. Our viewers are ready to accept and open themselves to new ideas. It is no longer the same masala formula.”
Rao also believes that having no personal baggage helps her fly high. “If I were dealing with a husband, his family and all that, things would have been more difficult,” she says. “I’m single and I wish to remain so. You can’t travel on two ships at the same time. I’ve chosen my ship with cinema.” Rao lives with her mom. On a typical day, she does yoga, watches movies and reads a bit before attending meetings from 12:30pm. By 7:30pm, she is back home. There, she is the one who does all the ‘admin’ work like ordering groceries and paying bills. While making The Other Love Story, she used to work for 20 hours a day and lost 5kg in eight months.
Rao’s next project is about a girl who travels alone in India. Like The Other Love Story, this, too, could be partly autobiographical. She has backpacked alone in India and outside. Before every trip, she asks herself why she must push herself to an unknown place when she is comfortable where she is. “But once I reach the destination, I’m happy,” she says. “I feel so alive living on the edge.”
Her trip to Tibet remains fresh in her mind. “It made me realise how small I am in this universe, where seven billion people are going about their ways,” says Rao. From then on, she has started taking a panoramic look at life, and sometimes asks herself what this drama we are trying to create is all about. ‘’Everyone will die anyway,” she says. “Once you know how mortal you are, things will change for you.”