We had the good fortune of connecting with Sohil Vaidya and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sohil, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I was born in the city of Pune in India. As a 90’s kid, I saw a truly baffling shift in India as a country. The country encouraged globalisation policies, infrastructure grew while simultaneously we saw the stark wealth disparity. A lot of what I saw and experienced lingers with me even today and does seep into the images that I try to create in my films. I remember, the first ever movie that I saw as a kid was Jurassic Park and it blew me away. I was fascinated, captivated and I wanted that feeling of sitting in the theatre watching a fantastic cinema on the big screen. My family is very progressive and they supported my journey but I despised the barrage of comments from other people whenever I mentioned I want to pursue cinema as a career. Creative work carries a certain stigma in the Indian society and requires you to go above and beyond to even attempt to pursue it. All of these added to me pursuing a masters in computer science but I never related to any of it. During this time, I got involved in theatre and started to toy around with borrowed cameras. I wrote and directed a couple of short films which got good recognition which helped me to apply for film programs. It was an uphill battle, especially financially, but I got an admit letter from USC and so far it has been a paradigm shifting period in my life. When I look back at all my films, I realise that my upbringing in Pune and whatever I had felt during my youth years has seeped into my cinema. Whether it’s my first film ‘Diaries of Unknown’ about homeless and undocumented people in the metro cities of India or my thesis film Difficult People about a teenager rebelling against the society to pursue his artistic endeavour.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
During my college years in Pune, I started watching many films at the National Film Archive of India. There I discovered world cinema. Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and Vittoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves were a huge influence on me in those days. They both were seemingly simple yet very complex human stories done with very low budgets. All I had seen before these in terms of cinema were big-budget Hollywood and Bollywood films with bloated star casts and technical glitz. World cinema directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Ray, De Sica, and Ozu made me believe that cinema doesn’t become great because of budget but what makes it great is cultural specificity and the directors’ unique voice!
I started to think about what is my voice? What do I have to say through cinema? Can cinema really change society? I wasn’t sure. But I knew that cinema can change a human being. It can make us think, shake our comfort zone, provoke us, and in the process can make us more accepting of things that are outside of our fence. When I came out of my cinephile phase of watching endless films, I really started to think of my tribe. Who are the filmmakers I really relate with? In this process of soul searching, I realized that I am interested in slow cinema. Cinema can open spiritual and metaphysical doors. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Bella Tarr felt like my tribe! I find refuge in their slow, meditative cinema. This type of transcendental cinema is rare in the Hollywood landscape, but artists like Terrence Mallik and nowadays David Lowery are doing work that stands against the mainstream conventions of Hollywood.
During the pandemic time, I read lots of philosophy and Indian mythology. I traveled to the deep interiors of my state Maharashtra and met an indigenous community in the western ghats. I was fascinated with their ideas and beliefs about the jungle. This became the setting for my latest film Murmurs of the Jungle. It explores the spiritual connection of this particular indigenous community with the forest through folk tales and lores. Murmurs of the Jungle premiered at the 52nd International Film Festival of India and had its international premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam. Directing is a lonely path. But validation from the festivals and praise from my friends and peers keep me going.
There have been patches where I really felt hopeless and cynical but during those dark times, I kept going back to watching films of my favorite filmmakers. They worked for me as therapy! Then you again find inspiration and rise up with full force! That’s what keeps me going. In all these years I have realized one thing, not to lose my voice in the chaos. The film industry can suck your soul very easily. But after having fought so much to pursue your passion, the last thing you want to do is to give up on what your heart tells you. I am currently working on a feature film based in the United States and looking for collaborators who can work with my vision and aesthetic.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I would take them to Venice Beach. A walk by the Venice Canals area would be fun. Grab Salt and Straw Ice cream at Abbot Kenney. Night + Market Song on the Sunset for Dinner! For sightseeing, Santa Monica Pier, Universal Studios, Hollywood Blvd, Rodeo Drive, Universal Studio, LACMA, and Bradbury Building! Grab tacos at Guisados, drinks at perch, a drive on the Mulholland drive, and spend a day at the Getty center discussing art! Go to picnic at Malibu wines and later take a swim at the point dume! Grab sushi at Nobu and then watch a blockbuster movie at the biggest IMAX screen at the Universal city walk. If you are in the mood for an arthouse film then aero theatre in Santa Monica is great! And after coming out from the artsy experience, a late-night decaf latte at the Urth cafe right next door is perfect!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I want to give a shoutout to my parents and my wife for supporting me and rooting for me in the ups and downs of my career! I also want to give a shoutout to my alma mater USC School of cinematic arts and all the faculty members and friends! That’s the place where I discovered myself as a filmmaker.
Murmurs of the Jungle and Difficult People poster design by Youthana Yous.