Director Gayatri Kumar joins us on Close-Up Culture to her short film, Coffined At 15.
Shot in Noida, India, the film is set in present day Afghanistan – one of most dangerous places for women today. Fifteen-year-old Rihana is put into a coffin at the hands of her father to be sold off to an old Taliban soldier. The wedding is a cocktail of tears and laughter. Rihana calls for help but no one answers. Then she remembers her God.
With a cast consisting of Afghan refugees, this short film showcases real tears and fears from those who have been victims at the hands of the Taliban.
Hello Gayatri, welcome to Close-Up Culture. Can you tell us about your background and what led you to filmmaking?
Some people are trained to swim. Other are thrown into the water and learn in one go. I’m the latter. This short film is my first signature as a filmmaker: I started my career with the hottest, most burning issue in the world right now. I’ve always been a keen researcher, and I spent a lot my time in college gaining insight into the world’s problems, whether that be talking to constituents at the Senator’s office or curbing discrimination against religious groups on campus. The same keen approach to find the problem and solve it can be seen in my films.
The most important part of my background is that I learned the following lesson very early: don’t pick your camera up until you have a good reason to.
Coffined At 15 was inspired by your conversation with a child bride in Afghanistan. Can you tell us about that interaction, and what it means to be a woman in modern day Afghanistan?
Our research analyst had informed me that her brother was approached by a mother looking to sell her kid. After I heard that, I had trouble sleeping for several nights. We sent money to the family through our analyst’s brother so they wouldn’t have to sell their girl. When I spoke to her over a call, she told me that she would pray every day that her mother would come back empty-handed, and that today her prayers were finally answered.
Even now, her family will send me photos through our analyst’s brother to show that their girl is still with them. It’s a feeling like no other. There are people in Afghanistan who sell themselves for only 20 dollars so their families can eat. 20 dollars? That’s someone’s weekly allowance. Spare change in our cup holders and pockets. So much that can be done with the little that we have. There is power in small things.
You cast actual Afghan refugees who fled to Delhi. What led you to this choice, and what was your experience like working with the cast?
As a filmmaker who practices democratic filmmaking, I try my best to cast those who have been real-life subjects of the stories I write. If I cast a professional actor, this film will just be another title on their resume. For Afghanistan’s refugees this film will etch itself into their hearts forever. That’s a rare experience for any director. In a way, it was a gift for me to experience something as life-altering as this. Any refugee will tell you that it is hard to dream big. All you see are minimum-wage jobs or dependent living. This film allowed them to dream bigger.
Our cast of refugees had a lot of unresolved anger inside. They were traumatized by the Taliban and they had no way of getting their revenge on their abusers. This film gave them a way. The tears and the pain of these refugees is theirs. So why should any professional actor make a profit off of their tears? This is their story and their pain and it is very important that the money goes to them too. This is a refugee’s revenge. A five-minute revenge.
One element of the film that really intrigued me was the music. What insight can you give us to that?
One of the first refugees I met in Delhi was a lady without eyes. Her eyes had been gouged out by Taliban soldiers. I thought back to her a lot of times during the making of this film and decided that I want to make a film that even she could experience and understand.
There are two songs in this film: the first one we hear is the Attan (a song in praise of Taliban) and the second is the Azan (the Muslim call to prayer). Through this film we see how the Azan overtakes the Attan — how Allah crushes the Taliban. Even someone without eyes can understand and appreciate the message of this film just through the music. The Attan was sung by one of Bollywood’s most famous playback singers: Shadab Faridi. The Azan was sung by Iran’s very talented Mehdi Yarrahi.
Coffined At 15 will screen at Dances With Films 2022. What impact do you hope the film has, particularly on Western audiences?
The news is a very fickle thing. It can forget about you, your country, your problems. Recently, Afghan refugees were given an ultimatum in Germany to move out within 24 hours to make way for incoming Ukrainian refugees. How does someone just pack up and go overnight? Where do they go?
Today, the USA will spend millions in saving endangered species in some foreign land, but we don’t see the thousands of women in Afghanistan who are slaughtered like sheep every day. I hope this film will refocus the attention on the women who live on Earth’s hell today. I hope we can come together as Americans through this film to tell women in Afghanistan: “We still care about you.”
The film is a proof-of-concept for a feature. Can you reveal anything about your hopes for this project?
‘Coffined At 15’ is a proof-of-concept for the feature film ‘One Day Before Being Sold.’ Nothing in this short film—apart from the characters—are in the feature. Think of all the films you can on the topic of Afghanistan or women’s issues — then cast all of them aside and make room for something new.
One Day Before Being Sold is a film you have not seen before. People travel all across Afghanistan to tell a story about its people. I’m telling you that everything can be found in one house — the angel, the devil, the fear, and the faith. We spend so much money making movies like The Batman and Superman, but don’t you think it would have been nice to at least make one real-life batman? Our feature doesn’t dilly dally into fantasy—it is a tool that can be turned into reality. This is a film that women will love.
This is obviously an incredibly important subject matter. What type of projects do you hope to make in the future?
My films will find the voids in our communities and fill them with a medicine called hope and inspiration. Currently, the theme of my work is freedom. Freedom can be found anywhere and in any form: for example, in Coffined At 15 that freedom is the freedom from vices.
A mini-series I’m developing on Ukraine’s crisis will look at the freedom that its everyday citizens give to each other in the form of brave sacrifices. In India, we will jump into the past and peer at an overlooked subject: the mothers of India’s freedom fighters and martyrs. Through them we will see the steel patience one must have to attain to a goal like freedom.
Do you have any other upcoming projects or ambitions to share with us?
A lot of exciting things coming your way. Stay tuned.
See the world premiere of Coffined At 15 at Dances With Films – https://danceswithfilms.com/coffined-at-15/