Engineer-turned-comedian Anu Vaidyanathan gets ready for her first bilingual feature film

Vaidyanathan, who is now busy with her first feature film, gets chatty with us about the various roles she is playing on a daily basis and which one is her favourite.

Dharitri Ganguly Published :  07th March 2023 09:00 PM   |   Published :   |  07th March 2023 09:00 PM
Anu Vaidyanathan

Anu Vaidyanathan

To borrow from celebrated triathlete turned comedian Anu Vaidyanathan herself: Before her stand-up comedy hour BC-AD: Before Children and After Diapers, she was a jobbing engineer, moonlighting as an athlete. Vaidyanathan wrote a book during this great transition, which found its way to an adaptation market at the Mumbai Film Festival, setting her off on a new adventure.

But she believes her transition began when her memoir Anywhere but Home: Adventures in Endurance was shortlisted for a movie adaptation at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2016. She submitted screenplays to international film festivals and was a finalist at the Sundance Episodic Labs (for a TV series) and for the Hubert Bals Fund, Rotterdam International Film Festival (for a feature film) in 2020. Her first short, Skiff, was non-fiction filmed in the 2019 Kumbh Mela. Other shorts such as Spaz (a musical), Bolide (about an aging performer), and a Spanish film Este Ignorante Presente, among other titles, followed. She plans to submit a few of these titles to international film festivals. 

At present, she is to begin work on her first feature film, which will be an English-Tamil bilingual. With most of her short films so far being done mostly indoors during the pandemic, with a limited cast and crew, she intends to take her feature films outdoors. We got chatty with her about her new release, and handling so many roles...professional and personal.

Tell us in detail about your first feature film. 
For an independent filmmaker on the verge of making her first feature film, I would say it is more interesting to talk about where I am with the project. I am taking two of my scripts to market this year and having seen some re-affirmation from prior long-form scripts that have made it to the finals at Sundance/Rotterdam, I am hoping these will find funding. It is very important for me to reiterate that independent filmmaking is typically paved with disappointment. Having worked in large to small productions in Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore I have a clear line of sight into different film environments. I got most of my film education through career courses at the National Film and Television School, London, and so, most of my short films have been made in London and Europe. This mixture of teams I have worked with has broadened my knowledge of how best to make my bi-lingual film. I am hoping to raise money to make this over a 28-day period by the end of this year or mid-next year (depending on which side of the funding coin we fall). After that comes my favourite part of post-production, editing. I am yet to understand in detail distribution and public release but having returned from a producers' conference in January, I am hopeful that I am taking very small steps in the right direction. So, fingers crossed 2025! If it happens earlier, I would be chuffed. If it happens later, I would wait patiently.

You have so many roles to play. Which one excites you the most?
I love the part of being an independent woman and a mother who dares to challenge norms. I have worked in very misogynistic environments as an engineer but the arts are 20 degrees worse. I have worked on several free projects as an Engineer, just to get good at some skill I thought I was behind with. As a filmmaker, that same attitude is read as desperation or worse. And the conditions in which we are required to make work is appalling. There are no job-boards and no meritocracy for as far as the eye can see, and this is a blessing because being an autodidact also means establishing a simple relationship with expectations (of oneself) and money. All said and done, my long love-affair with writing has taught me only one thing which is that our victories are all fleeting and I'd rather fail in private a million times over than not try at all. I am most excited to play myself. Not some version of some great man or woman whom I have never met in a moment of crisis to tell what they were really made of. Those kinds of relationships were limited to the sporting field. As an athlete, I had more clarity into the minds of my fellow athletes. The waters are far murkier here.

What made you make films since it is so starkly different from being an engineer or an athlete?
My memoir was long listed for the Mumbai Film Festival's inaugural word-to-screen market. This made me sit up and take notice. What followed was two offers from major studios to develop the concept but the handling of the options left a lot to be desired. I was essentially faced with folks who were unclear about how to develop the story. I use this in my comedy routine, the fact that a film about a woman was going to be made by a table full of men left me in splits. Added to this, Bollywood was (and still is) trying to pop the pimple of the sports biopic, where back strength is apparently built by hauling truck tires across a field. By a bearded man. Now, I have some misgivings about my own facial hair but suffice it to say some timely advice from an adman friend made me buy back my book rights, take a lot of classes in screenwriting, cinematography, performance and direction and dream about making my own films. The pandemic helped that. I was busy studying and making short films in excruciating circumstances. To your point about this being very different from engineering/athletics, that is absolutely right. Learning to deal with people has been the biggest learning I have assimilated on the road to filmmaking. Maybe I am doing this because it's a skill to make work when orchestrating a team. So far, so good mostly. There are many times when I greatly wish I were just tasked with writing code or running several miles but you live and learn and I am enjoying this walkabout so far. Disappointments included. Added to this, I have begun to understand why we watch a film. Especially on a long flight home from college in America, I would constantly watch Hindi films with all their problems and tropes and representation. It feels to me that language is tied very closely to everything. Maybe even our dreams. That being said, of late I have more clarity into the films that made me want to take up filmmaking. I am Tamilian and I cannot stress enough the legacy of filmmakers in Tamil/Telugu/Kannada. They represented women more intelligently - K Balachander, Balu Mahendra, Mani Rathnam, SS Rajamouli, all come to mind. I also take a leaf from the pages of the greats in Bollywood – Reema Kagti's Talaash (whose characters Roshni/Rosie are as stunning as the protagonist), Zoya Akhtar, Meghna Gulzar, Anvita Dutt and many more brilliant women filmmakers writing films about women.  

How do you balance so many things, and also your personal life?
I don't balance very well. I eat poorly. I gain weight. I lose weight. I miss my family terribly.  I have all kinds of troubles. The way to see through it all is just to be honest about one's humanity. And choose to remember the wonderful people despite the many idiots one encounters (in any line of work - for example, Ive had several sexist professors in Engineering college, my first swim coach told me to get married... profound words from a father of four girls - filmmaking is no different. The attitude is slightly worse for wear because it attracts a certain mind and I couldn't be more self-aware of that to get through the bad days. On the bright side, I have had mostly good days as a writer-director. I feel loved, seen and heard. When that cameraman takes the time to get that one extra shot despite the scheduled time being tight, when that art-department person takes the time on a detail you mentioned once and long forgot, when the actors imbue the character like you could only ever imagine it, when the composer breathes life into a pause - these are powerful moments in my world of work and I remember them in great detail when the going gets tough. Personally, I am the child of a very strong career-woman. I seek to be no different with my own children and my partner is more than supportive so, all these things help greatly.

Does motherhood go hand-in-hand with comedy or other professional fronts?
Motherhood goes hand in hand with comedy. Not filmmaking. I think it stands at odds with filmmaking on the bad days - then you really do wish you were home making a meal for the ones you love instead of dealing with whatever is coming at you. Comedy happened because of the pandemic. I felt very shut in and suffocated. Filmmaking and writing inherently takes a very long time to see the ends of. Years sometimes. Comedy is instant gratification for a writer. The performance also happened by accident. I was at a clown school taking notes to direct a performance but the clown master had different plans. He made me aware I was in a room with professional actors so I could either step up or get lost. I chose the former and am glad I did. Being a comedian helps me deal with the inequities of being a woman director, where I am basically stood in a pit of a largely male population trying to make something only, I can see. Comedy also helps me be a better director because acting is truly one of the hardest professions in the world. And the ones who inspire me most are those actors who are also in touch with their humanity.

If, at a gunpoint, you were asked to choose just one role, which one would you choose and why?
One role would be to play myself. I am skeptical of how a woman with life experience and intelligence will be received anywhere. It's a private journal I am writing for every little girl who is smart enough to know what she wants and bold enough to go out and get it.

What 2023 has in store for you?
My debut standup comedy hour, BC:AD - Before Children, After Diapers, is presently touring in over dozens of countries. I am writing a new show and taking my film scripts to market. Added to this, I have found an engineering job I love dearly so, this will be that year. Make it, break it or best of all, Postpone it.