NYC-based Saniya Mirwani's directorial debut 'Any Given Night' creates waves across international film festivals
We talk to the up-and-coming filmmaker to decode her creative process
"Once at a party, I asked a male friend to hold my drink for a few minutes while I used the bathroom. When I came back, my drink was just lying on a table far away from his sight. I was initially upset but quickly realised that there was no malicious intent on his part. It was just that he had never had to think about protecting his drink so as not to be drugged. So, he put the drink down and forgot about it. My female friends, on the other hand, put their hands over every drink guarding it with their lives. This forced nature of vigilance over everything is a quality that most women develop out of fear about their safety. That is when I began to imagine, what would life look like if we did not have this fear to begin with?"
When we asked the 24-year-old Saniya Mirwani to tell us about the inspiration behind her directorial debut Any Given Night, a film set in a utopian world where women are always safe, this is what she said. Now that the film is receiving critical acclaim at prestigious film festivals all across the globe — from Berlin International Art Film Festival and Chicago South Asian Film Festival to India and International Film Festival and Tasveer South Asian Film Festival — we indulge in a conversation with the up-and-coming filmmaker to decode her creative process. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a writer and filmmaker based between Mumbai and New York. I founded Sherni Studios, a media collective on a mission to amplify underrepresented female voices through content and social activism. I am also a Creative Producer at honto88, where I have produced content for brands like Netflix, Hulu and Conscious Kid.
When did you first get interested in films?
I grew up in a family of film buffs! But apart from the excitement that comes with watching films, it is the opportunity to escape, live in and empathise with a character you watch on screen that I find therapeutic. Moreover, I believe that film as a medium has the power to change beliefs, mindsets and even laws.
I have always been very involved in the arts from my childhood. However, it was after making a film for a project that one of my professors told me I was in the wrong department and that I should take a film class instead.
Who are some of the filmmakers whose works have influenced and inspired you?
I am deeply inspired by the works of David Fincher, Greta Gerwig, Zoya Akhtar and several other filmmakers who have challenged the rules of filmmaking with their creative innovation. Now, as a filmmaker myself, I watch their films almost academically, studying the effectiveness of their artistic choices.
However, if you ask me who has influenced me the most, the answer is Shah Rukh Khan. If I can make people feel even a fraction of what SRK has made me feel in his films, I will feel successful. The sheer ability to make not one but several generations of people laugh when you laugh, cry when you cry and believe anything you say on screen is unreal. The fact that Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge still plays at Maratha Mandir is just proof that the art you put out in the world is immortal.
What is Any Given Night about?
Determined to have a great girls’ night out, Noor and Emily set out to party their way through a seemingly ordinary night – or so they thought. The two best friends end up navigating an increasingly bizarre night of crushes, alcohol and strange men. The story is set in a utopian world where women have nothing to worry about. Yet, something doesn't quite feel right. The dark comedy challenges the way in which women’s safety is viewed in society today.
What did the research for this film look like?
When my co-writer Ann Nelson and I were developing the story, we decided to speak to a number of women from different countries, communities and classes and asked them a simple question — “If all men disappeared for a day, what is the first thing you would do?” — the results were astonishing. Most women said they would just go out for a walk alone late at night. So, we decided to take that further, to imagine the possibilities of what women would feel comfortable doing if guaranteed safety. And unfortunately, that turned into very basic things like being able to take a drink without being vigilant about it, not carrying pepper spray for protection in public transport, or being able to dress and act a certain way. We dared to imagine a world where gender equality is the norm and that gave birth to Any Given Night.
Did you ever think of making this into a non-fiction film?
Since this film is imagined in a utopian universe where gender equality is the norm, it would have been impossible to shoot it as a non-fiction film. I do believe that there are incredible documentaries out there covering gender-based violence and sexual assault that are educative. However, my goal with this film was not to depict facts but rather question “what if?” to challenge one’s imagination through comedy.
Did you face any challenges while making the film?
Several. First, of course, was having to shoot right after Covid. We shot in New Jersey with a very small crew and were very focused on making sure our team felt safe at all times. We also wanted to make sure everyone on set was fairly compensated for their work. We did not have access to large investors so we started a crowdfunding campaign, pitched to smaller sponsors and brands. We even held film workshops and fundraising events to make sure our film gets shooting dates.
Where has the film been showcased so far?
Any Given Night has already premiered at the Berlin International Art Film Festival, Chicago South Asian Film Festival, International Film Festival of South Asia –Toronto, Berlin Lift-Off Film Festival, New Faces New Voice Film Festival in New York, New Jersey, India and International Film Festival, Tasveer South Asian Film Festival in Seattle, Parkgate International Film Festival and the Women Cinema and Arts International Film Festival. Next, it is premiering in Vancouver as part of the International South Asian Film Festival of Canada.
What goal do you want to achieve with this film?
Our main goal with Any Given Night is to create awareness and share solutions for safety with students in colleges today. We are partnering with non-profit and college organisations focused on sexual assault and harassment on campuses to build an education curriculum alongside our film. This curriculum will include screening our film coupled with a discussion on the best tools needed to change campus culture and provide resources that are available through non-profits to the student survivors at the university.
Have you noticed any change in your own self after you made this film?
Yes, absolutely. I have learned patience and hard work is truly the key to success. But most importantly, it takes a village to create anything impactful.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
After the success of this film, I launched Sherni Studios, a media collective on a mission to amplify underrepresented female voices through content. We are currently supporting another short film called Pleats, directed by Anoushka Agrawal, which follows a conversation between an elderly Indian lady who confesses to having an extramarital affair and her granddaughter, both of whom realise that they seek the same thing – to be understood.
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