Pavitra Chalam has a film-making degree from the New York Film Academy, a diploma in broadcast journalism from the Asian College of Journalism and a B.A. in History, Political Science and Economics from Mount Carmel College (Bangalore University). Chalam was also a national level roller skater and athlete for over ten years. Her first brush with film-making happened in July 2003 when she represented India at the Youth Initiative for Peace in Pakistan where she made her film debut with ‘Bus’ – a story about the shared ideals of the youth of both nations.She followed that stint with being a journalist at the World Youth Congress in Morocco and subsequently traveled all across Europe in 2004 as an Ambassador of the NGO – Peace Child International, using film as a medium to reach out to young people in France, Spain, Germany, Scotland, London and Ireland.
Chalam returned from New York and began working as an independent filmmaker to make films on topics ranging from drug addiction, cancer, women and children’s rights, sports and the environment. One of her films ‘Anamika- Her Glorious Past’ about the Devadasi tradition in India has won several awards and received critical acclaim in film festivals overseas.
In 2012 she set up CurleyStreet Media, as a film production company and creative agency that specializes among other things in the creation of films for change, documentaries, advertisements and corporate films.
SocialStory’s Sathyanarayana G (SG) caught up with Chalam to get to know more about her personal journey, her motivation to set up CurleyStreet Media, the need to go beyond just ‘documenting’ and what the ride so far has been like.
SG: Tell us about your Pakistan experience
Chalam: It was one of the most intense experiences of my life and I found that not only did the film transform every person involved but also create waves of change amongst the youth. It was then that I realized that this was what I was meant to do. I haven’t looked back. For over a decade, I have been making films which try and raise awareness on a vast array of social issues including drug addiction and rehabilitation, cancer, mental health, disability and special needs, women and children’s rights and the environment. And I have only just begun.
SG: What keeps you motivated?
Chalam: A film I made in 2007 about a girl I had met named Aisha; I met her before 2 weeks before she died. She was 26 year old, maybe 30 kilos, but had the most exuberant vivacious personality and I was quite struck by this because I thought here’s someone who knows that she’s going to die and so I said I have to capture that because what I’ve seen, I’m sure people can benefit from, so somehow I managed to make this film with on her mainly with some photographs and interviews. She called me that evening and she said let’s do it. We finished the film the day before she died and she watched before she died. One of the beautiful things she told me was that if my story can help one person, then my job is done. And it did. There are hundreds of people dying with cancer and a lot of them watched this film and they look at the way she handles life, gives them hope and their families hope. This is one of the first things which I encountered, which took me a while to recover because in such a short span we got to know her well. That was quite powerful and it will stay with me and that was something which was very important.
SG: How are the activities of CurleyStreet Media sustained?
Chalam: We are passionate about social change but often such films need to be self-funded. We work on a model where we do a mix of commercial and non-commercial films, typically in a 40:60 ratio. Our commercial work helps fund the films we really want to make and meet our day to day operational expenses.
SG: What are your key achievements so far?
Chalam: 1. The Down Syndrome Federation of India commissioned CurleyStreet Media to create a film called ‘Indelible‘ about 7 people with Down syndrome in India. The 16 minute version of the film (Indelible – the short) was watched by over 50,000 people in 70 countries on YouTube, won numerous awards at film festivals, featured in major newspapers and inspired students across the country to volunteer their vacation time at Down syndrome centres. The film was screened at the World Down Syndrome Congress (2012), South Africa as India’s official film on Down syndrome. It was also the #1 non-profit and activism video on YouTube in India in August, 2012.
3. Our film ‘Dream Graduates’ for the NGO Dream a Dream has been used for all of their fund raising events, raising Rs. 2.3 crores and counting.
4. Our film ‘Manaasi’ which tells the story of the changing face of women’s mental health in rural southern India, has received critical acclaim the world over.
5. We are currently working on a documentary called ‘Rooting for Roona’, which is a film that fights for the health of the Indian Child and captures the incredible story of Baby Roona Begum, an 18 month old girl from a neglected corner of north-eastern India. Roona suffers from hydrocephalus, a birth defect caused by a build-up of fluid in the brain leading to massive swelling of the head. With ‘Rooting for Roona’ we aim to not only do justice to Roona’s story but also create awareness about how children from underprivileged backgrounds have little or no access to good healthcare facilities.
In July 2013 we launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in order to raise the funds we need to make this film. 45 days and over 400 contributions later, ‘Rooting for Roona’ became the most-funded non-fiction Indian film.
SG: What of the future?
Chalam: There are so many incredible true stories to be told. We will keep telling them. Somehow, the form will differ, platforms will grow and audiences will sit up. As long as these issues we will get out there and touch people, we know that we are affecting true and powerful change.