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Awarded France’s highest cultural award Shona Urvashi can never get enough of the arts

Tanvi Dubey
23rd May 2018
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Shona Urvashi talks about cinema, artistes and her ventures and what got her recognition in the form of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Listening to Shona Urvashi’s stories is akin to flipping the pages of a magazine from yesteryear Bollywood. Born into a family of producers and directors, her childhood was suffused with movies and actors and, even today, that is where writer, artiste, activist, and filmmaker Shona’s heart lies.

Shona Urvashi receiving the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres

Currently working on her next feature film Rainbow, Shona spoke to YourStory about her love for what she does, and how one of the biggest challenges in her life eventually led to garnering recognition by way of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters), France’s highest cultural award, for bringing the new wave of independent cinema in India and improving the ease for foreign films and talent to work in India and with Indians.

The lady that dons many hats

In her writer and director avatar Shona has created feature films such as Chupke Se and Saas Bahu Aur Sensex. As an entrepreneur and founder of PLA Entertainment she has restored and digitised classic Bollywood movies such as Jalwa, Chashme Baddoor and Hero Hiralal for foreign redistribution. As the founding partner and CEO of Twism Design Productions, she has curated and executed many cross-platform projects and ad campaigns for brands in India, such as Tanishq, Nike, Fossil.

Born in Canada, Shona’s childhood was split between India and Canada. But her tryst with the world of cinema started early on when her family moved to Pune.

She recalls how as a child she grew up in Pune in a house that was always overrun by people from the Hindi film fraternity.

“My mother Jayashree and [director-screenwriter) Sai Paranjpye were best friends when I was growing up and I have spent countless days listening to their conversations. They worked together on multiple films and when the films were shot in Pune, the cast and crew were always at our home. Over the next ten years or so the house was always busy and I would come back from school to conversations about costumes or a new scene or a sunrise shot that everyone was going to wake up for. Between films, my mom and Sai dressed in kaftans, would sit in our garden, smoking cigarettes and laughing away loudly at some funny incident or at an idea Sai had cracked for the scene. They both were fabulous to watch together,” Shona recalls.

This creative milieu influenced and impacted her early on, and by the early 90s, when she was in her teens, she was working as a dance choreographer for the movie Papiha, and then went on to work in her uncle Gul Anand’s TV shows, joined a dance troupe and then took to modelling. Around this time also had a column called Mirch Masala in the Deccan Herald. Shona even forayed into theatre. “I enjoyed film photography. Satyadev Dubey, a renowned theatre personality, encouraged me to act in theatre, and I did. My favourite moment was the adaptation of Julius Caesar in Hindi, directed by Anurag Kashyap, at Prithvi theatre. I played Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife. We were all new to Bombay then, me a rebellious wild girl, and Anurag, Prashant Narayanan, Vijay Maurya, and Pankaj Saraswat. It was another lifetime ago. I worked a lot as a teenager,” she says.

Given her eclectic background in the arts, when it came to choosing a career, Shona never really had to look beyond the creative and entertainment industry.

Getting started

Shona returned to Vancouver to join a film school in 1997 and she came back to India in 2001. This time she faced the challenge of reacquainting herself with Mumbai. With a film script in hand she decided to direct her own movie since the director she approached was unavailable. “At the time I was 26 and pregnant with my daughter, Mokshali. I hid the pregnancy for as long as I could, but once it began to show and even when the baby was small, I would get advice from people to stop working, or to rest, as though I would crumble and fall if I didn’t. I decided I was going to work with my baby with me. It was tough at first, but she grew up on the set, knowing everything there was to know about filmmaking,” Shona adds.

She recalls how journalists and people working with her had the idea of a bustling, strong and masculine persona of a director in mind, but they realised directors could be petite and soft spoken too. The association of a powerful post with a male authority figure was so permeated in the industry that some actresses used to even address Shona as ‘sir’. However, she says things have become a lot better now. “We need the courage to stand up to people and say this is who I am and this is what I am going to do. Until we really start doing that as women, change will not happen,” she notes.

Every cloud has a silver lining

A year after her second film, Saas Bahu Aur Sensex, which released in 2008, Shona gave birth to her son Rudra. The pregnancy left her unwell and acutely anaemic and, for the first time in her life, she had to force herself to take a break from work. But this came as a blessing in disguise for this workaholic, and laid the path that changed her life.

Shona shifted her focus back to non-film writing, theatre, dance and photography- things she hadn’t done after film school. “I started to regularly attend film festivals and watched copious amounts of films. In the course of this time, life brought me to some of the most trusted, interesting and inspiring people I have met,” she reflects, adding that this period helped her understood the challenges first-time filmmakers faced, whether it was lack of knowledge on funds available to them, or how to apply for them, showcasing movies at film festivals, and the myriad other challenges that filmmakers tend to face daily. One of the reasons for her success has been her astute ability in identifying and fulfilling need gaps in the industry by fostering an environment that encourages open exchange of dialogue, information and opportunities across international borders.

And the recognition, in the form of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, is a testament to that.  

A new world of cinema

As she continues to nurture her two ventures the love for cinema and the desire to help filmmakers and artistes continues for Shona. “The arts, for me, is an important cultural ambassador. They translate similarities and differences between us, so we can learn from each other,” she adds. And it’s here that she wishes to make the difference. “I want Indian cinema and dreams to be a part of the global conversation, the different voices that are disruptive need to be heard,” the 41-year-old quips.

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