RAVNEET ‘SIPPY’ CHADHA: Finding her voice in filmmaking

The year is 2008. The event is Zanzibar Film Festival. Six Kenyan films have been entered into the competition among them Subira a short film directed by little-known Ravneet ‘Sippy’

  • PublishedJanuary 30, 2019

The year is 2008. The event is Zanzibar Film Festival. Six Kenyan films have been entered into the competition among them Subira a short film directed by little-known Ravneet ‘Sippy’ Chadha. To the surprise of many, Sippy included, Subira took three awards including Best Short Film for ‘reflecting mastery of the short film structure and aesthetics.’

Subira went on to win other awards including Best Short Film in the Kenya International Film festival, Jury’s Special Mention at the Amiens International Film Festival, France, Best Short Film at the Cannes International Film Festival, France, and Best Short Film Jury’s Price in Taarifa International Film Festival, Spain, among others.

“I was still very new in the film world and the awards Subira raked were an affirmation of sorts that I was in the right path. Subira garnered a lot of accolades and interest around the world,” explains Sippy.

Subira, a 12-minute film, is the story of an 11-year-old Muslim girl – Subira – struggling to follow her dreams amidst repressive traditions. In October 2009 whilst promoting the short film on MNet Africa’s The Patricia Show, Sippy revealed plans to turn Subira the short film into a feature, that is, a film with a full length running time of more than 40 minutes. Nine years later, the dream has come to fruition as Subira the feature with a running time of 99 minutes is set to premier on November 29 at Westgate Mall. Tickets can be purchased at Kenya Buzz and at Sandstorm Outlets. While it’s a fulfilling experience, the journey has not been a walk in the park for the 53-year-old filmmaker.

Unbeknown to many, the story of Subira was inspired by Sippy’s own life. Growing up in Chandigarh City in India, Sippy was sent off to boarding school when she was five years old. She felt abandoned and boarding school life felt like a prison of sorts.

“My parents thought it was the best action at the time so that I could get a good education at a British Boarding School but I did not see it that way. I found boarding school stifling because of too many strict rules and regulations. There was basically no room for self-expression,” she says.

If Sippy thought there was freedom outside the school confines, she was in for a rude shock. Her entire life had been laid out in front of her. She was expected to behave in a certain way, look a certain way, marry into a certain family and have children. Of course, this did not sit well with Sippy and since she knew that an arranged marriage was waiting for her once she was through with her education, she flew to Canada for further studies when she graduated from a local university with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“I was a bit lucky that my parents valued education. Going to Canada was my way of escaping the retrogressive cultures but although I could run and hide, I knew that which I was running from would eventually catch up with me,” she says.

And it did. After completing her business course in Canada, Sippy returned to India but to a different city where she could enjoy a little freedom. Back at home, her parents were relentlessly looking for a suitable husband for their daughter. And they had every reason to be worried; age was catching up with Sippy.

“My younger sister was already married and there I was without a care in the world about marriage and rightly so. I was averse to marriage because for me, it felt like I was moving from one bondage to another; it was a trap. I had seen many of my cousins go through marriage, give up their dreams and becoming totally domesticated,” she says.

Her fate would, however, be sealed in early 1997 when a Sikh tourist from Kenya visited their neighbourhood. Once her parents met him, they were sold on him and so it was that Sippy was introduced to her would-be husband.

“I tried to put him off as I didn’t want marriage but he was relentless in his pursuit. The fact that he was from Kenya and that meant I would have to live in Kenya also scared me to bits. After a few interactions, I saw the possibility of eventually falling in love with him and I started giving in to his overtures. One thing that attracted me to him was his openness and accommodativeness. He was also liberal and a gentleman to a T,” she offers.

They were married within two weeks and they both flew to Kenya to start their life together. Sippy settled into marriage life, her dreams having taken a back-burner as motherhood took centre stage. When her kids were a bit older, she got a job in a financial institution.

“I was a very present mother in my children’s lives as I did not want them to experience the loneliness I went through when I was carted off to boarding school. I resumed work when they were old enough to go to school. Although I met and sometimes exceeded my work targets, I wasn’t satisfied. I felt empty most of the times. I one day gathered my clients’ file, put them in a box and took them to my boss and told her I was resigning,” she narrates.

She then called her sister to explain the emptiness she felt and to seek guidance on the next course of her life. Without missing a beat and as if she was waiting with an answer, her sister told her she would make a great filmmaker.

“My sister reminded me how I used to walk around with a hand-held video making memories out of ordinary family experiences. Since I have always been seeking self-expression, my sister’s proposition made perfect sense. So I got a video camera and amateurishly took videos on impulse. I had observed how Nairobians were always in a rush against time while the pastoralist communities seemed to be in sync with time and nature and I based the video on this to show this contrast. So I named the video Tick-Tock, got a professional video editor to edit it and made it available to the public,” she explains.

The release of the video opened new doors as she got the chance to produce and direct other short films such as Kibera Kid, which won eight awards and an Emmy in 2008, Charcoal Traffic and Subira.

“Taking part in these films exposed me to the world of filmography. I learnt the ropes on the job and when I felt I was ready, I started working on my dream of turning Subira into a feature film in 2010,” she says.

As she soon came to learn, doing a feature film was much more tasking than doing a short film. While Subira the short film was unscripted, she had to script Subira the feature if she were to get support. After drafting the first script, she sent it to a producer friend in Denmark to have a look. Her script was dead on arrival as a planned terrorist attack on a Danish newspaper scuttled her plans.

“Subira’s plot follows the life of a Muslim girl. When I submitted the script, there was a lot of prejudice about Islam following the terrorist attack scare. Understandably, many people would not have wanted to be associated with the script. I called my friend and asked her to put off editing it,” she says wistfully.

Her disappointment ran deep. She shredded everything concerning the feature and were it not for a draft that she had saved in her email, Subira the feature would never have seen the light of day. Days turned into months and months into years. Sippy knew she had unfinished business with Subira and no matter how much she tried to evade it, the desire to bring the feature film into life burned more. In a bid to forget about filmography, she got into life coaching and it was in the process of coaching others through their most difficult moments that she gained the courage to face her own fears. Subira was top on her list of things to be conquered.

“I got in touch with multi-award winning writer, director and producer, Vibeke Muasya, to help me produce the feature. We started casting in 2016 and started filming in February 2017. The film was edited by Rosehilda Taabu and further refined by Terry Kelly, an Emmy Award winning film and TV editor based in Hollywood,” the mother of two narrates, adding that she got support from the Danish embassy to make the film a reality.

Casting top Kenyan actors such as Brenda Wairimu, Nice Githinji and Melvin Alusa, Subira the feature holds the promise of captivating audience within Kenya and around the world. This film has been nominated in 13 categories for the 2018 Kalasha Awards. For Sippy, filming Subira has been her dream and getting the whole world to see her point of view is nothing short of rewarding.

What inspires her filmmaking journey? “The desire to expand consciousness such that we may break through our own limitations and live from a sense of aliveness,” she says and urges other filmmakers to make good use of the funding opportunities available as the private sector is ready to support good projects.

As we wrap up, I seek to find out if she finally fell in love with her husband and her thoughts on Kenya. “Oh yes, I eventually fell in love. This is our 21st year in marriage and I would choose him again. On Kenya, I absolutely loved it from day one,” she categorically says as we conclude the interview.

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