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‘Saving Chintu’ : A Conversation Starter on Homophobia, Adoption and Representation

The short film directed by Tushar Tyagi chronicles a gay couple’s arduous journey of adopting a child

Rolling Stone India Dec 25, 2020
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Four years ago, a conversation over a dinner party changed filmmaker Tushar Tyagi’s life. One of his friends, a doctor based in LA, told him about his adoptive parents — an American gay couple who fought against the odds to give him a better life. Moved by his story of struggle and triumph, Tyagi decided to make a film on it. The process from ideation to creation was anything but easy. “It took a lot of convincing, and we ended up signing an NDA. Later, the story was shelved because though the story was terrific, it didn’t have any high stakes for my creative satisfaction. Because we have already seen a lot of similar films where a straight foreigner couple comes to India and adopts a kid.”

The project was shelved for two years before he decided to pick up the pieces once again. He titled the film Saving Chintu and put together a dream team of actors and believers. The 30-minute short film is produced by Ritika Jayaswal and Adil Hussain, and also stars Hussain alongside Dipannita Sharma in lead roles. The cast comprises Edward Sonneblick, Sachin Bhatt and Priyanka Setia. 

Narrated through two parallel storylines, Saving Chintu broaches subjects like widespread homophobia in progressive societies, red-tapism in adoption and prejudice against people living with HIV.

In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Tyagi discusses his project, inspirations and the road ahead.

How was Saving Chintu conceptualized? What were the challenges and breakthroughs along the way?

Back in 2016 in Los Angeles, one day, I was eating dinner with my doctor and his wife, and during our conversation, I came to know that this world-renowned surgeon was adopted from India. He was almost rescued from an Indian orphanage by an American couple. He suffered from malnutrition, tuberculosis, and many other health problems when his American parents illegally adopted him. So, the thought of an Indian orphan saved by an American couple, who turned out to be a world-renowned doctor just because of opportunities provided to him. He comes to India for 15 days every six months to treat patients and perform surgeries utterly free of cost. His story moved me about how opportunities can change lives. One day, I told him that I want to make a film on his life story. It took a lot of convincing, and we ended up signing an NDA. Later, the story was shelved because though the story was terrific, it didn’t have any high stakes for my creative satisfaction. Because we have already seen a lot of similar films where a straight foreigner couple comes to India and adopts a kid. And at the time, I had just watched Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel starrer Lion.

It all changed in 2018 when I was visiting India; I decided to spend some time in an ashram in Rishikesh, where I came across Jeremy, who is originally from Manhattan, New York, and runs a shelter for HIV positive kids. Jeremy told me he is from the LGBTQ community, and after getting diagnosed with HIV back in 2003, he took a Eat, Pray Love kind of journey to India and ended up in Nagpur, where he came across these HIV positive kids.

During our conversation, I asked him what kind of discrimination and issues he has to go through in India from the LGBTQ community and running a shelter for HIV positive kids, considering our country has so much stigma attached to these two subjects. All the horrifying stories he told me and the issues that he has to go through on a day to day basis, considering that, I decided to incorporate this in the story that I had been stuck with for over two years.

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The research part was quite challenging as I had to reach out and interview many wardens at various orphanages. Before CARA (Central Adoption Resource Agency), all orphanages acted as independent entities without following any centralized laws, which had many loopholes. I had to interview many wardens from that era and make them comfortable sharing their experiences that were actually very resourceful for script authenticity. I had to study CARA’s rules in detail and where they discriminate between adoptions based on sexualities. Also, I interviewed almost 20 parents from around the world who had adopted kids from India.

Movie still from ‘Saving Chintu’.

The film touches upon themes that are yet to be normalized in cinema and society — adoption and homosexuality. As a director, did you feel an artistic responsibility to address these causes?

We live in a world where cinema is not only a medium of entertainment; it sets events, conversations, individual, shared and collective emotions into motion. It starts tough conversations. The issues people are either not comfortable talking about or are not aware of. Cinema inspires people from across the globe. And as an artist, when I have this force (yes, filmmaking is a power to connect people on a mass emotional and intellectual level), it’s my responsibility to use this power to tell stories and stir much-needed conversations. As an artist, the more and more we will address these issues, the more normal they will be.

What would you like the viewers to take away from Saving Chintu?

Honestly, I hope to make people aware and to be able to educate them. I desperately want to nudge people to actively create some space for empathy that LGBTQ Rights are human rights like they are for any heterosexual individual(s). Why can’t we become more accepting instead of being more expecting? I want viewers to sit and think about what one person takes for granted is a right for someone else to fight for and have access to. Every year so many queer people either commit suicide or are murdered. Many of them spend their entire lifetime hiding or living life in duality. Just because we, as a society, are incapable of creating a safe ecosystem for them to be organic? If various countries legalize gay marriages, why do people freak out like they have to marry a gay person?

Who are your influences in cinema, and which Indian/global directors do you look up to for their work and why?

While growing up in India, Satyajit Ray, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap.From abroad, Steven Speilberg, Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa had a huge influence on me. They still do.

Movie still from ‘Saving Chintu.’

There is a lack of representation of Indian cinema on global platforms — be it festivals or awards. Why do you think this is the case, and what bridges do we need to build that independent filmmakers get wider reach?

Yes, there is a lack of representation of Indian cinema. Also, there is a lot of misrepresentation of Indian cinema on global platforms. In India, in mainstream cinema, art has taken the last seat, and commercial aspects have taken the driving seat. For most producers, the only goal of making films is to earn money. They have been operating in the safe zone (within-the-box). Most of them are still rolling on the overused commercial formulas. It takes guts to think out of the box, and it takes daring to make a film where artistry is in the driving seat. It takes a lot of resources and money to make a film. The saddest part is that the big production houses with those resources and money to make films make them for only commercial purposes. That’s why so many times, films from India or Indian diaspora are misrepresented and stereotypically categorized into “Bollywood” films. Many brilliant independent art-house films come out of India, doing wonders in most prestigious film festivals like Cannes, Berlinale, Venice International Film Festival. But where is the awareness? When we talk about Indian films, unaware people categorize them into Bollywood films. Independent arthouse Indian films have nothing to do with Bollywood films. Almost 95 percent of the time, they don’t even have Bollywood actors, directors, producers, or writers. They are often just world-class quality films that none of the major mainstream production houses are skilled enough to know the worth of and support. 

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If top production houses decide that, in a year, if they are funding and producing five commercial value films, then at least fund and produce two arthouse films. Find promising independent filmmakers. The first step would be nailing down a quality arthouse script and then green-lighting the project by obviously funding, producing, and possibly distributing it. The second step could be severely reducing the notion of looking at every film from the lens of a money-making machine. In a society, art must be upheld, if not above commerciality, at least at the same level as commerciality. 

Tell us about your other projects in the pipeline.

I have two feature films in the pipeline; I’m trying to find a fine line between arthouse and commercial value in my upcoming projects. As a filmmaker, I want my films whose core have a message and entertainment. I want my films to inspire, educate people to make them more aware of the world we live in every day. Provoke them to dream and dream big. Moving your audience while seated in their seats is a significant achievement. I consciously take every step towards achieving it. 

Manpasand is a film that deals with social issues revolving around women in our country. In this film, we explore the life-changing decisions of an independent millennial girl who is forced to marry a perfectly eligible guy who is in a severe habit of chewing tobacco all the time.

Her Beautiful Spots is about a 35-year-old millennial girl living with Vitiligo. She covers her skin spots with heavy make-up daily. She falls in love with a guy and when she exposes her vulnerable self without make-up, the immense mutual love they shared takes a U-turn.

My projects in the pipeline are stuffed food on the upper layer and coated with spices that the audience enjoys and are familiar with. Once taken a bite, the audience is introduced to a different taste inside—a core with a thought-provoking message. 

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