For over a decade now, writer-director-actor Arka Das has been challenging what Australian television and film looks like in terms of South Asian-Australian representation. The first thing he ever made, the collaborative web-series The Casuals (2014), was picked up to stream in the US. A short film he wrote and directed about the grim side of immigrant labour in Sydney, called Khana Khazana (2017), scored an impressive heap of awards across festivals, and has just received development funding from Screen Australia to be made into a feature film.
In 2018, he was chosen to be one of eight writers on a project about Western Sydney that turned into the highly anticipated anthology film Here Out West which opens this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Nisha-Anne caught up with Arka to discuss his career, subtitled swearing in Hindi, and inadvertently grill him about the process of turning his short film into a feature. We also talked about Here Out West, I promise.
Firstly, oh my god, congratulations on the funding!
Thank you so much, I really appreciate that. Thank you, very excited. (laughs)
Was it a weight off your shoulders?
Yeah, look, I knew about it a few weeks ago. But I think when it’s an announcement, it’s sort of nice and official. It just makes it real. But yeah, definitely a weight off my shoulders. I think it’s a weight off my shoulders but at the same time, I think it’s a little bit of a weight on my shoulders because I feel like now I have to really start the project and, you know, there’s eyes on the project and it’s like I have to actually work. So for some people like myself, I think it’s a little bit of a stress coming but I think it’s all good stress and I’m very happy to start the journey. Very excited.
Now you’re focusing on the important stuff rather than the piddly stuff like money.
Exactly, exactly. (laughs) It’s nice to be able to think creatively now and also just to have the backing of Screen Australia and my producers, obviously. So it feels like building a nice sort of team around me, and that’s a good feeling, yeah.
What was the process like?
For funding? Well, we got generic funding. There are two types of funding at Screen Australia. I mean, we’re at development stage at the moment so it’s just development funding for the script. And then obviously later down the track when the film is – when you want to make it, I guess it’s production funding. So at development stage, we had to go through a couple of rounds of applications. You’re doing a pitch, doing a little pitch video for them. Also, I already had a short film so that helps a lot. My short film is kind of a proof of concept for my feature film. If you don’t have a short film, a lot of people cut something together or make something, some sort of video.
But yeah, I had the short film and I had like a pitch deck and I did a really great session with my script consultant a little while ago who helped break down what the outline of the feature story was going to be. So then we kind of pitched that to them. And then another round of sort of checking in and making sure that you ticked all the boxes and everything like that. And then it’s kind of – a very competitive process is what I heard. Obviously, it’s competitive. There are a lot of stories and I guess not enough money, you know, going around. So I’m very happy and excited to have gotten in. I think they only select a couple of projects out of all the ones they get submissions for. So I’m very happy, yeah.
I watched [Khana Khazana] the short film a couple of nights ago. And before that, I read about it and I saw the synopsis and I was like, “Hold on a second.” And then I started watching the film and I actually messaged my aunt and I was like – because obviously, you know, I told my aunt, “I’m interviewing this Bengali guy, he’s from Western Sydney, he’s made a film, how awesome is this?”
And she was super excited as well. And I messaged her and I was like, “You know what, I think this is based on the case of Manjit Singh.” So was it based on that?
Well, it wasn’t based on it but it was definitely inspired by stories like that. I think the one that I read in Sydney Morning Herald about five years ago now – is that when that case was, about five years ago?
Yes. It was. I reread the coroner’s report last night. Because I actually typed that case, I used to be a court typist.
These weird coincidences, right?
And I typed the coroner’s case for Manjit Singh and it just burnt into my brain. Because that could be us.
Absolutely. That’s it.
So I went back and I read the Coroner’s Court report last night and yeah, [the coronial hearing and news reports] was 2015.
2015, so there you go. That’s the case I would have read in the Sydney Morning Herald. I mean, I didn’t really base it on that so much but, you know, these cases are so ubiquitous. They’re everywhere in the world. Like it’s happening all the time. Indentured labour is such a – it’s all around us, really, all the time. So I wanted to make the story feel universal but at the same time kind of intimate. I guess it was the idea that it was happening to this one person but at the same time – I’ve had so many people come to me after watching the short – you know, it played a few festivals – they all came to me and said like they know someone that was in the situation or they’ve met someone in the situation or a friend of a friend is in that situation. That breaks my heart but at the same time it makes me feel like I’ve done something that’s relatable universally. I think that helped with Screen Australia as well because they’d heard of – I’m sure the funding bodies have heard of these kind of stories, too.
What really got me was that it was happening in Sydney and in Australia and like right under our noses. Because, you know, like Australia’s supposed to be an equitable and fair kind of place but there’s a lot of stuff happening under the radar. That was my sort of angle with the short.
But I wouldn’t say it’s based on any specific case. I mean, for legal reasons, I couldn’t do that anyway. But it’s definitely a broader version of it.
No, fair enough. When I was watching your short film – which, by the way, amazing. Loved it.
I mean, I was so proud just from the first [preview image] with all the awards and I’m like, “Holy shit, look at all the awards!”
(laughs) Thank you.
And I was totally doing the proud desi parent thing of “Look at all the awards!”
(laughs) Yeah, that’s why I put it there, so people would watch it.
Then to actually watch it and oh my god, it was flawless. Everything, the cinematography. And you really went hard. You did not pull any punches on the characterisation and I was watching it, going, “Wow!” So how was that, like the actual making of it?
Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s such a special film to me. Obviously I’m still on a journey of making the feature but I think as a short, it was probably the most special thing I ever made in so many ways. Because it was a long and slow process. Like I’ve made some stuff before, shooting some shorts and a web-series that I made very quickly and just kind of did, and I guess I was learning the ropes of filmmaking. But this one was special because I wrote the script in 2016. So end of 2015 I started having the idea and I was like, “Oh this could be a really great feature film,” and then a close friend of mine said, “Why don’t you make a short? Let’s try and make this story intimate and see what it does.”
So he helped me a lot with the initial part of the script, and then I went on a journey writing it. And once I sort of had the script where I wanted it to be, I was like, “Okay, this is feeling pretty good. Gotta make it.” And then it starts, you know, the process of making a short film which is – some people would say [it’s] very excruciating, others would say it’s very liberating. (laughs) I mean, it depends on how you look at it. But I think getting the money to make a short film is really tough in this country especially, but also just anywhere. And you have to look at privately funding it or you have to look at trying to put investor money into it. It is kind of like a business, you have to put your money into it and hope that you can get some sort of return. But there’s no real financial return on a short film so you just have to start the journey and hope for the creative return, you know?
So yeah, I got my team together. I mean, I’ve been working with the cinematographer Jack [McAvoy] for a little while. We’ve known each other now for almost ten years, we’ve been making things together. So we already had a really lovely sort of partnership and we understand each other. So I sat with him and I was like, “Are you interested?” and he was on board and then I got my first producer on board so Nick [Mutton] who was working at an agency. I went to him and his agency and he loved the short, and it helped me because they had a place to do editing and all the post and grading and sound so we could do it all there. Which helped me a lot because that’s where a lot of the money goes to. So we were able to do that inhouse.
Anyway, that’s all the boring stuff. But anyway I got my team together. The most important thing was the location of the restaurant. I had to really find that. And the cast had to be really – for me, being an actor as well, that’s super important because I needed to make sure that the characters feel right and they feel nuanced and not sort of exaggerated characters. They just have to feel right because this is such a distinct kind of story so I didn’t want it to feel too broad, I guess.
So yeah, casting process. I did most of [that] myself, I just kind of took what connections I had with the industry. I did have some casting directors want to help me out but I kind of just put the net out there and it all sort of happened. And then it was about getting the money together and finding a location. That restaurant we shot in – it’s a shame that it’s gone now. But it was in its last week of operation in Strathfield, called the Royal India, and it’s no longer there. I grew up around Strathfield so I used to walk around and see that restaurant all the time. We went in there and it was just absolutely perfect for what we needed. So we talked to the owner and we shot there and it was like a four day shoot in the restaurant and we got it down. This was like 2017.
I was thinking it’s pretty brave of that restaurant to agree to be the restaurant in that particular story.
(laughs) I think he didn’t know what the story was about, to be honest with you. I think we just said it was a story about an Indian restaurant and he was like “Oh okay, whatever.” I mean, he got paid so I don’t think he even cared. But at the end of the day, he was also leaving and he was packing up his restaurant. It was like the last week so I don’t think he cared much what was going on. But I’ve heard since that he’s watched the film because the girl that plays the waitress in my short is family friends with him and they – said he’s watched it and really loved it and he said it’s very common of what’s going on in the industry so there you go.
Wow. It’s interesting that you mention the colourist because I really loved the colouring of the film, and I noticed it was Goldie Soetianto.
Goldie’s really lovely. She was awesome.
I noticed her name from Reaching Distance (2018) [where] the colouring and the cinematography was [one] thing that really impressed me about that film.
Well, there you go. Shout outs to Goldie. Her and Jack my cinematographer [had] worked together before so he recommended her and she came in and she just absolutely nailed it. I think she has a really lovely eye for that sort of texture and what I needed in the short. You know, it was quite a dark space so we wanted to make sure it was lit well but that it kind of kept a little bit of that darkness because the world that it’s in was quite dark. So yeah, it was just about that light and shade of playing with the back of the kitchen and the front. She did a fantastic job.
I definitely noticed that contrast between the back and the front with the colours and the lighting. It was fantastic. When I was watching it – obviously I was kind of familiar with the story – I got really angry about it. And I don’t normally get that angry about stuff [in movies] because I’m a little bit more detached than that. But it was really visceral, that sense of anger and betrayal, especially betrayal by your own people. Was that something you were definitely digging into?
Yeah, I was, I was. It’s good that you touched on that because it’s definitely a point of the story that I don’t think – I think only really South Asian people have talked to me about that, and it’s clear as to why because they understand that kind of – I’ve been calling it that sort of cyclical nature of – for the lack of a better word – slavery but also the idea of indentured labour and this sort of hangover of maybe colonialist kind of ideas, that there’s a hierarchy in society of who’s on top and who’s on the bottom and who gets to be on top and who sort of gets to boss other people around. I find that’s very common in South Asian society and culture and it’s kind of almost quite normal and people just accept it. But I guess I was digging into where that comes from and why.
It’s hard in a fifteen-minute short film to kind of go into all of that. You just have to put it out there. But in a feature length, we can dig in a little deeper and look at why is that character the way he is or how have they got to that point? So that’s the thing I was trying to get with Vikash’s character [the boss] which is – people feel very angry when they watch him and react in a certain way in that scene especially towards the end. But I think what I hope to do in the feature is really open up the backstory of his character and look at why he is where he is.
Because I don’t feel like anybody is born that way. I mean, it’s a matter of environment and upbringing and sort of like you look at the world, and how the world treats you, I think. So yeah, that’s kind of what I was trying to tap into but it’s great that you touched on that. And I think a lot of that common feeling that I’ve had [from] South Asian audiences when they watch it is that feeling of anger towards someone of your own race doing that to you.
Now that you’ve said about developing it into a feature, that short film – as perfect as it was – it really felt like the first act of a feature. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean that in a good way, like I want to know the rest of the film.
Yeah. No, absolutely.
I know you said you want to dig into Vikash’s backstory. What else are you thinking about? Are you thinking about the Ruchi storyline? Because I felt there was a storyline there.
Yes. I do have a thread of what was happening there. The idea with Ruchi’s storyline was that, you know, she is a character in the short. You see glimpses of her and there isn’t that much going on. But I think the idea of her was that it’s basically someone that replaces Ronny. So the idea is again that sort of cyclical nature of this world which is that it never really ends. When someone gets out of the trap, someone else falls into the trap. That’s kind of what I found with this indentured labour world, is that there’s always someone in the queue to come in and sort of take the – so I thought someone like a vulnerable young girl was a really great character choice for that next in line. And it’s so different to Ronny.
Ronny’s much older in the short but in the feature film in my head, Ronny’s much younger. So I think the idea with a younger Ronny is that he’s got a lot more to live for, he’s got a lot more hope and he’s got a whole world ahead of him. He’s got a career that he wants which is to be a chef and all that sort of stuff. But that’s probably where the feature will go.
The other direction is – I mean, look, I’m still at that early development stage so a lot of things will probably change. But yeah, opening up Vikash’s world, and opening up this other world which is basically the underworld of indentured labour which I didn’t really touch on much in the film. I mean, it’s there, that he kind of gets trapped in this restaurant. But there’s more to it. I think there’s the immigration part of it. There’s sort of like the gangster part of it. I mean, there’s a sort of a whole mafia kind of underworld that’s going on here. There’s people-trafficking, there’s so much happening worldwide that kind of leads to this environment. So I think I want to open up a little bit of that stuff up.
There’s a new angle of journalism that I want to look at which I can in the feature because there’s time and space. It’s probably a new character that I want to introduce and she’s a young journalist, and I found really fascinating this world of modern journalism and these kind of, let’s say, societal issues like indentured labour or refugee crisis or climate crisis or whatever it is. And I find that’s sort of where the meeting point is now with young modern journalism and these social issues and how it’s presented to people. I find that really interesting, I’m probably going to look into that a little bit and see how that kind of affects the story. So yeah, there’s multiple branches I think that I want to open up. And you know, in a full-length feature, I can have the time and space to do that.
I also want to look at Vikash’s family and sort of where he’s from and where he sits in Sydney. And maybe even an opportunity to look at Ronny’s context of where Ronny comes from and his background. So if there’s an opportunity to go and visit his past or where he’s from overseas, I would love to do that. We’re just got to see what happens in the development, yeah.
In the short film, you have that picture of him with his wife and his kid.
That’s right, yeah.
Will he still have a wife and kid, do you think? Or you want to make him younger so get rid of that and make him more vulnerable?
Yeah, I’m not too sure. Yeah, exactly. I’ve always pictured Ronny to be quite young. I think it was for the purposes of the short and for the fact that Pranam [Janney] who was the actor was actually so great, and he did such a great job in the auditions, and I thought, “You know what? Like Ronny could totally be older in the short, and give him a wife and kids” and I think that really helps for us to feel for him because he’s [left] his family behind. But in the same way, Ronny can be also very young and ambitious and I think it just shows that he has so much to achieve, and that’s almost sad that he can’t.
It also works out well because then you’ve got the short film working as a companion piece to the feature film where you’ve got the older version and the younger version, rather than one replacing the other.
You just said that you were going to do the cyclical [story] so does that mean he’s going to get out of it? Spoilers.
I’m not sure. I think in the feature film, I’m not yet quite sure where the ending sits. We’re going to tease out the different possibilities for how this film could end. To be honest, it’s actually quite different from the short so I think it’s almost – as you said, it’s like a companion piece. So this is almost a brand new adventure, I have to kind of wipe the slate clean and start again. So I’m not sure how it ends. I think it just depends on what I want to say about Ronny. I think he’s quite an ambitious guy so I think he wouldn’t want to give up so I don’t think his character would be relenting in a way. So I think yeah, wherever that takes him.
But you as the writer and director, what kind of tone do you want to end on?
Look, (laughs) I have been called a brutalist filmmaker before and I think that’s really funny because I’m not actually like that. I’m quite a positive, optimistic person. I guess for me, realism is a really important part of my work, and naturalism is a really important part of my work. So I think whenever I make something, I’ve never sort of made something that I feel like couldn’t happen in real life. Unless it’s a fantasy genre or something like that, but I haven’t really worked in that space. But I think that no matter what happens in the end, I think the film will hopefully (laughs) punch people in the gut a little bit. And by that, I mean I hope it’s affecting and I’ll definitely make sure of that. Because these stories are so real and people need to see them and feel them and experience them on a real level.
I think it’s not just about indentured labour stuff, I think it’s also about the human experience of going through this kind of journey. So I’ll definitely make sure the tone – I mean, for me, it’s a drama and it’s a crime drama. It’s in that world of human drama sitting with a crime underworld. But I’m not sure if the ending now will be a hopeful ending or a harrowing ending.
I’m excited either way. Sounds good.
What does “Khazana” mean? It’s not a word I’m familiar with.
[The short film title] Khana Khazana is a homage to a show called Khana Khazana which is Sanjeev Kapoor’s cooking show which is – it means “treasure”, I think, so it just means like “khazna” which is “treasure chest.” Yeah, it was a Zee TV show in the Nineties that I used to watch with my mum when I was little, and I remember the show and I remember wanting to be like Sanjeev Kapoor because he was a great cook. And I thought that was a really lovely sort of parallel to what Ronny wants to achieve. He wants to become like [Sanjeev] but his life is very starkly different.
I just kept the name as a homage to the show. There are so many restaurants actually around the world called Khana Khazana which is really funny. I was in Bangkok for three months this year and literally there’s two restaurants on the corner where I was staying called Khana Khazana which is so funny. You know, people would send me photos and be like, “Look, it’s your film.” And I realised it’s a famous title because of that show.
The feature however is just called Khana. I like the idea that it’s about food, and “khana”means “food” in many languages. I think it’s like something that people can kind of go “Oh, okay”, and it’s the basic necessity of life, and it’s what this whole film is centred around. So in the middle of all this stuff is actually some really lovely food. (laughs) You know, food that feeds the soul and that kind of stuff.
I was really glad to see that you’ve dropped the “Khazana” because yeah, the khana – everything you just said was exactly what I was thinking about it. You said that you’re going to cast younger so obviously it can’t be Pranam, or do you think Pranam will be in there somewhere?
I don’t know, it’s really far away. But I am thinking about the ages of the characters, for sure. There’s the character of Gaurav which is still there, and he’s the sort of ex-chef that gets fired.
Was that Nicholas Brown?
It was Nicholas Brown, yeah, who’s a close friend of mine. But I do have that character potentially coming back into the story and doing other stuff because he never really leaves, he just kind of leaves and says, “I’ll be back” and he never comes back. So I’m not too sure about that at the moment.
I’m glad to hear you’re having Nicholas Brown because he’s such a great face and such a great presence there. And I felt that as well. When he left, I was thinking, “Oh no, but he’s going to come back at some point.” You know, just to screw things up in some way.
That’s right, yeah.
I love the fact that you’ve been working with the same people over quite a few – because I watched The Casuals as well, and I’m noticing Waseem [Khan who plays Vikash in Khana Khazana] and there’s Nicholas and obviously you’ve been writing with Catherine [Kelleher who co-created The Casuals and worked on the short film too].
(laughs) Isn’t that funny? I met Pranam and Waseem when we did – and Nick, actually – we did a Visa commercial. I mean, this was 2010 or something so that’s almost like eleven or twelve years ago. And I met them on set of this Visa commercial who – where I actually also met Nimrat Kaur who’s in The Lunchbox (2013) and is a great Indian actress now and she’s really a big deal in Bollywood now. But I met her on that Visa commercial – they had flown a few Indian actors over – and yeah, it’s just so funny [that] that’s where we kind of know each other from.
You know, Sydney’s a small industry, Australia’s a small industry, at the end of the day. Especially [with] the brown actors in the country, everyone kind of knows each other. There’s obviously a lot more [actors] now which is really exciting, a lot more coming out and more feeling sort of stronger and positive about being an actor or pursuing the arts. Because I’m not that old, but definitely when I was starting, it was very, very difficult and a lot of things have changed even in the last five years, I would say.
Yeah, and me and Pranam and Waseem go back. I thought Waseem was just perfect for that role [of Vikash in Khana Khazana] and I reached out to him and he did it. It was a tough thing, we had to make a lot of schedules work. And Nick’s a good friend of mine, we’ve worked together a fair bit now. So yeah, The Casuals – Waseem’s like my dad in The Casuals which is hilarious.
And Nick played my cousin who’s like a big stoner. You always go back to working with people you know because it’s a familiarity thing.
I noticed that Sheila Jayadev developed the short film and she’s also co-producer of Here Out West.
She is. She runs Emerald Productions and they produced Here Out West so she was the main person alongside Annabel Davis who is from Co-Curious, and Here Out West is a co-production of theirs. Sheila helped me with my short. She was sort of a dramaturg, I would say, on it. She kind of helped with the script development. I’ve known her for a while too so we go back, and I was in one of her short films actually called Spice Sisters (2016) which is a lovely short film that won Sydney Film Festival Short [Screenplay] award five years ago now. And that’s where we met, doing that short for her. And yeah, we stayed friends and we have a similar thinking in term of creative work and vision, and it all culminated in Here Out West which is really lovely. And I’m just a big fan of her work and supporter of her work.
I’ll come back to talking about Here Out West but in terms of working with people of colour in the industry, I noticed that [you talked about] when you were working on Mulan (2020) in terms of that scale of production but also seeing Niki Caro. Did you learn a lot from that experience? Was that in between The Casuals and Khana Khazana?
The Casuals was a long time ago. That was the first thing I ever made, as a filmmaker. I wanted to direct something and I just didn’t know what – you know, I was just trying to give myself a role and do something. I developed it with my friend Catherine Kelleher who is lovely. She’s a songwriter and screenwriter herself. We met at this call centre and we did The Casuals because it was based on what we were going through at the time. And I wanted to play a role in it that was sort of – we didn’t see a person of colour, a brown person play that kind of role in Australia at the time. Now it’s changed a little bit but I think at the time, I think that’s why I wanted to make The Casuals but also I wanted to direct something and write something and I just was trying to make something. You know, a web-series was like the only format we could sort of afford to make. That’s when The Casuals came about.
But no, Mulan was more recent. It was 2018 I went and shot Mulan in New Zealand. So The Casuals was like 2014 or 13, I did that. So Mulan – yeah, I did learn a lot from Niki, yes. She’s an amazing woman and an amazing director. She was just in charge of the massive, massive production and Mulan is such a fabled tale and so important to East Asian culture and Chinese culture. And for her to helm that project and do it how she did was pretty amazing. I did learn a lot from her.
I learnt also being on that set with so many Asian faces and having a full Asian cast and being part of that story was pretty amazing. Like I remember watching the cartoon Mulan (1998) when I was little on TV and getting McDonald’s toys and I had Mulan toys. So it was kind of surreal actually to just be on that set for a couple of weeks in New Zealand. And it was beautiful to shoot in New Zealand. It’s a lovely, lovely country. So everything about that experience was really lovely for me.
And it was probably the first time I had been on such a huge scale set. So I think it definitely prepared me for a lot of things that came after.
I just mean like going on different sets after and the recent project that I just did this year and a couple of things this year were sort of quite large sets. I mean, almost similar scale to Mulan so it was nice to not freak out because I had that experience of being on Mulan already, and it was – because it’s a very big shift when you go from a small TV set to a massive, massive Hollywood big budget film set because people are just – you know, it’s running like a big machine and you just have to slot in and just do your thing and not be overwhelmed.
So the first time I saw you was UnIndian (2015) and, aside from the lead actress, you were the only one in the cast that actually stood out for me. Also Nicholas Brown, funnily enough. How was that experience? Because I was wondering in terms of the writing. Did you have much input with Anupam Sharma with the writing?
No, no, no. It was just purely an acting gig for me. No, I didn’t have anything to do with the script. I just was cast for the role. I went and did a couple of auditions. It was my first feature film. No, sorry, it was my second feature film but it was my first sort of lengthy role in a feature film. I was playing a solid supporting role. And look, to be honest, I was a big cricket nerd growing up so I was pretty obsessed with working with Brett Lee. That was amazing. Just getting to know him and be friends with him was cool.
And yeah, look, I met some really lovely people on that film that I’m still really good friends with. Adam Dunn is a close friend of mine. He plays the other guy so there’s like the three of us – Mich, TK – Brett’s two friends. Nick Brown, we already knew each other. I knew Pallavi Sharda a little bit and we’re still friends. Tannishtha [Chatterjee] is a really great actress, I really look up to her, she’s Bengali. And I remember talking to her and connecting with her. I was a big fan of all her work that she did, and I love some of her films a lot. So that was cool to work with her.
It was actually a really, really lovely experience to work on UnIndian. I had so much fun on that set because a lot of it was improvised and we got to do a lot of work around building our characters together. Yeah, and I got to shoot in Parramatta and Harris Park and these pockets of Sydney that I had never shot in before. It was a good fun film to work on. It was a lovely experience for me at the time.
That sense of improv – that’s why I asked about the writing because your interactions and the humour felt so real and fresh and spontaneous.
And I really loved the desi humour and the parent dynamic. I was like, “Nailed it.”
She is. She’s fantastic. She’s obviously a classically trained actress from Delhi and I’ve seen her in some films. Yeah, she’s amazing.
I think I accidentally watched four films in a row [that] she was in and I was like, “There you are again, there you are again.”
She’s had a great career so it was lovely to meet her and work with her. Her and the husband – they’d both been flown in from India and it was a cool opportunity for them. So yeah, it was one of the first, I guess, Indian-Australian sort of romcom cultural mixed cast so it was lovely to be a part of that journey.
Let’s talk about Here Out West. I saw when they made the announcement, asking for writers, and [then] they made the announcement about the anthology. And I know that you [writers] had to apply?
And then you got brought in and you workshopped. So how was that whole process?
So the way it worked was Co-Curious and Emerald Productions got together and they made an initiative to find emerging writers from Western Sydney. The producers of both companies are from Western Sydney, so they wanted to find writers from Western Sydney with a voice to say something and sort of find fresh talent. I guess that was the initiative. But what sort of culminated was this really, I think, a beautiful anthology film that we actually didn’t plan to make. It was almost a happy accident.
So I applied and I actually applied with the script for Khana Khazana. And I knew Sheila and we were working on something else, and then I kind of met up with her and she said, “I think you’re a finalist in the Co-Curious program.” And I was like, “Oh okay, that’s cool.” But honestly, at the time I didn’t know what it was going to be. None of the writers knew what it was going to be. I mean, you can talk to any of the writers and they won’t say, “We walked in and we knew it was going to be a film.” Like no one knew what it was going to be.
We’d never met each other. I only vaguely met Vonne Patiag – like I met him five, six years ago during The Casuals, actually, which is such a strange thing, a small world again. And he assisted one of the producers at the time and I’d met him onset of The Casuals. It felt very strange. I remember sitting with him and being like, “Oh my god, it’s been like six years.”
So we all got into this room and basically we had our script consultant, Blake Ayshford who’s a brilliant writer in his own right. And he was just so great. I mean, he had the monumental task of basically putting together a project. You know, show-running this thing and finding eight people who may not have got along or may have hated each other, who knows. You’ve got eight creative writers in a room and anything can happen. So basically the goal was to make something. And I think we were just working towards making, you know, a bunch of short films or a bunch of web-series kind of thing or like a web-series that tied together.
By the second development session which was six months later, the producers came in, I remember, and they [said] “I think we have a feature film.” And we were like, “Oh well, that’s exciting.” Sheila was very adamant. I remember her saying actually at one point, “We’re going to make this film and we’re going to open Sydney Film Festival.” And I went, “Yeah, right.” Because, you know, it was like three years ago now and we were like, “As if that’s going to happen. They’re not going to give us a slot at Sydney [Film Festival]” but here we are, opening Sydney Film Festival in two weeks. So yeah, it’s crazy. It’s actually quite surreal.
When you went in, did you have to go in with a handful of little plots that you were going to pitch?
I went in with absolutely nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to – I actually got so nervous because I walked in – I mean, I wasn’t nervous being in the room but I was nervous about the idea. Because I was like, I don’t have anything to pitch because all these ideas I had around the other projects were not – you know, I don’t think it was right. Like I just had a TV show idea and kind of this and that floating around. But nothing solid for this project. And they actually told us in an email, “If you don’t have any ideas, it’s okay. You just need to come in and we can sort of develop things.” And I think what was great about that was they wanted it to be fresh. So they didn’t want people to come in with preconceived, you know, cooked ideas already because I think they wanted it to come organically.
I think that’s why Here Out West is such a beautiful project and it’ll always be one of the most special projects for me because it was so organic and it just started from eight people in a room just talking. And we shared our stories about Western Sydney and growing up as people of colour in Western Sydney and how that was and being ethnic and being migrants and migrant life and also not just talking about our own cultural experience but also talking about our experience in the industry as writers. And sort of just everything really, just everything. And then there were a couple of things we talked about in terms of Western Sydney.
We realised that that was the meeting point for all of us, was that we all grew up there or we lived there or we have lived there in the past or our families have lived there. So we kind of thought about what Western Sydney means to us and then from there, I guess the story kind of [dropped].
So you’ve written one [chapter of the anthology] and you’re acting in another? Or you’re acting in two?
I’ve written one chapter and my character goes through multiple chapters. So two chapters mainly but also a third chapter, he kind of shows up so. It’s a strange – because it’s an anthology so it’s like different perspectives. But yeah, I developed that one chapter which is called “Brotherhood” and that sort of bleeds into the next chapter which is written by another Bengali writer in the room, Bina [Bhattacharya]. It kind of happens separately but also they do have a link thematically and they have a link through my character. So the character thing came later, actually. When we created the story, we did it for the sake of the film. But I think me playing that role sort of happened later.
I was reading in the press kit about Bina Bhattacharya and how she said she was so excited about the fact that, like you said, she’s a Bengali writer, you’re a Bengali actor, and you actually speak Bengali in the film?
Yeah, there’s nine languages in this film which is really fascinating. Because I don’t think we’ve seen that in an Australian film before. Funnily enough, I’ve spoken to a few other reporters and some press people that have watched the film and they have said like that’s how it is in Sydney. You know, you walk around Western Sydney or any parts of Sydney and you hear multiple languages at once. Like you’ll hear someone speaking Chinese and [then someone speaking] Hindi and maybe a mix of Arabic and this and Lebanese and whatever. So we just wanted that to be natural and we wanted that to feel like that is Western Sydney but without sort of making a real point.
I speak Bengali for the first time in an Australian project which is very exciting to me, actually. It’s a little thing that I never even thought of until it happened and I was like “Oh this is the first time I’ve heard my language in an Australian film.” So that’s kind of cool.
But yeah, I speak Bengali and there’s Tagalog, a dialect of Kurdish, there’s Lebanese Arabic, there is Spanish, Vietnamese. There are so many languages in this film, I’m really excited for people to see it.
And in your chapter?
My chapter is actually English except I do speak Bengali on the phone. But I won’t give too much away.
No, that’s fine. And I have to tell you I was so delighted when I was watching Khana Khazana with the swearing. Because when you watch Hindi films – which is the only language I can understand aside from English – and they’ll say “ma ki chuth” [motherfucker] onscreen but it’ll be translated as something else. Or they’ll actually say “behn-chuth” [sisterfucker] but it’ll be translated as “motherfucker.”
Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
And firstly [a character in Khana Khazana] said “behn-chuth” and I was like “Ooh shit, oh god you actually said it.”
And then you also translated it perfectly. And I got such a kick out of that.
Yeah, I’m very sort of – (laughs) I’m very particular about subtitles. Like I have that issue where I’ve watched films before and I’m like, “That’s not what it means.” And I feel like it kind of ruins the – I mean, I’d rather not have subtitles than have the wrong subtitles. So we made that point about Here Out West as well. When you get a chance to see the film, you’ll see that the subtitles sometimes are not there if they don’t need to be there. I think sometimes it’s about just understanding the emotion of what people are saying rather than, you know, understanding what every single word means because I think it’s not necessary all the time. But I think if you are going to translate it, I think it’s important to translate it properly and correctly.
And especially with such beautiful languages. Like Bengali is such a beautiful language and so is Hindi.
It is, yeah.
I remember I was watching [The Dirty Picture (2011) which is a] film with Vidya Balan, and there was this beautiful phrase that the daughter said. I think what she actually said was, “You’re the enemy of my dreams” and the subtitle was “You’re breaking my dream.” And I was like, “No, that’s not what she said.”
Right, right. You lose the – totally, totally. I think the poetic licence to change the subtitles is very crucial. For me, it’s very important. The good thing about Here Out West is all of us are quite fluent in our languages. And if we’re not fluent, we know someone that is. So what the producers did – which I think is a very, very special model – is they gave us all associate producer credits so all the writers are also associate producers. And what that means is that we have creative control to a point.
But we also have a say at least creatively in a lot of things from the beginning to marketing of the film. And that’s really crucial in keeping the integrity of the film alive and sort of the cultural integrity, so it doesn’t sort of crumble and fall apart. Because a lot of times you’ll have these projects where there might be like a Filipino storyline or something and then it’s kind of like controlled by white creatives where they’re doing the right thing but then it might get to a point where they just don’t know anymore if they’re doing the right thing or not. And a lot of things can slip under their nose.
I don’t think anyone intentionally goes out there to harm any cultures or make any weird stereotypical things. I truly – because I’ve worked with a lot of people in the industry and I do believe that everyone’s coming from a point where they want to make something good. But I think it just gets lost in that long process of filmmaking which just takes so long. I mean, this project, for example – we wrote it in 2018 and it’s 2021 and we’re just premiering now.
So what I think is very special about this model of Here Out West is keeping us all as associate producers and coming back in to check with the writers to make sure that each of our stories were authentic and integral and kept intact, I think, was a great move. I’ve never worked like that before so I think it’s fantastic and it’s a model that a lot of Australian projects can learn from.
Absolutely. I want to encourage people to go and see Here Out West. I don’t have to plug the film, I mean, it’s opening Sydney Film Festival. It will come to the cinemas next year, I’m hearing about that. I think it’s a real shift in the paradigm for Australian cinema and, without giving too much away, I think that the film will make a dent in what an Australian film looks like and what an Australian film sounds like. And it’s on an independent level but I think it can actually cause some waves and hopefully change the way that Australian cinema is perceived around the world and at home. And I just encourage people to go and see it and experience it and hopefully they get to see themselves or a part of their community reflected in the film.
And it’ll be great to see people in Blacktown and Burwood in all the Hoyts [multiplexes] go see it and fill the cinemas.
Absolutely, hundred per cent full.
My last question was: what have you been watching in lockdown?
I’m an interesting person to ask about lockdown because I’ve actually escaped–
You’ve missed the whole thing.
I left for Bangkok in early July for work and I basically just wrapped and came back like a week ago. So you know, I was working on a TV series over there so I have not watched much at all. But while I was there, I did start watching Mirzapur on Amazon which is a great Indian crime show. That was really cool, I haven’t gotten through it all yet.
But actually what I’m hanging for is Succession which is one of my favourite shows at the moment. I’m sure everyone’s watching it. I’m just waiting for the new episodes to come out every week now. I haven’t actually watched a show where I’m waiting for the next episode to come out in a while so this is definitely one of those.
Thank you so much, Arka.
See Arka in Here Out West at Sydney Film Festival from 3-21 November and/or when the film opens in Australian cinemas early next year.
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