Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Dreams Deferred and Realized: An Interview with Venkat Krishnan about His Film “Butterfly Dreams”

Butterfly Dreams is one of the terrific films in our Dramatic Shorts program on Saturday, December 13.  This drama, made in India by Loyola Marymount University student Venkat Krishnan, shows problems with poverty and child labor practices, but is not preachy or didactic.  Instead, it brings honesty, subtlety, and humanity to its subject.  It does so via the story of Sumi, a nine-year-old orphan who lives by herself in a hut, works in a garment factory, and dreams of learning to read, write, and become a doctor.  The other main character, Ravi, is an educated man who comes to her village to sell his family’s property.  He befriends and tutors Sumi, and eventually offers to adopt her.  Ultimately, this does not happen, but Sumi continues to hope and work toward a better future. 

After seeing this film, I wanted to talk with Venkat, to go deeper into what it's about.

James Latham:  You have described the “butterfly” in the title as symbolizing Sumi’s dream of transformation.  Maybe it also suggests her desire for freedom and the fragility of that dream.  Anyway, to me, the title also evokes the documentary Hoop Dreams, which follows the lives of two African-American boys struggling to achieve success via basketball.  These are different films, but what do you make of their similarities? 

Venkat Krishnan:  Dreaming is one thing that is common for both rich and poor.  Whether they are attainable or not, every human being has dreams - some big, some small.  In Butterfly Dreams, Sumi, a nine-year-old girl, works in a factory.  She has no parents.  She lives alone and takes care of herself.  At her workplace, she is verbally and physically harassed by her employer. In this oppressive environment, she decides to shed her skin like a caterpillar and yearns to fly free as a butterfly and strive for a more meaningful existence to her life.

Butterfly Dreams is a 22-minute film and Hoop Dreams is almost 3 hours.  However, the underlying themes of both films are the same.  In these two films, the main characters’ real-life struggles unfold on the screen as they strive to find a way to achieve their dreams.  Both films capture the elements of oppression, disappointment, hope, and determination. These films also portray how important society is in shaping one’s life.  Though Butterfly Dreams is fiction, nothing rings false.  The story is based on the real life experiences of working children.  In that sense, both films are real, human dramas.

JL:  I understand you required all the shooting locations in Butterfly Dreams to be authentic, which made it hard to secure a local factory setting, as owners did not want to risk being criticized in the film.  You eventually found a place.  To me, the locations are just part of the broader and deeper authenticity of your film.  The content and style generally seem quite faithful to the characters, their surroundings, and their situations—without slick stylization or common melodramatic techniques for depicting poor people, such as exaggerating or exoticizing their victimization.  Yes, the factory owner is exploitive (though not purely evil) and Sumi has a hard life, but this comes across as sort of matter-of-fact, just the way things are in the everyday lives of a lot of people in the world.  What do you think?

VK: The reality is much more difficult than what was portrayed in the film.  In many cases, children work seven days a week, 18 hours a day in inhuman conditions.  Sometimes they are given no money at all and the only compensation they get is food and shelter.  Most inhuman of all is the bonded labor.  Children are often sold to a buyer as a commodity for a certain period of time by the parents to pay their debts.  Until the parents repay this borrowed money, the children are treated as collateral security and the owners exploit them.  In addition to all of this, statistics say that more than 50% of children report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse.  It is impossible to cover all of this in one short film.  I am now working on a feature film script, which explores all these issues.

JL:  A pivotal and emotionally tough scene is when Ravi leaves the village on a bus and we see Sumi behind him, through the rear window, running toward him and eventually giving up—all in one long take.  We see them both reacting at the same time, and wonder whether he will get off the bus.  Part of what I like about how the film portrays Ravi is that he is generous but ultimately not a heroic savior.  This seems much more authentic than if he just facilitated a happy ending, to make audiences feel good.

VK:   A happy ending is, most of the time, a pretentious ending because in real life, not everything ends happily.  For this story, I always wanted to have a real and plausible ending.  To me, an honest ending justifies the script and respects the characters in the film.

Many times we come across people we want to help, but the situations don’t permit it.  Ravi himself is struggling for money and has his own family to take care of.  As you mentioned, Ravi is not a heroic savior, just an ordinary person who has a good heart.  Sometimes that alone is not enough.

JL:  This scene comes after what, for me, may be the most striking moment in the film.  After Ravi plans to adopt Sumi, the other local families get word and bring their kids to ask for the same thing from him:  to take them away for a presumably better life.  Shocked and overwhelmed, Ravi changes his mind.  For me, there is a lot packed into that scene, including what it says about impoverished families and the complex dynamics and ethics of adoption.  With literally millions of children living in these conditions in India, what options do these families have?

VK:   Some families have been working as child laborers for more than two generations.  Poverty is the biggest reason for this.  Other reasons are the lack of implementation of child labor laws, the absence of compulsory education, and the non-accessibility of schools, to name a few.  It is estimated that it would take at least $500 billion over a 20-year period to end child labor, if it happens at all.  The Indian government has strict laws regarding child labor, but the factory owners know how to get around them.  For example, children under 14 years of age are considered as child laborers.  Many children don’t have birth certificates as they were not born in the hospital, and changing birth certificates for the purpose of working is not that difficult. Children are threatened by exploiters in many ways and are forced to lie about their ages to the officials to keep their jobs.  Only if factories decide not to hire children, can child labor be stopped completely.  But what is the probability they will do this when they are making a ton of money by exploiting children?  Another way to end child labor is through educational awareness of this issue.  Parents also have to understand that only a good education can lead to a better life for their children and to realize that the current income from their children is only a temporary solution to their problems.

JL:  I like that Sumi is portrayed as a strong, sensible, capable, optimistic, and resilient person.  What particular challenges are there for girls living in these conditions, versus boys?  What hopes can they realistically have?

VK:   Children who live in these conditions learn to take care of themselves sooner than most other children.  They face struggles everyday in their lives and that makes them stronger, more capable and more mature.

The most difficult problem girls face after a certain age is sexual abuse.  In some cases, unfortunately, girls are trafficked into the sex industry.

India is a huge country and child labor is practiced in many places from roadside stalls to big manufacturing industries.  The government has strict laws against child labor, but still has to go further to make sure the laws are applied and strictly monitored.  Even though it is impossible to stop this child labor immediately, frequent monitoring and severe punishment of those who employ these children would definitely bring the count down.  The government is also trying its best to help some of the children go to school, by providing free education and free food.  There are some non-governmental organizations that perform these services too.  They also provide some stipends to families, whose children go to school, to compensate for the missed income.  At the end of the day, it all comes down to money.  The more money spent, the more children can be saved.

Child labor in India is not just a national issue, it is a global issue.  Thefts or murders cannot be completely stopped by laws; they can be stopped only by the people who commit them.  Similarly, child labor can be stopped only by the people who hire children.

JL:  For an adoptive parent of a young girl from rural Ethiopia, this film resonated for me on many levels.  Though my daughter is being raised American, we are fortunate to live in a place where there are great ongoing opportunities for her to connect with other adoptees, immigrants, Ethiopians, and people of color generally.  As an adult immigrant to the U.S., how has that transition worked for you?

VK:  When I came to the US, I had to admit that I had cultural shock.  I was raised in a typical Indian family and was used to Indian customs only.  Indian culture is very different from Western culture.  But eventually I learned how people do things here.

America is very diverse, particularly Los Angeles.  Most of the time, I hang out with filmmakers, some of whom came from different countries.  Mostly we talk about films, but we also talk about each of our cultures, our food, and the languages we speak.  The more I interact with people of other cultures, the more I come to know that, deep inside, humans are the same.

JL:  I understand you came from rural India, where as a child you had no TV and could go to the movies only once a year, so instead read a lot.  There are obvious parallels between your youth and Sumi’s.  So how did you manage to come here and attend film school at LMU? 

VK:  In the town where I grew up, child labor is not that common.  My parents strongly believed that education is a must for a promising and secure future and a stable life.  In India, the more educated we are, the better career options we have.  With my parents’ support, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree in India.

I never thought I would come to the US and study film.  Even though the film schools here are excellent and have cutting edge technologies, they are expensive.  When I was admitted into Loyola Marymount University for my MFA, I didn’t want to miss this great opportunity for financial reasons.  I worked and saved money for my education.  I am glad I went to LMU and trained to be a professional filmmaker.

JL:  I’m sure you know that filmmaking is a tough field to enter and stay, much less succeed.  Hard work, talent, a strong education, and an award-winning student film all provide a good start.  Looking ahead, if you were to fulfill your long-term dreams in filmmaking, what would that look like?

VK:  Even for accomplished filmmakers, making movies and marketing them has become more challenging these days.  So, obviously for beginning filmmakers like me, it is not going to be easy. Everyday I attempt to complete five pages of work on my new screenplay.  Every week I participate in a filmmakers group to discuss films and new opportunities in the business.  I also constantly read film-related articles and learn something new every day.  After all, success comes from a daily routine and only today’s efforts will pay off tomorrow.

JL:  Is there anything you’d like to mention that we haven’t already covered?

VK:  The main reason I made this short film is to show the world how children are exploited in poor working conditions in these places and to bring awareness to the public, global governments and other non-profit agencies throughout the world so that they may consider contributing to protect these children.  I sincerely thank The Valley Film Festival for screening this film and being a part of spreading the awareness.

JL:  OK, thanks for your time, and for sending us your film. 

VK:  Thank you.  For more information on the film, please visit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2973224/


The 14th annual Valley Film Festival takes place December 10-14, 2014, at the all-digital Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.  For more info, visit our website or Facebook page.  Butterfly Dreams screens with our Dramatic Shorts program at 12:00 noon, Saturday, December 13.

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