Local filmmaker Sudeshna Sen returns to the Seattle International Film Festival to unveil her first feature-length film. Anu, based on the novel Looking for Bapu by Anjali Banerjee, follows the titular character in the aftermath of her beloved grandfather’s death. It’s a compact story that captures the nuance and complexities of grief and trauma processing, shot locally during the pandemic in places astute viewers are sure to recognize.

Sen, who wrote, produced and directed the film, got on Zoom with us ahead of the premiere to discuss her process and what the story means to her.

Misa Shikuma: I read that you were in academia and transitioned into filmmaking. Could you talk about that decision?

Sudeshna Sen: I did a PhD in Japanese literature and visual culture from the University of Oregon and I was in academia and teaching. But I have always loved film and looked for ways to bring in visual media. About fifteen years ago I was a little bored with teaching…so I took a screenwriting class and I learned how to write a screenplay, because I only knew how to write really boring academic stuff that nobody wants to read.

MS: For this film you wrote, produced and directed. Did you study the other aspects of filmmaking or did you learn those on the job?

SS: I learned by doing. I highly recommend it! The best way to learn filmmaking is to actually make a film. One doesn’t necessarily have to jump in to the top position…my very first film job, back in 2013, was production assistant. That’s the best way to learn the craft. I intentionally put myself into different departments, but my goal has always been to be a director.

MS: Why this story? How did you first become familiar with the book?

SS: In 2018 I made a short film called Mehndi that premiered at SIFF, about an Indian American teenager coming out to both herself and to the person she loved. I wrote the script because it was the kind of immigrant multicultural story that I really want to have showcased. It did really well, people loved it. And [for me] it sparked this idea that there needs to be more narratives about South Asian Americans, and more narratives that are female-centered – especially women of color. When I came across this novel, Looking for Bapu, in the end of 2017, I remember thinking, ‘I want to talk to this author and get the rights to this book!’

MS: Am I correct that in the source material the protagonist is a boy, and that you changed it for the adaptation?

SS: Yes, that was a big change – I would say the only real change from the book. When I read [it], Anu is a boy. But I knew that I wanted it to be a girl’s story if for no other reason, like I told you before, that I really want to see more female-centered films. And so I wrote the script with Anu as a girl and then I sent it to [author Anjali Banarjee]. We were very clear from the start that the book is hers, and the film is mine, but I still wanted to make sure that she liked it. Sheread the script and she loved it.

MS: Can you talk more about what production was like during the pandemic?

SS: You know that old story that parents tell you about walking uphill in the snow both ways? That is exactly what it [was like]. We were originally going to make this film in the summer of 2020. We were fully casted, fully crewed, locations secured – everything. We were two weeks from production, and it was a heartbreaking moment.

We were extremely lucky that [in spring of 2021] there was a TV show that filmed their new season at Harbor Island Studios, and so we had all of this knowledge, information and experience from crew members who were just on that set.

Normally on a shoot day you try to get at least eight hours of filming. We had kids, which meant that our hours were already pretty reduced, and on top of that with all the Covid procedures, we were lucky if we got like five or six hours of actual filming. Our whole production was eighteen days! It was so stressful. But when we were wrapping, everyone was like, ‘This was like summer camp!’ So to me that’s the reward. This is my first feature, and it had the best cast and crew I could have asked for.

MS: I love that Anu was a local production. There are so many movies and shows that are set in Seattle but, as someone who was born and raised here, I can tell when they’re actually filmed in Vancouver, Canada, or they’ve just thrown in stock footage of a ferry. What’s the Seattle film scene like?

SS: On the one hand, it is small compared to LA or NY, but on the other it is extremely collaborative and very supportive. I’ve stopped counting how many favors I’ve asked. I ask the most random questions and every time people say yes. So there is a very strong supportive network of filmmakers. Our production also benefitted from local businesses. This is a tie-in to our locations because the book is set in the Pacific Northwest. Anjali lives on the Olympic Peninsula. I live here [in Seattle]. We are all locals, so we always wanted to make it here and make it feel like the Pacific Northwest. We filmed in Lincoln Park, and quite a bit in Ballard and Shoreline, and everywhere we went people were so supportive.

MS: I really liked the way that you captured this Indian American family and the ways in which they retain these connections to their culture through food, dance, etc. in a way that felt very organic and natural, and not forced. I guess this isn’t exactly a question but I admire the way that you incorporated that.

SS: Thank you. I wanted to make sure that the cultural references, like the sari that the mom’s wearing or the knick knacks on the table are region-specific [and] authentic in that sense. But at the same time what struck me about the story is that this is happening to an Indian American family but it can happen to anyone. It was important for me to highlight the universality of this experience and the common bond that immigrants share.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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