Aradhana: Advocate and Artist
Courtesy of Aradhana Seth

Aradhana: Advocate and Artist

The roles of director and designer do not define Aradhana Seth. In technical terms, she is a film director, an art director, and a production designer, but she executes her work with such passion that her direction and creativity are a product of the determination and beauty that shape her character. She is an advocate and creator, going beyond the title that labels her work.

By APA Staff

Play RealVideo Interview with Aradhanna Seth

Seth's interest in public policy, politics, international affairs, and social justice stems from being raised by a mother who became India's first female chief justice.  Seth's documentary film DAM/AGE (2002), with Arundhati Roy, Pulitzer prize winning author of The God of Small Things, portrays uprisings from the Indian people against the Narmada dam project.  The film works at both a public and personal level as the documentary follows Roy's personal threat of imprisonment in the uproar around her.

Indian culture does not stray far from Seth's work, even when she is not filming in India.  Her artistry and set design reflect the bold and vibrant colors found in the country as well as her own personal interpretation of the essence in her culture.

Seth graduated with a Masters degree from the Mass Communications Research Center at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.  She first worked as Assistant Director for In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones upon graduation in 1987, where she met Roy (the film's screenplay writer).  In 1992 she met director Deepa Mehta on the set of George Lucas?Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and furthered her career as production designer for Mehta's films Fire (1996) and Earth (1998).  Her most recent work can be seen as Art Director in The Bourne Supremacy (2004).

Seth has a love for her people and an expansive knowledge of society and world affairs.  Her concern for life is reflected in the countless books that line the many shelves in her attractively decorated home.  She is currently working on a documentary in hopes of opening people's eyes to the injustices that many disadvantaged people suffer from. --Florence Ip

Interview with Aradhana Seth
Interviewed by Jennifer Chong
Additional research by Florence Ip
Transcribed by Jackie Lam

APA: Let's start off with an introduction.

AS: I'll start out by saying that my name is Aradhana Seth and I'm a filmmaker. I make documentary films and I also do production design for feature films. I grew up in India and I moved out of India about ten years ago to the East Coast, then to Europe, and then back to India, and then to L.A. I'm actually really happy that I did grow up there because I feel that it was a kind of grounding for who I am as a person--you go out and you explore the world and you learn about different cultures; it also tells you a lot about your own culture.

APA: You talked about doing production design. How did you start off doing that? Was that the job that you really wanted or was your dream job to produce films?

AS: Actually when I first graduated from film school, I did everything--anything that I could do just to get a sense of where I wanted to be. I found that I am very visual. When I walk into a place, I always remembered visually what was in the space and the conversations filter through the visual context of the place.

I realized more and more that I'm attracted to doing design because it's technical and visual. So, the production designer recreates normally the place in the script. So, it [the script] will say a person walked into a room. But, what room does that person have? Where do they live? How do they think? Do they read? What do they put in their room? The professor in 1920 would be different than the professor in 1940 and the professor in 1960. The professor in China would be different than a professor in India or in the States. So, you're constantly thinking of what sort of evironment that person is like.

I don't know if it was a dream job. It's something that I really enjoy and I like the fact that you have hundreds of people working on a film. You have a script and you plan everything mentally in advance, but it's physically exhausting. At the end of the day, you have to put it together before everyone comes to the set, except for what's needed for that day. In documentaries, it's physically not that exhausting but it's mentally exhausting--you come up with an idea and then you keep changing it and honing it and it keeps changing, whereas with fiction, the script is there and you work with that.

APA: There is much attention to detail with what you do.

AS: I think it's really important as a designer to concentrate a lot on the details because I think you can say, "He's a great smoker," but what if the ashtrays in the room are empty and there's no ash? It [the environment] really puts you into the head of the other person. Your room will be different. For instance, each of your rooms will be different [because] it's also the personality of the person. You work very closely with the director and the cinematographer.

APA: Your film DAM/AGE is highly political. Has your mother's position as the first female chief justice in India affected your career as a filmmaker in any way?

AS: She was the first woman high court judge and also the first chief justice of a high court in India. When I was growing up she was a barrister, and then she went on to becoming a judge, and then the first woman chief justice in India.

They've been very liberal, actually, my parents. So they pretty much let us do whatever we wanted to do and think whatever way we wanted to. Occasionally, they would get a bit sort of frazzled if we were going off to demonstrate against the government, or maybe against the judicary itself, but I think that they let us do it because I think they realize that by stopping us we would actually rebel. So they talk to us about it and she [Seth's mother] always stated her point of view. But, she herself is quite liberal, so even though she was part of the establishment, she was also willing to listen and have that interaction at home.

My brothers sort of paved the way for me as well. And, the fact that we had lots of people coming into the house--I think it's important too; it's as important to hear the other side even if you're political. It actually makes you see what is right and what is wrong.

APA: It's so wonderful that your parents are so understanding.

AS: I think it's also the key to be able to do any kind of work. I mean, to have people around you actually understand. And if they don't, they're willing to argue it out.

APA: DAM/AGE dissects one dimension of the political turmoil in India. Nevertheless, you have expressed the universality of the messages conveyed in the documentary. In other words, the implications and parallels are evident worldwide, not just in India. How do the messages address now only for the people of India, but of the human condition in general?

AS: I think that what happens in DAM/AGE is happening all over the world. It may not be dam related, it may not be about displacement or a dam, or displacement from a dam, but there's displacement occuring everywhere: Bosnia, the former Soviet Union, in the United States, or in India in different ways. And I think that it addresses everybody--things that are happening in their own country and things they associate which is around their neighborhood. It really is a microcosm of who counts and who doesn't count, who makes the rules, who makes decisions for hundreds of thousands of people, and who shines the light or when it isn't shone at all.

I went the other day to listen to somebody speak at Midnight Special, a bookstore. A woman wrote Bush Women and she talks about the stories behind each woman in political office--not what they are saying but more how it investigates into their lives. People, governments, political offices, and people who run big multi-national corporations always say pretty much what they want to say. And in a sense, looking behind the scenes really gives you a sense of looking inside into what's happening in the world.

APA: You and Arundhati Roy have known each other since 1988. You had informally filmed with her until someone at BBC approached you to make a film. What was it about Roy that attracted you to her work and was it your intention to make a film about her?

AS: I met Arundhati in 1988 or 1987, and she had written a feature film titled In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones. She was the production designer for that film. I went to work with the director of the film, Pradip Krishen, and I worked as the Assistant Director. It was the first film that she had written and it was the first film that I was going to work on because I had just graduated from film school. And she wasn't actually...she wasn't very well known at the time. She hadn't written The God of Small Things yet. We worked very closely together. It was a tiny, tiny film with very little money. Everyone worked on it and worked really hard and we all became friends and stayed friends.

I had filmed with her subsequently at her mother's home in Kerala when she had written The God of Small Things, which was pretty much a manuscript that had just turned into a book. I was actually filming her when she got her first copy of the book, [one of] the first nine copies that came from press. It was more at that time just a recording of what was happening. I had also gotten a new camera so I was testing the new camera.

The filming of this film, actually, the BBC had just asked whether I wanted to do it and we thought about it for a long time. I mean we didn't immediately say "yes" because we had become such good friends that that was much more important. And, we hadn't worked together since the time we worked together in 1988 to 2001-2002, when we made the film. It wasn't an intention, but the fact that I had filmed with her before made a huge difference. I mean, it was very easy once we had spoken about it. I think it was an important moment to record those events as they happened to her. She was probably comfortable letting that happen because she then realized that she wanted those events recorded.

APA: You were talking about your special bond with Roy. What else about Roy attracted you to her and made you want to do the film?

AS: I think that she has amazing ideas and she is also very articulate. Because everything is interconnected with each other, she spends a lot of time looking at what's going on in the world and making those interconnections, putting them across to the reader in a very beautiful and thoughtful manner. I think she's one of the most amazing thinkers, and is also fearless about saying what she wants to say. And so I think there's the friendship with her and there are her thoughts and ideas... I mean, actually the friendship and the thoughts and ideas they come emotionally and politically. And I think as a political person she has a lot to contribute today to the world--her ideas, her thoughts, the way she thinks about things.

She has been using her voice to talk to people about issues that are relevant, not only in one country she writes about, but all over the world. And maybe she makes those connections very clearly with what's going on in Iraq, in the United States, and what goes on in the fundamentalist government in India--what they constitute as political. She's, I think, making people aware of their rights and what you should be thinking of and what governments do to people. I think it's hugely important for all of us to listen to that.

APA: Do you think you were able to separate business and your friendship? Was it difficult to do that while you were making your film?

AS: Actually, we talked about that in advance. The friendship and the film, we were able to separate that. Of course, as a friend, I was thinking, "What's going to happen to her? How [will] the court hearing go? Will she be sentenced?" But on a political level, I was very interested in the idea of freedom of speech, governments trying to silence people, if they would try and silence her, and if they would try to intimidate her just by prolonging the case, or get her scared. And I actually segregated the two because I thought of her as, her the writer and her the person who's a thinker, rather than her, the friend, while I was filming. I think it's really important to do that.

APA: You had suggested that people tend to believe everything that's being said on television or in written word. Is this why you chose to produce documentary films as opposed to some other outlet?

AS: I think it's true that people do, if they pick up the newspaper in the morning, they go, "Oh, if that's in the newspaper, especially in the older generation, that must be real. That must be what has happened." Now, the media is owned by corporate giants as well. And in a sense, what is said is not as important as what is not said.

So, you are shown a rally, a peace rally, a pro-life rally, and you see what gets represented and how it's put forward. And it's true that I don't think that documentaries are that different, but where it is different is it tells a longer story and in a way, it's not that it doesn't have a point of view, but I think it's a point of view that is as true to yourself as opposed to true to the people you work for; it's also true to themselves for those towing the line. Journalists write what is true to them, what interests them, or the television does that. But sometimes you have to tow the line at the establishment that you work for--you know what is normally allowed and what is not. I also believe a lot of what is written in the media as well. But I censor it for myself. Like, "I see, yea, I filter it. I see, this sounds right, and this needs more looking into." I believe some of it.

APA: Okay, now that you have successfully produced a film illustrating the plight of the people in India, will you be exploring other subject matter or will you be focusing on this for your future films?

AS: I've actually been filming a lot in the past. There have been films on the anti-nuclear, on the environment, on political people, and now I've actually been making a film for awhile on these "1-800" numbers, which has actually become well known here now. The outsourcing of jobs to India might go to China, not just manufactoring jobs, but jobs that are more like telephone operators, people who you know, you ring up [when you have] a problem with Dell computers. Who answers your phone? Actually someone in India. The names have been changed. People assumed new identities. So that is very important.

Also, what is very important is that with the new identity comes a new personality and comes people who talk like they're American by night and Indian by day. I'm really interested in what's going to happen to people who are living these dual lives after ten years, after five years and what corporations are doing for the bottom line. What is happening is they are taking our jobs. That's what now is coming out here. All our jobs are now going to India, or X, or Y.

There was an episode recently on the West Coast talking about it but actually what's happening is that the jobs are going, yes, but who really profits? The corporations really profit because they are the ones that are taking the jobs. Yes, people are getting employed, then what happens when people who eventually live in a way by changing their name, changing their language, changing who they are--who do they become? Especially the women, because it's true that they get freedom to go out to work, but two years later they get married, many of them. So, they go back because it's nighttime jobs to keep up with daytime here. So you work in a different time zone. You give up your job, so you've gone back from having economic freedom to being this sort of cross-pollenized person who's half Indian and half American. But you've never been here. All you do is watch Friends and Larry King and listen to music from here. So you kind of lose context of where you're living. So I'm actually working on that at the moment.

APA: What interested you in putting that perspective?

AS: I'm very interested in the idea of migration and of how people integrate and live in different parts of the world. But, this is like migrating without actually moving. What does it do to people's minds? I got interested because I met a boy who used to come help us on films and he started to work at a call center. And now it's even a bigger issue. Those are live jobs which is what is interesting to me. I think the back end jobs are also very interesting. What happens when architects do drawings in India of here? That's not... you're not really interacting in that way. And I think that interaction really changes you as a person beyond recognition.

APA: The scope and nature of this film obviously demand an enormous amount of physical as well as mental exertion. Could you give us a little bit of insight about what you've learned making this film?

AS: I think what I learned from DAM/AGE again is how everything is interconnected with everything else--what somebody says, how it's censored, what somebody decides and how it affects hundreds of thousands of people. What someone sitting in a government office writes on a piece of paper displaces 500,000 people. Everything in the world is actually interconnected. So, what happens in India actually affects what happens in Brazil, and what happens in Brazil actually affects what happens in America. And you realize it when you take it at a lower level and you follow it; you see how decisions that are being made, especially what happens actually in the United States and how what people in office do here, how much it affects people all over the world. And in a sense, that has to be done with a lot of thought, and in a sense, with a lot of caution and thought, because we actually are affecting people til the time we didn't have transportation, and Internet, and those sorts of things to the extent that we do now. So countries lived slightly more in isolation; there was still barter and shipping routes and now it really does damage and directly affect people.

This actually brought in the idea in DAM/AGE or in Night Shift, the film that I'm making. It's on globalization and homogenization of people, and of moving people from their own culture, their own community. I'm not saying that it will always be destructive, but it will always bring change. And I'm interested in watching that change. I think it's positive and negative for different people.

APA: You had made documentaries and material for television. Do you want to someday make a Hollywood feature film?

AS: I have to say that because of my production design background, I had always been really happy designing things and I'm much more interested more than I've ever been in thinking whether or not I wanted to make a feature film. Whether it's an independent film or a film in Hollywood, I think it would always be an independent film, just based on the nature of the way I think. But, I have worked on the design of films that are Hollywood films. I worked on a film called The Guru, and I did the production design for Indiana Jones. I just worked on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Identity and it's actually the next film, a sequel. I did the art for India on it, and I actually just got back like two or three weeks ago.

It was amazing because we were filming on Goa which is on the ocean. We built a mainhouse and three other houses and modified a lot of different locations to make it into a telegraph office. But the cottage of the film, the opening of the film, we made it from scratch. We took down what was there and we built it right from the beginning. I worked with a designer and a design team from Berlin and we basically got the windows made with Portuguese shell windows and ironwork and the flooring and everything that went into the house, and we dressed the house. And yes, I am actually really interested in fiction and I think that it might be the [right] time after I do this documentary. I'm thinking if I want to make a feature film or not.

APA: What are you currently working on and what are your upcoming projects?

AS: Actually, I am currently working on the documentary right now, and I had been working on The Bourne Supremacy until early in April. I finished the 8th or 9th of April. Initially I thought I was going to work on another film as a production designer in Sri Lanka, but then I decided actually it's time to do a film that I had been working on, the documentary.

I had been following through call center agents--two girls and a boy. I had been following them for about two years now, from when they joined, from when they trained, to when they hit the call center floor. They're  becoming like managers now. I decided that when they became managers it was time to start cutting the film. And now I'm actually teaching myself how to. I'm going to do this independently. I'm teaching myself how to edit--to digitize and put things in an order, and then look for an editor.

APA: You were talking about following them. How long was the process?

AS: I used to go back and basically it was three people that live in India. And I followed them, say this winter, the next winter, and the 3rd winter. So this past winter was the last winter. So they trained to become agents so that they're training, their pronunciation, what they learned and they're now using what they learned.

I'm doing some filming here on the idea of outsourcing. I've done some in New York and I now need to do some more. I'm actually very happy that I'm doing this now. I actually have to apply for grants, things like that. And I've never done that before so it's gonna be, I think it's quite exciting to try and do that too.

APA: Do you have any last comments?

AS: No, I think it's really important for everybody who actually has an idea to go ahead and do it, even if it takes a huge amount of time and energy. In a sense your own ideas and what you really want to do will always be the ideas that make for fantasic films, especially if you can bring  people from the outside who can edit some of that, because you can also get carried away with doing something you're very close to. But, if you have a combination of being objective and subjective about it, it's actually a really good thing. And it's also really important to do it all of the time because around certain things you're always thinking, "I'll wait to do this later, in the meantime I'll do this, in the meantime I'll do that." But it's kinda good to do both simultaneously if you can. That's for all the people who are starting to make films. 

APA:  That's great advice.  Thank you Aradhana.

AS:  Thank you.