Winner takes it all

Sunday, 22 June 2014 - 6:45am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Mumbai girl Aashrita Kamath, the designer in the Student Academy Award winning film Interstate, speaks to Kavita Devgan on her journey and what she has learned along the way

Immigration drama Interstate, a film designed by production designer and art director Aashrita Kamath, was announced as the winner of the Student Academy Award in the Narrative Film Category on June 7 in Los Angeles. The national film competition is conducted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy Foundation, which oversees the Oscars. Through these awards, the Academy recognises and encourages promising filmmakers, and past winners include Spike Lee (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing), John Lasseter (Toy Story) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump).
The film won a bronze award amidst tough competition; 250 films were submitted this year. Screened at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, Rhode Island International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Latino International Festival, Interstate has recently won 'Best International Short Film' at Opera Prima Granda in Spain, and has also been nominated for the prestigious Student BAFTA. Aashrita is overwhelmed with the response. "The response has been tremendous and people have empathised with the story and the design. And that has made me very happy," she says.

Aashrita is your quintessential Mumbai girl. After Rishi Valley School, which she says shaped her into an independent thinker, she studied Sociology at St Xavier's College, Mumbai, and then dived headlong into films. "Living in Mumbai, which is the heart and soul of Bollywood, was of immense fascination to me," she says. She began as a set dresser on the film West is West, with the acclaimed production designer Aradhana Seth (Earth, Fire, Don), went on to work as property master with Suzanne Caplan Merwanji on Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and worked on a few commercials. She even co-directed a short film, Seher Hone Tak with Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi, a poignant observation of the lonely existence of an elderly woman living alone in a Mumbai high rise, before she decided that she wanted to further her skills and study the art of production design formally.

So, in 2011, she enrolled at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles in the heart of Hollywood on the merit of her work; they only take 14 students every year as part of their production design programme. During the intensive two-year course she learnt how to effectively execute conceptual designs and understood Hollywood's functioning. Trips to Universal Studios and Warner Brothers prop house were routine. Often she would be loading her props & set dressing into a truck alongside TV shows like How I Met your Mother and The Big Bang Theory. But the most important lesson she says she took away from her time there is that the design always stems from the story and that good films are born from great collaborations.

Interstate, one of the thesis films she designed in her final year at the Institute, tells the story of Joaquin, a 40-year-old driving instructor who teaches illegal immigrants to drive, taking them to Utah so they can get driver's licences in a state that doesn't require a Social Security number. The law catches up with him and he faces a dilemma that may haunt him forever. "It is a story of love, hope and faith, and that is why people universally are able to connect with it," feels Aashrita.
Being in LA, it is impossible to ignore the large immigrant Latino population and their aspirations. While designing the look and feel of the film, I researched many immigrant families to see their working and living environment and based the film's design on that. Camille Stochitch (the writer and director of the film) and I agreed that to bring out the essence of the story, we had to capture LA in a different light," she says.
"One usually sees the glitzy and glamorous face of the city, home to the stars and Hollywood. It isn't very often when one sees the underbelly. We chose to set the film in East LA and capture a very real, working-class vibe. We were clear that we wanted the murals and street art to play an important role in the film and chose them according to the emotions of each scene."

What next?
Currently, Aashrita is assisting designer Tino Schaedler on a science-fiction film produced by Ridley Scott and directed by AFI alumnus Drake Doremus. On the road ahead, She wants to design movies that give her the opportunity to create new and interesting worlds. "I really enjoy working with a director to help achieve is or her vision for the story. Being in LA has provided me with an opportunity to interact with some of the world's best storytellers. In India, too, today, there is new wave of filmmakers who are producing quality cinema that is being noticed the world over. I look forward to the possibility of working with them in the near future," she signs off.

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