Award-Winning Indian Director Contends For Oscar Nom With Her Stunning Short Film

Still image from Savita Singh’s ‘Shadow Bird/Sonsi’

‘Shadow Bird (Sonsi)’, the latest film by groundbreaking director Savita Singh has qualified for 2022 Academy Awards and is in consideration for nomination in the ‘Best Short Film’ category. 

This builds on the National Award the film received in India for Best Cinematography (Non-Feature Film), the highest recognition for cinema in India. ‘Shadow Bird’ qualified for the Oscars by virtue of winning the Bengaluru International Short Film Festival, the only Oscar-qualifying film festival in India. It also won ‘Best Short Film’ at the Lady Filmmakers Festival in Beverly Hills, CA. 

In a mythical Indian village where it never stops raining, a curious young girl follows the mysterious time-keeper. He leads her through the crooked forest of her dreams to help her reunite with her lost shadow bird, Sonsi. It is a 24-minute short film that shows the profound beauty of rural India, paying homage to the rich history and folk tales of the countryside. 

A 2007 Cinematography graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India, Savita Singh has worked with varying visual styles and formats. Her graduation film, ‘Kramasha -To be continued’ (2007) received a National Award for Best Cinematography (2009) in the Non-feature category. Singh was selected as the Indian Winner (2007) for the Kodak Film School Competition.  

Savita Singh on set directing ‘Shadow Bird/Sonsi’

Singh has shot feature films of diverse genres. Along the way, she also delved into shorts, documentaries, and advertisements. She is one of the founding members of the Indian Women Cinematographers Collective (IWCC), a forum for women cinematographers based in India.

‘Shadow Bird / Sonsi’ is her first film as a Director. She won her 2nd National Award for Best Cinematography (Non-feature category) for the film.

The Academy Award nominating period runs from December 10-15, and while voting members are considering an array of films to be recognized at the 2022 Oscars, we had the chance to speak with Savita to learn more about what a nomination would mean for her personally, representing Indian culture in this forum, and how she is working to increase the representation of Indian women directors.

Congrats on all the success of ‘Shadow Bird’ so far! How are you feeling in the lead-up to Oscars voting on whether to include this in the Best Short Film category?

We recently won the Best Film at Lady Filmmakers Film Festival, Los Angeles and the jury there absolutely loved the film. It was amazing to know how films cut across cultures and languages manage to speak to people with the universal language of Cinema. 

A few days later when I received a call from my producer Vikas Kumar to share that we had won the Best film in the Indian Competition section at Bangalore International Short film Festival of India and by virtue of that win were now qualified to enter for Oscar Shorts, I couldn’t believe it. 

I had flashbacks of my younger days when I would wake up at 5 am India time to watch the Oscar ceremony with wonder and adulation. Like every film person, I have seen myself climb those steps leading up to the stage where the Oscar lady awaits you, a million times. I have rehearsed countless versions of my Oscar speech since childhood and with every passing year and age, the version kept changing and my list of thanks kept getting longer. 

Coming from a patriarchal village in Haryana, India I have covered a long distance with the help of my simple yet visionary parents who saw the artist in me and nurtured my dreams. My father was the first person in our clan and village to get a college degree and after him I was the second person from the family and first girl from my village to become a graduate. A journey which started from the heartlands of an agricultural village in Haryana, India to being a two time National film award winner and successfully sustaining a career in Bollywood despite the challenges I faced because of my gender has only begun. 

After 14 years of working as a Cinematographer in the Mumbai film Industry and the experimental film space, Sonsi SHADOW BIRD is my first film as a writer-director. To see your debut film in the race of Oscars is an immensely satisfying feeling. To be qualified for the Oscar shorts rekindled that dream from my childhood. It ignited that fire of reaching a wider audience across continents all over again. 

Director Savita Singh on set directing ‘Shadow Bird/Sonsi’

Seeing more women of color on screen in lead roles and behind the camera winning awards and being recognized is so important. Can you tell us what this type of representation means to you as a filmmaker?

In 2008, there were hardly any women cinematographers in the Indian film industry shooting feature films when I started my career. Being a woman, it was tough to break in owing to the popular perception that women are not cut out to be cinematographers. Despite continuously proving my mettle with awards, box office success and critical acclaim for my work, I always found myself waiting to get the right opportunities. I knew that I was in for a long, tough fight to prove myself as a brilliant cinematographer regardless of my gender. I worked hard to make my expression strong as a cinematographer by pushing my limits.

I often wondered if it was only me who was feeling the gender discrimination and who had a problem with unidimensional and often skewed portrayal of women in films. Conversations with fellow women DP’s about the pay gap, casual sexism on set, fewer opportunities for work made me realize that everyone was facing similar dilemmas and hence was born IWCC. 

On 8th March, 2017 on the International Women’s Day, I joined hands with three other senior women cinematographers and co-founded IWCC (Indian Women Cinematographer’s Collective) a collective to celebrate and showcase the presence of Indian origin women cinematographers in the country and to address the issues faced by the community, to encourage students, emerging cinematographers, gaffers joining the profession and each other. 

I feel strongly that we need more initiatives like IWCC. We need more female cinematographers because they bring their unique style, sensibility and perspective to their work. All these years we have heard and seen films through the male perspective. The time has come to hear the other version of the same stories now. For the same reason we need more female writers, directors, editors and producers.

I hope for a future where the gender prefix will not be a part of any woman’s designation. In a world where she will be just a director-cinematographer (not a female director-cinematographer) on a set, weaving images and stories of human spirit, faith and resilience through her pen, her performance, her camera. 

It is heartwarming to see more and more women from diverse backgrounds, cultures, races pushing their boundaries and making their space in Cinema. Women with their unique experiences will shape newer narratives about women, the disadvantaged, the minorities and evoke a world which reflects their spirit, their despair and their resilience. The balance of one sided narratives needs to be restored by equal representation of women in not just Cinema but every field. 

Still image from Savita Singh’s ‘Shadow Bird/Sonsi’

What do you hope audiences will appreciate more about rural India, folklore culture and underrepresented stories after watching ‘Shadow Bird’?

In India we have myths associated with almost every living and non-living thing. It’s an old and a pluralist civilisation replete with stories from Vedas, Quran, Sufi tradition with more than 33 million Hindu Gods and saints/Gods from other religions such as Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Sufism. So we have countless myths to fall back on. I feel we never needed to create Super heroes and Science fiction stories because Ramayana and Mahabharata are in many ways fantastical stories with super hero like Gods with impossible time bending narratives quite like science fiction stories. 

I hope this film can communicate the poetic, lyrical folk tale of Indian culture in the form of a Film-Fable as I call it albeit its dark and melancholic undertones. This is an India we rarely see in films. The world associates India with poverty, chaos, over population, song and dance and commercial masala films. In one India, we have many India’s. 

Shadow Bird in many ways is my love letter to the folklores, oral tradition of story-telling, fantastical stories, tribal art forms, fables, my childhood and all the influences and my collective memories of growing up in this eclectic country. 

You can keep up to date with news of ‘Shadow Bird/Sonsi’s Oscar nomination by following their Facebook Page.

Still image from Savita Singh’s ‘Shadow Bird/Sonsi’