Even before her film, Subira, won Best Feature Film at the 2018 Kalasha Film and TV Awards, Sippy Chadha was already an award-winning filmmaker.
And even before it was nominated for 13 ‘best’ awards and won five — including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Editing and Best at Kalasha — Sippy’s short version of Subira had won a slew of prizes in film festivals in France, Spain, Italy, India, Uganda, Rwanda, Zanzibar and Kenya.
Yet, Sippy still humbly refers to herself as a ‘housewife’ who aimed to be and do more. She’s still got the same fire that’s been burning ever since she first realised that being a financial services consultant was not her goal in life.
She may have got a degree in business in Canada and a bachelor’s in psychology from her homeland of India. But somehow she realised there was an artist in her that needed to come out.
CONSULTED YOUNGER SISTER
“The frustrations finally built up to the point where I had to consult my younger sister who seemed to know me better than I knew myself,” Sippy told the Saturday Nation. “She’s the one who told me to go into film.”
Her sister recalled that as a child, Sippy used to take home movies using the family’s film-cam whenever she was home from boarding school.
“I totally forgot about that. I think I wanted to capture memories since I was so lonely in boarding school,” she recalled in a recent interview, just ahead of the Kalasha gala.
She would been sent to a Catholic girls school at the age of five, an experience she says was as traumatic for her as was the experience that Subira has early on in the movie.
“Subira is me,” she says matter-of-factly, noting that she could not understand why her parents sent her away to boarding school so early.
But just as Subira had to cope with her loss in the film, so has Sippy. It has not been easy but she admits that that early experience of pain and loss is partly the spur that led her to write her movie.
The other key issue that affected her early on, she says, were the restrictions she suffered at the school where she studied until the age of 15. Nonetheless, those same rules inspired Sippy to rebel against the confines that came not only from school but from the wider culture that dictated a girl’s trajectory in life.
“The pressure to get married and have children was too much,” she says. She managed to avoid the issue, first by going to university for a degree in psychology and then slipping off to Canada where she studied business to ensure she could be self-sufficient.
But by the time she reached her thirties and was still unmarried, her mother put her foot down and that was how she eventually came to Kenya, entered into an arranged marriage and now has a supportive spouse and two grown children.
But even though she was comfortable in her new life, Sippy was far from settled. She worked in the financial services but that was unfulfilling. However, once her sister spurred her on, she decided to defy tradition and even the professional programme of going to film school before she could become a filmmaker. Instead, she decided to teach herself to make movies by attending as many film festivals and film-making workshops as she could find, starting in India.
“My children were still in school, but it was during their break time when I signed up to attend my first 12-day film festival. I dropped them off at their grandmother’s, my mother, who adores them. And I started to soak myself in every aspect of filmmaking that I could find,” Sippy recalls.
During that first festival she took all the master classes and watched all the films. She did the same thing at countless film festivals she signed up for.
Her first effort at film-making was a short one titled Tick Tock, which required her to reach out to a local film editor. Alex Kamau was the one to whom she took her first tape.
“Alex was very patient with me because I didn’t even have a script. I told him the story was all in my head,” she admits. He walked her through the most elemental steps of film-making. And although she says that the five minute film went nowhere, it confirmed for her that this was the path she definitely wanted to take.
Soon after, she met Nathan Collet, the American film student who made Kibera Kid.
“I started working with him as a runner just so I could be on his film set. But because I was older and also able to handle the film’s finances, I ended up becoming a producer of the film, which won an Emmy in 2008 for best children’s film,” she recalls.
That’s when Sippy realised the only way she was ever going to deal with her pent-up frustrations and the years of feeling cloistered and culturally confined was to tell her story.
"I began writing Subira’s story. I used to get up at 4am and write until I had to take my kids to the bus. Then, I’d come back home and write more until mid-day.”
What came out of those early efforts was the 12-minute version of Subira, which won 15 international film awards in 2009.
“That was the same year I formed my own production company,” she recalls. “Kaaya comes from the Sanskrit. ‘Kaaya’ means story and that’s my goal, to tell stories, starting with my own.”
Sippy says Subira was largely self-funded. But if the financing wasn’t her main challenge after starting up Kaaya Films, Sippy knew she still had much more to learn. Aware that she needed help with her scriptwriting, she went looking for support.
This she found in the Danish filmmaker, Vibeke Muasya, whose film, Lost in Africa, debuted in Kenya at the 2013 European Union Film festival.
CAME TO SHARE HER VISION
“I can’t praise Vibeke enough. She saw my passion and came to share my vision. That led her to help me re-structure the film. And eventually, she even agreed to co-produce Subira with me. That was nearly four years ago.”
Vibeke also helped Sippy find expert support in professionals, including Subira’s cinematographer, Talib Rasmussen, film editors Roselida Taabu and Terry Kelley (formerly of Paramount Studios) and sound designer Franklin Jones (formerly with Universal Studios), all of who had worked in Hollywood.
“Their amazing efforts are why Subira was up for awards in editing, cinematography and sound at Kalasha,” she says.
Ultimately, it is Subira's and Sippy’s story that is having the greatest impact not only on the film world internationally and nationally, but also among women who see Sippy’s story as their own. How many well-educated women haven’t run up against barriers meant to bind them to traditions that would negate their ability to grow? Yet Sippy’s thirst for freedom is the essence of Subira’s story and explains the movie's appeal, especially to women.
Subira had its Nairobi premiere on Thursday night at Westgate. It is being shown, for a week from yesterday at the Junction, Prestige Plaza, Garden City and Westgate. The Mombasa premiere will be on Saturday.