Dubai-based short film writer on her Cannes moment

Dubai - Ayesha Banerjee reveals what inspired her to write Kaali Peeli which highlights a sensitive issue.

Ayesha Banerjee with child actor Lyla Beg (Photo/Supplied)
Ayesha Banerjee with child actor Lyla Beg (Photo/Supplied)

By Husain Rizvi

Published: Mon 20 Sep 2021, 11:05 AM

To have your film officially selected for a renowned international festival is a dream for many, but one that comes true only for a few. Among these few is a crew of Dubai residents whose short film was officially selected for this year’s Cannes Short Film Festival.

Titled Kaali Peeli, the short film portrays a sensitive social issue — bias against dark skin — something which is still, as surprising as it sounds, very much in play. The film shows a young girl named Maya who wakes up in the middle of the night and confronts herself in the mirror. She recalls an incident where boys at her school make fun of her skin tone. However, young Maya tackles it with a laugh and inspiring confidence leaving the question — why do such issues still exist in the contemporary world?

The short film is written by Ayesha Banerjee, a film aficionado from Bangalore who has resided in Dubai for the last 10 years. Maya is played by Lyla Beg, the daughter of Banerjee’s long-time friend. The short film is helmed by Neeraj Mehhta, a nominee for a national award in the UAE, who also won an award at the 48-hour film project Dubai 2014.

The crew made the film during the coronavirus pandemic in November 2020, and it was released on Pocket Films and YouTube on December 15, 2020. While the nomination for the Cannes Short Film Festival was received in the last week of July, Kaali Peeli has also been a part of other film festivals across the world.

We speak to Banerjee about the message the short film portrays and how the future is looking for her as a film writer.

Kaali Peeli highlights an important message. How did you come up with the plot?

The plot was born from an incident at a cosmetic store. The sales agent kept promoting a skincare product to me extolling its excellent “whitening” qualities. When I remarked that I didn’t want to be “whitened”, he was quite unsure of where to go from there. Needless to say, said skincare product was not purchased.

However, I think the film is less to do with complexion and more to do with the confidence the little girl has. And that is worth preserving.

What impact do you want to create with your short film?

We live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world and it may be utopic, but I would love for people to see people past colour, ethnicity, or accent. Also, the confidence that children have before they are tarnished by various pressures, is a real and powerful thing. We should strive to develop and cherish that.

How would you tackle such issues if you faced them yourself?

Exactly the way Maya did in the film — with confidence and a laugh.

Kaali Peeli got selected at Cannes. Describe that moment for the entire team.

We were fortunate to have been viewed at a few festivals before the Cannes Short Film Festival. When I got the email, I shared it with a few people. However, the magnitude of it sunk in a few days later. We are all extremely proud that our little film is going places and finding new audiences.

How was it like working with young Lyla?

Working with Lyla was a breeze. She’s a natural and her intrinsic confidence made her a perfect Maya. She took direction well and did several retakes like a professional actor. In fact, when I was writing Kaali Peeli, I knew I wanted Lyla to be my Maya.

What was Lyla’s reaction when approached for the role and responsibilities in the film?

Lyla was hesitant in the beginning but Upasana, her mother and my dear friend explained to her how a story like this could make a difference. Lyla said she would do the film for me, for which I am eternally grateful.

Are we going to see more films on social issues?

I want to continue to grow and keep writing screenplays for short and feature films. It’s not always a deliberate attempt at making socially relevant films but my ears are always to the ground.. To observe life and use films to tell stories that matter is important to me. If it can showcase human connections and experiences, then it has my attention.

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