MUCH before her directorial debut reaches theatres, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has got the thumbs-up from her six-year-old son. He is impressed that Ashwiny has directed two movies — Nil Battey Sannata in Hindi as well as its Tamil version, Amma Kanakku, based on the same script — even as his father, Nitesh Tiwari, has taken a longer duration to wrap up Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal. With a laugh, Ashwiny recalls her son asking Nitesh: “Papa, are you still making Dangal? Mummy has already directed two movies.” Both these movies release in India on April 22.
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The idea for a movie came from a Kaun Banega Crorepati promo that Ashwiny worked on, when she was with the ad agency Leo Burnett. Initially meant to be only a Hindi movie about mother-daughter relationship, its script ended up exploring the issue of women’s education. as well. In Nil Battey Sannata, a house help (essayed by Swara Bhaskar) returns to school to ensure that her teenage daughter does not lose interest in studies. “For a year, Nitesh and I worked on the script along with screenwriters Neeraj Singh and Pranjal Choudhary,” recalls Ashwiny, who quit her job as Leo Burnett’s executive creative director two years ago.
Ashwiny’s conversations with her mother, a teacher, were very helpful while giving shape to the story. “My mother always encouraged me to do everything — study, take up a good job, get married and be a mother,” she recalls. Inspiration also came from her aunt, who at the age of 52, did a course in library science and became a librarian. The validation for her came from Soni, her house help, who after watching the film, said: “Bhabhi, given a chance, I would like to go back to a school.”
After going through the script, Jar Pictures’ Ajay G Rai, apart from coming on board as its producer, pushed Ashwiny to direct it. Even though she had made an award-winning short What’s for Breakfast?, apart from being a creative consultant on her husband’s films Chillar Party (2011) and Bhoothnath Returns (2014), she started to learn more about cinematography.
Once this was tackled, she found her learnings from her 14-year-long stint in advertising quite handy during the making of Nil Battey Sannata. “Ads teach you to be disciplined in terms of storytelling. However, films give you the independence to tell a long story, explore your forte and, most importantly, tell stories you believe in without worrying about what the clients would like,” recalls the director, who is well-versed with story-boarding, editing and direction. Yet, movies make their own demands. “You have to keep the duration in mind and somewhere you start thinking is so much emotion really necessary?,” says Ashwiny, who studied commercial art at Mumbai’s Sophia Polytechnic.
The first actor to be cast for the film was Bhaskar, who needed some convincing by casting director Mukesh Chhabra to play mother to a teenage girl. Finding the right girl to play her daughter proved to be tougher. After much search, Lucknow-based Ria Shukla was chosen for it. Terming Bhaskar as a “firebrand”, Ashwiny says her advice for the actor was to appear mature and adept at multitasking. The latter is a quality that most mothers develop. “Even when I was shooting and was away from home, I had to constantly worry about my kids’ school projects,” said Ashwiny, who is mother to six-year-old twins — a son and a daughter.
Once the project rolled out, Aanand L Rai stepped in as a producer. Dhanush, who had worked with Rai in Raanjhanaa (2013), loved the trailer of Nil Battey… and wanted to remake it in Tamil with a fresh cast. Though initially she was hesitant to leave home again for a Chennai shoot, on the prodding of Nitesh, she decided to take it up. Her prime condition was that she wanted Revathi to play the protagonist’s employer, a character played by Ratna Pathak Shah in Nil Battey… After Revathi gave her nod, Ashwiny shot the film in January with Amala Paul as the lead actor.
Over the years, Ashwiny believes, her “persistence and discipline” have helped her balance home with her high-pressure advertising job, and now filmmaking. “Somewhere there is the pressure of doing too many things at the same time. You have to discipline your life. You can’t have everything. You need to prioritise,” says Ashwiny, , who insists that she has her share of fun even though she parties less.