“I wanted to be able to talk about politics and spirituality in a very open way, without pointing guns at anyone”

– The Indian director breaks down his exuberant and dystopian animation, also giving an insight into his cultural influences

Ishan Shukla • Director of Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust

(© Prakash Tilokani)

Indian director Ishan Shukla presented his first feature-length animation, Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust [+see also:
film review
interview: Ishan Shukla
film profile
]
, in the Bright Future Competition of this year’s IFFR. The social drama with fantastical elements is based on the director’s short film of the same title. We spoke to him about his cultural influences and the production conditions in which the movie was made.

Cineuropa: You merge so many different cultures in your film. How did you proceed with this, and what was your intention?
Ishan Shukla:
Since my early childhood, I’ve always been interested in different kinds of comic books and literature from all over the world. I started with Gorky, Tolstoy and other Middle Eastern literature. That was my early education – not to mention the Indian scriptures. As I grew up, I travelled and made friends all over the world. I worked in Southeast Asia for several years. I became accustomed to different cultures. I understood that on the surface, we might look different, but our problems or conflicts are pretty universal. I wanted to create a parallel world in which I would be able to reflect not just one culture, but multiple ethnicities, condensed into a single city. I wanted to be able to talk about politics and spirituality in a very open way, without pointing guns at anyone. I really wanted to make sure that I talked about human conflicts, but not about any cultural ones. What helped me on this journey was my multicultural team – I had a team of wonderful people from all over the world.

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One of the characters says that human conflicts tend to repeat themselves, and that societies will always get to the same, totalitarian point. It’s quite a pessimistic thought.
I cannot disagree with that. There was one point at which the script did not contain that line. In 2015 or 2016, I had an early draft of the story, but the world has really changed in the past decade. And the more I looked around, the more my own personal views became a little more pessimistic. We all fight, and we all do our best to have a perfect society, but we also suppress things, and we make constrained societies. I’ve seen it myself. I saw it in India, in Hong Kong; I saw what’s happening in Taiwan; I saw what’s happening in the Middle East. It’s been happening in Africa forever. It’s been happening since the dawn of homo sapiens.

One of the main characters is 197A. What were the most important elements of this character?
Initially, 197A was meant to represent my own persona; that’s also how I conceived it for the short film. But then, as the script got bigger, I started really delving into his feminine side, which you can sense in the second half of the film. To achieve godhood, it was extremely important that he could strike a balance between his masculine and his feminine side. This is a reference to what we call Ardh Nareshwar in Sanskrit, which means a person who is half-man, half-woman. This had an impact on the design. Initially, he had a beard and more male attributes, but then I started making him more balanced. There were three phases of his design. First, he was a simple, meek guy, then there was the balance between the masculine and the feminine side, and then there’s his final awakening as a spiritual being.

As was the case for your short film, you have an amazing voice cast for the feature, too. Was this difficult to achieve?
I started pitching the film at different film markets, where I met my French co-producer. She comes from cinema, and not specifically from the animation sector. She was the one with a more open mind towards the cast. The film is a meeting point for professionals from all over the world, and the same goes for the voice actors. It was great to have this fantastic response. Most of them we met during Zoom calls. We did some wonderful rehearsals during the pandemic. We did the script reading and a lot of them improvised their lines. It was an incredible experience.

Did you do all of the animation in your own studio, or did you outsource parts of it?
It’s a hybrid. In my studio, I have a core team, and we did the creative work, the storyboarding, designs and editing. A lot of the character-animation work, for which you really need an army of animators, was done by a different studio in New Delhi. And there was also the motion-capture aspect: that was done by real actors whom I directed. They live in Angola and France. We basically shot the film like a stage play, then we took that data from the actors and put it into the characters inside the animation. That was the most technically challenging aspect, since we created the movie inside a game engine.

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