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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Narika, Fremont

The Betrayal – a short film directed by Ashna Sharan – was this year’s official entry to the BraveMaker Film Fest, which ends on July 10 evening. The 8-minute feature can be watched online during the festival: 

Premised on the much-debated questions of fidelity and faith, The Betrayal is a story of uncomfortable truths and shocking revelations. Shot on the phones of the actors, the film is a comment on patriarchy, class-caste conflict, gender bias, moral dilemmas, and most importantly, the façade of matrimonial bliss.

The story of The Betrayal unfolds through a Zoom call between two sisters – Ashima (played by Aishveryaa Nidhi) and Reena (essayed by Rashmi Rustagi). Ashima is seen fidgeting with her dupatta, evidently hiding something from Reena, while the latter is busy with last-minute Diwali preparations. The juxtaposition in the expressions of the sisters is brought out with great precision.

The poster for the film The Betrayal.

Long-Held Secret

Eventually, Ashima cannot keep the secret she has been guarding for years and turns a page from the past. It is about Reena’s husband. He has a son from another woman and that another woman happens to be a maid, who is no more alive to tell her tale. What follows is an outburst of denial and resentment. The future of a household help’s son is uncertain. Who will the audience choose to castigate – the woman from the marginalized section of society, or that man occupying a higher social station who abandoned her?

In an exclusive interview with India Currents, director Ashna Sharan and the leading cast shared their experience of making The Betrayal with a pandemic brewing in the backyard and humans struggling to reconcile to a locked-down existence.

New Wave Of Short Film

Sharan, whose award-winning virtual web series called That Quarantine Life received critical acclaim, said: “The pandemic gave people in the film industry more time to be creative. Those who were not filmmakers before became filmmakers. Actors used their phones to record their own films or stories while they were in quarantine. Since the film industry was on hold, people all over the world were waiting for new content, and it didn’t matter that it was not shot in Hollywood or Bollywood.”

Director Ashna Sharan. (Photo by Anudeep Tummapalli)

So, is it safe to conclude that short films could be the mainstay in an era of streaming platforms? Sharan says yes. “Totally! When you only have a few minutes to tell a story, it’s more difficult because you don’t have the luxury of page length such as in a feature film. Also, short films can be used as proof of concepts or a way for producers and studios to find new talent.” 

The Revelatory Zoom Call

 Sharan was directing a Hindi short for the first time, and needless to say, there were a few hurdles. “The fact that the two actors are not in the same room was a challenge. The entire film happened over a Zoom call. When I was approached by Rashmi to direct this (film) virtually, I jumped on the opportunity. We did everything online – from work-shopping the script to rehearsals to filming. Rashmi and Aishveryaa used their iPhones to record their scenes at home from different angles.”

Actress Rashmi Rustagi. (photo provided)

When asked about the genesis of The Betrayal, Rashmi Rustagi (also the producer) reveals, “As a storyteller, I had written and produced a short film called Unborn in November 2019. Encouraged by its success, I continued to write. The idea of The Betrayal came to me one day as I was talking to a friend whose cousin had a similar experience as my character Reena in the film. It was a challenge to write a short since I was going to shoot it at my home.”

Can Betrayal Be Forgiven?

Asked if the scenario would significantly alter had the roles been reversed and the husband was at the receiving end of a secret kept by his wife for years, Rustagi responded: “The husband would have felt just as betrayed. In the short, we don’t know what Reena does after hanging up the call. However, in my full feature script, I know what Reena does. I think the husband would probably leave the wife.”

Can the act of betrayal be forgiven? Aishveryaa Nidhi, who plays Ashima, and is also the film’s co-producer, says: “Being betrayed is corrosive to trust. It is hard to forgive this kind of offense as it changes one’s perspective of looking at things. But in certain circumstances when the intentions are noble, betrayal can save relationships. In this film, Ashima didn’t betray her sister; the purpose of hiding the secret was to save her sister’s marriage and the family bond.”

Actress Aishveryaa Nidhi. (photo provided)

BraveMaker Film Fest

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, has the traditional way of making and experiencing cinema changed for the better? Nidhi answers, “Everything comes with its pros and cons. Movie making is an outcome of teamwork and extensive processes. However, during the pandemic, we had to shoot from the confines of our homes, taking all precautions while the director gave instructions over Zoom. I was excited when Rashmi sent the script and asked me if I would like to co-produce the film. I immediately said, ‘Yes’. It was a different experience which our team will cherish for a long time.”

The BraveMaker Film Fest ran from  July 7-10 in Redwood City, California. True to its name, the aim of this film fest is to encourage conversations and discussions around those films that are considered bold, offbeat, brave, and experimental. The four days of the cultural fiesta packed in a variety of film screenings across genres, interesting seminars, and workshops. Diversity and intersectionality form the bedrock of any cinematic experience. With that in mind, filmmakers from far and wide showcased their impactful creations.

Title: The Betrayal

Director: Ashna Sharan

Producer(s): Mahadevi Productions and Dream Merchants Movies 

Writer: Rashmi Rustagi

Cast: Aishveryaa Nidhi, Rashmi Rustagi, Rajeev Khattar

Editor: Heather Hillstrom

Language: Hindi (with English subtitles)