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[Herald Interview] What becomes of ‘Privacy’ under constant surveillance

New York-based director, Indian star depict gritty thriller in closely watched Mumbai

By Kevin Lee Selzer

Published : Aug. 7, 2023 - 10:34

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Indian film star Rajshri Deshpande had a rough time getting to Korea for the world premiere of “Privacy” at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival earlier this summer.

“It was chaos,” she said.

Her flight from Delhi had been delayed six hours, meaning she would land at Incheon Airport just as she should be at the festival’s opening ceremony. The film’s director, Sudeep Kanwal, was doing everything he could. “I was holding ground,” he said. “Just telling them, ‘Please let us walk the red carpet.’”

She made it “a minute before,” she said with relief. “Just in time.”

“It's so crazy, the moment I got my bag, I straight went into the toilet and I started changing there,” she laughed. “Everyone was looking at me. Like, ‘I don’t have time, I’m so sorry.’”

From left: Director Sudeep Kanwal and actors Rajshri Deshpande, Saurabh Goyal and Nishank Verma of From left: Director Sudeep Kanwal and actors Rajshri Deshpande, Saurabh Goyal and Nishank Verma of "Privacy" pose on the red carpet at the opening ceremony of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, June 29. (BIFAN)

There is irony in that the star of “Privacy,” a thoughtful thriller that delves into issues of surveillance and the lack of privacy in modern life, had to change into her sari fit for the red carpet in a public bathroom. Her character in the film, Roopali, would sympathize. She lives in a rundown apartment building with shared bathing facilities, where every day two teen boys wait outside to watch her pass by in a towel.

The director and star of the film sat down with The Korea Herald after the film’s premiere, on July 1.

“Privacy,” directed by Indian-born, New York-based Sudeep Kanwal making his feature debut, takes place in Mumbai, India, where thousands of high-tech cameras with incredible resolution and zoom capabilities have been set up all over the city to deter crime and solve cases. The thriller follows Roopali, a low-level operator in a camera command center who uses her job as a voyeuristic escape, inserting herself far deeper than intended into a robbery and murder case. It raises questions about who is behind the cameras – not just the person watching, but the bureaucracy, politics and mental fitness of all involved.

The film began taking shape in 2015-16, when the director saw endless positive press coverage of cameras being installed all over Mumbai. “No one said, ‘What about privacy issues?’” the director explained. “Even on major intersections you can peek into buildings, you can see through them very easily. So that sort of triggered the whole idea.”

"Privacy" (House of Talent Studio)

The director visited the actual centers, where he saw real footage and met the people in front of the monitors. “A lot of the operators become very numb to all that, because they've watched it day in, day out,” he observed. “But what if someone is struggling mentally? What happens then?”

He said there was “no such thing” as mental health services for employees in that position.

Rajshri Deshpande leads the film in a superb, gritty performance. The director explained that through the drafts and all the process, her character Roopali remained its foundation that never budged. “You see the world through her, and then you see her in that world,” he said. “Her being lonely in a city filled with people never changed.”

Roopali is a sympathetic character in a mundane, relatable situation involving her home life and workplace politics. Yet as tension is ratcheted up in the fraught situations she finds herself in, it becomes clear that her greatest challenges are not external.

“Her trauma also shapes her personality,” Kanwal explained, referring to childhood trauma alluded to in flashbacks and her apparently shaky mental state.

“With Roopali, I really had to mix many things together to create her,” Deshpande said of her starring role and the sensitivity she took to a character whose past trauma affects her in unseen ways. “I spoke to a lot of psychologists about this, how the behavior pattern can change, and that's how I kind of try to find Roopali.”

“I loved characters which break all that mold and show a different perspective of a person,” the actor said, praising Kanwal for the rare chance to portray a woman who is “complex” and “flawed."

"Privacy" (House of Talent Studio)

And as with anywhere -- but especially in Mumbai -- class, levels of poverty and wealth disparities play an ever-present role in the characters’ interactions and vulnerabilities, and of course in the film’s central premise as well. The director put it bluntly: “More money does mean more privacy.”

In an escape from her own precarious situation, the voyeuristic Roopali aims the surveillance camera’s lens up into one particular high-rise apartment repeatedly, envying and idealizing the life of a young woman in a floral summer dress on a balcony overlooking the city. “She kind of fancies a life,” Deshpande explained.

“The life which you see on the other side, you always think it‘s the best one,” she added, as the character’s envy and ambition leave her circling that scene and eventually closing in on it, with still more twists in store.

"Privacy" (House of Talent Studio)

Meanwhile, the director was also keen to point out the debt the genre owes to Korean films of late. “I think in the last 20-25 years the Korean cinema has really changed the thriller genre, the look and feel of it,” he said, especially effusive in his praise of last year’s mystery from Park Chan-wook, “Decision to Leave,” which he had recently seen. “And we all are inspired by it, by the thrillers that come out of this country. They’re so original.”

Deshpande also expressed admiration for the “interesting” women characters in Korean films like Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother.”

“With Korean cinema, they are so experimental. And these films become mainstream,” the director added. “Filmmakers (in Korea) are extremely lucky they have this kind of audience. It’s amazing to see.”

The bulk of the shooting for “Privacy” took place in early 2020, just before pandemic shutdowns, and Deshpande was uninhibited in her praise of Kanwal and the project all the way to its debut, taking to Instagram with messages of encouragement. “I just saw the passion in him,” she said about the director.

“Privacy” will have its US premiere on Aug. 20 at the Cinequest Film and Creativity Festival in San Jose, California, and the director hopes for a wide release soon.

“Ideally I would like it to be released in the next six months,” Kanwal said. “I'm like dying to put it out there for people to watch, because the movie is made for general audiences. It’s not just meant for festivals only.”

"Privacy" star Rajshri Deshpande (left) and director Sudeep Kanwal pose after an interview with The Korea Herald in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, July 1. (BIFAN)