An Interview with ‘Privacy’ Filmmaker Sudeep Kanwal

Privacy Interview - 2023 Sudeep Kanwal Movie Film

Sudeep Kanwal is a New York-based filmmaker who was born and mostly raised in India. His debut feature film, Privacy (2023), is a social thriller set in Mumbai’s slums. The movie examines the role of surveillance cameras in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The protagonist of Privacy, Roopali (Rajshri Deshpande), works at a Mumbai surveillance camera command center as an operator. Things get complicated when the character ignores protocol and investigates a crime that took place on her watch.

With Privacy, Kanwal takes a neo-noir approach while exploring themes of mental health, voyeurism and intelligence organizations. The performances are wholly convincing, and the unremittingly pessimistic view of life in Mumbai’s neglected suburbs is bracingly honest. In this interview, Kanwal speaks about the various decisions he made to execute his debut feature film.

Dipankar Sarkar: How did you develop an interest in filmmaking?

Sudeep Kanwal: I had just moved to New York, and somebody told me that we could borrow movies from the public library for free. During the summer of 1999, I probably ended up watching over a hundred films within two months. But the best day was when I watched The Godfather, parts one and two, back-to-back. I had never seen anything like it. These films simply blew my mind. A couple of years after, a friend introduced me to filmmaking, I took my first film class and shot some footage with a 16mm Bolex. When the daily came back from the lab, I was in complete awe. To me, the way film prints looked and felt was a better version of reality. That day, I knew I had to pursue filmmaking. I ended up getting an MFA in writing and directing fiction from The City College of New York.

DS: Before making your feature debut, you made two short productions. Do you think this has been a beneficial step for you as a filmmaker?

SK: Like any other art form, the more you practice, the better you get at it. Each project, including Privacy, has been a great learning experience. I have made my fair share of mistakes on all my projects. But the key is to not repeat the same mistakes on the next one. Film is a collaborative art. Other than the craft, the short films really helped me understand how to manage different types of personalities on set. Another benefit is that you can start building your core team through a short film. Dhund [2018] helped me build a relationship with the producers, Shlok Sharma and Navin Shetty. And now they have produced my first feature.

Privacy Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Vaat’ Filmmaker Miransha Naik

DS: Dhund and Privacy begin with a heinous crime. Also, in both films, though set in different periods, an event from the past plays an important role in driving the story forward. Is this style central to your intention of arousing the curiosity of the viewers right from the beginning?

SK: If you give the audience partial information, they will consciously and subconsciously try to piece it together. Audiences’ curiosity is essential for a mystery to work. It also helps grab their attention from the very beginning. Unfortunately, the average viewer’s sensibility has changed. A lot of people watch movies while simultaneously looking at their cell phones screens. It has become very important to grab their attention from the very first scene. I like blending timelines in my writing. In both films, incidents from the past help us better understand the characters and the choices they make.

DS: Where did the idea of surveillance cameras come from?

SK: I have always been fascinated with the concept of surveillance. From the “Peeping Tom” concept of Rear Window (1954) to the eavesdropping world of The Conversation (1974), or the modern micro-surveillance depicted in Snowden (2016), it just shows how interested we are in the lives of other people. The concept of this being someone’s job amazes me. All the news coverage around the Mumbai surveillance project only talked about the benefits of the technology and how good these cameras were at zooming in without losing much resolution. I was surprised that there was not one article that talked about privacy concerns, especially in such a densely populated city. That’s how I decided to write about the subject.

Privacy Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Lords of Lockdown’ Filmmaker Mihir Fadnavis

Privacy Interview - 2023 Sudeep Kanwal Movie Film

DS: A few minutes into Privacy, a TV debate show questions the ethical issues of doubling up the number of CCTV cameras in the city. Why did you begin with this sequence?

SK: The opening credit sequence helps build the world of Privacy. It quickly shows the inner workings of a CCTV facility. I wanted to subtly bring up the central question as well. This helps set up the viewer’s expectations so they know what the film and the characters will be exploring.

DS: What sort of research did you do for the Mumbai police? How much did it help bring authenticity to your screenplay?

SK: Our initial research started in 2016. I came across a lot of local news articles on this topic. As we got closer to production, we had a chance to visit three major CCTV control rooms. We started with the Pune control room, followed by New Mumbai. Eventually, we were allowed to visit the main command center in Mumbai. The key team members, such as the [cinematographer] and production designer, had a chance to witness the inner workings of the control room. Our lead actor had conversations with the staff members. We saw archived footage of some of the major events that were captured on CCTV — things such as accidents, festivals and strikes. It was amazing to see how numb the operators had become to incidents, as they get to witness such extreme things on a daily basis.

Privacy Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Kayo Kayo Colour?’ Filmmaker Shahrukhkhan Chavada

DS: Did the research also help you with Privacy’s production design?

SK: Mayur Sharma is an incredible production designer. He drew the layout after visiting the Mumbai command center. Mayur kept the design grounded and didn’t make it too high tech. This is something we had discussed early on, as we didn’t want anything to look forced. We stayed very close to the real thing, including the three-panel system that the operators have in front of them. Mental health is one of the themes in the movie. So, I wanted to focus on [characters] rather than technology. From the control room design and makeup to costumes, we decided to keep everything very grounded. 

DS: How did you work on the visual treatment of Privacy with your cinematographer? What were your aesthetic choices to give the film a neo-noir look?

SK: Initially, I had put together a mood board, which I shared with the DOP, Harshvardhan Waghdhare. Then, we spent a lot of time together, sharing ideas on the best way to approach this. The very first conversation we had was about the treatment of the CCTV footage. We wanted to show Mumbai as a character from a surveillance perspective [while] keeping it as realistic as possible. We even tested actual CCTV cameras so we could shoot the surveillance bits just like the real thing. But we soon realized it would be a logistical nightmare, especially as an independent production. A lot of the visual language and neo-noir elements were already in the screenplay. We didn’t want to overstylize the film. There are several scenes where we see silhouettes of the characters. But these stylistic choices were made to aid the story — to hide the important details that are revealed later.

Privacy Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Dharti Latar Re Horo’ Filmmaker Shishir Jha

DS: Privacy juggles between CCT footage and events happening in the lives of the characters. How did you work with your editor to give a rhythm to the film?

SK: This was probably one of the most challenging aspects of creating Privacy. It took us quite some time to find the right pace. Faraz, the editor of the film, and I also played with the chronology of the events. There are several subplots and smaller character stories that happen within the main story. So, we started drawing timelines for each subplot on a board. One thing was very clear: this was Roopali’s story, and we had to see the world of Privacy through her gaze. Faraz and I had spent so much time with the film that we needed someone else to give us their opinion. Towards the end, we got a lot of feedback from Shlok Sharma, which helped tremendously.

DS: Tell us about the process of casting Privacy’s actors.

SK: The film, overall, has very little dialogue. I needed an actor who could carry a scene on their own without any lines. At the same time — keep it nuanced, so it doesn’t feel forced. Navin Shetty suggested Rajshri Deshpande for Roopali. We sent her the script, and she said yes within two days. We met for breakfast early the next day and talked about her character and her multilayered personality. Since we are a microbudget production, we didn’t have a casting director. For other key parts, we reached out to actors that we thought would fit the role best. I ended up meeting a lot of actors in cafes. Most of them came on board. For some of the smaller parts, we held auditions in Pune. Most of the local actors came through the Pune theatre scene.

Privacy Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Follower’ Filmmaker Harshad Nalawade

Privacy Interview - 2023 Sudeep Kanwal Movie Film

DS: How long did it take you to shoot Privacy, and what were the challenges you had to face as a debutant feature filmmaker?

SK: Principal photography was done in 26 days. Other than two sets, almost everything else was shot on real locations. We had a terrific film crew. Several scenes were shot in the slums. Most people we met were extremely supportive. Then we also had about five-six days of shooting without any actors with a crew of three-four. We needed a lot of footage to fill the control room screens with the Mumbai landscape. We shot most of this guerilla style. We had our share of panic moments as well. A local gang stopped us from shooting at one of the key locations. They got into a physical altercation with some of the crew members. The police had to intervene and diffuse the situation. By the time the situation went back to normal, we had lost the light, hence the entire day of shooting. Regardless, if it’s your first feature or not, as an independent filmmaker, there are challenges at every step of the way. But there’s a job at hand. You have to pick yourself up and tell the best story you can with the resources you have.

DS: Was there any influence from the actors and other members of the crew on your filmmaking process? Did anything ever change from the original conception of the idea?

SK: The script becomes a blueprint by the time you get on set. I truly believe that you are only as good as your team. Filmmaking is, without a doubt, a collaborative art form. A big part of the job is to identify the right artists who believe in and understand your vision. I try to stay very calm on set, no matter what the situation is. I’m a huge proponent of realistic performances. There are times when you have to let go of storyboards, as the actor may feel the need to do the scene differently for it to be believable. In a situation like that, you have to be ready to improvise and work with your director of photography to come up with a new shot list on the fly. At the same time, sometimes you have to push and get a certain shot the way only you know it will work in the edit. It’s a fine line — tell your story in the best possible way without ever changing the core idea.

Privacy Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Hadinelentu’ Filmmaker Prithvi Konanur

DS: How did Shlok Sharma and Navin Shetty come on board as producers of Privacy?

SK: I pitched Privacy to Shlok Sharma back in November 2016 at the NFDC Film Bazaar. He immediately agreed to come on board. But it took a while to finish the screenplay and secure funding for the project. In the meantime, Navin Shetty and Shlok Sharma produced a short script (Dhund) I had been trying to make for a while. Making Dhund with Fundamental Pictures was such a great experience. I knew I had to make my next one with them. Both Navin and Shlok believed in Privacy’s concept and agreed to produce my first feature as well.

DS: Privacy is your debut feature film and will have its world premiere at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea. What are your expectations?

SK: I’m so excited that we got into one of the best genre film festivals in the world. The selection has already gotten the kind of attention we were hoping it would get. We were surprised when Variety did a piece on the film. Eventually, the goal is to make the film accessible and show it to as many people as possible. I hope the festival exposure can help us find the right distributor for the film so we can share it with everybody.

Privacy Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Against the Tide’ Filmmaker Sarvnik Kaur

DS: Lastly, what sort of films will you continue to make? 

SK: I’m currently writing three projects on and off. One is a love story set in India, the other is a comedy that takes place in the U.S. And then there’s a thriller, again set in India. It all starts with one character. And then I start to build around that one person. I don’t think I want to be bound by any particular genre. I was born and spent the first 16 or 17 years of my life in India. It’s a dream to tell stories that are related to India.

Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.

Privacy Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Niharika (In the Mist)’ Filmmaker Indrasis Acharya