Indian artists are bringing the magic of virtual reality to cinema

Adoor Gopalakrishnan wears a headset as he prepares himself to watch India's first virtual reality (VR) film, Right to Pray, directed by Khushboo Ranka, at the Toronto International Film Festival 2016. At the end of the four-minute film, an inquisitive Gopalakrishnan, one of India's most awarded filmmakers, asks the film's producer Anand Gandhi: “What is the future of VR films?” (Also read: Documentaries dominate 77th Cannes Film Festival)

Maya: The Birth of a Superhero, a virtual reality installation created by Kolkata-born artist Poulomi Basu, was part of the inaugural Immersive Competition at the Cannes Film Festival last month.

Nearly a decade after TIFF became the first major festival to welcome VR films in a special five-film package, Pop VR, which celebrated the evolution of storytelling through the innovative technology, the global entertainment industry has been able to answer many questions about its initial skepticism over the advent of immersive cinema.

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At least seven of the world's major international film festivals – the South by Southwest Festival in Texas, Sundance, Tribeca in New York, Venice, the Red Sea Festival in Jeddah, the BFI London Film Festival and Cannes – today have an immersive category in the official selection, reflecting the growing influence of VR on contemporary cinema.

Kusunda, an interactive work about the endangered Kusunda language of Nepal, is co-directed by Gayatri Parameswaran, a Berlin-based filmmaker born and raised in the Dombivali suburb of Mumbai.

Early Indian VR films

Indian filmmakers were among the early pioneers of VR cinema, who early recognised the potential of this art form to put people at the centre of a new realm of perception, technology and creativity.

Mumbai-based Ranka’s (co-director of An Insignificant Man) film Right to Pray, which depicts women’s protest against a 450-year-old tradition that denied them entry into a temple in Trimbakeshwar, Maharashtra, was followed by more VR films such as Superman of Malegaon director Faiza Ahmed Khan’s The Cost of Coal, which is based on environmental destruction by coal mining in Chhattisgarh’s Korba district, and Naomi Shah and Poorush Turel’s Cost Is Not a Rumour, which focuses on the real-life public flogging of four Dalit boys based on a rumour of skinning a dead cow.

Liz Rosenthal, curator of the Venice Film Festival's Venice Immersive programme, told Hindustan Times, “Virtual reality is often described as the ultimate empathy machine, allowing you to step into the shoes of others. For this reason, VR has been used by many documentary activists and NGOs to highlight social, humanitarian and environmental issues, serving as a powerful tool to tangibly experience the experiences of others.”

India's first virtual reality film 'Right to Pray', directed by Mumbai-based Khushboo Ranka, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016.

Taking the Next Step

If Right to Pray became part of the arrival of VR in the world of cinema eight years ago, the Cannes Film Festival, the latest international film festival to include a VR category, also saw an Indian artist, Kolkata-born Poulomi Basu, participate in its first immersive competition last month with her VR installation, Maya: The Birth of a Superhero.

London-based Basu, who co-wrote and co-directed the piece with British artist CJ Clark, explains that “virtual reality is a powerful tool for dream narratives, bending time and space with tangibility, which is important.”

“You can have very deep internal personal experiences that can have a transformative effect. The bottom line is that you can't make meaningful change in the world without changing yourself first,” she adds. The main part of Maya, which combines mixed reality and virtual reality to explore the shame and stigma around menstruation, is a 30-minute VR narrative that begins when the viewer touches a virtual tampon.

The story of an NRI girl living in Tower Hamlets, London, who is bullied by her peers when she gets her first period at school, Maya turns so-called impure blood into a tool of power, reflected in a mythical superhero who appears to fight misconceptions. Game of Thrones actress Indira Varma narrates the story and also plays the superhero.

A 15-minute version of Basu's VR work won the Special Jury Award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last year. One of eight VR works in the first-ever Cannes Immersive Competition, Maya had its world premiere at the South by Southwest festival in the US last year.

“It is important to remember that we are in the age of spatial computing, where virtual and physical spaces are merging. As an artist, I use this to create cinematic immersive storytelling and experiences,” says Basu, an alumnus of Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College.

“We are becoming more mature, still very young, but becoming more mature,” says Marc Lopato, co-founder of Diversion Cinema, a VR space creator and immersive experience distributor based in Paris, France, about the evolution of VR in cinema. “The technology is evolving, the production tools are evolving, but the creators and producers have gone through the trials and errors of the past years,” he says.

Artist-filmmaker Sparsh Ahuja and Iranian-British filmmaker Irfan Sadati's virtual reality docu-drama Child of Empire premieres at the 2022 Sundance Festival's New Frontier program

Empowering the audience

Three years ago, at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea Immersive Competition section featured a film called Kusunda, an interactive piece about the endangered Kusunda language of Nepal, co-directed by Gayatri Parameswaran, a Berlin-based filmmaker born and raised in the Mumbai suburb of Dombivli.

Leveraging the power of VR in archiving an indigenous community’s past, Parameswaran’s work shows how a teenage girl from the Kusunda forest dweller community challenges herself to learn a language, spoken by only 150 people today, in order to save it from imminent extinction.

“With virtual reality, audiences can now live the past with an intensity that was not previously possible, providing a powerful new way to experience historical evidence by immersing it in space and time,” says Rosenthal, founder and CEO of London-based media innovation company Power to the Pixel.

Two years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, artist-filmmaker Sparsh Ahuja, who divides his time between Melbourne, Australia, and New Delhi, and Iranian-British filmmaker Irfan Sadati premiered Child of Empire in the New Frontier program. It took audiences back in time to immerse them in one of the largest forced migrations in human history—the 1947 Partition of India.

Child of Empire, described as a VR docu-drama, sees two individuals from the Partition generation – Isher Das Arora (voiced by Adil Hussain) who migrated from Pakistan to India, and Iqbaluddin Ahmed (voiced by Salman Shahid), who made the opposite journey – share memories of their childhood experiences while playing a board game.

“Immersive storytelling has come a long way since artists began experimenting with the launch of consumer headsets in 2014,” says Rosenthal. She adds, “In just 10 years, it has evolved from an experimental form that was hidden in the depths of leading university research departments, to producing works of art and entertainment that have enthralled audiences at world-class festivals, performing arts venues, museums, galleries and visitor attractions, and, since the pandemic, across social virtual platforms as well.”

“There is no dearth of talent in VR in India, but it is quite difficult to do complex and sophisticated work unless one secures international funding,” says Alap Parikh, technical director and lead developer of Goa-based Maya: The Birth of a Superhero.

After Kusunda, Parameswaran's latest VR project is being produced at his Berlin-based Nowhere Media, an Emmy and Peabody-nominated immersive studio, which takes viewers on a journey through the rugged landscapes of Ladakh to highlight the efforts of local communities and conservationists to protect endangered snow leopards. The mixed reality documentary, whose working title is Living with the Snow Leopards, uses the power of extended reality (XR) to bring viewers face-to-face with the majestic animal and the people who share its habitat.

Gayatri Parameswaran's new VR project is a mixed reality documentary that aims to connect viewers with the conservation efforts for endangered snow leopards in Ladakh.

Parameswaran says, “Through interactive elements, viewers can connect with the environment, gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges and successes of conservation efforts in these remote areas. The documentary aims to promote a greater appreciation for snow leopards and the delicate balance of their ecosystem, ultimately boosting global support for their conservation.”

Another interactive VR project, being developed in Goa by XR and artificial intelligence practitioner Avinash Kumar, is set in 2070 AD, when a cyborg named Meenakshi is attempting to recover a lost Indian art.

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