• Monday, April 22, 2024
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Hamisha Ahuja: How restauranteur-turned-director merged Nollywood and Bollywood

Hamisha Ahuja: How restauranteur-turned-director merged Nollywood and Bollywood

…became a mother twice while on set

Hamisha Daryani Ahuja, the mastermind behind the Nollywood-Bollywood fusion film “Namaste Wahala,” wasn’t afraid to swap recipes for reels. In this exclusive interview with BDWeekender, she revealed how she traded her restaurant, Bistro 7, for filmmaking. This wasn’t just a career change but also a multitasking masterpiece for Ahuja who became a mother twice while on set.

Her coming project “Postcard” will be released globally on the streaming service in 2024. In the series, four conflicted Nigerians in India find identity and acceptance as they face their fears and desires through a journey of love and self-discovery.

How did you become a film producer and director, navigating challenges in the industry?

My journey was like magic. Despite a childhood dream of entering the industry, my conservative upbringing led me to pursue a business degree and run restaurants for seven years. While conducting motivational workshops on the pursuit of happiness, I realised my childhood dream of entering the movie industry was still alive.

Selling my restaurant, Bistro Seven after running it for seven years, I ventured into filmmaking with the idea of merging Nollywood and Bollywood.

Choosing to direct “Namaste Wahala,” I utilised my business experience for tasks like scheduling and team selection. Being on set for the first time, I was both a director and a student, but the experience was invaluable.

The movie aimed to convey messages of female empowerment, twisting the traditional Bollywood narrative by having the heroine save the day. Despite facing challenges, including the impact of COVID-19, Netflix’s arrival in Nigeria became a silver lining. The movie was acquired, released on Valentine’s Day, and its success marked a turning point in my career.

In Namaste Wahala, the Igbo tribe in Nigeria, accustomed to receiving bride prices, faced a cultural shift when asked to pay dowry to an Indian groom. Can you explain the reason behind this, and how do you anticipate it playing out?

The situation was left for you all to interpret, but it’s truly fascinating. It reflects a custom where, in India, the girl’s family pays the boy’s family, which many find perplexing.

However, in this case, it’s the reverse. This reversal led to much debate and confusion about who should pay whom. Consequently, we decided to abolish the practice altogether, promoting a stance where no one should pay anyone.

Can you share details about your upcoming projects with Netflix?

Certainly! I decided to switch things up for my next venture, to learn again. While I cherished my movie-making experience, this time around, I opted for a miniseries. We took Nollywood to India, a first for us. Unlike the previous shoot in Lagos for Namaste Wahala, about 80 percent of the new show, Postcards, was filmed in Bombay. I wanted a distinct approach—steering away from the tree-dancing, cheese, and romance of Namaste Wahala, the focus is now on drama.

In Namaste Wahala, I subtly explored the differences between India and Nigeria, emphasizing an interracial couple without making it a prominent theme. In Postcards, the story features an interracial couple, but I refrain from explicitly highlighting the India-Nigeria connection. The characters wear what reflects their style, and cultural nuances naturally weave into the narrative. For instance, Rahama, a Nigerian living in India, infuses a bit of Nigerian touch into her attire.

‘Postcard’ takes a different path. I’m eager to gauge audience preferences and hope you all enjoy it.

As an Indian running a business in Nigeria, how do you handle cultural shocks? Can you share your experiences and insights on balancing these two identities?

I grew up in Nigeria, it’s home, and although I am of Indian descent, I have embraced both cultures. Having grown up in Nigeria, it feels like home, despite my Indian roots. I’ve been raised in an Indian household, relishing Indian cuisine, yet I also enjoy Nigerian suya.

Balancing Indian and Nigerian cultures is not difficult, as there are many similarities and despite surface-level differences like traditional attire or customs, at the core, we are all the same. I try to blend both cultures by incorporating elements like saris with Ankara tops or combining Jollof biryani with suya chicken.

This approach, emphasising common ground, also reflects in business. Running restaurants in Nigeria guided me in navigating cultural nuances and was valuable when working on our new movie series in India. Business is business, and it’s about how you navigate and adapt, which growing up in Nigeria has greatly prepared me for.

As a first-time director, what do you believe contributed to the valuable lessons you’ve learned and what can aspiring female filmmakers draw from your achievements?

I think if anybody ever says they’re not nervous, scared, that is not true. Everyone experiences nervousness and fear, and that’s true for me as well. However, my guiding principle, inspired by Lisa Nichols, a Law of Attraction coach, is that if something doesn’t scare you, there’s little point in doing it.

I was genuinely scared on day one, but embracing new energy fueled my passion. Being a woman behind the camera adds another layer to the narrative we’re discussing today – proving a point and representing women.

Adding to that, determination played a crucial role for me. Despite facing challenges, I learned to trust my instincts, a unique strength often considered a woman’s superpower. Knowing whom to trust, identifying competence, and having a guiding force were vital.

How did you handle multitasking and comfortably juggle all these responsibilities?

There’s a saying, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” During the filming of Namaste Wahala, I had my son, and surprisingly, I accomplished more then when I was pregnant.

With Postcards, I had just given birth but still managed to make a movie. It’s ironic, but it seems the more you do, the more you can do. Time becomes precious, and you become more focused. I live by the motto ‘Go big or go home.’ If it’s not impactful or valuable in time, why leave my baby? The stakes feel higher when you’re doing more.

How did you manage being a mother and shooting movies, considering motherhood is a full-time job on its own?

It is, but I have a strong support system. I have a dedicated team both behind and on the scenes. My husband, a feminist and my partner for 14 years, plays a crucial role. We’ve learned to balance and support each other.

Having a good team and support network is vital. I’ve also mastered working with different timings. During movie shoots, I may spend a whole month on set, but for projects like Postcard, I can work from home. It’s about mental positioning, using time wisely, and being present without guilt.

As a woman, has your identity shaped your storytelling in any way?

Being a woman undoubtedly influences my storytelling by offering a unique perspective. Collaborating with a male Director of Photography proved beneficial, as our viewpoints often diverged on certain aspects. Gender plays a role in depicting fights or actions while on set, aligning with how women and men approach such situations based on lived experiences.

Also breaking a stereotype, I demonstrated that a boss can exude feminine energy, challenging the notion of aggression or yelling as a prerequisite for leadership. I believe in the power of subtlety; a single glance can be as effective as a loud command. The ability to multitask and pay attention to detail, often considered superpowers, contributes to changing the narrative. Multitasking and attention to detail, often associated with feminine qualities, contribute to altering the narrative surrounding leadership.

How did you secure financing for shooting a movie in Nigeria and India?

Securing funds for the project was challenging, especially considering the current situation in Lagos. However, the success of Namaste Wahala made the process smoother the second time.

I had supporters who believed in both the project and me, willing to invest. While the hustle is constant, having a proven track record makes things easier. It’s crucial to be meticulous – having a business plan and a budget is essential.

Namaste Wahala also taught me the importance of hiring professionals to guide spending wisely. Despite my tendency to hurry, I believe in efficient filmmaking, aiming for one or two takes. This approach not only saves time but also proves cost-effective. In my productions, I’ve observed that more takes rarely result in improved performances. I encourage actors to be natural, letting their true selves shine through. I like when people act as themselves and be, not do.

Namaste Wahala resonated with people from various regions across Nigeria and the world at large. How does cinema contribute to fostering cultural understanding and unity globally?

Oh, I think it’s very important. I say this a lot and maybe I’ll repeat it, but I think the two forms of impact and the two ways to influence the world, influence mass audiences, influence everyone is through politics and through entertainment; two ways. Those are the best ways.

Whatever you’re watching in life, it goes into your system. And like right now, there’s a lot of content going out there that’s real. Sometimes I feel like we’re showing unhappy endings and that’s reality and there’s nothing wrong with that.

From my side, my content, I like to put out happy endings, I like to put out joy because I feel like that’s also what I do as a motivational speaker. Being happy is an inherent thing we have as a child, and I want to continue putting that out there. What you watch is what you’re taking in, it’s what you’re being influenced with and I definitely think it plays a huge part. And we as filmmakers have a responsibility to make sure the messages we’re putting out there are good because it is influencing the world because film indeed holds the power to influence the world.

What are your hopes for female representation in the future of this industry?

I admire the progress of Nollywood, where women hold significant positions of power. Unlike Bollywood’s historical male dominance, Nollywood showcases a more balanced landscape.

In my experience shooting in India, I noticed a scarcity of female team members. However, I am committed to actively involving more women in my teams moving forward. Culturally, Nollywood emphasises female empowerment, a stark contrast to the gradual shift in Bollywood. Nollywood’s rise signifies a space where women not only participate but also lead—an encouraging trend that sets it apart.

How would you advise women who are afraid to take bold steps, like you did?

As Lisa Nichols would advise, “Be scared but do it anyways.” Even I felt fear today, despite being on stage numerous times. Recently, I entered the Big Brother house and taught happiness live on TV to millions of viewers. When I opened the doorbell, I knew millions were watching.

Putting Namaste Wahala on Netflix reached a global audience of about 260 million people. I didn’t anticipate this, coming from a background as a restaurateur. Despite exposing my weaknesses and strengths, I’m here today, happy. People genuinely want you to succeed; they’re supportive. Be kind, work hard, and take the leap even when scared, because if you’re not scared, it’s not worth it.

This movie has thrust you into the limelight globally. What significance does this recognition hold for women in the film industry, especially on International Women’s Day? How should we celebrate and support our women?

I am thrilled with where we stand on International Women’s Day. It feels normalised now, compared to the battles we fought when I was younger. I appreciate being interviewed as a woman, with my niece filming, aspiring to be a DoP. Few women are DoPs, but being a woman shouldn’t hinder you. I believe women can achieve more. After all, they give birth; can men do that? You can truly do it all.

You’ve depicted filmmaking as accessible to anyone, but were there challenges that made you want to quit? How did you regain your strength to persevere?

It wasn’t all rosy; my lowest moments were in the restaurant industry during seven years. I’ve learned from experience that ups and downs are inevitable. Occasionally, I’d lose my cool, but it was okay; it was part of growth. There’s always a solution, even if it means improvising on set. If things don’t go as planned, we rise the next day and keep going.

Accept that problems will arise, like missing props on set. Instead of getting emotional, manage the situation, find alternatives, and keep moving forward. Challenges are inevitable, but they are opportunities for growth.

Any final thoughts?

In a nutshell: be grateful, dream big, and just go for it, even if it scares you.

● Being on set for the first time, I was both a director and a student, but the experience was invaluable

● Selling my restaurant, Bistro 7, after running it for seven years, I ventured into filmmaking with the idea of merging Nollywood and Bollywood.

● Unlike the previous shoot in Lagos for Namaste Wahala, about 80 percent of the new show, Postcards, was filmed in Bombay. I wanted a distinct approach—steering away from the tree-dancing, cheese, and romance of Namaste Wahala, the focus is now on drama.

● Balancing Indian and Nigerian cultures is not difficult, as there are many similarities.