Storyteller Film's A Big Little Murder is the only finalist from India in the current affairs section at the New York Festivals TV & Film Awards 2020. A Big Little Murder investigates India's first high profile school killing (Gurugram 2017), where a seven-year-old boy was found with his throat slit inside his school washroom. Over 200+ award-winning Jury members from leading international broadcast and film companies selected this year's finalists from over 50 nations.
SheThePeople speaks to Mayurica Biswas, the woman behind Storyteller Films, about her film's selection into the prestigious nominees and how she came to love the true crime genre. Biswas is an Indian journalist and broadcast television writer-director-producer, with more than 19 years of experience. As a creative director in the factual space, Mayurica has written and directed many documentaries that have been distributed worldwide for AETN, National Geographic, History TV and others. Some edited snippets from the conversation.
How has your journey been as a documentary filmmaker?
As documentary filmmakers, it's been an enriching and fascinating journey so far. I've been around for almost two decades in the factual space. And I would like to think that my team and I are journalists by default and storytellers by design. We often spend months following a story and crafting a narrative. Our strength lies in the ability to dig deep because when it comes to documentaries; research, access and real voices are what make a compelling story.
My passion for the pursuit of the truth has led me towards true-crime narratives. My first documentary with National Geographic Channel International, Inside: Mumbai Terror Attacks revisited the world's biggest terror attack after 9/11 on its first anniversary. I have written and directed many documentaries such as Jars Murderer on Hong Kong's first serial killer; The Masseuse Murders on Thailand's Jack-the-Ripper, Voices under the Mango Tree on the Badaun hangings, Aarushi – Beyond Reasonable Doubt and the most current being Crime Science (3-part non-fiction anthology on the future of policing and forensics in Asia).
My inspiration wasn't always to make crime documentaries. A series that I hold very close to my heart is 'Line of Duty', where we had unparalleled access to life along India's frontiers. Between 2004 and 2006, my team and I were experiencing a military junkie's dream. This truly improved our documentary skills. Among many firsts, we were on board a submarine to film sub-surface warfare exercises at sea; flew Sukhoi exercise sorties to capture war exercises in the sky; filmed life on the forward posts in the Siachen glacier. And had tremendous access to tank battles in the deserts.
I was, in fact, happy to direct a series that chronicled 100 years of Bollywood. It was very distinct from a mega engineering story that chronicled for 18 months, the making of the world's fastest built airport.
An incredibly important person in every documentary filmmaker's life is the commissioning editor / executive producer of their films. It was my great fortune of working with some of the best minds in the industry, including Niret Alva and Pria Somiah Alva from Miditech and Mok Choy Lin from CNA, Singapore.
A good commissioning editor doesn't turn your films into theirs. Instead, they chip away the rough ends to take it to the next level. My journey has been exciting, fascinating and fulfilling, where making every film felt like going into a world I had never been before, rising with more insight into it. The editor of the film, Anupama Chabukswar, made the film into what it is today.
What kind of challenges if any did you face while making your film, e.g. seeking funding, promotion, etc.?
Our challenge lies in gaining the confidence of our subjects. We need our protagonists to feel comfortable and trust us with their narrative. In an age where agendas determine reportage, it takes time for people to realize that we come to them with a clean slate.
I am very proud of a film like Aarushi – Beyond Reasonable Doubt, where the Talwars, as well as the CBI officers, have been very open and honest on camera. It didn't happen overnight with one interview. It took several sessions over a year and a half.
I am happy that documentaries are gaining in popularity in India and the streaming platforms can take credit for it. This is because documentaries no longer have to be dull, monotonous, badly shot or strung together by a didactic narrator anymore. They are still about real people in real scenarios. But the characters are engaging, their narratives gripping, and they achieve to create that FOMO if you're not watching.
I am happy that documentaries are gaining in popularity in India and the streaming platforms can take credit for it.
I hope this trend continues in India and documentaries become more commercially viable and even profitable.
Can you tell us a little about your film, A Big Little Murder? What inspired you to undertake this topic/issue?
A Big Little Murder investigates India's first high profile school killing, where a seven-year-old boy was found with his throat slit inside his school washroom. It brings alive every parent's worst nightmare. 'Who wanted the little boy dead and why?' is the question the documentary tries to answer. It's also the story of two school kids, two investigations, two suspects and two families caught in a shocking twist of fate.
It took us almost a year to put this story together as we wanted to go beyond chronicling of a murder investigation. Beyond a "who-did-it", we tried to probe into the "why" of the murder. My darkest fear as a mother of a six-year-old came alive and indeed resonated with her.
This documentary is the first time that the parents of the accused agreed to be extensively interviewed on camera. It is also where you will hear voices that you have not heard before of friends, neighbours, teachers and principals. It shows incriminating pieces of evidence that hold the potential to change the legal semblance of the case. And also reveal the systemic failure of every institution in our society meant to nurture and safeguard the physical and emotional well being of our children.
I agree that it is a tough watch. But firmly believe that it is a mandated viewing for anyone who is invested in the safety of children today. It's for you to watch and decide, and trigger conversations around it.
A Big Little Murder shows incriminating pieces of evidence that hold the potential to change the legal semblance of the case. And also reveal the systemic failure of every institution in our society meant to nurture and safeguard the physical and emotional well being of our children.
What are some of your favourite documentaries and why?
In the true-crime space, I loved Netflix's Making a Murderer and Amanda Knox and HBO's Jinx. The first one was a format breaker in every sense. While the second and third are emblematic of the power of access, and the use of archive in a seamless manner. I was also very inspired by the stories which were based on real events but were recreated using actors and settings. For instance, Chernobyl and Mind Hunter are two of my favourites.
What would you like aspiring women documentary filmmakers to know about the industry? Would you like to suggest some tips and tricks of the trade for future filmmakers?
In terms of tips and tricks, I think given the gestation period of all our films and the discipline that goes into delivering it, it would be best to treat every film as your baby.
Saumya Rastogi is an intern with SheThePeople.TV