Dee's 'Whirlpool': A promising start to a new directorial journey

Deepthy Nirmala
Deepthy Nirmala with the crew of Whirlpool. Photo: Special Arrangement

Deepthy Nirmala James, affectionately known as Dee, and the daughter of actor Ponnamma Babu, recently organized a preview of her short film 'Whirlpool' in Kochi, earning widespread acclaim. As a newcomer in the field, Dee has high hopes for her project and exudes confidence in its success. Currently residing in Australia with her husband and family, Dee recently shared insights about her short film and the creative journey behind it in an interview with Onmanorama.

Can you give a small brief about your short film, 'Whirlpool'?
Whirlpool is a psychological drama with a female lead. It's about a woman living an ordinary life until she's hit with some shocking news that turns everything upside down. Basically, it's about her realizing her husband might not be who she thought he was. I wrote and directed this short film. I've been into storytelling since I was a kid and always dreamed of getting into feature films. So, in 2021, I took a course in Australia to get closer to that dream, and I've spent the last four years working on this film. The idea for it actually came up during a casual conversation with my brother, and things just took off from there.

The title card of 'Whirlpool'. Photo: Special Arrangement

How did you decide on doing a psychological drama?
Creating a psychological drama wasn't really planned from the start. The story just grew on me, and I felt it had a unique angle. Most stories tend to come from the victim's perspective, but I wanted to explore how a close family member of the accused might feel. So, I thought my story idea was a good fit. I finished writing the story first, then got it ready for editing. After that, I shared it with folks here in Australia, and to my surprise, they loved it. The response was great, and many wanted to work on it with me. I developed the story earlier this year, and my husband and I took on the production of the short film. Back when I began this journey four years ago, my sole focus was clear: I wanted to dive into the world of cinema and get myself ready. I put in a lot of groundwork and research. Once I felt confident that I was prepared, I made the decision to create a short film.

You mentioned your deep passion for cinema. Can we expect a full-fledged movie as your next project?
Certainly, I currently have two story ideas in mind and I'm actively working on them. As for my plans in Malayalam cinema, I haven't reached a final decision yet. However, at this moment, I'm inclined to explore and undertake more projects within Australia itself.

The crew of 'Whirlpool'. Photo: Special Arrangement

Did you consider acting in your short film, and can you share how the casting process was carried out?
Oh no, not at all. The story is about an Italian family, but the movie is all in English, and it's got a completely English cast. I'm the director and writer, and it's just something I wanted to try out. Both my parents are into the arts, so I guess it's in my blood. When we were looking for actors, we did it the regular way – got a casting director and put out the word. Applications started rolling in, and we had to narrow it down from there. For the main part, we had around 48 people apply on the first day alone. After that, we did face-to-face auditions in a studio, and that's where I crossed paths with Renee, our leading lady. All our cast members are professionally trained actors.

After completing the film and watching it, setting aside your role as the writer-director, how did you feel? Did you have confidence in the final product?
Yes, I was fully confident during the shoot. While shooting, the actor's performance was so moving that it brought tears to my eyes. Here's what went down: We were shooting this really emotional scene on the first day of filming, and we'd rehearsed it a bunch because I really wanted to nail it in just one take, considering all the factors at play. Well, the actor aced it on the very first take, and it was just beautifully done. I couldn't help myself; I cried right there on set and went over to give her a big hug. Then my Director of Photography, Clay Antonio, asked me if I'd shed a tear during the scene. I admitted I did, and he told me it got to him too – he felt the same way I did. I had a solid vision from the get-go. It can be quite a challenge, especially when you're not shooting in chronological order. Even the actors might not always be sure about the big picture. But as the director, I had a crystal-clear vision of every aspect of the movie.

Have you faced any challenges as a female director and that too in a different country?
Well, honestly, I'm a newcomer, and I can't speak for others, but I haven't personally encountered any discrimination or specific challenges as a female director. In fact, most of the folks I've worked with had a lot more experience in the field than I did. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had such a supportive crew, and we all collaborated effectively.

Even when I visited Kerala, I met up with Liju Prabhakar to discuss the possibility of colour grading the short film. He watched my work, loved it, and even with his packed schedule, he agreed to come on board and work with us. It was a great experience. He held a deep respect for me as a director. Even those who attended the preview were genuinely impressed by the film. So, I can honestly say that I never encountered any form of discrimination.

A shot from 'Whirlpool'. Photo: Special Arrangement

How did your parents react to your short film?
At first, they didn't quite know what was going on, but when I filled them in on the short movie, they got super excited to watch it. They were so proud and happy that I'd made it. When people were congratulating me during the preview, you could see the pride in their eyes. I was totally confident in my work because I'd put in so much effort.

Do you intend to pursue a full-fledged career as a director from now on?
I'm actually on a break from my regular job right now, and my colleagues have been really cool about it, saying I'm welcome back anytime. But, you know, my heart's set on cinema, so I'm excited to see how things pan out. My family's been amazing through all of this. It hasn't been easy managing this project in both India and Australia. But people back in Kerala have been incredibly supportive. It took them a bit to get used to the different technology we used in the film, but they caught on, and everything fell into place.

What's super cool is that my 12-year-old daughter, Amanda, and I teamed up for the production design of the film. She's like a hundred times more creative than I am. She's been a massive help, and she even wrapped up the last part of the script for me – that's how creative she is!

Why did you name the film 'Whirlpool'?
'Whirlpool' essentially captures a whirlwind of emotions that the main character experiences. She's grappling with anger, denial, depression, and a whole range of feelings. 'Whirlpool' serves as a mirror to her mental state, which is precisely why I chose that title. The story unfolds over a few days, showcasing the events in this lady's life during a chaotic period.

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