This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Chicago International Film Festival, which took place from Oct. 11 to Oct. 22, screened global films such as Joram, a Hindi survival thriller drama written and directed by Devashish Makhija. The film follows Dasru, a laborer from the Indian state of Jharkhand, on the run with his infant daughter after being framed for murder.
I spoke over Zoom with Makhijafilm and Zee Studios Senior Vice President Ashima Avasthi about Joram and the process of bringing it to Chicago.
Makhija said Joram was the first film he’s had the opportunity to showcase to North American audiences and that he wanted to explore topics America has grappled with before, such as political corruption and Indigenous land disputes.
He explained how he struggled for years to find producers to back his films and how his past work has featured largely independent films.
“The attempt [with Joram] was to make a film that would reach further and wider at a very basic story level,” Makhija said. “I decided to turn it into an adventure crime thriller which has tropes which are actually borrowed from American cinema.”
Makhija highlighted how his partnership with Zee Studios made Joram a much more accessible film internationally due to the studio’s track record in global distribution.
The South Asian-based studio produces 20-30 films a year and has produced films across seven different Indian languages in the past, according to Avasthi.
“While we like to stay very deep rooted in our stories, the emotion [in Joram] was so universal,” Avasthi said. “North America has got a very, very, very informed and matured audience … which is exactly the reason we waited for Chicago International to stream this film to bring this to America.”
Avasthi added that she was particularly pleased with the positive reception and audience engagement the film has received at festival screenings in Rotterdam, Edinburgh and Melbourne.
Avasthi said that Zee Studios has been producing and distributing films for a few decades now, and while the company initially focused on typical Indian cinema, Joram is an indicator of the studio’s new direction.
“The last few years, we have focused as a studio on telling stories that sort of break boundaries, transcend boundaries and have a global language,” Avasthi said. “It's the stories that can travel.”
In its examination of political conflict, Joram addresses topics such as government corruption, morality and tribal displacement. Makhija said the survival thriller elements prevalent in the film are meant to reel in audiences to ask difficult questions surrounding such topics.
“One of my actors said we’ve smuggled a lot of difficult questions into a film whose veneer is a very accessible, thrilling, entertaining video,” Makhija said. “So we're hoping these smarter questions will actually travel back with audiences home and they'll ask themselves these things and get a little troubled by it.”
Makhija spoke at length about his upbringing. He said he is originally from Sindh, a province located in the southeastern region of Pakistan, and that both of his parent’s families were displaced during the partition of India.
He said, as a result, he does not speak the mother tongue of many of the places where his films are based — a point of contention early in his career.
“I proceed with a lot of caution and a lot of humility and a lot of respect for the people whose stories I'm telling because the stories are not mine,” Makhija said. “The only way I can tell these stories is by making them a little universal, making them a little accessible, so that I become that bridge between people.”