Tabula Rasa/Kora Kagazz makes US premiere at Cinequest film festival

Set in a juvenile home, the film explores the lives of two broken people who find redemption through their unusual relationship.

Sunita Sohrabji

SAN JOSE, California — Tabula Rasa, also known Kora Kagazz, will make its US premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival here Aug. 20.

Billed as a marquee film at the annual festival, Kora Kagazz — Blank Paper — revolves around the life of Sandhya, (played by Aishani Yadav) an orphan who is brought to a juvenile home in Mumbai after she kills her caregiver, an abusive uncle, with a statue she has won from school for her poetry.

At the juvenile home, the struggling girl slowly befriends Vivek, (played by Rajat Kapoor) an out-of-work thespian who struggles to meet the expectations of people who remember his late father, a famous actor. Vivek draws out Sandhya after discovering her secret notebook of poetry, and asks her to write the script for a school play.

Kora Kagazz also features the actress Swastika Mukherjee as Divya the headmistress, who struggles to keep open the juvenile home amid faltering finances.

Aishani Yadav plays Sandhya, an orphan who is brought to a juvenile home after killing her abusive uncle. (photo courtesy of director Nawneet Ranjan)

The film explores multiple themes: farmer suicide, the complexities of family bonds, the impact of trauma, and the institutionalization of young girls. While all the girls at the home struggle with their demons, there is mirth and playfulness in their interactions with one another. One particularly evocative scene finds Sandhya befriending her nemesis. The two sneak out of the juvenile home and escape to the beach. The joy and freedom they experience with each other becomes a pivotal point in the film.

In an interview with New India Abroad, director Nawneet Ranjan — who wrote the film with Donna Laemmlen — said he had spent a lot of time volunteering in juvenile homes in Mumbai via his social impact project Dharavi Diary which seeks to educate youngsters living in impoverished areas STEM skills, as well as the arts.

“I have been using stories and technology to empower lower income communities and schools to become better equipped with leadership skills and technology skills,” said the director. “So while working in these juvenile homes in Mumbai, and in lower income communities, I thought: what if we play around with this idea, how we can get inspired from each other and make a perspective shift. And so that was the inspiration for this film.”

Director Nawneet Ranjan (left) speaks with actor Rajat Kapoor. (photo courtesy of Nawneet Ranjan)

Dharavi Diary also has a mobile unit in which Ranjan and his team travel to villages to teach from a van equipped with a variety of lessons.


NIA: Is Sandhya based on a girl you met during your work at juvenile homes?

Ranjan: Not all of her, but yeah, some slices from here and there as we do to develop fiction narrative. The inspiration for the film came progressively, with my conversations with the girls and hearing their stories.

I have met a lot of people like Vivek, who have to struggle to make a livelihood. Living, loving, and pursuing your dreams is tough in the present world.

NIA: Sandhya is the collateral damage of two people who committed suicide because of climate change's impact to their farms. Could you talk about what you have seen empirically as to how climate change is reshaping India's farms and farmers?

Ranjan: Climate change has impacted the cycle of weather. We don’t have four seasons anymore, just too much heat and too much rain. Some areas overflood while others experience drought.

Farmers used to have two or three seasons of crop harvest. Now they are lucky to have one. And competing in the global marketplace means they often don’t get the right price for what they produce.

So farmers are migrating, moving to a city nearby to work in the informal sector as household or labor or daily wage workers.

NIA: One overarching theme of the film is keeping the juvenile home financially afloat. Is there no support from government?

Ranjan: These kinds of juvenile homes receive little funding from the government. Our prison systems and these juvenile homes are really broken and nobody talks about it. Many of the girls in these homes have parents who are not able to financially support them. And they’ve done something wrong, so they’ve landed up there, and loopholes in our legal system keep them there.

NIA: What do you hope viewers will come away with after watching Kora Kagazz?

Ranjan: An understanding that wherever you are in life, you can always restart. You can start with a blank slate and get inspiration from anywhere. Everything is an experience; you have to learn and unlearn because of that experience. Take the best out of it and move on.

Cinequest will feature two screenings of Tabula Rasa/Kora Kagazz: on Aug. 20, 3:45 pmat the California Theatre, San Jose; and Aug. 26, 6:25 pm at the Mountain View ShowPlace ICON Theatre & Kitchen. The filmmakers will attend both events and participate in a Q/A after each screening.

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