Leaning into a desire to explore themes of fertility and the pervasive silence that often surrounds the difficult aspects of the subject, editor turned director Suga Suppiah drew from key experiences from her own upbringing for her sophomore short Ratthum (Blood). Screening at the Tribeca film festival Ratthum (Blood) is set against the backdrop of a Tamil coming-of-age ceremony where a woman’s worth and value is based on her ability to have children – something she’s also unquestionably expected to want. Suppiah wanted to open the door to a new narrative of understanding around all of the prohibitive and demeaning connotations we find around women unable to conceive, especially from a South Asian perspective. Bright and colourful with beautifully witty dialogue, Ratthum attempts to broach the chasms of generational understanding which can be so damaging whilst addressing an issue we need to hear about more often. Ahead of the film’s premiere at Tribeca today, we spoke to Suppiah about performing a complete rewrite of her script to focus on the themes that were most important to her, the overwhelming benefits of setting aside time for rehearsals on a short and how she struggled to let go of a certain line in her film.

So, tell me, where did this idea originate from?

It all started with the ceremony. This is something that most Tamil girls go through when they first get their period. I went through the ceremony as did most of my Tamil girlfriends so the script really started around a memory of the first one I went to which was my best friend’s. We were very young, around 10, and no one told us what was going on. I was told that my best friend had become a woman and I think I was jealous because I was older and it didn’t make much sense to me. So, the original permutations of the script revolved around a very young girl going through the ceremony and her confusion about what was going on. However, I realised that while it was a funnier script, it was mocking what the ceremony was and what these kids were going through rather than what the ceremony represented.

Then through the pandemic, I really struggled having my son and I had that time to reflect on the ceremony which is a celebration of fertility, but this is a culture that doesn’t talk about sex, doesn’t talk about menstruation, doesn’t talk about anything other than fertility and having babies. This is the woman’s role and I was thinking about the lack of place in our culture for these women who either can’t or don’t want to have children or who are trying and failing.

I just wanted to write a story, using my culture as the structure, for a wider comment on society and women in society.

After deciding to change tact on the script, how did it evolve into its final form?

It was a complete rewrite, in the original script the two leads were 10 and 11. One was a little boy and the was a little girl who was going through a ceremony. The boy was white so very much an outsider looking into this culture but it just didn’t work. The themes that I wanted to talk about wouldn’t be relevant to these kids and I needed the women who come together to put this ceremony together to be the storytellers. That’s when it became centred around a woman trying to conceive. I told the actors this is an IVF cycle that you guys are going through so put yourselves in that mind space. With IVF you are putting an egg and a sperm together so it is a foetus and from day one, you’re pregnant, and in that sacred little bubble. These issues around fertility resonated with me and with people I showed the script to. A lot of my friends have gone through these issues yet no one really talks about it. I just wanted to write a story, using my culture as the structure, for a wider comment on society and women in society.

Ratthum is a BFI Network supported film. Once you’d written the script how did you get involved with them and how did then that progress into the production?

It was really quick, I wrote this script when I was on maternity leave. The BFI had announced that there was only going to be one funding round for that year and I believe it was Thursday and the deadline was Monday! I was happy with the script but I didn’t have a producer or anything organised so I put a call out on Facebook through a South Asian filmmakers group saying, “This is the logline of the script. Is anyone interested?” Daljinder Johal, a producer from a theatre background, replied saying she was happy to have a read through and she just loved the script. She does a lot of work with mental health in the South Asian community and the queer community so it just seemed like the right fit. In the past when I’ve applied for funding I’ve just used a producer to do the budget but this was much more than that. It was a real collaboration. We put it all in and then sat and waited until we got an email with the amount of money we had been awarded and then we just had to go and make it!

In the past when I’ve applied for funding I’ve just used a producer to do the budget but this was much more than that. It was a real collaboration.

I’d like to focus on your casting. I love the incredible breadth of generations represented in the film, how did you look to find the right people?

We worked with Leah Harrison who’s an amazing casting director. This is only the second short I’ve ever directed so I was very green and it was the first time I was working with a casting director. She really held my hand through the process and I trusted who she put in front of me. We did a general street casting call as well as advertising through Spotlight and Leah then put together a range of actors for each girl. The role of Lani was originally written for a 16 year old but we were struggling with budget and time constraints which are much harder working with younger actors so we looked at a whole range of actors and I absolutely loved Shruthi Yasothan’s audition. When we were in rehearsals there was such great chemistry between her and Bairavi Manoharan who plays Shanthi, they just bounced off each other and the energy was great.

As it’s only your second time directing, how do you find it on set? How do you prepare the scenes and the actual production?

I come from an editing background so I’ve been on set quite a bit but always in the background, usually very grumpily asking why everything is taking so long. So I will say it was a challenge learning that patience because it does take time to do things. I always like a rehearsal, I don’t think enough shorts do rehearsals, and understand why, but we got to play with things in the rehearsal that we pulled onto set and I just can’t recommend that enough. It meant the actors knew what they were doing and it was just a case of getting the crew together. I’d spoken to Ailsa Aikoa our DP beforehand and unfortunately, my director’s monitor went down within the first hour of shooting but I just really trusted Ailsa and what she got. For the bedroom scene, we specifically chose a location which had a much larger bedroom than we needed so we could break it up. Normally, English houses are tiny so filming two girls sitting in a bed for a very long time would just be single, double, single, single, double for the entire thing leaving no room to be creative.

We got to play with things in the rehearsal that we pulled onto set and I just can’t recommend that enough.

I love your camera work at the moment where Shanthi is explaining it isn’t her period and we are moving from person to person watching their understanding of the situation. Was that a sequence which was meticulously planned out?

I actually didn’t quite get what I wanted there because unfortunately, we had to delay the shoot by three weeks because both my toddler son and I had bronchitis. Then we unfortunately landed on the weekend before Christmas where there were train strikes and snow. Ideally, I wanted a lot more extras in that scene but we just couldn’t get them. So it was really just honing in on what we had and what each look represented. In the edit my Editor Elise Butt and I played around with the order of who looks when and what those looks were, who gives it away and that sort of thing. That specific scene was less planned on the shoot and more in the edit.

Did you find that the edit changed quite a lot of the film’s structure?

Not particularly, I think because I come from an editing background I very much shot what I wanted to be in the edit. I knew that there were a couple of things that I put in the shot list which I knew I wanted as an option in the edit, such as transitions between scenes. But overall, I would say most of it is pretty close to what I had planned. In the original cut of the film Shanthi actually says, “It’s not a period, it’s a miscarriage.” A good friend of mine then said that we didn’t need it which, as an editor, was akin to killing your baby. I worried if we lost that line people wouldn’t get it then our talent executive from the BFI also suggested taking it out. However, once I came to accept the loss, I think it was a much more powerful film without it.

It is so poignant watching everyone’s understanding of what is happening without it overtly being mentioned.

That was really important for us because I think for a long time South Asians, especially elder women and mothers, have been represented as very uptight on screen. The film very purposefully does have those characters who worry about what people think but it was really important for me to have the matriarch being the one that steps in and opens that door for everyone.

Ratthum deals with themes and issues we rarely see on the big screen despite their prevalence, how have you found the reception so far?

We’ve been so thrilled, everyone’s really loved it. Obviously, it’s not public yet and we have our premiere at Tribeca which we are over the moon about. The success has been surprising because it’s a very personal story to me and it’s hard being that vulnerable, especially coming from an editor’s background where it’s usually just me just tapping away.

And what does that Tribeca premiere for the film mean to you?

Oh, it’s such an honour, we’re so lucky and our screening has sold out so they have put on another one. I’ve cut a lot of shorts and I think they are so unpredictable. There’s so much effort and money which go into them and so little return in terms of financial gain. They’re often used to build on to bigger things. To be in something like Tribeca is so exciting and it also pushes us to consider what we can do that’s more ambitious, which is what Daljinder and I are planning now.

So what has this experience motivated you to work on next?

We’ve just put in another script for a funding round. I haven’t written this one. It is a sibling story about transition and grieving that person who they knew and accepting the new person for who they are. I’m also writing another script, I don’t know if it’s going to be a short or a feature. People are telling me to write it as a feature but that’s a very daunting task at the moment so we’ll see how we go.

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