Dreaming big for the vulnerable: Chhitra Subramaniamby Vinta Nanda January 20 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 12 secs
Vinta Nanda thinks that one of the greatest pleasures of running The Daily Eye is that you wake up everyday to the fact that there is so much to the world, which you don’t know.
And when it is about someone you call a friend whom you’ve known forever, it’s time to accept that the more you think you know, the less there is that you do.
So here I present to you Chhitra Subramaniam, a familiar name to almost everybody in the business of entertainment, Mumbai, and otherwise a recluse of sorts who is hugely accomplished but always shy to talk about her achievements – always worried that her friends and acquaintances should not think that she’s boasting. So this Madam underplays everything she is about and all the many things that she is capable of doing.
My first encounter with Chhitra was when I was going to be making a film for producer Jhamu Sughand (which never happened btw) and we were introduced to each other. There was an instant connection between us and the friendship has only grown over the years – we don’t meet as often as we should but we both know that we’re just a shout away and will be standing by one another if the need arises. But the need never arises when you’re talking about tough women – I include myself (cheekily) here – since it is we who look after people, we’re almost embarrassed to be taken care of by somebody else.
She has put together so many entertainment projects – it’s countless and I’m going to let her talk about all that herself. But before I turn it over to her, I want to tell all of you that, which she hasn’t spoken about. She doesn’t talk about the fact that she’s a fabulous cook and even greater than that, she’s the best hostess I know. The food she cooks is to die for and when I had first met her, we used to live off the Hummus she would make – I can vouch for it that twenty odd years later, I still have to find someone who does it better than her.
I’m now going to leave you to listen to the lovely conversation that we had and which opened my eyes to so much more about her than I knew. Here you go…
This isn’t a simple interview - so let's start from the very beginning: Where all have you travelled professionally to come to this place in your life?
My career started with Anand Bazaar Patrika (in space-selling - as it was called those days) and I got into advertising - Trikaya Grey. After a short stint there, I went on to Rediffusion and to Ogilvy in Client Servicing. I decided to take a long 5-year sabbatical when I got pregnant. It was important for me to be totally focused on my child. As a working girl - I started working at the age of 13 - this sabbatical proved to be the hardest for me. And, at the same time the most beautiful. It took me on a self-exploration journey, and I started a craft and cookery class for young kids - 3 years to 7 year olds. This was to primarily engage my son & myself in activities we could do together. The class turned out quite well. In fact, my son loves cooking and is a great cook.
Around the 5th year of the sabbatical, I was keen to get back to full time working, but had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to get back to advertising and I thought of several things but none seemed to work out. It so happened at that time, I was excited about Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Bela Segal - Sanjay Leela Bansali’s sister, is a very dear friend. She called me and said I should work with Sanjay, as he needed someone on his Production team, on the business side of his company. My reaction was, “I don’t know the P of Production”. But Bela and Sanjay are incredible people with immense belief and love. They said, "You will learn".
I am supremely grateful to them for literally picking me up from nowhere and instilling belief in me and having faith in me when I had none (as a professional in this field). Sanjay taught me so much and so patiently. He is my film Guru.
The rest is history as they say. I joined Jhamu Sugandh thereafter - and was the executive Producer on Filhaal. Meghana Gulzar’s first and my first (physical production) and it was just the best time.
From there, I worked with Jaya Bachchan on Mr. Amitabh Bachchan's documentary (as the line producer) - this was scripted and directed by the wonderful Khalid Mohammed. The journey then went on to Ram Gopal Varma's company called Factory, as Head of Production. Eight movies later, I joined Percept Picture Company as Business Head - Movies. Twelve movies later I joined Studio 18/ Viacom 18 as Vice President Production.
From there, my journey took a shift and I joined Turner International (Pogo & Cartoon Network), where I was in charge of Original Content and eventually, I was heading 4 silos. Hundreds of hours of content production and five years later, I was back on the road and itching to make my own films as an independent producer. Much passion, incredible attachment to projects and drive didn’t get the results. I always say that I failed miserably. But I learnt a lot.
So I went back to looking for a job, and I consulted with Goldie Behl on movies, then joined Wiz Films as Vice President Films and now I am with a South Korean Production house Kross Pictures, as Vice President Creative and Production and as a Co-Producer - there are some films on the anvil. One with Sujoy Ghosh - Directed by Shome Makhija is under production.
Name a few of your pet projects - those that you hold dearest to you?
They are Filhaal, Malamaal Weekly and Hanuman - India's first animation film that broke all records and opened up the animation industry. There are many more but these would be the top three.
How would you tell the world about your childhood and then your teenage years before you started working?
Childhood is filled with memories of shifting around a lot. Dad was in the Bank of India and he got transferred every few years. So, although I was born in Mumbai, I grew up in Japan, Lucknow, Ghaziabad, Allahabad, Kolkata and finally Mumbai. It was ten schools, two colleges and umpteen amounts of packing and settling and shifting before I settled in.
Somewhere this has helped me to adapt very easily to new situations and places and I have a built in agility. I was a very naughty child - that’s what my folks say. As a girl and the middle one among three sisters, I was a tomboy, I wore shorts in conservative Lucknow, cycled around, was the only girl in a boy's football team and the only girl in a boys cricket team. I would run out of home to play all the time. My parents are liberal, but in those times, they felt I was quite a handful.
I was always bubbling with ideas and wanting to create stuff, do stuff. So I started something called a Housie Club at the age of 10 in Lucknow, put up some skits, organized and ran a library, collected money from everyone around and set up cricket teams and matches, organized a mela and got parents to put up stalls in it, while I was also jumping over walls, cooking with the construction workers whom I used to call chachas on their chullah’s and stealing fruit from the neighbors mango trees.
All this while I was also learning Indian classical music - I didn’t quite crack that one even though my dad and his side of the family are phenomenal singers and my dad used to sing with Bhimsen Joshi - they were a duo. Unfortunately, because my granddad passed away early, the entire family's responsibility was thrust upon my dad, who had to give up his passion and opt for a banking job.
Where is everybody from your family now?
My parents live near Mumbai with my elder sister and I live with my Family - Husband Dileep Subramaniam who is a sound designer in movies and my son Maitreya who is a lawyer with Khaitan.
What awakened you during COVID-19 to throw caution to the wind and hit the road running so that you could help people in distress?
I think ‘woke’ was in me right from childhood. I remember showing my hand to a palmist at the age of 8, asking him if I would be able to start an orphanage for girls. It was a dream that consumed me. So throughout, I have done my bit - adopting orphan girls, supporting education of girls in my mom’s village and then starting an animal NGO ‘Samovila Foundation’ for fragile senior dogs and cats. This was five years ago and we have a shelter in Palghar, near Mumbai.
During COVID-19, I was burning from within - the catastrophe that we were witnessing, was huge and I couldn’t sleep. So it started with giving bags of rations around my area and I was keen to help frontline caregivers.
My friend Neil Sadwelkar put out a Facebook post - with many ideas about how the film Industry could help in the lockdown and the first one in his list was using our Vanity Vans lying idle for frontline caregivers. But he wanted someone to take the idea and run with it.
A young editor, Jay Dantara made a WhatApp group, Filmmakers for Frontline care and I called all the Vanity Van guys I knew. Someone recommended Ketan Rawal - truly an angel - who gave 16 vans and I got Producers Guild of India’s CEO Kulmeet Makkar, one of the finest human beings (he passed away in May 2020) and he supported me. The Guild paid double the salaries of the attendants and drivers - the only people who were employed from the Film Industry during the lockdown.
I ran the operations/control room from my home. The women of the police force had no place to go (no toilets and they were doing 12 hour long duties). Women cops - research says - 60% of them suffer from UTI, for this very reason, I am glad we could do this.
Post that, the need in me was to go further and help as much as I could. I am not the doer - it really is about being available to the universe, to do its work. So I stalked all the people who were on ground and doing great work and those connections led me to support community kitchens that were feeding 10000 people a day, through intensive fundraising - and I did that for 7 months.
Then, there was a helpline that someone from Facebook (Raj Mohan) wanted to start and no one came forward, so I put up my hand, set up volunteers for the helpline, got on-ground volunteers and managed that for a few months. I also donated as well as raised money while I ran that.
Plus there were a lot more - many medical cases, help was required for stranded people, etc. I opened myself up to just doing – I had stopped thinking totally. And now I am working on Shramik Samman - a livelihood initiative by Helping Hands Charitable trust - plus of course Pad Squad, which I co-founded.
Which were the people and organizations that you aligned with to reach out to people who were in need and how did you negotiate the confusion that was prevailing at the time?
I aligned with Bilal Khan & Lara Jessani from Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, Project Mumbai - on Vanity Vans - they were the NGO partner, Raj Mohan of Sustainable Green, Anil Hebbar from Helping Hands Charitable Trust, Venkat Krishnan of Living My Promise, Ujwal Thakkar (Ex-Pratham and my mentor and Godfather in the social sector), Marzy Parakh of Live to Give. Today I am collaborating with many on small to big initiatives.
Confusion is only a state of mind. That’s all it is. Clarity comes with purpose and it’s about saying ‘yes’. It’s simple really, to make yourself available to help. I see miracles every day when the intent is pure - people join in and there are great people on this planet, who come forward with incredible help and support. So there was no confusion, just action.
You began a feverish distribution of sanitary pads to girls and women who were at the margins of society - what was it that drove you to do it?
At the time, when people had no food to eat, the thought was who is looking after women and their needs. They are the first ones to sacrifice for the family. Many people were giving sanitary pads and we started doing it too. I believe that If we keep the woman of the house strong, the family stays strong, and if the family stays strong, the community stays strong and so on - the nation stays strong.
How have you consolidated your work now that things are getting better and what do you see ahead as a role for yourself in delivering hope and joy to people in need?
Now, I am focused on a few projects and looking to build sustainability for them. Whether it’s to do with Menstrual Hygiene, Livelihood or Education - so it’s all about focus and deep work. Relief work is on low ebb now, and deep work is taking place.
Personally, I am now dividing my time in a more organized way - my love for movies, producing and my job - plus my love for doing what I can do for people. I don’t know if I am the person to deliver hope. I just do what I can and what I feel is required. It makes me happy. It is selfish really – but it makes me happy when I see people smile.
Tell us about your work as a film producer/creative director?
I lead the development, production and business side of things for Kross Pictures. There is a lot in development; we pitch to a few platforms. I’m working with a couple of Directors on films and shooting is in progress on the film Blind – We are producing it with Sujoy Ghosh. I’m also working on a story that I wrote, which has a producer on board now as well as a writer/director. It is in development.
What is it that you dream for our injured, hurt and shaken Bollywood after the attacks upon it post the SSR tragedy?
I would prefer not to talk about SSR. However my dream for the Indian Film Industry is that we all come together and help each other and also that every film is a success.