Surya Balakrishnan is a commercial and documentary director. She is admired for her ability to tell profoundly deep stories with casts that can include professional actors and people who have never been in front of a camera.
Her ability to create commercials and films that reveal their characters’ fine emotions, especially connected to challenging topics, makes her a sought after director.
Surya has created commercials for everyone from Amazon to Apple but also spends time on documentary film projects that support local causes. One personal highlight is the feature documentary Right Forward, which captures life for the first girls’ football team from Dharavi, India’s largest slum, and their journey to San Francisco.
We talk to Surya about some of her projects, what’s important to her as a director and what makes a great collaborative environment.
Siemens India: Northern Power Grid
Let’s start off with storytelling. How do you feel about it in film?
I think it’s very important. You can make a film with a five or 50-member crew but unless you have a good story to tell, it’s not going to get people interested enough to watch it and nothing stays with them afterwards. Filmmakers can see how beautiful a film looks and how well it has been cut but I think for regular audiences, what they connect with most is the story. They don’t worry about the technical details. So a good story really is key.
As a director, you have such skill with people who have never been in front of a camera, making them look like authentic actors. Talk to me about this.
I think it could go both ways. It could be a disaster. But the advantage sometimes is they are so raw, they are kind of unaware of the camera but okay with it being there. They don’t get self-conscious of external factors like the crew or a camera boom sticking in their face. I think there is a kind of magic in that.
Amul: Mothers for Mothers
You also seem to have a great talent at creating commercials that reveal their characters’ fine emotions, which are so important to storytelling and impact.
When you work on a project where the script has a lot of heart and thought put into it before you even come to film it, that really makes your work easier because the foundation is already strong. But, of course, every other element comes into play – you’ve got to have the right cast and crew. There are times when I’m used to a certain team and if a few of them are not available for a certain project, I really feel handicapped. So I really strongly feel it’s such a team effort: this is what helps everything fall into place. And it also gives you [as the director] the space to try and create what you set out to do, as you are not worrying about the tiny nitty gritties. If you have the right people to work with, the process becomes easier and you can really focus on the storytelling.
So all this helps to make a great collaborative environment for you. Is there anything else you’d add?
It’s not necessarily about knowing each other well, but if you have the right team, you all set out to create a good film together. If someone is not there with you in vision, then it brings everyone down. Things can go wrong on shoots but if you have the right people with you, the overall process is so much easier.
Siemens India: Innovation
What’s it like when you work with children?
Sometimes you get kids who are pure joy to work with, like the boy in the Siemens Innovation film. It’s usually the most fun when the kids are not the regular advertising, big city ones because they are more raw. When you get the ones who are so easy to work with, even if there are flaws in the performance, their innocence adds to the film.
I know a few people who are absolutely amazing with kids. But to be honest, I just sometimes get good kids to work with.
I know you went to film school in New York and your work feels very global yet also authentically and unmistakably Indian. What it’s like directing in India?
I’ve really only worked in India. While in the U.S. I just went to film school and did a few projects before I came back, so I can’t really make a comparison between working here and elsewhere. In India it’s a lot more chaotic than it is in some other countries, so I sometimes wish we would get a bit more organised but I guess there’s a method in the madness.
As I’m born and bred in Mumbai and understand the people and culture here, it’s easier for me to tell stories of my own space.
Breakthrough: Mission Hazaar
Do most of your commercials and films have to be shot in Hindi and English? And then the voices are mixed, depending on the audience? How does it work?
There are so many languages in India and for certain states, they might dub in the local language for local channels but otherwise Hindi and English have become common to pretty much everyone.
Our regular conversations are also usually a mix of Hindi and English, so that’s carried forward in commercials as well.
What’s it like being a female director on these often quite giant shoots?
Most of the time it’s good. I don’t think I’ve had any trouble but I also think crews are getting more used to seeing women in director positions. I’ve never really faced a problem and I don’t think I get films based on whether or not I’m a woman. I get it if I deserve it. There are more and more women working in every department in this industry – whether art, costumes or camera, so it’s a regular thing now.
Star Sports: Cricket
What are some of the favourite commercials you’ve created?
One of my very favourites is the Star Sports cricket one. There was a magic in the process of making that. We were just a seven-member crew and we travelled for 10 days across the most beautiful parts of northern India. By the third and fourth day everyone really became one team. We had no cast, nothing; we were just finding people on the go. And everyone was looking for ideas, characters and interesting places to shoot.
It was truly a team effort. There were times when someone would find a man on the road and I wouldn’t even need to talk to him, as someone else had already spoken to him, briefed him and he knew exactly what to do. Everyone was constantly out there finding things, going inside people’s houses, asking if we could shoot there for 15 minutes. That remains one of my most favourite projects, because it was a tiny crew and it was literally everyone’s film.
We shot at least 10 times more than actually made the edit. We were up at 4am shooting every day, seeing sunrise, but no one complained about anything. Most of the time in advertising we have really large crews but these kinds of shoots I enjoy the most.
Magic Bus: Right Forward
Tell us about your documentary, Right Forward, that you’ve made for Magic Bus [a non profit that helps youngsters out of poverty in India using activity based programmes].
Magic Bus is an organisation that has been working in communities across India using sports for development for many years now.
Ruchi Narain, filmmaker and producer of Right Forward, is closely associated with the organisation. She got me on board in 2011 when the first girls’ football team of Magic Bus got invited to a sports camp in San Francisco by the Julie Foudy Foundation.
Initially, we didn’t think a lot of the girls [from Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum] would make it – they didn’t have passports because they didn’t have permanent homes. That in itself was quite a task. Thankfully most of them got their passports and visas. It was a treat to see the girls so closely as they made this incredible journey. A lot of the time, their reaction to things there surprised us. It took the girls a while to get used to the space and people but once they did it was a wonderful rollercoaster for them. It was truly an indelible journey.
It was my first documentary and you get to really understand people, because you spend so much time observing them. There was so much to learn from these girls. If you met them, you could never tell they came from poor backgrounds. They have a crazy amount of energy and positivity. I think these things are often a lesson for a lifetime. The film, for me, has been an amazing journey and is very close to my heart.
How did you end up being a director?
I was a fine art student, studying graphic design. But my mum was a social work professor so my brother and I grew up hearing so many stories from her about the work she did. She would always come back home with the most hard-hitting stories, whether it was relief work after a flood, tsunami or plague; we heard all sorts.
As a design student, we had to create logos and other stationery for various products. In one of my final year projects, I decided to make a film along with all the print work. It was for an NGO and I realised the most impact (though an awful film) was made by the film. That’s when I first realised the power of the medium. And that’s what led me to a film course and now to direction. Though I mostly work on advertisements, I hope to devote more time to films that will tell stories that make a difference.