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Laura Blum

Laura is a festival correspondent covering films and the festival circuit for She also publishes on Thalo



17th Annual New York Indian Film Festival: Filmmakers Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar Talk “Turtle”

It’s Saturday afternoon at the New York Indian Film Festival, and the crowd is feeling inspired. Which is par for the course at this thoughtfully curated annual showcase of India-themed arthouse cinema, but perhaps less so at a powwow about depression. The Marathi film Turtle (Kaasav) has just stirred our souls with its message about the therapeutic power of love. Now, during the Q&A, it’s all we can do to keep from leaping from our chairs and hugging the award-winning duo that made it, screenwriter Sumitra Bhave and her co-director, Sunil Sukthankar.

The juxtaposition of the melancholic and the unburdened is apt. Turtle, set in sunny, briny Goa, follows a suicidal youth (Alok Rajwade) and a soon-to-be divorcee, Janaki (Irawati Harshe), who takes him into the beach house where she has come to recover from her own bout of despair. Through her patient, unobtrusive caring and nonjudgmental listening, Janaki helps nurse her young charge – who mostly refuses to talk -- back to some semblance of emotional health.  

The issue of depression has long alarmed Bhave, a trained social worker and student of the human mind. “Technology has brought thousands of contacts to the fingertips of each one of us, but we are so lonely,” says the septuagenarian filmmaker. “We are all very confused about the values of our lives, and that is bringing in depression,” she adds, noting among other factors the contradictory pulls of simplicity and prosperity in a globalized world. “I think it’s a phenomenon all over the world today…for everybody, even small children. There’s no age barrier these days.”

According to the World Health Organziation, currently more than 300 million people are living with depression, an uptick of more than 18 percent between 2005 and 2015. The WHO ranks depression as the leading cause of ill health and disability around the globe.

Real life experiences of depression informed Turtle’s story development and performances. During the 15-day rehearsal leading up to the shoot, the cast and crew shared insights about depressed people in their intimate spheres. Take Rajwade for example. As Sukthankar relays, the actor drew on his friends in the experimental theatrical that he directs, many of whom “are going through different phases of depression, particularly those who are creative and intelligent.” Sukthankar notes that Rajwade refrained from the dramatic overreach that all too often plagues filmed portrayals of people with mental illness, because of his personal relationships and understanding.

Such understanding is the point of Bhave and Sukthankar’s interactive filmmaking process, which goes past the preparatory workshop phase. “I like all my crew members and actors and everyone related to the film to identify with and fully accept what is written here and what they are going to perform,” says Bhave. “We are constantly having all kinds of discussions in each and every scene, even sometimes with our music director and cameraman.”

By the same token, Turtle champions being attuned to and accepting of others. Its titular reptile offers a multi-faceted metaphor as we consider the protective shell that affords refuge from -- but also a safe base for discovering -- the outside world. Similarly, much can be made of the reproductive cycle that separates sea-dwelling mothers from their land-hatched offspring while also suggesting the family bonds that potentially unite all turtles.

As if taking the cue from the ancient species, the character of Janaki feels an almost maternal connection with her troubled guest. Her capacity for self-transcendence partly flows from the volunteer work she has been putting in with the endangered turtle project led by her friend Dattabhau (psychiatrist/producer Dr. Mohan Agashe, who also advised the script).

Asked about her embrace of the sea-dwelling testudine, Bhave points out that it’s “the most nonviolent animal. It never attacks another creature. When it’s threatened it goes in its shell. When the threat is not there, slowly it comes out. We must create that kind of a non-threat all around.”

“This is the oldest living creature and its longevity is the highest among the animals,” she continues, noting that turtles are mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita.

Turtle is a timeless critter of its own, a humanistic drama that’s loaded with psychological truth.