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Vineesha Arora Sarin: “There is nothing that stops a liberated woman.”

With Between Mountains, director, writer, producer Vineesha Arora Sarin has created a lyrical visual journey depicting the internal struggle that is so relevant in the time of Covid: the effort not to succumb to our emotional pain as we struggle to overcome grief in a society that discourages expressions of psychological hurt. Starring Bollywood sensation and the director’s husband, Amit Sarin, the film follows a man dealing with the loss of his family and the stages of grieving, from guilt, overwhelming sadness, to the ethereal ability of nature to heal.


While Between Mountains opens with the statement that 700,000 people commit suicide annually, and the lead does contemplate suicide, the film – shot entirely on the director’s cell phone during the pandemic – is about the release of mental anguish and finding a path forward. Sarin, a mother of two who had to worry about interrupting her work as a director during an emotional scene, to locate a bathroom for her child (something most male directors would seldom have to deal with) uses nature in the same way Terrence Malick does, evoking feeling rather than spelling it out. The story is told in a non-linear fashion with two voiceovers. Ms. Sarin spoke to us via zoom from Los Angeles.

What was your vision?

We had a close colleague in June of 2020, commit suicide. He was a young rising Bollywood star and had been my husband’s co-star, Sushant Singh. It was a flurry for three months on social media and was horrible to treat a tragedy like that. It hit home – when sadness happens, you question so many things. The pandemic was raging. The kids were off school. We decided to go on a family road trip. The suicide was on my mind but there was no other plan in place when I began to shoot this without a script in hand. I was out there on the road with my actor-husband and I had my phone in my pocket and the suicide and pandemic weighing on my mind. One morning I woke my husband at 7 am and said, “Get up, I know what I’m shooting.” He questioned me since I’d been shooting the entire time, but I replied, “I know what I’m doing. It’s the story of a widower who goes on a road trip, contemplating suicide, but while out in nature, he begins to heal.” It went from the one-liner to my entire thought, my entire universe, and everything grew from that. I wrote the film very recently in May 2021, so that I could have a smoother editing process. But the impetus was our friend’s suicide followed by our road trip.

I observed that the story is often told without words – rather like Terrence Malick. You use nature to tell an internal story. Why that choice?

I think it’s a woman thing. We are more connected with our inner selves because men have to put on a façade in our world, sadly. Women are more connected with their souls. To find our path is easier as we have a lesser ego than males, too. Women do it through nature, men do it through techno savviness. Both are fine, but women’s stories often center around emotions. As the world returns to its more natural self, I think emotions are more accepted in men too though often as with James Cameron’s use in Avatar more as a Sci-Fi. I recognize that, and one of the several projects in development is one that introduces Hollywood to its first Indian superheroine, and I’ve set her against nature too, not living in The Matrix kind of world, she is free of gadgets, she’s not Ironman at all. She’s got divine powers. I wanted to bring out the Hindu mysticism that I have grown up with. The world is in need of something more profound because of the pandemic. I’m getting many positive reviews from India. My husband is from Varanasi the holy city in India and they are connecting with the story because of the strong spiritual overtones.

Share your youth.

I grew up in New York with three siblings, where all of us were raised to balance our cultural roots with the Western upbringing and lifestyle, thanks to our parents. I went to India for a break post-college, then met my husband and began acting and we opened a production house together. We returned to America three years ago to pursue our Hollywood projects. I had all these aspirations and a year in, we were hit by the worst that the world has seen. I’m the type that likes to pick up and just keep moving. My main mantra of life is to keep creating, for a creator is never uninspired. It doesn’t matter the format or medium, it’s important for me to keep telling stories.

When did you realize that film was going to be impactful on you?

I fell into filmmaking by happenstance. I grew up in New York, the melting pot of this world. So, from very early on, I was exposed to many diverse cultures. And most Indians grow up on a staple diet of Bollywood movies and my childhood was no different. Who knows, maybe that was where I was beginning to develop a love for film, but again, I do feel as if I was guided into the arts. A totally different path than I originally set for myself in New York where I was going to be a lawyer, but things changed when I moved to India at 21.

What changed it?

I’d done a drama class in Mumbai, and I feel somehow, I found this new world that I may have been secretly steering myself towards, but could never admit it due to circumstances, and the drama class helped give me that clarity and focus. I’d started off as an actor in film before but hadn’t found my calling – I was acting and getting work but didn’t feel it was right for me. Then, in 2003, on one of my annual trips to New York, I went to a Broadway play starring Al Pacino and met my idol. Afterward, I got to meet him, and these words just came out of my mouth: ‘I’m writing a script for you.’ At that point, I thought to go behind the camera and write. He introduced me to his team, but it was hard to pursue since I’d moved to India. I locked myself away in Mumbai and wrote: End of Karma, my passion project. Because my husband had a flourishing acting career in India, I couldn’t just take off. I had kids too, a whole life in India, so I waited for the right time and was honing my skills. After 18 years of being in Mumbai, I returned to pursue this project, among others. Then Covid happened. You get inspiration and that becomes your way into something, and you find your calling. That’s what End of Karma was/ is for me. It’s now a seasonal series, and I can’t wait to delve into it!


The advice many women give is: ‘Just do it. Don’t wait. You’ve got your cell phone. Use it.’ After watching these incredible vistas of nature in your movie I read you shot it all on your cell phone! What were the challenges?

When you want to create – what are you going to do? The biggest empowerment that we have is that we have a camera. What are we waiting for? We have this technology right in our hands. Everyone went, “A feature on a phone?” “Not everyone can do it.” I do understand now why. We’ve had the time of our life in post, with the editing and sound especially. It’s great for production itself. Though I had no lighting. I had nothing. You have to use your assets. My biggest asset was my production design. I used the universe, this beautiful planet and the sun as my light source. That’s why everything is shot in the day because it gets challenging at night. The other challenge was to make it look like film, as I had done short films on the phone prior to this, and I had to up my game. So, to those women I say: There is nothing that stops a liberated woman. All you need to be is free. We see what women are going through across the world and not all women have the freedom to do what they want. It’s really sad. America gives us that liberation. Women don’t need to wait, you have a story to tell, tell it with whatever you have. Nowadays we have these incredible post houses that can help you fix your film if you really want to make it look good. You get questions as a first-time director and filmmaker. You will get questioned. But stay with your conviction, your gut. Choose a crew that resonates with you. I had my team, and everyone was thinking for the benefit of the project.

Where did that confidence that you are enough, that you can say no, come from? That you have the right to your vision – a concept many don’t know is their right.

I was raised to be someone with confidence and someone who is liberated. It depends on your upbringing. I was also lucky to have found a spiritual guide and Guru very early on in my life, which synced me with this really powerful inner voice. I feel the only thing we are missing is our conviction. Everything else you can study. You can hone your craft. But to convince yourself is the biggest challenge. The project came together really fast because I didn’t give anyone a chance to think. The team loved the idea from the beginning, so it’s important that your main crew believes in your vision, and that gave us a very easy-going workflow. I was blessed to have a very talented, experienced and creative team behind the project.

Your protagonist is successful but is incapable of expressing his grief.

Men don’t like to share their problems, whereas women share even the littlest things mostly. I wanted to address that. This guy doesn’t have anyone to talk to but will bare his soul if he could. Emoting how we really feel can sometimes be very ugly. Sadness can turn into something dark and connect more dark memories. He can be sitting and start thinking about his son and tears will run. That’s how we really emote, we just don’t like to show it. We have barriers, we have egos. We have fears. We have societal taboos which I want to remove. There is a stigma around mental health which I wanted to help remove, especially around suicide. It’s a sub-plot: Why are we governed by what society preaches to us?

Your protagonist says: I’m sorry I spent so much time working; that leads to guilt.

One of the reasons he tries to commit suicide is that his guilt is so strong. I don’t elaborate the point but reveal it in one or two scenes. There’s a scene on the beach after the mother is gone, a memory, where in voiceover the lead says: ‘Even though I was there with him, I really wasn’t there.’ It’s a problem. We are never in the present. This is where life goes by because if you are not living the present moment today, which is our one true gift, we will fall into the trap of guilt. In today’s world, you never know. Life can be cut short. Untimely deaths can happen. We should be able to remove the façade and forget what society thinks. We can cease going to therapists if we can sit down and have a word with our family. Both in the east and west, the taboos of conversation exist. In the east you can’t talk about sex, your marital life – there’s another kind of suppression. In the west, the suppression is in letting your guard down and revealing the real you.

You write, direct and produce. Do you think women have to do all three to get their product made?

To some extent, yes, but also because it is your own voice all the way. From conception to execution, whatever you want to say (and women have a lot to say), it’s important to keep the vision undisturbed and for that, you may need to wear all hats, but also to mainly expose the pure voice. You don’t have a separate producer with a different vision of the target audience or how it should be marketed. You don’t have the director and writer clashing because their vision is different. The negatives, however, are that you don’t have a team in film work, it is really teamwork. I missed that during production, the voice to say, ‘you are going wrong’, or ‘you missed this.’ But during the edit, I could go back and reshoot or write and make sure it weaves together and makes sense. And that was part of the freedom I had shooting with my cellphone. If you play all these roles it gives you a more precise vision. Everyone has at least one story in them. You don’t have to wear all hats all the time, but it’s ok to start off that way. I think women have a lot to say and if given the opportunity to present their stories, we’d have a much more balanced voice in entertainment and media, which will reflect positively in society.