top of page

RAD INTERVIEW: FILMMAKER Mia Maelzer chats her theatre inspired Sambhar Project at IFFSA Toronto!

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Image Source: Team Mia Maelzer

Mia Maelzer is an award-winning actor based in India. She is best known for her leading role performance in The Field, a short film by Sandhya Suri that is in The Criterion Collection now. The film won The Best International Short Film Award at Toronto International Film Festival 2018 and had its first premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. This film was also nominated at the prestigious BAFTA 2019 followed by the Indian Film Festival Los Angeles, where it won the grand jury award 2019Mia graduated from the National School of Drama (NSD) in 2016. She is primarily trained in American acting by David Lee Strasberg (New York), European Acting by Ariane Mnouchkine (Paris), Koodiyattam (Ancient Eastern Acting Method) by G.Venugopalan (India), Classical Indian Acting by Rita Ganguly (India) along with many other forms across the world.The UNESCO recognized actress has been noted for her contributions to the World Cinema. In addition to The Field, she is seen in other international films including. In the Beyond the Clouds by Majid Majidi, Mia not only played a role but worked as the Acting Coach and Casting Assistant for the Academy Awarded Iranian Director.The other important films in her credits are Tikli and Laxmi Bomb which is available on Netflix and Ek Betukey Aadmi Ki Afra Raatein where she is playing a lead role along with veteran actor Adil Hussain and other two debutantes, She is also the art director of the film which premiered in France awaiting its India release. She has been nominated for the best actress in a leading role at the international filmmaker's festival held in France 2016 and London 2017 for TikTok, an experimental English feature film. Her most popular role before she won a national scholarship was in two commercial films called Shadi Ke Side Effects (Hindi) and Target Kolkata (Bengali).


RAD TIMES: Why do you show dancers at the start of the documentary film, Sambhar Project 2020 PlayLab South Asia. Does it want to have a metaphorical resemblance to the bird's birth Mia?

Mia Maelzer: Thé very purpose of showing the transformation of all young dancers from human bodies into birds bodies were crucial to the film and it’s journey. Sometimes we don’t relate to other beings well enough if we do not start observing and imitating their lives (or movements in this particular case) before we empathise with them as performers. My approach was to give an experience of those behavioural changes and challenge to each of my young ameuter local dancers who were stuck in popular choreographies and routines of human dancing bodies. I used various combinations of practiced exercises from a few researched Asian theatre movements to help them attain this through a five day PlayLab workshop during the first lockdown. The desire to fly out of this locked down city lives of all dancers were metaphorically used to reach the location of Sambhar Lake. To capture this transformation in the film is how we attempt knowing and showing what exactly the birds must have gone through before they faced their brutal fate. It’s also a comment on migration for me. What we are migrating for as humans or birds are extremely similar needs from nature.

RAD TIMES: Do the movements resemble any dance form from India?

Mia Maelzer: Yes not just India but we also mixed various researched forms of folk dance movements from original locations of all migrating birds who mingle with each other through these journeys. So you pretty much see Spanish Flamenco movements mixing with Arabian Dabke or Norwegian Halling alongside our own Folk and story telling Dance forms like Kalbelia, Kathak, Chau or Ghumar. However they are maintained through a bird body movement gradually as we progress with the story ultimately falling in the articulation of the Butoh dance form, which became the only form available to me to showcase dance of all disabled and deformed lives. The history of Butoh is the reason why I was very clear about using it in our climax scène as a style.

RAD TIMES: Can you tell RAD TIMES Editorial about the music, the dance, and the soundtrack?

Mia Maelzer:The music played a very interesting point to begin this piece. I was living amidst a lot of sounds of nature and technology at the same time. However the lockdown helped me choose what I was naturally getting drawn to. So I started sketching out the soundscapes as my first storyline after a field trip with my mentor Santanu Bose. I was extremely sure of what I was hearing and choosing to listen to. Next I started talking to my music team almost demanding what I wanted. Joy Das, m’y sound designer and Priyanka Saha, my editor both film school graduates were fully in sync with me on this who also taught me to achieve this together. They have created the piece in full collaboration where I am pretty sure this is exactly what made me do this film in first place in this stylised way, instead of just playing news voice overs on the subject. People heard the news but nothing happened much so I went on with this design. My aim was to trigger a restlessness in my audience. I don’t like comfortable art. So I am always found playing with sound and movements also length of each action. Our camera was caught by people who we dodged while we were bringing this story out. Thank god no body popularly believed in Sambhar, an iphone operated by few bunch of college students can make a serious comment that could get out internationally. I had to create that pain on screen somehow that is felt by all the villagers who are silenced like those birds because of the politics around the Salt Lake of Sambhar. My tool was not interviews but the recreated ambiance of what I had experienced as an artist. A certain kind of silence and inner dialogue with God. Each and every sound used in the film is specifically positioned for the grand narrative of the massacre we aimed to invoke on screen. We had live music playing on location in every scene that we had shot and I didn’t pretend to sync it because I didn’t know after it was shot if I would get the same people back when I edit. Life was extremely unpredictable then and we were losing count of people we were losing since the lockdown. We even lost one if the most important member of our producing team. We didn’t have the luxury of staying in the location for more than 38/40 hours with a 20 people crew. Nobody except my DOP, Deepanshu, (who is also a local Jaipur boy doing moving camera independently for the first time) had any idea of what was happening. Because none of them had been actors before in the team with me I didn’t share my master script with them because I didn’t want to scare them. The master script is actually a story board filled with scribbled dialogues and songs with sound scapes often drawn next to the costumes or postures of my dancers. So I will not be surprised if I have to accept the fact that it’s the sounds of these birds and the silence of the desert is where this film was born after I read the news which hurt me deep to document my mood board as I got stuck in Rajasthan.

RAD TIMES: The documentary is quite culturally rooted. how did you achieve it, even though the dancers are not from Rajasthan?

Mia Maelzer:The dancers are all from Jaipur. I did a five days PlayLab with a few dancers in a local underground studio. Except one girl in the team I didn’t know anyone before. They generally started dancing free styles and a bit contemporary styles for couple of years so at least I knew their bodies could take dance training notes. They understood the vocabulary of Tanz Theatre after we did a separate master class on the subject with them. However I wish we had more time to sync the team and work longer. I genuinely wish I had theatre performers with me but in the lockdown whoever I got is how I had to go about with and to my surprise some of my birds did a fantastic work together. To open dialogues around climate crisis amongst these young students encouraged me the most to carry on instead of abandoning the work because of each tragedies that followed.

RAD TIMES: Why use theatrical movements to represent the bird? Is it because the natural movement of the bird is dramatic?

Mia Maelzer: I thought of doing something on stage to interpret what I was feeling around this massacre that I was witnessing in Rajasthan right before the lockdown was announced. My most comfortable language is when I use my body to communicate my ideas and here stage was shut. Nobody could come to a theatre anymore so I chose to use my phone and create a space using local landscapes and bodies of my dancers. I identify with birds, animals, fishes insects and trees a lot. They are more close to nature than we are today hence I believe they have more information on our planet than we do. The migratory birds who died in Sambhar lake were constantly returning to my mind when we were witnessing the migrant labourers who were dying on streets during the pandemic. It’s just uncanny how the birds death was almost like a warning to us before we witnessed all humans dying quite similarly. Both were going from their original location to an unknown new land in search of better food and air but landed themselves in the most deadly coups of corruption and death. This was haunting and that’s why theatrical movement of birds through the human bodies became the core language here. My next film is about underwater creatures and next play is about trees, these I am slowly writing as I am also learning how exactly the medium is different than writing performance text for a play. Also performing as birds have been a long standing subject for me since my Rimini Protokol days with Hebble am Ufer, where we would tell the story of Gaduda. Nothing was more desired than my need to fly like a bird during the pandemic. I was living in a house with a lot of free birds. So it was very organic process that I was moved to become one myself to tell their story. I also did another project on bird under the guidance of Atul Kumar where the director initially wanted me to dub for the bird animation she created but when she witnessed me performing bird body quite impressively she had let me play another kind of a bird for her story. There I play a docile housewife taking to this imaginary bird in her mind all day. Both the women and bird were played by me on screen. That project was shot entirely remotely from Bombay and that’s when I learnt to use my iphone to make films on my own. It’s just my first time making something on camera as I only made reels before this. I hate machines but now I think I have to learn this new language to even criticise the impact of machines on our lives. Only because we can make films using it I am not complaining yet.

Image Source: Team Mia Maelzer

RAD TIMES: Has the documentary been seen by government officials, what was their reaction?

Mia Maelzer:Yes we have shown this work to the ministry of culture and they have showcased it from the Jairangam platform to public as their commissioned work, who were also our local producers who supported us with around 20 percent of our total production cost. Without their support we couldn’t have made any attempt to reach one of the most disputed areas where the film has been shot within one an half day before the goons, who were protecting the site drove us out. They didn’t check our phones so the footages got saved, although they went to check our still camera and found few shots which they warned us from using, we obeyed. That’s when I knew this has to be told even if we don’t end up making a good film with great visuals. The very fact we could shoot there in front of hundreds of villagers, who gathered around the temple in middle of pandemic as our live audiences bécame important for things in the grand narrative of where I wanted to make my theatrical dialogues from. The villagers were extremely helpful in negotiating our way out of the mess we walked in unaware. Let’s just keep it that way that if I get a chance I want to shoot this film again because what I had in preparation was for a performance in mind but only after making the first film I learnt where I am messing up the craft that is needed for writing a good film screenplay. I am happy I could do something on which I am now receiving notes on filmmaking. Before this no body would talk about filmmaking with me unless I am working on some set as an actor or acting coach or art director. Editing and Camera work which is the filming part, is a very expensive craft to learn unlike theatre so I never could learn it formally until I made this one. Hopefully now people would trust me a bit more than before and allow me a few mistakes to make and teach me how to avoid them. With a team of 20 odd people with no exposure or experience in films living in Rajasthan we made Sambhar Project 2020 almost in desperation of getting this story out. Some of the top important women of our country did promise me assistance in showing this to more schools and colleges next. I am interested in that more than Film Festivals right now because I don’t want to put more money into this black hole of olives which I don’t think is a good idea as a producer for me with an almost unfinished version, that we have created.

RAD TIMES: We saw this documentary The Music of Satyajit Ray at The New York Indian Film Festival. You also use your music powerfully. What is the role of music in a documentary for you?

Mia Maelzer:As I said it was initially a drawn out séries of soundscapes alongside my drawings of each scène that I drew after I came back from the location encountering a lot of dead bones and carcasses around a temple dedicated to nature in middle of nowhere right at Sambhar lake. I am always drawn to sound more which helps me create the visual. Also I remember and recognise sound longer than visual because I come from an unique oral tradition of learning.

Image Source: Team Mia Maelzer

RAD TIMES: Does mythology help us amplify a message? As you mention in the documentary film Sambhar Project 2020 PlayLab South Asia. ?

Mia Maelzer: To me it resonates because our culture is globally tuned to the idea of mythology than accepting scientific facts. It’s because we don’t have the patience to educate ourselves and we think we know too much very quickly. This is making world a very difficult place for all living beings. Human arrogance is only slave to religion and myths so yeah I like restructuring those a bit here and there if I may in context of my narrative. It is a Theatrical documentary and I took the liberty of this window I got.

RAD TIMES: What for you Mia, amplifies a voice strongly, sound or visuals?

Mia Maelzer:Both but yes if I can make a blind man see a film through my sound scapes I will be more satisfied. As far as visuals are concerned my mother complains that I never finish my paintings because I get bored of seeing after a point then I close my eyes and listen to something. In theatre it’s the sound we depend on always because we work mostly in a black box. May that has something to do with it.

RAD TIMES: What is your next project Mia?

Mia Maelzer:M’y own company is developing two stories on the importance of trees and water bodies for one live performance and one film as of now. The play is a historical event that took place India but I will be telling in style of a folktale once again. I am trying to keep my grandmother’s style of storytelling intact in this more closely. The film is too in PlayLab right now and I am interested in touching it only once I have an experienced collaboration. The oral storytelling tradition is extremely important in any migrant community and I wish to preserve those forms through my work too. preview section is your best, most complete guide for all the theatre/films , big and small, coming your way soon. Happy Reading! Follow our channel here.

233 views0 comments


bottom of page