What is most exciting about VR is the canvas it presents: Right to Pray director Khushboo Ranka

Right to Pray is India's first virtual reality documentary. The film had it's world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival as a part of the POP VR section of programming. We spoke to the film's director Khushboo Ranka on exploring this new frontier and what the future holds for VR in India and beyond. 

Right to Pray is the first virtual reality film from India. Being the first brings its own pressures, challenges, expectations. Did you feel any of that when making the film?

Yeah majorly. At that time, we were taking a small break from the edit on An Insignificant Man. We had just finished the initial edit and were getting feedback from our producers and other collaborators on the project. It was a small window of time where we were not actively editing but more like figuring out what to do with what we had. With the whole VR thing, Anand is the one who is really pushing for it. I was actually a skeptic for the longest time. I was like ‘how can you expect people to wear this and watch the film?’ Anand was convinced of the technology and he showed me a few pieces which were just mind blowing and I was converted, they were so so immersive. It’s a whole different kind of experience.

We are working on this magazine ElseVR where we are basically going to do stories in VR. So documentaries and creative pieces in VR. The editor on the magazine, Shubhangi she told me this was an ongoing story about women who were trying to enter temples and that she had some access in the Trimbakeshwar temple which is where we were going to shoot. She said ‘why don’t you just come with me and we’ll go and access the situation, and then we will get somebody to film it.’

When we went there, it was such an interesting story for me. Here were these women who are not really great, ideological feminists or whatever and they were hell bent on entering temples they were not allowed to. Personally I am an atheistic but when I got there I understood this was not just a religious thing, it’s very much a political thing. Society is built on these ideas, if your God is going to distinguish between men and women there is no wonder that when you go back home your parents will distinguish between a girl and a boy. Those ideas are really powerful. They permeate and are amplify in ways which are profoundly discriminatory. It stirred me enough to say to Shubhangi, yes we should make a film on this. At the time there was nobody who wanted to work in VR because it’s such a new medium. In a way I just did it because nobody else was going to do it. I stepped in and then we went and shot at the temple. I did it completely on instinct and shot blindly building on my own experience of what we did during An Insignificant Man, gauging where the action is going to be and things like that. Shot everything blindly went back to see what we had got and thankfully we had enough material to construct a compelling story out of it.  

Is the infrastructure and technology present for VR to be explored as a medium of storytelling in India?

It is exponentially increasing. When you look at it, any new technology is overwhelming in the beginning. When filmmaking first began, the earliest cinema graphs and the way of seeing films was as inaccessible and difficult as virtual reality seems today. It needs one leap and everything changes. The interest people and big players like Facebook and Samsung have shown and put their money into it is encouraging. It seems like this is going to be around for a while and is not just a flash in the pan. There will be tipping point where suddenly everyone will have it. And then it will be like we need stuff to watch on this. 

What does virtual reality as a medium offer in terms of story telling as a filmmaker?

It is amazing, there are logistical challenges but there are also opportunities. Speaking about the challenges for example - you can’t do close ups, longshots and mid shots. You have set your frame and that’s basically what it is. It is essentially a long shot and the characters are moving in that plane of depth. You can’t zoom in and zoom out, even when you try to pan it is a little bit disorientating. And then the editing process is very different. You are not cutting so much from one person to another like you would in traditional film language. You are allowing it play out and in way the viewer is the editor, they will decide which direction they want to look in. What is most exciting about VR is the canvas it presents. The entire world is the canvas immediately and instantaneously. You are transported to another world entirely. There are no words to describe the feeling of in a minute being transported to somewhere completely different.