In her designer silks and glittering diamonds, Soniya Kirpalani doesn't look much like most people's idea of a film director. She says jokingly that she's a "fashion victim". So it's just as well that fashion is the subject of the series of documentary films that has already won her international acclaim and which she intends to show at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) this autumn. In fact Kirpalani, 40, doesn't do anything by the book. She was busy looking after her husband and raising their daughter when other film-makers her age were at film school. When she did fall into it almost by accident, she discovered she had all the necessary skills with the vital ingredients that one tutor said made her stand out from the crowd: passion for her chosen subject of fashion and an extensive knowledge of the industry.
When she won the prestigious MipDoc Cofund Challenge in 2008 for her series Threads of Tradition, then still in production, the head of the judges made a point of mentioning her stylish clothes. "She said that I didn't look much like a director but they were not to worry because I was a very good filmmaker." "I was dressed like a fashion victim and felt like someone from the planet Zog. All the others looked like film directors. Anyway, I don't suit cargo pants. But I wasn't going to make any apology for who I was," says Kirpalani who is currently editing the third part in the series.
Called Do Buy; the Fabric of Faith, it follows the careers of three female Emirati fashion designers and the problems they have encountered in trying to establish their brands. The film, which won the Best Documentary at the Gulf Film Festival earlier this year, reveals the core of Kirpalani's passion for the subject and the reason she wants to help eastern designers make breakthroughs. She is now cutting it to an acceptable length for television.
Another film in the series, Silken Synergy, features Bibi Russell, often described as the first Asian supermodel, who is now a UN Ambassador for Fashion and has campaigned to get recognition for Asian designers and helped to revive the ailing weaving industry in Bangladesh. "She asked the question 'how come we fuel global retail and don't have a single brand of our own?'" says Kirpalani. "We are such powerful nations with such old cultures and such a deep heritage and with huge human resources and raw materials, so what is stopping us having our own brands? We don't expect to get straight into Harvey Nicks in London and be shown beside Alexander McQueen, but why can't we be relevant for our own audiences?
"That has been the theme in all the films in the series. In each country it is at a different level of development and there are different challenges. Bangladesh is lagging behind because there aren't enough relevant designers. The garment industry is huge and concentrated there, but they are so poor the government cannot change policies to help local designers." Kirpalani's knowledge of weaving techniques and the friendships she has made amongst Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and UAE fashion designers developed organically, mainly through her family background and long-standing cultural traditions. She says that growing up she never bought a ready-made garment and her family used to have its own personal weavers.
"I never knew what it was like to go out and buy a dress from an H & M or a Zara. My grandmother used to have weavers in the backyard weaving us these muslins. We would take the cloth to the designers who would make them up." She was born in London into a wealthy Indian business family and brought up mainly by her grand-parents after her father died when she was six years old, a tragedy that had a devastating effect on her mother's health. Her childhood was spent shuttling to schools and colleges in England and Bombay. She attended the exclusive girls' boarding school Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire and gained a BA degree in psychology from KC College in Mumbai.
When she was 18, her grandparents asked her if she would like them to find her a husband. "I had a lot of freedom, but I told them they wouldn't want me to marry any of my boyfriends so I was very happy for them to arrange it. I gave them certain conditions, one was that the bridegroom was self made and had a good relationship with his parents, and secondly that he came from the same sort of background as ours."
Her husband Ravi, is a successful businessman who owns a luggage manufacturing company in Uganda. They have a daughter, Arpan, who is now 22. They decided to make their home in Dubai 25 years ago because of Mr Kirpalani's extensive travelling in China, Africa and Korea. There was no opportunity for Soniya to practise psychology so she busied herself with her home and bringing up her daughter. A bizarre illness put her in a coma for three months at the age of 22, and it altered her perspective. "It took me about three years to start walking properly again. I felt that I was given this life back for two reasons, one was definitely for my daughter."
The other turned out to be a mission to help promote Asian fashion designers, and Kirpalani set about establishing a website months before the net-a-porter site was launching in the west. "In our culture, the first 20 years should be spent in study and education, from 20-40 you are living and growing as a family and by 40 you get your kids married and after that it's all about community development. When I was 32, I decided my first project would be to take a pen and get a front page for a designer so I started an online store for them.
"I didn't think of it as a career. Why I started plunging into arts and fashion was simply because I just couldn't resist designer clothes. It's not brands I have a passion for. If it's cut beautifully, if the weave is good, I'm interested." Just by being a fashionista and attending designer shows, she began to get to know people such as the Indian designer Tarun Tahiliani, a rising star at the time. "He said to me, 'you are better than this, you are better than flying down every few weeks for a fashion show. You have to do much more'."
Encouraged by her designer friends, Kirpalani set up the online fashion website called A Style Statement, featuring Asian designers in a venture backed by her husband. A team of journalists and photographers would write about them, photograph their designs and put them on the web. "It was a huge learning curve, beginning to understand what cross media was all about and what it would take to succeed in that online world. It was early days, but we did extremely well. We did fashion shoots and put photographs up on the web and it was a bit like net-a-porter featuring 23 designers. "
There were early teething problems with the payment gateway, but people still kept buying both online and offline. By the age of 36, Kirpalani realised she did not want to run a retail outlet, although she still helps young designers get their clothing ranges into the big stores. The company refocused and began developing software for designers. Four years ago, Kirpalani, who has also studied drama direction at the London-based Trinity College, decided to accompany a photographer friend to a training course in India run by the Danish European Documentary Network (EDN) that trains potential filmmakers across the world.
"He said he needed a producer. I said what does a producer do? We went to Delhi and I got an 'observer's pass' and attended workshops on filmmaking. On the last day, the observers were asked to do a session and asked about what movie we would make. "I came up with the idea for Threads of Traditions. I had been thinking of writing a book about it and had already started research about what had been happening over the past 60 years. I always thought graphically in pictures. So when this came up I wrote down a pitch for the series.
"They asked me questions like why I was making this film and why should anyone put money in it. The head of the course said 'this girl has a story to tell and a story I would want to listen to'. She told me always to think about why someone should want to watch it and why it would appeal to a housewife in Atlanta, Georgia, for example." What Kirpalani didn't know was that EDN tutors were looking for film directors to do specialist training under the likes of Michael Eisner, the former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and she was chosen much to the chagrin of her friend. Only four were picked and the other three came from established Bollywood backgrounds.
"It was leadership training at a very high level. We wanted to know how can Indian directors make movies that could go to a western audience. We have billion-dollar movies but they never go to the west. Bend It Like Beckham brought something to the table that was different, and so did Slumdog Millionaire, but people didn't understand why it worked." Kirpalani's project developed into a six-part documentary that explores the challenges faced by the eastern fashion design industry. It follows the personal journeys of five leading Asian fashion designers. She and her script-writer and editor Emily Harris have travelled across the region to follow the fortunes of the chosen designers as they struggle to build their brands and help revive traditional crafts.
In 2008, Kirpalani took her newfound skills and a rough cut and synopsis of the Threads of Tradition project to the MipDocs festival for TV and documentaries at Cannes. Her mission was to pitch for air time with the major networks. "I was a bit of a wild card. I was chosen because I was a female and because I was from the east. I still knew hardly anything about camera angles, but I have a wonderful crew and I would be nothing without them. There were tigers in play at Cannes, every network head was there and the top directors. I knew I could find the money, so I was just looking for airtime."
To Kirpalani's astonishment, she beat 3,000 films backed by major production houses to carry off the top prize, which included a cheque for $2,000 (Dh7,300) and a diamond ring, which she promptly sold to help raise funds to make her series. Most importantly, it gave her the recognition and confidence she needed to continue. "My knees were shaking, but I realised people were interested because they were asking questions. I was just thinking that at least I got this far when the head of the judging panel appeared and started talking about the winner and how they liked the project and the person was full of passion. Then everybody jumped to their feet and looked at me and I realized had won. I was in tears."
Back in Dubai, Kirpalani got down to serious work to produce and direct the series. She admits that she didn't have the skills to begin with, but when she looked around for a director nobody knew as much about the subject as she did, so she decided to do it herself and learned on the job. The Cannes prize helped enormously. "The difference came when I started filming. When I was trying to get permissions I would say this film is the MipDoc winner and suddenly doors opened. I had the support of leading names from over 32 countries such as HBO, Discovery and the France 5 channel," she says.
Slowly but surely, she and her three partners raised the money through networking and liquidating the assets of her original company. The second film in her series, Love Arranged, is about arranged marriages and explores the issues of dowry, a person's colour and the cost of a modern wedding. "I followed a friend of my daughter who is a wedding planner herself but who couldn't find a suitable boy. For every 30 girls who register with the wedding planner, there is only one boy."
This film was shown at the New York Film Festival and won another prize. The three completed films will be shown at DIFF. Down the line are two more difficult projects that she is determined to tackle. The first is about the mind-set of terror from the point of view of the head of the anti-terrorism department of Pakistan. Called A Fine Line it is already in preproduction and Kirpalani hopes to interview a top al Qa'eda commander.
She says she is not worried about her own safety, although she admits that her husband is mystified as to why she should choose such dangerous subjects. "These people treat you as if you are their responsibility so if they agree to speak to me I will be safe. It's called 'amanet'." Another documentary is about the 1,750 Indians in UAE prisons, including the 17 on death row in Sharjah. Kirpalani has pressed on with this documentary, interviewing families outside Sharjah jail and posting stories and pictures on a website to keep the story alive. She says she has had tremendous support from the Sharia courts in the UAE. She has, however, received death threats for her pains. "I've been told to back off and asked how dare I interfere, but if somebody wanted to do something to me they would do it. They wouldn't talk about it.
Sipping fragrant teas in the beautiful drawing room in her villa in Palm Jumeirah, it makes one wonder what motivates Kirpalani to get up at five in the morning to go and stand outside a prison in Sharjah to film the bewildered families of convicted prisoners. "My husband sometimes asks me that question, too. You could say that I'm half campaigner and half documentary maker. All I can say is that I want to give a voice to all the voiceless people," she says.