Filmmaker from Dubai takes on India's caste system with 'The Last Rights'

Aastha Verma's short film has picked up a number of wins on its journey around the international festival circuit

A filmmaker in Dubai is celebrating after her short film made it to the final of the Oscar-qualifying Best of India Short Film Festival.

Aastha Verma, 25, from Karnal, India, who grew up in Dubai, studied at the city’s Delhi School and gained an MBA from its Herriot-Watt University campus before heading to Los Angeles to study film at New York Film Academy. The filmmaker will now see her latest short, The Last Rights, along with four other finalists, receive a week-long theatrical release in LA before she learns if she has made the cut for the 2022 Oscars.

The Last Rights has already picked up 10 nominations, including three wins, on its journey around the international festival circuit since late last year, including festivals in India and also a Judges’ Award nomination and an Audience Award win at the prestigious Topaz Film Festival in Dallas, US, among others.

The film deals with a granddaughter returning to India and fighting local traditions in order to fulfil her grandmother’s last wishes. In the process, she is forced to question and battle the patriarchal nature of Indian society and its caste system.

While Verma has never lived in India, save for a brief spell as a baby, she says her film's lead character drew inspiration from her life as a non-resident Indian.

“Even though I was never in India, we always grew up at home with those traditions and this culture,” she explains. “We often have this certain awkwardness, and people look at us in a certain way as outsiders, but sometimes we're even more Indian than they are. I've always grown up with that and been heavily influenced by India. We were never really disconnected from it. I guess that's where the inspiration really comes from.”

But this isn't the first time Verma has taken on this theme. Her previous film, The Unsung Feather, which picked up 12 awards and nominations on its 2019 festival run, told the story of a black dancer trying to break into the traditionally white world of ballet.

“I really believe in having a message at the end of the film,” she says. “When you come out of the theatre, you really want something that stuck with you. We can have a lot of drama, we can have a lot of entertainment, but as filmmakers, we have that responsibility to really show something on the screen. It should have an impact, and make the audience think, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What is the filmmaker trying to tell us?’ Lately that seems to have been appreciated by audiences and festivals alike.”

Thanks to a combination of her own transcontinental lifestyle and the coronavirus pandemic, Verma so far hasn’t managed to attend any screenings at the festivals where The Last Rights has picked up awards. However, this time she’s determined to be in the audience for the Best of India’s LA screenings ahead of the year-end Oscars deadline.

“This particular festival is one which is really attractive because it is a festival just for short films, and not only from India, but for Indian filmmakers from all the major areas – India, Europe, the US – so I thought that it is going to get us really good exposure,” she explains.

“I guess it struck a chord somewhere though, which we were really hoping for right from the beginning. I can’t be sure we’ll win an Oscar, but I will absolutely be at the LA screenings now.”

Updated: October 27th 2021, 5:36 AM