Sonal Naroth was in Class III when Ramji Rao Speaking (1989), a Malayalam cult comedy, became her favourite movie. Unlike children who are usually drawn to elaborate sets and action scenes with flying cars, Sonal found herself relating more with the characters and the intricate relationship they shared in this low-budget movie, which neither had fancy locations, nor song sequences.
She found a similar liking for films such as Minnaram (1994) and Hitler (1996). The dialogues, idiosyncrasies and emotional quotient left a mark on the now 31-year-old.
As she grew older, her love for cinema transcended geographical barriers to include Hollywood movies such as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013) and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005). So one can only imagine her joy and ecstasy when she received an opportunity to work on Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019). She worked as an art department coordinator for the Oscar-nominated movie, which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.
Born and raised in Kerala’s Kannur district, she studied in Bengaluru and moved to the United States a decade ago to study at the New York Film Academy (NYFA). Soon, she was working in Hollywood dramas as an art director and coordinator.
She speaks to The Better India about her journey in a foreign land, how she made her mark among the bigwigs of the industry, and how India has played an influential role in weaving artistic elements and visual pieces in her projects.
“Coming from India, I am no stranger to the exquisite chaos of colours and textures, and use this background and knowledge to the advantage of the projects I am in every single day,” Sonal says.
From China to Russia and the US: Bagging international projects
Sonal believes she was destined to enter the film industry. In fact, her mother was pregnant with her when the crew of Naduvazhikal (1989), starring Mohanlal and Madhu, shot a few scenes in their ancestral house. For her, the real struggle was not convincing her parents to let her pursue a career that didn’t guarantee a stable 9-5 job, but bagging film projects in New York, a city where the finest talents compete with each other.
Inheriting the values of hard work and ambition from her parents, she moved to Bengaluru in 2008 to study Mass Communication at Mount Carmel College.
“I had to make a short film at the end of our final year, which further pushed me into the process of filmmaking. I knew instantly that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It’s the thrill of creating something from scratch and being able to visualise and then execute it, which is what I wanted to chase all my life,” Sonal says.
In 2011, she started her course ‘Filmmaking and Screenwriting’ at the NYFA. One important thing she learnt was to build a strong network with peers, professors and guest lecturers. Attending every seminar, class and workshop helped her identify the department she was most interested in — Art. While directing the actors during projects, Sonal paid equal attention to colours, props and other elements of art and design.
Her artistic calibre and taste for visually-driven movies were reflected in her first short film ‘Tumbling After’ (2012) which was nominated at the American Spring Online Film Awards. Two years later, she co-produced ‘The Bicycle’, which won at the 2014 International Beijing Student Film Festival in China.
These short films, she says, gave her the confidence to opt for bigger projects, and she started approaching studios across the world. International studios from China and Russia gave her an opportunity to handle the art department for their movies to be filmed in New York.
Sonal is also the main art department coordinator for the Golden Globe-winning series, Ramy, which follows a first-generation American Muslim on a spiritual journey in his politically divided New Jersey neighbourhood. After wrapping the pilot of Ramy came an offer to work on Marriage Story from an acquaintance.
“It was inspiring to work in the midst of people who are completely immersed in their craft, who pay attention to every detail, no matter how minute. I found the script of the movie so wonderful that I was instantly excited about watching it, and for an instant, that almost overtook the realisation that I was working on a Noah Baumbach film,” she recalls.
Apart from working in the art department, Sonal has also worked as a cinematographer for an acclaimed ICN TV Network project, Qipao Flash Mob at Times Square, capturing the performance of 100 Chinese women, each dressed in a colourful traditional qipao dress. Her stunning cinematography led her to several more high-profile projects with Chinese companies, including TV fantasy The Starry Night and The Starry Sea for which Sonal acted as the main NYC art director.
‘Every challenge is an opportunity’
While Sonal has managed to add prestigious projects to her kitty with her sheer hard work and talent, she has also had to face her share of challenges in the form of rejections and insecurities.
“I’ve learned time and again that it takes unbelievable confidence in yourself and a self-replenishing supply of positivity to get through such a journey. I don’t wake up every day feeling confident or positive, so sometimes, I just have to fake it till I believe in myself. You just need to view and reframe every challenge as an opportunity,” she adds.
Sonal never considered her being an outsider as a disadvantage. “On the contrary, it helped me rely more on my own resourcefulness, creativity, and drive, and to essentially mould myself into the artist I wanted to be. You feel like you have a lot more to prove, so you tend to work harder and smarter.”
Over the next few years, Sonal wishes to work as an Art Director in the US and eventually develop and produce independent projects of her own. Although she has travelled to India only a couple of times since she left, Sonal hopes to work in the Indian film industry, especially after seeing movies such as Kumbalangi Nights (2019), Virus (2019) and Pagglait (2021).
To all aspiring filmmakers, Sonal says the best way to learn is on the job. Her experience in art direction came from working with prominent designers including Grace Yun, Alexandra Schaller and Roxy Martinez. “You start off as a production assistant in the department in which you see yourself working, and learn from watching directors, designers, cinematographers who inspire you. Make mistakes so that you can turn them into creative solutions when you’re running the show.”
Edited by Divya Sethu