(December 7, 2023) Growing up, Neeraja Raj would draw, write, play musical instruments and sing – her imagination simply knew no bounds and needed as many outlets as it could get. The richness of her fantasy life more than shows up in her work – there’s the little girl from Madagascar who attempts to fly in a homemade rocket, and the adventures of the cat and an enthusiastic puppy who travel through space to search for the meaning of life. “I always knew I wanted to be in the arts and I wanted to be creative, I read a lot and wanted to be a published author,” she tells Global Indian. With a mass of curls and a ready smile, she lights up when she discusses her work. Neeraja Raj, who is now based mainly in the UK, is an animation filmmaker – one of a handful in the country and in the world, too, she tells me. This year, she won the Arnab Chaudhuri Director’s Award at the Animation Express Award and was named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list of 2023. Her short film, Meow Or Never fetched her a nomination at the 2022 British Animation Awards, for Best Short Film and put her on the shortlist for the prestigious Young Director Award by Nexus Studios.
Neeraja’s story stems from those crucial childhood pastimes, spent with storybook, ukulele, pen or paintbrush in hand. She had plenty to inspire her too – her parents, originally from Kerala, moved to Jakarta, Indonesia in their twenties, where Neeraja lived till the age of 13. “It was a good mix of technology and nature,” she agrees.
National Institute of Design – and Disney
By the time she turned 18, Neeraja was sure she wanted to study film and got into the National Institute of Design, one of the biggest design schools in the world. “It’s really hard to get in but I managed it.” In her last week at university, during placement week, she interviewed with Disney for an apprenticeship programme, and got in too. “I had to create storyboards and an animatic, which is a blueprint of the animation itself, along with sound design – it’s what the film looks like before it is actually made,” Neeraja explains. She worked on it at Disney and submitted it as her graduation project. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a director too,” she says.
Instead of settling for the sure-shot career opportunity that Disney provided, Neeraja had dreams of her own and was determined to follow them. One was to create stop motion animation, which led her to Goa. She knew she wanted a master’s too, and boldly applied at only one university – the National Film and Television School in the UK, which is reputed for its stop motion animation films. “I have tunnel vision for a lot of things I do in life,” she smiles. “Sometimes it can be to my detriment but I do tend to keep going at things until I get them.” She made it through a rigorous selection round, then flew to London for a workshop and a round of interviews.
At NFTS, she worked on a project that would become one of the cornerstones of her career. “I have a lot of existential angst,” she remarks. “I’m constantly thinking about why we are here and what our purpose could be. But I also love cats and dogs and musicals,” says, adding with a laugh, “I wanted to make a light-hearted tale, and keep it fun and playful, not a sad, depressing film that most people do in university!”
The end result fetched her a slew of nominations, invitations to film festivals and job offers. Meow or Never is a richly-imagined, endearing stop motion comedy inspired by Felicitte, the French cat who went to space back in 1963. “It’s about a cat in space,” she explains. “The castronaut is looking for the meaning of life and she finds a planet that has a space pup living on it… and chaos ensues after that!” For Neeraja, the driving force was to “Make a film that I would love to watch,” she says. “What amazed me most was that people around the world loved it.”
Meow or Never on the international circuit
The trouble with making short films, Neeraja explains, no matter how good it might be, is that few people will actually go out to watch one. “The market is very limited in that sense,” she says. But there are big festivals to be at, like Sundance, and also the Annecy International film Festival and Market. The 60 year old festival is the world’s largest event dedicated to animation. “There are lots of festivals showcasing short films and they’re really competitive to get into.”
Her film sailed through, opening the doors to myriad opportunities for the young filmmaker. “A lot of people saw it, from the industry as well.” Success came like a whirlwind, much faster than she had expected then, as a fresh graduate. “Because of that film’s reach, I find myself in rooms that I would never have expected to be in so soon,” Neeraja remarks. “I was meeting people I had looked up to for years, and meeting them as equals.”
One of these people was Peter Lord, the Academy Award-winning English animator, director and producer, known for films like the Chicken Run series (made at the Aardman Animations Studio, of which Lord is co-founder). She also met director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice), with whom Neeraja went on to collaborate. “She was working on an unannounced feature film at Aardman,” Neeraja says. Being a director is the prize destination at the end of a long road – “You start out making short films and work your way up,” she explains. “Then you jump from shorts to features. When I was under Gurinder, I was observing how she navigates directing a feature film, a 1.5 hour journey as opposed to making five or 10 minute films like me.”
From there, she made her way to Nexus Studios in 2020, which also found her through Meow or Never and reached out. “They wanted to option Meow or Never and work on it with us, which is what we are doing at the moment,” says Neeraja, who is currently working as a Director with Nexus Studios.
The Girl Who Built a Rocket
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Fara lives in Madagascar, where nearly half the population, her own family included, don’t have access to clean water. The little girl wants to change this – but how? When the news breaks that water has been found on Mars, Fara sees a way – aboard her homemade rocket…
In February 2021, three Mars missions were conducted to look for water on the Red Planet and expand the realms of human explorations. “But many families like Fara’s still dream of finding water right here on our own blue planet,” writes Water Aid. The NGO, which has its footprint in 34 countries around the world, wanted to make a film as part of a campaign to spread awareness about the lack of drinking water. That’s how Neeraja came on board to direct The Girl Who Built a Rocket. “The film did very well,” she says. “Their engagement benchmark rose by 18 percent. It was super successful and they got a lot of donations.”
This was a particularly meaningful project. Neeraja had found success in the film festival circuit, and worked with the big names, but for the first time, she realised that her work could “bring about actual change in the world, and in people’s lives. We all know the power of the media and what a good story can do,” she says.
Staying on track
Even so, her path is not without its challenges, especially with having to work on a project basis and cope with the uncertainty that can bring. “There is a big sense of imposter syndrome,” she admits. “Am I truly ready to be here? Do I deserve enough to be in this room? These are nonsensical thoughts, because I know I have worked hard. I ask experts and industry leaders and they tell me that feeling never goes away. No matter how successful you are, there is always another rung to climb.” It needs hard skills and soft skills alike, success does hinge on one’s ability to communicate, manage conflict and personal branding.
“My parents motivate me,” she says. Unlike most Indian parents, they encouraged their daughter to take the path less trodden, and to keep on going. There is the occasional naysaying relative, to be sure, but for the most part, Neeraja feels supported. “My parents have pushed me towards my passion and I would like to make them proud.” She needs to do it for herself, too. “I want to tell stories, I’m imaginative and creative. I feel the need to keep on creating,” she says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
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