Scarborough-born and raised V.T Nayani has been working on her first feature This Place for many years and now it’s ready for the world to see. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Discovery programme. This Place is a story between two women who fall in love while dealing with their own familial issues. The film navigates grief, love, and the feeling of belonging to a certain place. FX’s Reservation Dogs Devery Jacobs co-leads as Kawenniióhstha alongside Priya Guns who plays Malai.
This interview took place before the TIFF premiere on September 9th, and has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Screen Queens: Nayani, Priya congratulations on This Place! It was incredibly moving and I am not ashamed to say I cried the last 20 minutes of the movie. Nayani, this is your baby, you’ve been working on it for years and now it’s premiering at TIFF. How are you feeling?
Nayani: I’m feeling excited and overwhelmed. It’s been the most fun roller coaster I’ve been on in a long time, maybe my whole life and I’m so grateful for it. I’m excited to premiere the film at home here, literally in this place, and to have our communities come out and be part of it. TIFF is the coming together for those of us from Toronto and born and raised here. It’s the coming together of home and the world. And so to know that people from home and across the world will get to access the film, and be part of our screenings and see Toronto through our lens.
Priya: I’m still processing everything. This is an interesting time for a lot of us involved in the film, especially because we started filming in 2019, and I know the writing started a lot earlier. It took years to actually come to this point. So we’ve been waiting and hoping, and now it’s kind of born. So there’s a lot to process and it’s incredibly exciting. I feel very blessed and humbled to be a part of it.
SQ: I need to take a second and tell you much I adore the score in this film. It’s so warm and at the right time, sensual. It genuinely reminded me of what Nicholas Britell did in If Beale Street Could Talk. Who is the mastermind behind it all?
Nayani: Kalaisan Kalaichelvan is the composer. His original music is in the film, alongside a host of incredible musicians that he brought into the fold through his relationships. Working with him was a joy. I think both of us are tender-hearted people who really wanted to honour the love story and the tenderness in this film, not just with our leads, but with their families, with each other, with their communities. We wanted that to come through. I sent him Beale Street as one of my references, so I love that you mentioned that. Nicholas Britell is literally a favourite. I listen to his scores for hours, and Beale Street is my favourite score of the past 25 years. It is so tender and genuine. I love the relationship between Nicholas and Barry and I always wanted that. That was my dream.
SQ: There are so many important conversations happening in this film, but one that deeply resonated with me is Malai’s conversation with her dad when he talks about how beautiful their home country was and how he would like Malai to visit. Being a first-generation immigrant, I am very familiar with talks like that with my Somali parents who wish to be back home and constantly reminisce about the good old days. Was that something you experienced with your parents?
Priya: Absolutely. I don’t think we actually had the conversation because, in my household, it’s always been very hush-hush. We don’t talk about back home too much, and I think the writing is so beautiful in that it’s on his deathbed that they have this conversation. What I really appreciate and love about that is that there’s universalism to it. As you said, you connected with that. It’s something that any first-generation diasporic person can relate to and feel like, “Hey, do I belong here? Do I belong there?”. I think it’s also about how we connect with our parents and also understanding their journey.
Nayani: It’s a conversation I’ve had with my parents. That line about paradise I think a lot of the Tamil people use, because the island is like a paradise, it’s visually stunning, but they ignore what is happening there and why you left, and only remember it as it was. I really wanted that in the movie because I wanted it to speak to people. I knew that from my conversation with my friends who are Somali, and Palestinian, from all different parts of the world, we’ve all felt that we know what that conversation is like and so it was really important, however, briefly to include that moment, for our elders and for us.
SQ: The relationship between Malai and Kawenniiohstha is so pure and built on a level of understanding that they are both still trying to figure out their identity. What was it like working with Devery on bringing these women to life?
Priya: Working with Devery, she’s such a warm and mighty spirit. She is a beautiful person and you feel that when you meet her and speak to her. We had a lot of very interesting and powerful conversations about our own experiences about what it means to be Canadian and queer. I learned a lot from her on set as a person, and as an actor and felt even more like it was okay. You can be your queer self, we’re in a safe space, and feeling that from her through our different discussions meant a lot to me in my own discovery of myself.
Nayani: Devery is a co-writer so there was ease there. She knew the character, she helped write the character. So yes, I was directing, I would give notes, but she knew it as well as I did. With Priya, her co-lead in this role and I think Devery made it really easy for her in that she is the most incredible co-star you can have opposite. She’s a nurturing, humble spirit that really wants everyone to do well and excel. I think that allowed Priya as to feel comfortable and at ease as Malai. It was just a constant conversation. They’re being vulnerable, especially in a film like this. There’s so much that they have to pull from that is not always easy, and that’s not lost on me. So my job is always to make the actors feel safe and the crew as well, of course, but make the actors feel safe amongst us so that they can do their job.
SQ: This movie is very much about home and what it means to each individual person. What does ‘home’ mean to you?
Priya: My family moved to Toronto from Sri Lanka during the war in 1988. So I turned one that month. And then after graduating from York University, I decided I wanted to leave. There were just so many reasons I had to and so that was in 2009 and I haven’t lived in Toronto since. This question of ‘where is home’ is very much on my mind, coming back to Toronto and filming This Place. As I’ve said to Nayani, it was like a welcome home. It made me feel more connected to my city. It made me feel like, you are from here, you are from Toronto. Toronto’s always gonna be there. Going back to your first question, what does it mean to be premiering at TIFF? I haven’t been in Toronto during TIFF since 2008, so this is a big freaking deal for me. It cemented the fact that this is home. These are your people. It’s not just Tamil folks but everyone here. The beauty of Toronto is just so mixed and eclectic in terms of ideas, and people, and how we all kind of mesh to be who we are as Torontonians.
Nayani: I honestly feel like home is where the people I love are. I guess it’s a different take on home is where the heart is, which is cheesy, but I think things that are cheesy and cliche are cliches because they’re true. I have a deep love for where my parents come from, but I’ve never been to Sri Lanka, never seen it, never experienced it. Yes, it still is back home, because it’s back home for my family, my elders, and my ancestors.I will always love and revere and honour it because it’s where we come from, and I’m so proud to be a Tamil woman. At the same time, the only home that I’ve ever known is Toronto, specifically the east end. I’ve also been fortunate enough and had the privilege to experience home in different places, whether that’s beyond borders, or within the city at other people’s houses. I feel very at home with people I love. Home for me is not a location, but it’s where everyone I love is.
SQ: And lastly, what is one thing you both want audiences to take away from This Place?
Nayani: If people leave the film with a little bit of headache and heartache, but also hope, I think that’s a good thing and we’ve done our job. I hope this film moves people to question, and to reflect, and interrogate themselves and their own lives and reflect on it. With heartache, I think we deliver people to a place of hope and faith at the end, but I think it’s a hard road getting there. And I hope it resonates with people’s grief and heartache, because I think good cinema resonates with people and so much of this film is about grief and love and everything in between. Life is complicated. Family is messy. The world is wild and chaotic. Being BIPOC, from any of our communities is hard enough in this place and as much as I wanted to reflect on our experiences in some way, shape or form, I also wanted us to remember our communities are also filled with joy and hope and love. I hope that when people leave the theatre, and they walk away with their friends that they talk about it and that love is part of that conversation. Our communities have made it through the hardest things that we can make it through, and we’re still living and thriving. I want people to remember that.
Priya: I feel like for us first-generation kids, it would be nice if after watching the film you go home and look at your parents, and perhaps appreciate their journey, and appreciate your own, where you are at that moment in time. Appreciate how you have fit into this world of being somewhere where it is not not home, but it is and feeling comfort in that. I hope that people feel more in love with Toronto, because it’s very easy to be in this capitalist society, but in the midst of it are communities and together we can do loads to push towards some sort of a radical real change that we wanna see in this world. It starts with humanity and our love for each other. I think this film is about not just queer love, but love for your friends, love for your family, for your land and for people.
This Place had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and it currently has no release date.
by Kadija Osman
Kadija Osman is based in Toronto, Ontario and is currently completing her undergrad in journalism at Ryerson University. She enjoys writing about film and TV. When she isn’t watching Timothée Chalamet’s filmography, she is probably reading romance and thriller novels or ranting about the disappointing cancellation of E!’s The Royals. Her favourite films include Kingsman: The Secret Service, Lady Bird and Ready or Not. You can find her on Twitter: @kadijaosman_ and Letterboxd.