About a sister: Payal Sethi’s ‘Leeches’

A few weeks ago, while scouring the internet for ‘meaning’, I came across a warmly lit image of a little Indian girl in a black burkha, standing in front of a yellow-green wooden door. The image tugged at my heart, so I delved deeper.


The haunting image that got me interested in ‘Leeches’

The image led me to a film in the works called Leeches, about child marriage, written and directed by the lovely, Hyderabad based filmmaker, Payal Sethi. Payal is a writer-director and co-founder of FilmKaravan, a company that produces and distributes South Asian speciality content to a global audience. Films they have supported in the past include, Superman of Malegaon and Sita sings the Blues. Last Wednesday I interviewed her about her journey in film and how she came to write this story. I was happy to find an impassioned and eloquent, kindred spirit. I have pieced together some parts of our conversation in audio files throughout this piece. I hope you enjoy listening to this wonderful, emerging filmmaker from India.


Payal Sethi directing her debut short, ‘Grant St. Shaving Company.’

Before I get too far, I want to give my readers the most important message first, Leeches needs your help. They have already raised about $11,500 for principal production they need only $6500 more by August 14th for their post-production budget. For as little as the cost of a latte, $5/Rs. 250 you can be a part of a very special project by an award-winning woman filmmaker from India. Please contribute here, if I’m not convincing enough by the end of this article or if you don’t want to read any further just watch her video and read her pitch on the funding site. I feel certain you will want to support this special and meaningful project.

Leeches is a narrative short about the practice of contract child marriages in Hyderabad. Payal chanced upon a story in a local newspaper that revealed an intricate web of poverty, greed and exploitation that makes girls as young as 12 vulnerable to being ‘married off’ to  rich older men, sometimes for as little as one night. The men pay poor muslim families money in exchange for ‘marriage’ to their virgin daughters. Sickened by what she read, Payal began to research more deeply.

“I would go to Charminar and see an Arab man with a young girl and wonder if she was his daughter or his wife.”

Her research brought her to Shaheen an NGO  set up by a woman called Jameela Nishat. Shaheen gives girls from 20 slums in the Charminar area an alternative way to earn money for their families. In some cases Shaheen helps rehabilitate girls who have been cast off after a marriage or several marriages for being ‘too old’ or for being ‘married too many times’. Payal was inspired by Jameela’s courage and limitless compassion, that persists despite the countless horror stories she witnesses every day. Leeches is a way for Payal to raise awareness about the issue of child contract marriages and garner support for Shaheen.

About Payal Sethi


Payal Sethi during the filming of an exterior shot in NY

Payal grew up in Bangalore, India and went to school at the progressive and holistic Rishi Valley Boarding School. She grew up watching B&W Hindi films, British and American classics, thanks to her film buff parents. At 17, after high school, she went to Vassar College in upstate New York. At Vassar she was exposed to world cinema through an in depth film studies program. A deep appreciation of French cinema led to a semester in Paris, where she dreamed of becoming a French new wave filmmaker. Her visual education continued to grow at the Tisch School of the Arts’ in New York city, where she spent one semester. Despite a deep appreciation for French and American films, when Payal wrote, she always wrote about India and Indian characters. As luck would have it, in her last month at school, a friend from NYU asked Payal to replace her as an intern at MiraBai films, because she wanted to pursue an acting career instead. Payal willingly accepted and came to assist the legendary Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair. Payal was with Mira through five films, including the post production of Monsoon Wedding, and the making of Hysterical Blindness, Mira’s short film about 9/11, Vanity Fair and The Namesake.

After 5 years of receiving arguably the best film education possible under the tutelage of Mira Nair, Payal wrote and directed her first short film, ‘Grant Street Shaving Co’,


Lead actor in Grant St. appreciating a take

The film went on to win several awards and has been shown at 12 festivals worldwide. You can watch this poignant short film here for a limited time. Mira continues to be a great supporter of Payal and her work. Here is an excerpt of our interview, where she talks about her mentor Mira Nair.

Payal returned to India about 5 years ago and now lives in Hyderabad. Early on, her foodie husband and her would go to the Old part of Hyderabad called Charminar to get a dose of culture and hunt for the best biryani in town. Walking through the narrow gullies of the Charminar was like visiting a place in a time capsule, stuck in the past. She enjoyed the old world charm of the architecture, the burkha clad women, the bangles of Laad Bazaar, the quaint street names…Her rose tinted glasses came off when she discovered the sordid practice of ‘one-night child brides’.

Listen here for excerpts from our conversation about her discovery of this practice in Hyderabad and how it led her to write LEECHES.

Remember YOU can help get this film funded! They need just $6500 by August 14th. Here’s the link again to fund Leeches: https://www.wishberry.in/campaign/leeches/


Payal on location

Listen to Payal talk about contract marriages and the intricate social web that perpetuates the practice.

It is Payal’s hope that the completed film will be shown to women in the bastis of Charminar. To show them that they have options. To let them know that they are more than just a commodity. She hopes the film will reach a wider audience at film festivals and will through a visually and emotionally stirring narrative plant a seed in them to do something to address this injustice in the world,. She hopes to raise funds for the great work Jameela is doing with Shaheen to care for and treat these child-women with dignity.

It was a pleasure to talk to Payal, I hope you enjoyed meeting her too. I apologize for the patchy quality of audio in some places, there were a lot of dropped calls the night we talked and hence there is some inconsistency in the sound. I hope you can ‘see/hear through’ the issues and focus on the issue. 🙂

Please consider funding and being a part of this special film.



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