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Alumnae produce films

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, February 5, 2013

When sisters Gita and Kavita Pullapilly graduated from Notre Dame with degrees in finance, their immediate post-graduation plans didn’t include producing award-winning films.

“I ended up getting a job in finance … but just really felt like that maybe wasn’t where I was supposed to be,” Gita, a 1999 alumna, said. “I found that journalism was an avenue to what I really ended up wanting to do, which was storytelling in a medium that was visual in particular.”

Gita’s educational journey from Notre Dame to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism ultimately paved the path to her current job as executive producer of the forthcoming public television program “Lifecasters,” which will have its world premiere Wednesday at New York’s Lincoln Center.

Gita said the project, produced by her personal production company, Sunny Side Up Films, aims to “inspire and engage the country” through three short films by award-winning filmmakers that showcase the stories of three “amazing artists who came from different backgrounds to achieve their goals and dreams.”

“[The subjects] all had to face these enormous challenges … but took interesting routes to be able to achieve their goals … and that to us was really exciting,” Gita said. “We kind of want to champion people who did these different things who have yet to be recognized for it at the national scale.”

The success of Sunny Side Up’s last film, the Emmy-nominated documentary “The Way We Get By,” placed the production company on the radar of filmmakers across the country, Gita said, and that public exposure opened doors for working with well-known directors and producers on “Lifecasters,” including “Anchorman” director Adam McKay, producer Shira Piven and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert.

“Coming out of the gate with this project, we really wanted the best of the best filmmakers so they could set the model for what we kind of stand by,” Gita said.

In the case of McKay, who has a strong background in comedy as the creator of the humor site Funny or Die, Gita said “Lifecasters” represented a unique filmmaking opportunity that allowed him to explore the story of musician and former prisoner Wayne Kramer in “The Beast and the Angel.”

“We loved the idea of giving [McKay] a creative platform to do something that wasn’t comedy but something that was very personal for [him],” she said.

To round out the “Lifecasters” lineup, Bognar and Reichert profiled one of the oldest female professional dancers in the country in “Sparkle,” and Gita and her husband, Aron Gaudet, produced “The Gambling Man,” which tells the story of an 80-year-old retired doctor who composed an award-winning symphony.

Although the project took two years of hard work, Gita said the end result of “Lifecasters” made all the time and effort worthwhile.

“For us as storytellers, our job is to engage and entertain an audience, so we’re very excited to have … these artists share their stories,” Gita said. “We hope we can become a voice for people across the country to find ways to accomplish their goals.”

That aspiration to inspire audiences comes from a lifelong desire to use knowledge and talents to promote a worthy cause, Gita said.

“When we were at Notre Dame, both Kavita and I would try to figure out how as Domers we could give back … and we’re so fortunate and so proud that from our education we were able to develop a voice and storytelling techniques … and that we were able to hone our skills at Notre Dame.”

Kavita said her experiences in both finance and filmmaking have demonstrated the value of a Notre Dame education in the real world.

“It’s great that Notre Dame gave us the opportunity to explore and really develop our skills but allowed us the well-rounded education to really explore what we wanted to do in life,” Kavita said. “It speaks a lot to the Notre Dame experience that it goes beyond what our majors were and really [helps] us become amazing, contributing individuals.”

Although her sister and brother-in-law take creative direction of the Sunny Side Up’s endeavors, Kavita said she appreciates their work from the unique perspective as a producer and the company’s chief operating officer.

“I’ve always been kind of behind the scenes … but I loved the process of thinking and creating from an idea and developing it into an artistic endeavor that really engages people, their minds, their imaginations, their feelings,” Kavita said. “I started working with Gita and Aron full-time in August 2011, and I’ve been loving it ever since.”

Even though they ended up choosing different career paths than initially intended, both Pullapilly sisters still use the fundamental business knowledge they acquired as Notre Dame undergraduates in operating their production company.

“The business side is critical through the entire process of the concept to finishing the film to getting it out into the world. Every aspect of what needs to happen has a huge business component behind it,” Gita said. “Our film company is committed to finding creative avenues to make the films we want to make and get them out as economically viably as possible.”

“Lifecasters” will premiere nationally Feb. 7 on PBS. The second major project from Sunny Side Up Films, a feature film titled “Blue Potato,” will be released later this year.