Depending on your outlook, upbringing and thoughts on religion, the meaning of life will have various interpretations. Purpose in our existence is something we’re all searching for and despite the diverse conclusions on how we should spend our time, many seem to agree that kindness, compassion and companionship is the best route to contentment. For the protagonist – a planet-hopping catstronaut – in Neeraja Raj’s energetic stop-motion musical, Meow or Never, she’s also on the hunt for meaning and as is often the case, she finds it in the most-unexpected of places.
We join the film’s pink feline lead as she explores the latest planet (named B-206) in her galaxy-wide quest for meaning. As she lands her cardboard box craft on the planet’s alien landscapes, the ship instantly begins “downloading data” to discover the meaning of life. After a little wait, and a lot of purring, an inquisitive dog disturbs her process, the ship flies off without her and Meow or Never’s protagonist is left without the answer she was hoping for and her trusted mode of transport.
From here on out the catstronaut and her unwanted companion begin an epic quest across the alien world, encountering tribes of marshmallow folk and tripping out in fields of ‘catnip-bis’. Meow or Never is a surreal adventure, so it came as somewhat of surprise when Raj explained that it was a “highly personal story”. Describing her short as “a kooky amalgamation of my existential angst and my happy-go-lucky spirit”, she combined these qualities with a love for musicals to create a truly unique film.
“It’s a not-so-furtive love letter to my dearest friends”
I’m not a fan of musicals myself (except for The Blues Brothers), so when I first encountered Meow or Never it wasn’t a film I expected to love so much. However, it’s a short that wraps you in its warm embrace and refuses to let go. It’s message is strong, but its spirit is stronger. It’s no wonder Raj describes her film as “a not-so-furtive love letter to my dearest friends” and “a sonnet to my undivided interest in the vast cosmos of the unknown universe”.
The film’s heart and soul isn’t just in its narrative though, with its charming stop-motion aesthetic also adding to the short’s charm. Taking 14-months to complete, the visuals blend fabric puppets with intricate all-paper sets, the ‘catnip-bis’ scene even allowing for a trippy 2D digitally hand-drawn sequence. The potential of Meow or Never’s ambitious script could have easily been left on paper if the film’s visuals didn’t match those objectives. Thankfully, Raj and her team put in what the director calls a “mammoth effort” to bring it to life and the result is a joyous story of friendship, for all to enjoy.
Created as part of her studies at the National Film and Television School in the UK, Raj’s short had a solid festival run, which culminated in it being shortlisted for the BAFTA Student Film Awards and winning a Young Director Award in 2021. Even more exciting than those awards though, following Meow or Never’s success the film was optioned for development by Nexus Studios (The House) and Raj is now working with their Original Content Team to develop it into a feature. Alongside that, the filmmakers is also developing a stop-motion series and a live-action/animation film, her next project She Creates Change comes out in October 2023 and tells the true story of young Diksha from Nepal who overcame discrimination and went on to challenge unjust traditions in her community.
With her film centred around the meaning of life, we thought the perfect way to wrap this article would be to let Neeraja share a little of her own beliefs around this subject. “The meaning of one’s life is what one makes it to be”, she explains. “Ultimately, it’s whatever you hold value to, in the world . . . life can be fun, sad, silly and absolutely weird – and all of that could mean something or nothing at all – but what helps you navigate through it, are the connections you make with others”. A beautiful, heartfelt statement, just like the one in her film.