Images by Nancy Alice
It was a balmy afternoon in Chennai when Vidhya and I decided to have a casual conversation with Student Emmy Award-winning director Manahar Kumar, who also has nine International Film Festival selections to his credit. In classic lockdown style, we scheduled this over a Zoom call.
What was expected to be an artistic conversation about filmmaking, Manahar’s journey so far and his future plans, turned into a wonderful 3 hours of sharing experiences, epiphanies and discoveries about each other that we didn't know before.
Catch a glimpse of this eclectic conversation about art, film, music, struggles and aspirations of young artists and more in the excerpt below. This conversation is bound to make your Sunday afternoon a little more insightful. We recommend you pair this with an amazing cup of coffee.
Vidhya Anand: Manahar (mun-hur), I’m gonna ask if I’m pronouncing your name right before I get started. Am I pronouncing it right?
Manahar Kumar: Yeah, that’s perfect.
V: Thank you. So Padma and I have been reading a lot about your work and it is so interesting and introspective. We thought we’d keep this very conversational. Can you give us a quick run-through of where you come from, you know, what your inspirations are, a prelude to you?
M: Yeah, my hometown is the North Indian city called Chandigarh. And it’s where I was born and brought up and I did my schooling in. After that, I went to South India, to Manipal University, for my undergrad in Mass Communication, after which, for a year I was doing a lot of workshops and stuff, and I ended up at Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta for my Masters.
V: We’re very curious about your childhood. How was it growing up, did you always want to be a filmmaker or was it a later epiphany? Tell us about that journey.
M: I think it was my love for being on stage, always. And a mix of just imbibing a lot of television and films when I was a kid. My only pastime then was watching the screen, and balancing out with a lot of sports. That later showed up as opportunities to be on stage at school. I remember, way back, my first play was the story of the crow and the rock (the thirsty crow). I have vague memories of being on stage and my mum and I drove back home. I don’t remember much of it, but there are still faint visuals of that being the first-ever thing wherein I had to play onstage.
Other than that, I had an extremely happy childhood, with a lot of friends, a lot of sports, a lot of running, and just being myself. We didn’t have any of the technology that children have today and we had to entertain ourselves with whatever we had. I remember where I was living, both the houses besides ours were empty. There was always some form of construction. There used to be lower-income families that were caretakers and a lot of kids. I remember playing with them. At Manipal, I had to consciously choose theatre. It was either directing plays or taking up tennis full time because I knew mass communication was the degree I was going to do but these two things always intrigued me. I chose theatre.
V: Do you also act?
M: Oh yeah, I’ve been acting since ninth grade. Our first play was The Lion King and I played Shenzi the Hyena. We had around 6 shows back to back, two shows a day. It was a golden jubilee year. So that was when I officially acted for the first time, consciously memorizing lines and all that. I took non-medical classes in my 11th and 12th. I was only able to pursue that because every evening we had theatre practice at a professional conservatory in Chandigarh. We did plays like Mothers Day by J. B. Priestley. We changed it to 12 Angry Jurors, added women characters, made the jurors unisexual and then auditioned for the roles. Only because of this I was able to breathe and balance out science and maths.
V: Our childhoods sound very similar. Listening to you talk makes me very nostalgic about my early years in Chennai. It's great that you remember so many details, memories do tend to fade away as we get older.
M: Oh, absolutely. A lot of times, interviews make me go back and realise what was the story and how it led me here.
V: Where do your inspirations come from? What makes you curious? We’ve been reading about your Emmy award movie and how it came to be, but I want to hear it from you. When you’re walking around and having a normal day, what makes you stop and think that I need to document this or I need to go out and find the story behind this?
M: I wish I knew. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. I’d like to hear you tell me first. Where do you find your inspiration?
V: For me, just the move to the US made me kinda introspective and retrospective about life back in India and how much I was missing out. I’m not saying that the US isn’t cultural, but I think unconsciously missing out on little things back home; how family oriented we are, little tea shops. Most of my pieces these past two years have been about nostalgia. Homesickness is a bad state to be in, but it has given me some of the best pieces I have ever written.
M: I would love to read those. This really resonates with me. Sometimes you really need to get away from home to realise what really was home.
P: I’m the opposite of both of you because I’ve never moved away or lived in another place. I’ve only travelled to places. I always get inspiration from these four walls and what happens within. In fact, recently I was telling Vidhya about writing a novel based on this. Family politics and characters in a family home.
V: Oh yes. Especially in the lockdown scenario!
M: I would read that novel any day!
There’s a talk I once listened to, that had Riz Ahmed, at the prime of lockdown. It’s called “Making a home in No Man’s land.” Riz Ahmed, Rupi Kaur, Fathima Bhutto and Nikesh Shukla in conversation about home. I say this from a very privileged place, but I think we’re heading to a place where immigration would become normal. Colours and races would mix and we’d fix newer definitions of cultures and races. It’d be a rainbow. I can’t wait for life to be that, in 10-20 years. It began from a couple of generations before us, and it’s truly growing.
I think there comes a time every couple of years, where your surroundings and your internal worldview attracts inspiration. There’s a minute part within all of us that remains the same from the time we’re born until we die. It can be the way you look at things themselves.
When you ask me what inspired me to document those two boys specifically (Student Emmy winning documentary Kya Dekh Rahe Hai?), it was first the echo of their clanking bottles. My eyes were looking for it even before I realised what I was looking for. What I first saw was two boys with sacks full of empty alcohol bottles talking to a man in a vintage car. I immediately thought there was something shady about the whole deal. It was all very Bollywood- ish to me. When I finally talked to them a couple of weeks later, I realised their story was just human. From their age group, it was simply a means for money to do what they wanted- which was to study.
There’s a moment in the documentary after they tell me what they’re doing- a pregnant pause where I really don’t know what to ask. It was as shocking to me as it was to the viewer.
V: yes. I remember thinking while watching the documentary- how did you get them to open up? As an artist, there’s always a moment you get someone to open up and be vulnerable. When that pause happened, I knew something was coming. It was heartbreaking, but also from a filmmaking point of view, brilliant.
M: One of your questions was about how life inspires art and vice versa. I think that moment was the genesis of a realization for me.
V: Do you feel there are more stories to capture in India? Sometimes I forget how much is happening back home while we’re away. There are so many events that connect more over here, coming from a place of familiarity. Having been at SCAD and coming back, how has it all been?
M: I met a director a couple of years ago, who shared some wise experiences of his. I was asking him how he decides what his next project is going to be when there are so many things to share? He said, after a certain point, your choices will ruin you. There will always be so much to say, but limited time. So what you need to ask is what is the need of the hour. It could be from a personal or social perspective. Art is art. There’s no discrimination in it. There’s no right or wrong, It just is.
V: Yes, we’re not preaching through art. The best we can do is unravel a person’s story and experiences. It’s something artists go by, if you have a message, why tell it when you can show?
M: That's the film medium for you. Show, don’t tell.
P: I’m curious, what was the first film you watched? Do you remember the experience or the revelations that came with it?
M: I really don’t remember. I have memories of watching some brilliant stuff, always with friends. But the first one? Maybe it’ll strike me later. There’s a lot of things left to remember. More than what I saw, it was the people I saw it with. That sense of community.
P: That is something we’re majorly missing out on, right now.
M: I feel it’ll be one of those Eureka moments when I finally remember it. I hope it happens.
V: Sure will.
This is an absurd question to ask now, but do you have any travel plans? Are you going back to the US anytime soon?
M: Oh definitely. The education and on-set experiences at SCAD expanded my horizons in a unique but huge way. I always said during my years in Manipal that I didn’t just want to act in a particular niche in cinema. I always wanted to go where the stories tell me to. At SCAD, I realised that was possible.
With actors like Irfan Khan who made it back in the day when it was tougher, you know it’s possible. It’s not even about waiting for the right opportunities. It’s what gets you out of the bed with a spring in your step, what doesn’t let you sleep. It’s when you really want the world to know that story, for whatever reason. I think one thing these past years have taught us is the value of patience and persistence. Waiting with your axe sharpened, looking for the right tree. That’s a horrible metaphor, I love trees. We shouldn’t cut them (laughs)
V: Can you talk about Stardust? I remember reading it was about the cycle of death and grieving. I’m very curious about it.
M: I was really curious about death and what happens after. The seed for that was my grandfather’s death in 2018. He was in Chandigarh and me all the way back in Atlanta. I was facing the death of that capacity for the first time and the grief was beyond anything I could imagine then. It was a punch in the gut.
It slowly transitioned into questions of what death is and where he is. I was curious. There’s a book that finds us when we’re ready for it. In my case, it was Many Lives, Many Masters. It really changed my perspective. I realised dying isn’t a full-stop, it’s just a comma. Once you’re aware of that, you start watching and listening to things differently. The universe really speaks to you.
2018 Jan 28th, my grandfather passed away and in June the same year, the Emmy happened. In 6 months.
Having said that, the edit of the movie was ready even before I started my journey at SCAD. But there was just something in me, every time I showed it to someone, that said there was something about this that was missing. I couldn’t put it out for the world to see just yet. There was something in there that would eventually find its way to the world, just not yet.
When I showed it to my professor at SCAD, I asked him for just 5 minutes. The movie was 4 and a half minutes long, and afterwards, he said, “This is powerful stuff Manahar.” He asked me to submit it to the film festival and then Emmy came around. I submitted and then forgot all about it, went on acting and going about life. But by the time the results came around, something was different. I had shaved after a long time.
V: Oh my god. What is with men and shaving? There’s always a shave involved when something life-changing happens.
M: It’s like when you know something huge is going to happen. But that beard helped me a lot. It was around the time my friends were making their thesis films. I acted in a Pakistani friend’s film as a lead and without the beard that wouldn’t have happened.
But reaching the point of that event (the Emmys), I realised that grieving was at one end and this was something else. There was a booklet they shared with all the nomination details. When I looked at my category, and with all the titles of Kya Dekh Raha Hai?, I realised maybe I have a shot after all. There was no plan. I just went on stage and spoke about what came out. It just made sense.
V: Our cover story for the latest issue features cinematographer Ravi Varman.
M: I can’t wait to be lit up by the genius someday. I really want his eyes, because of the way he looks at light and colours, or forms and the way he recreates it all.
V: Whenever we talk of things like this, it reminds me of Dumbledore telling Harry “Don’t pity the dead, pity the living.” It always stuck with me, even at an age when I didn’t know what to do with it.
M: Something happened to me at the peak of lockdown last year, around April. We were still in Atlanta. We’d just finished shooting Stardust in February, the last day of the winter quarter. The day after our last shot, we were informed everything for Spring and Summer, fall would be online. I was very lucky that it was just the editing left. It was around then that one of my apartment neighbours, my editor, got Covid.
Incidentally, I was reading Irrfan Khan’s biography by Aseem Chhabra. I’d just finished that fascinating story about where he came from, his days at the National School of Drama, Delhi, his outlook towards storytelling, acting etc. One night, I got a notification from NDTV saying that he was hospitalised. I told my roommates I had a bad feeling about it, and I woke up at 4 the next day to the news of his passing away. It hit hard, probably worse than my grandfather’s passing.
Here was someone you intimately knew, in a way, through his works. Looking back, I realise there is so much he left behind for us. I woke up and meditated to a point where I was thankful for his life, and moved on to looking forward to meeting him, whenever that would be. The word coincidence isn’t something I want in my dictionary. Everything is planned and you don’t know when, but everything you do will pay off.
V: Such an extraordinary thing, really; how a lot of losses feel so personal. Even though you didn’t know them when their art speaks to you.
P: Your view on coincidences reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk where she said I’m just a medium for creativity to come to life. Truer words have not been spoken (the creative genius).
M: In her book, The Big Magic, there’s a story about her having an idea and being lazy about writing it. Later on, years down the lane, she realised the same idea occurred to her friend, who put it down on paper. We as creators sadly have that ego that we own full credit for our ideas. We think we’re doing this, but the character we’re writing has a certain frequency that attracts the right actor and you’re just a medium aligning it all together.
All that, not to say we don’t do anything. We go out there, hone our skills, and the energy uses us for things we are capable of.
A friend from SCAD, Krishna Trilok who is originally from Chennai, was on the Savannah campus. We’ve been talking about writing something together. I read the biography he wrote for AR Rahman, where he talks about praying 5 times a day. If you’re true to your art and put in those 10,000 hours (Malcolm Gladwell) you reach a spiritual realm where creation just happens. Where you’re just working with what you’re creating and giving it life. It just flows through you.
V: Billie Eilish in an interview after her Grammys said that her brother and she decided to create music and put in 10,000 hours for it. If I did that, she said, how would I not become an artist.
M: Have you seen her documentary? It’s too good. It really breaks down the human behind the artist.
V: I remember telling my colleagues about her music before she was famous, and they went, “But her music is so depressing”. It upset me a lot back then that she was being judged for it. I later came to the conclusion that if an artist couldn’t talk about their most personal things, how would their work be authentic? The same year she won her Grammy as well, so that was very gratifying.
M: It is also gratifying to see that there is an artist from a totally different culture creating songs from her bedroom. And people not recognizing it for what it truly is triggering you. You’re already making that person and art your own. It's fascinating, but also a little scary. At the end of the day, the word fan comes from ‘fanatic’. We all have our likes and dislikes, but it’s also something beyond just that when it comes to art.
What’s your favourite song of hers?
V: Ocean eyes
P: Oh mine too! I can’t get over that song!
V: Padma, we’re discovering so much about ourselves through Manahar!
P: Manahar, what’s your favourite?
M: “I love you.” There’s a moment in that, no matter how much I listen to it, it still gives me goosebumps. I’d probably be the only person to compare her music to Rahman’s, but with every good musician and their music, there’s a new layer you find every time you listen to a song. It’s so well fed, it becomes cerebral.
V: Cerebral is the word. I booked my tickets home right after I heard ARR’s Berklee Concert.
M: We have played that at our home on so many evenings. It would pump you up, but also make you miss home.