“Let the idea of what home means, consume you. Hug that pain and grief that comes with homesickness and create something from it,” says Manahar Kumar, in an interview discussing Distant and his latest Student EMMY® Award (Talent Performance) win for his role as Richie in the film.
Directed by Akhil Dev, and currently on its festival run Distant is the story of a misfit illegal immigrant working multiple jobs who is overwhelmingly cornered by his life away from home, and his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health back in India. Richie, played by Manahar, seems like a man of few words and fewer smiles. Battling what is potentially a nightmare for anyone away from home, Richie tries to make ends meet with two day jobs, all in an effort to save money for his mother’s medical expenses. Unfolding as it does, with moments that will make you hold your breath, Distant is a rather difficult and powerful narrative.
While the film comments on geographic boundaries and its powerful limitations on expressing love, Manahar speaks of home as a far more empowering notion, that is not only abundant in love, but as a reclamation of the creative self, “Everything we spoke about—our stories being from India, this is where we come from and limiting ourselves say in the US or wherever we want to be. I genuinely believe stories are universal and they have no language. A couple of shots of mine stemmed from observations and moments in India but got replicated and designed for the US and did well.”
Adding more context, he continues, “We get emotional, because there is nostalgia, there are memories attached to our childhood and to the place where we are from, and there is a distance between where we are from, where we are currently and where we want to go. And because of these distances between these three things, we at times tend to falter in terms of our decision-making. I think what I’m coming to is the fact that—where we are at this moment, let’s just be here, let’s breathe here, let’s create here not thinking about where we want to be or what is the finality of what we’ve created.”
Subverting a common thought that home is a city, a place, a particular street we grew up in, he says, “What we create, has a life of its own, and it will live on after we’re out. If it's truthful and coming from a place of pain, grief, love and honesty it will transcend and be timeless, for generations. So coming back to a geographical place and where we want to be, it doesn’t matter. We think it matters. But, we can create anything anywhere in the world.”
Perhaps, when on creative pursuits, home is where our being is.
V: Let’s talk about the genesis of Distant in Akhil’s mind
M: When we were in the crowd funding phase, he’d go out and document these people, from a storyteller’s perspective, asking them why they’re doing what they’re doing. All of that contributed to the film.
What is shown in the film has a lot of creative liberty involved, but Akhil really is very close to his mom. Our first schedule, before we ever shot in Atlanta, was in Hyderabad. We shot a lot of things that aren't in the film. Like, post my character Richie leaves the US, we show him land in Hyderabad and reach the hospital where his mother was. When I saw him with his mother was when I truly understood the longing and memories that came with the distance- until he finally broke that he needed to go back.
V: How long was he away before he saw his mother?
M: A year and a half, minimum. Irrespective, every time you go back home, you’re too foreign for home and you're too foreign for where you’re coming from. And each time you see your parents again, you can see them grey more, they grow older while you’re trapped in your faraway bubble, trying to make it.
V: Can you talk about the times when you were rehearsing, especially the gas station scene, what was the cue from Akhil? How was it for you going through that experience?
M: We didn't rehearse the gas station scene. I met the actor for the first time there. Later, we realised he was part of ‘What Remains of Emily’ as well, and he was an alum from Savannah College of Arts and Design. We took 2-3 takes for that shot. It was intense. There was no cue other than Akhil being really scared. It was life or death. It was the genesis of his thought about if he was really helping by sending money and not actually being with her. He was terrified.
V: How has Distant influenced the part of you that’s an actor?
M: I just know that I was empty at the end of it— not because I had given it my all. I was drained. I saw a lot of things through Akhil’s gaze- because I went to Hyderabad and saw him with his mother, also because I myself was studying in the US. Understand the need to detach from your character. I had a lot of fun on the shoots too, because my buddy was directing. We were roommates as well. We shot in my room as well, so a lot of things there were mine—the line between the character and me was blurry.
V: Akhil, Can you tell me about the conception of Distant?
A: It was definitely from personal experience, from a tough time in the US. I didn't have too much of a tough time, but my colleagues… Latina, Mexican, Indian, Pakistanis—some of them illegal—all lived in 6 people rooms or studios. They would stay till eleven in the restaurant. They were depressed, angry, and snappy. It was a very unhealthy lifestyle. I was going through a lot of pain as well at the time. I'm really close to my mum. I missed her the most. She was my country, culture, home—all in one person. Just the thought of what if she wasn’t there brought Distant to life.
V: Did Distant influence you to move back home ?
A: Definitely. Manahar and I lived together to make Distant. Manahar lived as Richie. It was a two year process. The stories I wanted to tell were all of my childhood and my childhood was India. If I stayed in the US telling their stories , the maximum I could be was an AD, or a cinematographer/editor. What was the point?
M: I met Akhil on my second day in the US. He was 6 months ahead in terms of Masters, but we bonded. Distant wasn't supposed to take that long, but once we started making it and got it out into the world, it was like birthing something. Someday, eventually, we’ll have a 30 minute cut.
V: What did you think of Manahar’s performance, Akhil?
A: Richie is not a character I wrote, it was Manahar, living in his daily life, with me. There’s no performance there. He put his most vulnerable face out there and went ahead. We telepathically knew what the character was going through. I mean, he got a student Emmy for it.
M: I still haven't believed it.
A: When an actor wins an award for my film, it means my job was done. I was sure he’d get a student Oscar when we began the making.
M: There’s so much gratitude there. I think the whole point of film school was to build that ground where you come together with people to create something. We experience, evolve, drop mistakes, learn, play. The stories are just byproducts of that. When I saw Akhil and his mum in Hyderabad, that was the genesis. Akhil’s mum was the mother in the movie. A lot of it was meta. It was our room we were shooting in. When this character is 10,000 miles away, so far from the love they need, when someone’s living like that in a daily rut, you either snap and get aggressive, or shut down. This guy, I knew, would shut down. If his mother was transitioning to someplace else, he was transitioning away too.
That bond between Akhil and me, especially since it was the first time we were talking since pre-pandemic, coming back into the real world was a huge transition. We knew we didn't always need to be in touch, one call and we’d be back right where we left off—on and off set.
A: We both know what the other person wants to do with their life. This is a long term thing. We signed up for 40-50 years and we don't need constant reminders from each other for that.
V: How many awards did Distant win?
A: Manahar won about two awards. Total, 8? We have around 16 nominations.
I mean, awards are okay. It’s always, this is done now, what next.
V: As an actor, do you have anything to add to the story?
M: The first movie I acted in was a short film called The Night . It was really intense. We had to fight our professors to let me in on that, they wanted actors from outside. That got me the confidence to go out more and seek opportunities at Scad. There was a Pakistani friend called Mohammed Ali at Scad. We shot together around Feb/March. I got to speak in Urdu for the role. That was fun.
Post that, every week I had a thesis film of a friend or a short to work on. Sometimes behind the scenes. 2020 was a lot about rehearsing and preparing for Stardust. Jan to feb 2020 was the busiest and the most blissful I’d ever been, and I was acting. So much came out of it, the film gods were beaming on us. It was just pure cinematic joy. Spring quarter was fully online but thankfully the shoots were all done. It was just the edits left.
One of the shots in Distant, the kitchen scene, came after a long day. I was running in the rain for a long time. Afterwards, I just went and lay down in the kitchen. Shekeb and I rehearsed it a couple times before, but never that intensely. The pent up frustration, the loss, knowing that the other person does not understand what you’re going through, not being able to express it all, it all just came out. When Akhil called cut, there was a long silence. I really slapped Shekeb in the shot. When it was over, he looked at me and said, “Dude that was hard.” I kissed him on the cheek later. I remember everyone parting for me when I left the scene afterward.
As Meryl Streep recalls in a speech, “Take your broken heart and make it into art.” I say, use it, take those memories and make something of it. Feel it. Hug that pain and loss and live in it. Create from it, not just for you.