Desi Filmmaker from Kansas City : An Interview by Shuchi Agarwal, March 2006
Kartik Singh is very much local to Kansas City. In fact, his parents have been entrenched into Indian Culture and Society in the Kansas City area that they need a separate interview and their own story! Kartik Singh has always been enthralled by the world of movies. He completed High School from Pembrooke Hill and was actively in studying acting, doing drama and singing in the choir.
Kartik was interviewed by Shuchi Agarwal recently on behalf of KCdesi.
Kartik Singh has always been enthralled by the world of movies. He completed High school from Pembrooke Hill and was very actively involved in studying acting, doing drama and singing in the choir.
While on his recent visit to Kansas City to attend the Omaha Film Festival where his latest movie, Saving Mom and Dad, is one of the ‘Best Screenplay’ finalists, he met with us and shared his views on making movies, inspiring audiences and being Indian. These are some excerpts from his conversation with Shuchi.
Would you please share a little bit about your background?
My parents hail from Hyderabad. My father’s family has been in South India since the 1830s and are the descendents of a Sikh regiment sent by Ranjit Singhji to fight for the Nizam of Hyderabad. My father is a seventh generation Sikh born in South India. Though he came here at a very young age, to this date he remains true to his beliefs and still wears a turban. My mom still has the traditional long hair and wears a Saree. I had a great childhood with all the usual activities of an Indian traditional family.
My parents sent me to a private school here in Kansas city which gave me an excellent education and an incredible opportunity to study with some wonderful teachers. I studied Economics in college and then in 1996, moved to France to study French film (Le Ballon rouge d’Albert Lamorisse) and acting. There I received a post graduate diploma from the Sorbonne in Paris for my first film, Les Enfants du Pere Lachaise (Children of Pere Lachaise). Ever since then I have been involved with filmmaking and continue to make movies. Some of them are L’epave (the Wreck), War Machhe, falling organs and spare change. Infact, ‘Saving Mom and Dad’, my latest movie, after being a finalist in Brooklyn and Omaha, is now in the finals of the Moulin d’Andé Writers Colony.
How do you feel about being Indian?
I am very prod to be of an Indian origin. I feel that Indians have it pretty good as compared to people from other ethnicities. As opposed to other ethnicities, the classic stereotype of an Indians is that they are educated professionals and are well respected in the society. In terns of job market, I think if there is any discrimination, it is more positive than negative. It is definitely very good to be an Indian.
What is it about India that fascinates you?
India is a beautiful country and I have family there. I try and visit as often as I can and whenever I go, I am captivated by the colors there. I am always amazed at how colorful India is! There is tons of it everywhere. I currently have made Paris my home and have traveled to many other countries including Netherlands and Japan but India always attracts me the most. I have been to Delhi, Punjab, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore. I would love to go to Calcutta, Rajasthan and Kerala also in future.
Do you speak any other languages besides English?
I am very fluent in French, infact I work constantly as a translator for French. I also can understand Hindi and took lessons on how to write it though I am not very good at spelling it! I also speak a bit of Japanese and picked up some local language when I traveled to Netherlands in my teens.
Who or what is your inspiration for your movies?
My inspiration comes from not only from people but also from my experiences. One such time that comes to mind is when I got to spend an unforgettable week on the movie set of Forrest Gump as an extra.
This was a scene being shot in Washington DC, where I was going to school at the time. Robert Zemeckis, the Director, was looking for extras to play 1960s hippies which included men with long hair, which was why I got picked! In the scene, Tom Hanks was to address this crowd and I got an opportunity to see his work up-close. I remember, Robert was about 20-30 yards away with a bullhorn, shouting directions, and here was Tom Hanks, completely focused on his work. He was really in a state of deep concentration even though he was surrounded by 150 strangers who were not very serious. It was very inspiring to see that and be in the presence of greatness.
Another big moment that inspired me was in 1991-92, when Satyajit Ray won the lifetime achievement Oscar. A retrospective of his work was shown all over United States, including the Tivoli at Westport in Kansas. I went to every movie of his shown there which included greats like Pather Panchali, Charulata, Mahanagar and many more. This was my introduction to an entire different kind of cinema. Though I admired other movies like Starwars, Back to the Future, Dead Poetic Society, Platoon etc, this exposure opened my eyes to other cinema out there and that was very meaningful for me. Satyajit Ray touches his audience at a deeper level. The poetic realism of his movies is a source of inspiration to me.
Coming to your recent movie, Saving Mom and Dad, can you give us a brief outline of the story?
SM&D is the story of eight year old Ravi who is different from the other kids in school. He is the only East Indian child in his class and also is the smartest one. His home is a blend of India and America. One day his life is turned upside down when he is told by his teacher that those who do not accept Jesus Christ will go to Hell. Though he has accepted Jesus, his parents have not and now it is up to him to convert them, or else suffer the unthinkable – that his parents go to Hell.. Naturally, his parents are totally opposed to becoming Christian and Ravi is caught in between these authority figures, his parents and his teacher – whose lessons are contradictory.
Ravi finally seeks his answer in prayer, and decides that to explore his own view that will be the key to finding truth about God. The next day at school, he vocally challenges his teacher’s view of God in front of the class. Ravi cannot accept that God would arbitrarily send people to Hell. Also, many of those who have never heard of Christ are people from far off places. He himself may never had heard the gospel had his parents not left India. Ravi expresses his defiance in a boisterous manner. Even though he is punished physically for his outburst and defiance, Ravi sweaty and wet with tears, is content with having finally found the answer that had eluded him for so long.
Did you write SM&D?
I have penned my own scripts in the past but I did not write this one. However, I am always very closely involved with all aspects of my movies, especially the story and scripting as a good script is very important to me. Its not enough just to have good material but also to put together.
What do you wish to convey through this movie?
In SM&D, Ravi is caught between different values of people he loves and trusts. He is constantly being pushed back and forth between ideas that not his own, until he finally discovers his own ideas that emerge from his journey of self discovery.
I am hoping to inspire people to stand up for what they believe in. It is also a message of peace and tolerance. I believe that everybody has the opportunity one day to be heroic and rise to the occasion. This doesn’t require deliberate effort but is really done quite automatically, just a response to something natural, as in Ravi’s case. I admire this young character for his courage and his actions which spotlight him and put him beyond what most people do.
Is this character inspired from your personal observation and experience?
Everything you write is based on your experience in some way or the other. I share something or the other in common with all the characters in this film, infact with all characters of all of my films. What happens to Ravi did not really happen to me but something like this could have happened to me. I feel now is a time for this story to be told.
Who are your target audience for SM&D?
My target audience is the general public but I would be very pleased if it was shown as an educational film in libraries and schools as there is a lot that can be learned from it. I also think that it would interest people looking for spirituality, who are interested in God and tolerance, women maybe more than men as they are drawn more to spirituality. This is a movie more for adults and young adults rather than children.
What’s your favorite part in the movie?
My favorite part in the movie is when Ravi stands up in front of his entire class and says to his Bible studies teacher “God wouldn’t do that…I disagree”. Everyone is looking at him and he has the courage to stand up for what he believes in against his class and an authority figure, at such a young age.
How do you want interested people to contribute to this project of yours?
Well, people interested in financing the film can just make a tax deductible donation. We hope to screen SM&D in Kansas in 2007 and would like everyone to come and see it. If you like it, please, tell your friends about it.
Have you given Bollywood any serious thought?
I keep on looking at Indian cinema from afar but every time I visit India, I go and meet people. I definitely see myself making a film in India. It’s a question of finding the right framework, the right people and an appropriate project. I constantly watch Indian movies and like movies like ‘East is East’ which is from the Indian diaspora. There is good work being done and I am excited to see how it will evolve.
Which Bollywood movie enthuses you?
A movie I would have loved to make is Lagaan. It is well crafted, well written and brilliantly made – the love triangle between Aamir Khan and his two leading ladies is very clever. The idea of using cricket, an underdog story of villagers versus the English, creating a life and death situation where if the villagers loose they basically starve to death is very creative.
Which Bollywood actor and actress would you like to work with?
There are so many great actors. It’s really hard to pick one. Off the top of my head, I would love to work with Amitabh, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Aamir . I was very impressed by Aamir’s focus on his movie Mangal Pandey. He refused all other roles while he was working on this one and went through a physical transformation with the hair and the mustache. That to me was dedication.
I believe that it is not about who is the best actor today, it’s about how they will all be remembered 50 years from now. When they are dead and gone, will their performance still move people. I know that when future audiences watch Dilip Kumar in Bimol Roy’s Devdas or K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam they will know that he was an exceptional actor.
I have also heard very good things about Aishwarya Rai. She simply oozes stardom and is known to be very heard working.
Will you always be a filmmaker?
I love to make films but I don’t want to limit myself to just filmmaking. I want to do many other things. I love to work with children and would love to go to India and do something for the community. Maybe get involved with education and teach. I would like to work with orphanages also. I would like to use filmmaking to be able to reach a wild audience and hopefully change the world in that way. I have very high goals and want to do a lot more through story telling.
Finally, do you have any words of advice for any aspiring filmmakers out there?
I would tell them that taking the first step is the hardest. There is a saying – ‘when you begin something new, the universe lends a hand’. I advise you to make friends who have the same passion as you. Go to movies together, talk about films, discuss movies that excite and inspire you. Forge friendships that go from film to film. Do not stay on your own, do not think you are better than others, open your heart and share your journey with others.