“Observe your breath” — Air is the currency of human life. When we’re able to observe our breath, especially in moments of stress and anger, we can be mindful about what to do.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Manahar Kumar.
Manahar believes that the Universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories. With a passion for truth, the actor-writer-student Emmy award winning director sees filmmaking as an opportunity to shine a light of awareness and empathy on the many social evils that lurk hidden in the shadows around him. Currently working on his series, Browny Points, Manahar has garnered multiple film festival awards and selections.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Born and brought up around professional English Theatre in Chandigarh, North India, and pursuing my undergraduate degree in Manipal, South India, my worldview expanded, after observing many kinds of India in one India. Being part of classics like The Mousetrap, Mother’s Day, The Night of January 16 and 12 Angry Jurors, I learned, grew and fell in love with performing arts.
In Manipal, I co-founded a production house, UnTied Laces (not a typo). This was followed by various projects, across different genres, where I contributed as a writer, cinematographer, director, editor and actor including a music video in collaboration with the non-profit, Men Against Rape and Discrimination (MARD) that sought to inspire and mobilize more men to stand up against everyday sexual violence in India. In 2016, we created a forum for talented artists to express themselves — through stand-up comedy, slam poetry, improvisation, short plays and acoustic sessions by envisioning an event called ‘Baba Nights.’
Currently, I’m in the final lap of my MFA in Film & TV from Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) in Atlanta, Georgia. My short documentary, kya dekh raha hai? (What are you looking at?) fetched me a Student EMMY ® and 9 International film festival selections. All through my filmmaking journey at SCAD, I also acted in pilots, thesis films, for SCAD and Columbia University, New York.
In 2019, I created a successful crowdfunding campaign for my thesis film — Stardust. I was 1 of 10 finalists selected for the Film Impact Georgia Grant. My latest short documentary, Badlaav Republic (Change Republic), currently in the festival circuit, won the “Best International Film” award at the Oregon Documentary Film Festival and “Best Documentary Award” at the Georgia Documentary Film Festival. As a graduate student at SCAD), I won the “Most likely to be a renowned actor” Ambassador’s Choice Award.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
This is the Winter of 2017. I am in my hometown of chilly Chandigarh, India. I was awaiting on responses from film schools that I’d applied for my Masters. On an evening, while parked in a crowded marketplace, I continuously kept hearing the cackling of empty alcohol bottles. Curious, I saw a group of poverty-stricken kids with huge white sacks, taller than their height, speaking to an old man in a vintage car. This intrigued me immensely. Questions arose: Are they selling drugs? Are they forcefully a part of an underground gang?
A couple of weeks passed; I was in the same area and the cackling began. This time, I saw just a couple of them. I drove back home, packed my DSLR and a lav mic and hurried back. I started filming the kids, almost like an investigative journalist. I asked them questions and was flabbergasted at the revelation of the truth.
I edited the film in 48 hours, but something stopped me to release it publicly. This was my first ever experience where-in a story was speaking to me, telling me to be patient, to not rush this, for the world needed to be aware of this story. I stay put, chose SCAD for my Master of Fine Arts over my life-long dream of heading to Stella Adler School of Acting in New York, which I got selected in too, by the way.
Cut to, the Winter of 2018. I am in chillier Atlanta, Georgia attending an 8AM Producing course with Prof. Quinlan O’rear. Post the class, I requested my Prof. to see the film, titled, kya dekh raha hai? (What are you looking at?). He liked it, said, “This is powerful stuff, Manahar. Are you happy with the edit?”. I took a couple more weeks to finally lock the film and got a submission request from my Prof — for the Student Emmy’s. I did so and forgot about it catching up the bliss of film school.
The same winter, 28 January, ten thousand miles away in India, my grandfather breathed his last, a day after he celebrated his 53rd wedding anniversary. I was shaken to say the least. Death had visited both him and me, whisking me off my feet. The only savior: films. I overworked and acted in more shorts than I could count, aced my semesters.
May 2018, I receive the news, kya dekh raha hai? is nominated! I arrive at the venue, shaving after 6-months, allowing light to finally hit my face. The nominations are listed on the screen, “And the award goes to…”
My grandfather and I won.
Act I begins.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/ad56c75eab9931ba2c1e439ea3ed1c29
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Some of the most interesting people I have interacted with are not restricted to filmmakers. Infact, most of the honest and evolving conversations I’ve had are with friends who are doctors, chefs and interior designers.
Case in point, a chef friend of mine, Anukriti Jhamb and I recently met and went on a long walk. There were free flowing conversations about society’s gaze, stand-up comedian Daniel Sloss and the importance of meditation and spending time with oneself in this instantly gratified heavy world.
At the end, having experienced the sunset, we were joined by fireflies. In the dark abyss of the park, these sparkling lights, reignited our trust in the future, not just for us, but for humanity at large. The storytelling gene is ingrained in us since we began cave painting and sometimes, something as simple as a walk with nature can be enlightening.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Before the pandemic, 2020 began on a powerful note. I acted as the antagonist in a Columbia University thesis film, Mabrook (currently in the festival circuit). I got cast as the LEAD in SCAD’s Pilot production — What Remains of Emily while simultaneously, I was directing my thesis film — Stardust.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/607144399539e30227a873c957240988
I have been working on a series based somewhat on personal experiences but more so on the International student gaze and VISA status issues. The Pilot screenplay was a finalist at the Oregon Short Film Festival and Houston Comedy Film Festival.
The Pilot is about a shy Indian film student, Manheer who, at the brink of his graduation must find loopholes allowing him to stay in the United States of America — Browny Points.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I am an avid and curious reader. The most recent book that I completed was The Story of my Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi. In the past I’ve read Chaplin’s autobiography as well as Marlon Brando’s, Songs my Mother Taught me, Robert Iger’s, The Ride of a Lifetime and Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime. One of my favorite books is by author, Elizabeth Gilbert called, The Big Magic, Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag Scriptures and my friend, and surely future collaborator, Krishna Trilok’s authorized biography on AR Rahman, Notes of a Dream.
The masters above are inspiring and most importantly layered humans and learners for and of life. They’ve had their share of struggle and highs unique to themselves, but they’ve always pushed the bar, allowing humanity to reach higher peaks.
I’ve made it a personal goal to read up more on stories and lives through the female gaze. Books like Becoming, The Forest of Enchantment — Indian mythology, Ramayana from Sita’s perspective andpoet’s like Rainer Rilker and Emily Dickinson are on my side table. A forgotten filmmaker whose story is being retold is Alice Guy-Baché.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
My films have travelled across the globe and touched hearts of people from various cultures. kya dekh raha hai? was screened in Asia’s largest slum, in Dharavi, Mumbai for a middle school.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/9b19fbf02329f505947743080f4b9398
My most recent film is about women leaders breaking the shackles of patriarchy and inculcating the pursuit of knowledge and growth to men and kids in a local community in India in Badlaav Republic. Badlaav (meaning change) Republic is based in a small town — Khuda Lahora in Chandigarh, India.
The film revolves around Manju — a woman who successfully breaks the shackles of patriarchy to do what she truly loves. This, juxtaposed with utopic moments of children at the afternoon school library, celebrating India’s Independence Day showcases the internal power of the community in evolving the curious beings for generations to come.
The genesis of the film began when I shot an after-movie for India’s first ever Photobook Festival — Kitab. We shot at numerous locations and one of them was the stitching station. The inspiring stories of the women drove me back here time and again. I knew I had to narrate Manju’s transformation to the world. Henceforth, Badlaav Republic was born.
My team and I, meaning two, sometimes three of us worked on a shoe-string budget. Minimalism wasn’t a choice here, yet we used it to our advantage. I asked Manju some questions and followed up on the other side of the coin, by interviewing her husband, Devraj and his journey of self-awareness from his patriarchy. He opened up about his struggles and shared it with two complete strangers, filming him. Over the course of the hour, we understood how Manju and Chhoti si Asha brought about a drastic change in him, her leading by example. His insecurities were masked by anger and stemmed out of fear yet that doesn’t justify his actions.
The stitching station gives birth to compassion, for a better family, a better community, a better world and a better life. Practically the film gave me the lesson that change takes time, sometimes years, even decades, but it occurs in due course. As they say, “Slow and stead, wins the race”
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
As far as I can remember back, as soon as I’d come home from school, I’d be glued to the TV set. In a way, the films on TV became my first best friend, making me laugh and most importantly giving me dreams to aspire to.
Once I started acting in high school balancing out mathematics and science, I understood the value of acting in my life. It became synonymous to breathing. Through experiences in street plays, stage plays and shorts in Manipal I succeeded and failed but grew immensely because of the amount of time I put in with friends who became family.
It is only after I began my MFA at SCAD, is when I let go of the film-goer hat and replaced it with the filmmaker hat, breaking down classics and investing time in reading and writing. Through this last part, I started meditating and realized the value of deep rest; looking at my career as a marathon and not a sprint.
I trust that the Movie Gods shall allow many stories to be born through me and help me mentor filmmakers and artists of the coming generations.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/48ca027d04aa926cbc73fe1c6ff65e5e
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are numerous subtle gifts when friends and strangers reach out and make me aware of how my work has touched a chord with them, be it as an epiphany in their life or a praise or constructive criticism. I am deeply grateful for each and every message. This makes me realize I’m on the right path. Slow progress, in the right direction is progress none the less. I’ve fallen in love with the process of creation, collaboration and creativity itself. Done is better than perfect.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
1. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Change is an extremely personal and mostly uncomfortable choice. At the end of the day, the individual decides her/his next step. If you seek change in others lead by example first. It won’t be easy, the road not taken never is but that’s where an adventure awaits.
2. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Commit yourself to habits, not goals. All of us can rewire our brains into gaining knowledge joyously and meditating on it, creating numerous timeless ripples. Read.
3. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Once you’ve achieved certain success, give back. Remember your mentors and their wisdom, spread that knowledge. Quoting a friend of mine, Anya Gupta, “It’s time to change the norm of survival of the fittest to survival of the kindest”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
“Observe your breath”
Air is the currency of human life. When we’re able to observe our breath, especially in moments of stress and anger, we can be mindful about what to do.
“Journey over destination”
This is a long life, with many checkpoints. Once we become rigid and stubborn in our approach, life becomes stagnant. Happiness is real, only when shared.
“The more you read, the more you realize how less you know”
Gather information that doesn’t match with your current beliefs. Question and challenge yourself to think beyond the current mainstream. The day you say, ‘I know’, is the death of you.
Invest in deep rest. Allow your consciousness to run wild and solve puzzles surpassing time and memories. If Newton or Archimedes won’t have taken breaks, we won’t be studying their equations.
“Go wherever the wind takes you”
Plan to your best capabilities and then, allow the Universe to up it a notch. Play.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Giving is living. The ultimate comedy of life leads to death. That is a universal truth no one can deny. Materialistic things can satisfy your hunger on a temporary basis, instead share the gift of knowledge, the pursuit of happiness and lead by example, especially when leading against the herd. Be kind to yourself. With stubborn gladness you can make it on your own terms. Change is attracted to those who know how to have fun and however uncomfortable and slow the path might be, your truth will strive.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I am an immense admirer of filmmaker Jeff Orlowski and his work (Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral and The Social Dilemma). Not just because of his subjects but his devotion to making the film come alive, travelling across oceans and diving deep into research, seeing it through till the last lap, inspires me and makes me work smarter.
Artists like Ramy Youssef, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Issa Rae have been able to create a dent in the ‘mainstream’ landscape and auteurs like Alfonso Cuarón, Zoya Akhtar, Christopher Nolan, AR Rahman and Raj Kumar Hirani are also some of the artists I would like to create a life-long partnership with. Each of the above artists have a distinct voice that they’re able to narrate stories from, mainly because they’ve both keenly observed and introspected, hence creating characters and worlds giving birth to engaging art.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The show must go on…”
No matter what demons you might’ve faced in the past or your aspirations for the future, the true gift of life lies in the present. As human beings, we have a habit of seeking patterns, be it in nature, people or habits, yet what is still hard for us to fathom is the subtle yet courageous act of letting go. With childish curiosity, we can delve deeper and restfully walk towards our vision and with relentless optimism when we truly begin to play and not ‘work’, you’re consciously here and now, that is when miracles flow. Just…keep breathing. Life is always on your side. You got this.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!