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Meet Emmy winning Director Manahar Kumar

Every so often you have a young and driven filmmaker that goes after their dream with fierce talent and determination. Meet writer and director Manahar Kumar, who recently won the student Emmy for his film kya dekh raha hai? (What are you looking at?). We hopped on a video call with Kumar to discuss his journey with filmmaking and his award winning documentary.

1. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

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 Men, I learned, grew and fell in love with performing arts.

In Manipal, I co-founded a production house, UnTied Laces. 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, 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 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.

2. How did your family react when you told them you wanted to pursue a career in the arts?

Due to my family consisting mostly of teachers and educators, at first everyone was taken aback. I pursued Engineering, albeit for just two-and-a-half weeks and realized quickly that that wasn’t going to be the best route for me. Since those undergrad days to now, there’s been a complete metamorphosis, since they see my love for the craft. They’re my constant cheerleaders and always have my back.

Since I’ve been in Atlanta, Georgia, I’ve realized it’s never easy to be away from home. I believe distance was one of my biggest challenges, yet it makes me laser-focused. As an international student, one travels thousands of miles away to a new land, not just trying to figure out new opportunities but also simultaneously trying to make a mark and begin your chapter as a professional. All we’re all looking for, is that life-altering, “Yes!” while continuously learning and growing, never giving up.

It gets tough when things like VISAs need to be understood and planned for. It’s really the mindset that counts though, from a place of fear or love. I’m seeing my family enjoy the heights of my successes as they patiently await for magnum opus’ to be executed.

Stardust Crowdfunding Campaign Trailer:

3. What inspired you to write, kya dekh raha hai? (What are you looking at?) ?

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.

4. What were the biggest challenges you faced while producing and directing your own project?

Being brought up onstage I had to unlearn the magnanimity and learn the subtlety behind and in front of the camera. The knowledge was a deep well, where the more I learnt, wrote, shot and read, the more I realized how less I know. Having said that, the curve has been exponential, consisting of life-long mentors, timeless films and books and most importantly, meditating through it all.

It’s been a continuously evolving journey trying to find my purest form of self as an artist and a human being. Till date, I don’t know how this extremely shy and introverted boy transforms himself. Being in films is something that I feel people can’t just like and pursue, one has to be head over heels about cinema yet find ways to balance it out.

Through the adventures above I’ve become the boy-man I am today. I know the show always goes on and I feel – I don’t know how or why – but I feel this intensely that a new magnum opus is on the horizon.

5. How does it feel to have won an Emmy Award?

It feels great that your work is being appreciated at that stature. I have fallen in love with the creative process and the momentum of continuously learning and unlearning patterns in order to not worry about the destination, rather experience the journey completely. I keep telling myself: “I have miles to go before I sleep.”

6. What advice do you have for young South-Asian talent interested in writing and directing?

The world is eagerly waiting to hear your voice. Get to the drawing board. Practice maketh perfect - Continue creating, failing, evolving, falling, but just keep going...


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