From My Grandmother’s Tales To My Own: An Indie Filmmaker’s Journey

Posted by Ansh Ranvir Vohra in Society
August 7, 2017

Growing up, I used to spend summer vacations at my grandmother’s. Having witnessed the birth of a nation at 11, she (unsurprisingly) had a lot of stories to tell. And since I was her favourite and most loyal audience, she narrated one to me each night, recounting anecdotes from her childhood in Pakistan, her journey to India on foot and her teenage years in Delhi, trying to build a life from scratch. As a curious little 8-year-old, I listened intently. On the first day of school, I used to run back to my friends and pass along each of those stories to them, immensely enjoying their thirst for more.

Life in retrospect can often be a jumbled mess and telling one decision from another can sometimes be a bit of a task, but if there ever was a point in my life where I first realised I wanted to be a storyteller, I think one of those warm summer nights at my grandmother’s had to be it.

As a consequence of being a shy teenager with a stammering problem, I often relied on alternate methods of self-expression. My little piano and my father’s old Yashica camera, therefore, used to be my best friends in school. I bought my first camera in college around the time Anurag Kashyap’s film “Gulaal” came out. Independent films were beginning to do well, outsiders were starting to break into the scene and tell the stories they wanted to. And their success fuelled our dreams. And so, I attempted to make my first few films. I say ‘attempted’, because they didn’t end up amounting to much. What they did do, however, was to teach me how to not make films and that’s a lesson that’s just as important.

One of my most formative years, though, was my time studying documentary in New Delhi, where I was mentored by accomplished documentary filmmakers from around the country. Having had little interest in nonfiction before my time at the film school (thanks in part to the larger-than-life Yashraj musicals claiming a majority of the Indian audience’s attention), I was blown away by the scope of storytelling opportunities that the documentary medium had to offer. And so, a kid with a stammer who used to avoid conversations to save himself from embarrassment ended up making a living out of indulging in them. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in countless meaningful conversations with people from across the country and listen to just as many stories as I’ve been able to tell.

In May 2016, for example, I met Babar Ali from Murshidabad, West Bengal. Babar, according to BBC, is the world’s youngest headmaster. He started teaching a handful of his friends under a tree next to his house when he was 9. Today, at 23, he’s taught more than a thousand children in and around his village and runs a school of his own in Behrampore. In August of the same year, I met Laadsaheb, an eccentric acting coach from Dharavi who teaches kids how to make it big in Bollywood.

One of the most important stories I’ve had the opportunity to tell, however, was that Turtuk’s. In 1971, as a full-fledged war raged on between India and Pakistan on the Eastern front, India’s Ladakh Scouts and Nubra Guards, led by Colonel Rinchen, forayed into the northern reaches of the subcontinent and, on the 21st of December, laid claim on Turtuk and its neighbouring villages. The film documents the stories of four subjects who recount their experiences from that night and its aftermath. Today, as all of us clamour for war from within our comfortable bedrooms, I feel like it’s important to examine its ramifications, a process I hope the film will initiate.

This project, and all the others I’ve been fortunate enough to work on, gave me the opportunity not just to engage with my environment but also to reflect on myself. Storytelling is transactional in nature, and it gives you back just as much as it takes from you. And therefore, every story I’ve been able to tell has moulded me into the person I am today.

Three months ago, I applied for a prestigious film fellowship in New York. Every year, UnionDocs chooses 6 filmmakers from around the world to collaborate with 6 filmmakers from the United States over 10 gruelling months of training, from amongst thousands of applications. On the 23rd of May, I was invited to attend the fellowship, the only Indian filmmaker to have been chosen this year. The programme will give me the opportunity to engage with New York’s rich film culture and enable me to tell important stories better. Resources, however, are limited for a 24-year-old indie filmmaker, and I cannot currently afford to pay for the programme or stay in New York for 10 months. They have, therefore, allowed me to run a crowdfunding campaign. To make this happen, I need to raise $8000 (or approximately ₹5 lakhs) by the 31st August. If you’re still reading this, I’m hoping that something I’ve said or done has resonated with you. So please help me out and contribute to the campaign. Together, we can continue to tell stories and engage in important conversations.