Anmol Gurung (Director of Appa) – Lessons on living a creative life
Anmol Gurung, @anmolyellow a well-known filmmaker, writer and director from Kalimpong, India talks about his journey in the filmmaking industry.
Red: How do you stay productive during lazy days?
Anmol: Why I think lazy days are not so lazy for me or for anyone else is because these days the amount of things information that we take in, movies, music, it’s just too much. The mind is never at rest because it has to process all that information. I think lazy days are right now a luxury for me and a lot of people. Being lazy and not be able to do anything is a beautiful luxury that we miss, in my opinion. The Covid-19 pandemic is teaching us to appreciate the positives about this. Yes, times are difficult for people all around the world but it has proven to be a very reflective period of time for a lot of people as well. It’s almost as if we were gifted this time to appreciate doing nothing and relaxing. For instance, in the bible, there is a statement of a day called Sabbath. It is said in the bible that when God created the world, he created it in six days, and on the seventh day, he rested and blessed it. Rest is essential and having a few lazy days once in a while is also very essential, because they refuel us and make us feel wonderful. A lot of people probably would sum up their lazy days by relaxing with some good music, hanging out with friends and lying around, but in our field, the lazy days are quite the opposite. We just want to cook something and we want to spend a lot of our time cooking. I love gardening as well but I’m too lazy to start.
Red: How has your culture affected your art and vice-versa?
Anmol: A lot. Very much. To me, culture means the kind of thought-processes and actions that individuals in groups or societies exhibit, it means what a collective worldview of a certain group of people seems like. The worldview I was granted with as I grew up was very beautiful. I grew up with my grandparents as my parents were mostly away for work and whatever experiences shaped their worldview shaped my worldview as well. And then my parents got back and we stayed together so my worldview was influenced by them as well. I learned a lot from my friends, things that they learned from various sources like I did. All of these things combined to form a randomness of sorts and shaped the way I looked at the world. I am Christian by faith and we were told not to watch cinema at all, that the lord would leave our side for the time that we watched movies. There used to be a lot of fear about being abandoned by the lord but I started pondering and tried to figure out why they said that cinema was bad. It turns out that we were actually being fended off of the negative influences that cinema brings us along with the positive ones. The thing about my local culture is that we do a lot of things but pay very little attention to them while we’re doing them. We almost blindly accept that it is how it is supposed to be. There was a particularly a time in my life when questioned everything around me and I did a small study, I was a Christian because my grandparents and parents were Christian. One of my friends was a Hindu because his parents were Hindu. Another one was a Muslim because his parents were Muslims. Most of us accept what we’re taught and keep the faith and all of it made me think to a different level. It was a time when online shopping and and the internet were booming, and people who buy stuff conduct vigorous research on the thing that they are buying, then and now. They get to know the product very well and only then do they go ahead and purchase it. I do it too. Coming back to the subject of culture and worldview, I started thinking about why religion is so important considering how our worldview is dominated by religion. But why do we believe the things we believe? We conduct a lot of research while buying a pair of shoes but we fail to question and research on religion which affects our whole life and possibly even a life after death, if it exists. We take those things for granted and move on. This is a huge part of the summation of our culture. We are driven by fear more than we’re taught how to love. I grew up experiencing this stuff. For example, elders say that God will get pissed if you don’t go to Church every Sunday, or you’ll face a harsh trial if you don’t go to the Temple and worship the dieties. But what we have forgotten is that we don’t go to church because if we don’t, God is going to hit us. We go to places of worship because we love the fellowship with God. We love him and we go there to meet him. The “Fear God” mindset has affects people all around the world.
From my perspective, this kind of worldview has affected the way we look at ourselves, how we think about who we are. History suggests that people who are of Nepali descent like a pat on our backs, like most people do. For example, you consider me a filmmaker and you said that it is wonderful to be interviewing a filmmaker you look up to. Thank you, I appreciate it. Let’s say that there are three fimmakers sitting in front of you, one of them is me, one of them is from Bollywood and the other is from Hollywood. Let’s say we’re talking about artists. I say that artists have to be commercially viable but also artistically bent towards the story and the characters. The man from Bollywood then says that it doesn’t matter if the person is artistic or not, but he should be commercially viable, he has to sell. The man from Hollywood then says that it doesn’t matter if the person is artistic or if he sells or not, what matters is if a big production house like Fox or Marvel produce a film with good cinematography, that is all it takes. You’d probably end up believing the Hollywood guy more than the Bollywood guy and the Bollywood guy more than me. The logic behind your judgment is based on the vastness of their industry. All of this has so much to do with our worldview, our culture. When we look at history, our ancestors were fighters and warriors. They were paid to join the army and raid places. We are very good at taking orders. That brings us to the majority worldview that we don’t like to think for ourselves and we want someone else to think for us. If someone shows us the way, we stick to the path we’re given with utmost honesty and loyalty. To this day, these things still affect us. I am writing a movie about an army man, a Gorkha Rifle. I’m conducting research and it is not complete. What I’m getting to know is that under the decision making helm of the Gorkha Rifles, there has never been a Nepali person who is thinking and making the platoon move in a certain way. We are ready to move but the orders to move have to come from a person from a different race. No, I’m not saying it is a bad thing but this has affected us so much so that our art and our stories are driven by fear. I think you know that we try to bring each other down with every chance that we get. Most of us are still living in fear and in “survival mode” most of the time. That is because our ancestors lived in fear all the time and those notions affect us at a deeper level than we realize. What I try to do through my art is send a message time and again that we should be growing together as community. Sometimes I feel afraid about not being able to convey the message through my stories. And sometimes, I have to fight internal battles regarding my conviction for my work which make me afraid, and most of it has to do with the culture and the worldview that I have been brought up with. For example, when I am dealing with the subject of God, I am very careful about the things I am putting out there. If you look at my cinema, a lot of Bengali characters are introduced. I believe that the actors catalyse the creative process in a lot of different ways. The reason I believe that is because of the culture I was brought up around and the worldview I have developed. That is why we’re told to read, and when we read, we acquire knowledge. When we acquire new knowledge, we open up to new ideas and new perspectives, which most of the time affects our worldview in a positive manner. That is why it is so important to read, and to travel as well. For instance, if something is considered sinister in the Nepali culture, that same thing could be considered extremely ordinary in other cultures, and vice-versa. All these constraints definitely affect my art and my writing, because that is radius of our understanding. That is why I try to read more, I try to understand other cultures more and more, and I take keen interest in History and Philosophy as well.
Red: What is integral to being an artist (or a filmmaker)?
Anmol: I think honesty is the most integral part of any artist. Be honest to whatever you have inside of you. Introspection and self-discovery is very important as well. Most artworks provide us with questions, there are very few art forms that provide us with answers. As an artist, I think if we’re not honest to the art form and the process that shapes us into artists, I think we miss the entire point of being an artist. Especially when we talk about filmmaking, it’s not that we certainly stumble upon an idea when we’re sitting in a coffee shop. There are a lot of things going on behind the process of filmmaking. The honesty about that process, considering all the effort that we’ve put and it could still fail, not worrying about what people think and just honestly trying to understand things better and learn through the experience is integral to being a filmmaker.
Red: What was the motivation behind the story of your blockbuster movie Appa?
Anmol: I have a very close friend/sister, Meghashree. She is the daughter of one of my mom’s closest friends. We met when we were very young. One of my mom’s friend’s dad had passed away and Megha and I had attended the funeral. My parents couldn’t be there and I was just there to represent them in the gathering. That day, I saw people who I knew and used to look up to. I saw them mourning with extreme intensity as their father had passed away. It’s not the first time I had seen someone crying at a funeral, it was nothing new. On that day, we were returning home and Megha and I had a conversation. We talked about what it would be like if we lost our dads. Very sadly, Megha also lost her father after some time. The thought still raced around my mind and I started thinking about my father, now I was a grown up and I realised that there was a time in my life when I thought my father was Superman. Any problem I went through, I used to believe blindly that he was going to take care of the situation and solve it all. There was an incident where I committed a bad deed and when it happened, I saw him like an ordinary man trying to make things better and covering up my mistakes. I hadn’t realised it earlier but I did that day, that he was just another guy like me with the same temptations, the same dreams. I asked myself what I had done to express my thanks to him. Then I came to the conclusion that I was going to him and telling him how thankful I am for all he had done for me and that I love him. To my dismay, I couldn’t tell my own dad that I loved him and was thankful for all he had done for me. The words didn’t come out of my mouth no matter how hard I tried. I even tried to text him but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t figure out why it was so strange and why it wasn’t happening. I asked my friends about the situation and I found out that it was not just me. I found out that most fathers and sons are not vocal, not expressive of their feelings for one another. I realised at the time that the questions I had had no concrete answers but it was a broad, cultural problem. Yes, the love is there but the actual practice of expressing love to your father or your son is amazingly difficult. There was a woman in my life and when we used to talk over the phone. After finishing a conversation we said things like “I love you” and “Take care” and I came to a shocking realisation that it was so easy to say her that I loved her, and it seemed easy to say the same things to my mom as well. Saying that to my dad seemed impossible. So then I picked up a paper and wrote the first two lines of my film. Those lines were: “My mouth gets tired after saying “I love you” to my girlfriend and my mom. But why can’t I say the same words to my dad?”. That is how I made Appa and that was the motivation behind the movie. Now I needed to tell this story in a nice, beautiful way that garners attention and says a lot about our culture. The place where I stay is inhabited by a lot of people who drive for a living and I know about their lives. So trying to combine these two things, I wrote the script and that’s what you see when you watch Appa today.
Red: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Anmol: I had completed my graduation and I was lost. I even wrote a sad song about life and how I felt lost, but the advice I’d like to give him is “It’s okay, calm down. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Everything in your life is meticulously planned.” I realise it now that everything in our life is so meticulously placed and everything happens for reasons that are beyond our understanding. There is a bigger storyteller, a bigger cinema maker in work right now and that is God himself. He has been writing the stories of generations of billions and billions of people across millions of years. These stories are going on and on and all these stories are coming together to tell one single story. For a long time, I thought my life was like a movie. But what I’ve realised is that my life is not actually a movie but a series with different characters and a lot of things so I’d say to my 20-year-old self to calm down. I know at that time that I was depressed and was questioning everything, I was anxious. Learn to focus on the positives and not the problems.
Red: What’s the worst advice you hear being dispensed in the world of film making or directing?
Anmol: I have seen many people get into filmmaking for fame and money as their primary goal. So many institutions capitalise on that and produce this amount of people, certify them as filmmakers. What I think is that there cannot be a certificate that makes you a filmmaker. You can learn the various technicalities and receive the certificate but the actual certification comes from the common audience who certify you after they have consumed your art. A lot of people advise aspiring filmmakers to go to a particular college and you’ll be a filmmaker. Actually, filmmaking is a very personal process. More than the outside, the inside of you is involved in the process of you becoming a filmmaker. You kinda have to get obsessed about it. It has to mean your life to you. Filmmaking cannot be a part-time job for anyone and filmmaking is not a job. It is a lifestyle. Filmmaking is a thought-process. Film schools teach us a lot about how to use the tools, all of those things are there. But the worst advice an aspiring filmmaker could hear is to go to a film school and you’ll emerge a filmmaker. But it is very important to learn the tools you will need when you want to tell your story.
Red: What advice would you give to someone who is venturing into filmmaking before he/she gives up?
Anmol: Don’t give up. We never give up on life, do we? We try everything to live at least one minute longer. If you’re coming into filmmaking to give up later, you shouldn’t start at all. Filmmaking changes you from the inside and changes your worldview. There will be a lot of questions about things that you already believe. You might fake it at times but it’s a lifestyle, as I said before. Before you give up, I want to tell you something. Be honest about the films that you make right now. Accept that some filmmakers are going to make it big in terms of money but that doesn’t necessarily make them great filmmakers. Others will make great films but they’re not going to get famous. We make films to tell stories. Fame and money are secondary concerns. But if we compromise in the storytelling aspect, things will get worse and more difficult. If you’re someone who’s trying and not succeeding, it’s okay, calm down. Look for a different approach to things. I have met a lot of filmmakers who believe that Hollywood is the best, Bollywood is slightly worse and local filmmakers are not even filmmakers at all. That is wrong because you’re focusing on the marketing aspect of films. Creativity and marketing should go hand in hand. So if you’re a filmmaker right now, let both those things come together. Make smart decisions. There are a lot of rules in filmmaking and sometimes we break them as well. Before you break a rule, know that there’s a rule. Another advice is, before you break down a wall, understand why the wall was put up in the first place. So if you’re trying and not succeeding, sit down and think why the things you want to happen are not happening very honestly. When we have an honest approach to questioning, we tend to get honest answers. But everybody has their time and they should be patient for their time to come because it will surely arrive.
Red: What have you become better at saying ‘no’ to in recent years?
Anmol: A lot of things. I don’t want to delve into much but I’d like to say that I’m learning to say no.
Red: What is your favourite failure? How has failure set you up for later success?
Anmol: Thomas Alva Edison probably failed a million times before he actually invented the light bulb. I too have failed a lot of times but people only remember the times I have passed. And that’s okay. But I make myself remember the times that I have failed because I have realised that those are the things that I shouldn’t do. Those are the things that built me up more than success did. My favourite failure has to be the time when I actually was unable to say no. A lot of times, I knew things weren’t going to work out but I had to say yes, because I was driven by fear. I realised all my mistakes could’ve been prevented if I had said no to the things I said unwillingly yes to. So when I broke down those things, I catapulted to the thing which you might call success today.
Red: What investment of the past still positively impacts your day? Could be an investment of money, time, energy or other resources. How did you decide to make the investment?
Anmol: There is a time to sow. Whenever I am healthy and fit, I must sow the seeds to reap in the future. So talking about my investment, I know that I don’t want to win alone, I don’t want to run a short sprint. I want to move forward for a long time. My goal has always been to raise other people up along the way. Young people, people who have ideas, people with passion, I look for availability more than ability. Availability is a huge problem nowadays. I have invested my money, time and other resources to learn. I’ve invested my money into courses and books. My time in research about the subjects I am interested in. I’ve invested all my resources into raising other people up without expecting return benefits for myself, but with the expectation that they will do good with the resources and the standard of our cinema will uplift in the future.
Red: What keeps you ticking during difficult times?
Anmol: I think I have realised that my life is actually not about me, contrary to popular belief that our life is our own. We believe that the world and God is made for us to serve our purposes. I started looking at things from the opposite end, thinking that we were actually made for God, for God’s pleasure. Thinking like this makes all things a lot easier for me. There’s a story about a cat and a dog. A person bring home a cat and a dog. He loves both the creatures equally, he feeds them both. The dog thinks, “This person loves me so much. He feeds me whenever I am hungry, even when I’m not hungry he feeds me. I’m sure that this man must be a God.”. The cat thinks, “This man feeds me whenever I’m hungry and he loves me so much. I am sure I am God.”. So I think we are either one or the other. So I live with the dog’s theory that everything about me is about God and there’s not that much of a pressure. All difficult times will pass as I am not the owner of these conditions, I am merely a steward. I also look at history to know what it has to say, and I have learned that people emerge victorious from difficult situations and it gives me hope.
Red: Any request from our readers? Last parting words?
Anmol: Be honest, explore yourself. There is much more to be explored. You are much more than your job. You are a human being waiting to be explored and stay honest even at times when it is difficult. Try and always be good. Take your work, your art very seriously. Be foolish about yourself. Don’t be afraid to make a fool out of yourself. If you do this, it’s going to help you in every field of your life. These things make us into better people. God is one of those personalities who’s always on your side and he loves you very much. Might sound religious to you but I’m telling you this honestly, this is the greatest reality of our life and it affects our functionality in being able to move forward with life as well. All the readers in the Redendron community, I wish you the best in your lives, stay positive.
Thank you so much Team Redendron for interviewing me.