On the non-linear track: an interview with Christo Tomy – Anamika Aami

 

“When I went to get the certificate after finishing 12th grade, my school principal asked me, “How do you know you have got any talent in it?” When I said I love films, he said that doesn’t mean anything. That question always stayed with me.  From then I ask myself the same, from time to time.”

However the boy, having followed his passion, got into one of the premiere film institutes of the country, and  now has two national awards to his name for his short films- Kanyaka and Kamuki, which were a part of his projects at SRFTI, Calcutta. This is the story of Christo Tomy. He has proved his point by following his passion. Here, Christo opens up about his dreams, life, films, SRFTI, FTII and more.

  1. From Changanasherry to SRFTI, what do you feel when you look back?

Like any other kid my passions kept changing. I remember getting a military uniform stitched and wearing it with much pride when I was about 5-6 years old. I hated school so much that my mother had to force me into the school auto-rickshaw. My mother’s house was in Muttar, Kuttanad and it was my preferred holiday destination. Changanacherry and Muttar are two places that are very close to my heart and where I really belong.

During my early high school days, I was very passionate about being an IPS officer. I joined Sainik School in my 9th grade; it was my first glimpse of the real world – absurd and difficult. It taught me that sometimes you have to keep aside your sense of righteousness just to survive. The experiences at Sainik School were very important for my personal growth.

Since SRFTI and FTII offers only PG courses, I did an undergraduate degree in Mass communication from Mar Ivanios. I owe a lot to International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), Chalachitra academy and various film screenings and art festivals that happened in Trivandrum which introduced me the world of cinema. The only dream I had then was to get into the film institute. Frustratingly, I didn’t get through in the first attempt but I was pleased when I cleared SRFTI entrance on a second try.

Aami Anamika

Aami Anamika

  1.  Why did you choose cinema as a medium to convey your thoughts? Is there any particular movie that made you a movie bug?

Like any teenager, I wrote stupid poems and stories. It was at the same time I was introduced to the works of O. V Vijayan, Anand, Dostoevsky, Kafka and Basheer. I dreamt of writing like them. I once came across an article about John Abraham in which he said, even if he had to die out of hunger, he would not opt for commercial cinema. During my college days when people asked me who my favorite director was, I replied, “John Abraham.” Even though I hadn’t seen any of his films then, I was captivated by his strong convictions about the medium. I still have that newspaper cutting.

It was when I started attending film society screenings and festivals I came across the films of Istvan Szabo. The world he portrayed through non- linear narrative and dream sequences enthralled me. The dream sequence of a woman sleeping on her bed to slowly float in her room filled with water astonished me. I was so excited to finally find something I was crazy about but it seemed that nobody else shared the excitement.

When I chose cinema over engineering, my family opposed because nobody had any connection to this field. They thought it was a teenage attraction. I still don’t know whether I am talented or not. But I am fascinated by films and I am willing to give my maximum every time I make one. I am too lazy to work hard for anything that I am not passionate about.

  1. What are the changes in your perspectives about movies after coming to SRFTI? Which style do you prefer?

Before coming to SRFTI, I was a guy who thought all the movies I make would be masterpieces. During my initial years at SRFTI, I was totally against narratives. I wanted my films to be abstract, experimenting with form, where audience interprets the meaning for themselves. I even thought that not having a story was the sign of a great film. In the beginning when I made films, I didn’t care about how the audience reacted or whether I was able to communicate the idea or even a specific feeling of the story.And since I was not interested in communicating anything specific, I didn’t realize the importance of film as a language.

No one can write without learning the language first. Similarly I had to learn the language of filmmaking. My teacher Putul Mahmood had a great role in making me realize this. Dostoevsky is a genius because of what he able to say through his works and how deeply it affects the reader. These realizations were the real turning point in my film education.

A critic wrote summing up Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in time, that ‘Content and Conscience comes before technique in art and in any form’. From a dreamy young boy who wanted to make abstract masterpieces that only I would understand, today I believe that content and conscience matters the most.

  1. Two national awards in a row, do awards matter? Was it expected? Has awards increased your responsibility?

It was while editing my music video that my mother called me up to inform about the national award. I never expected one and it took time for the news to sink in. It is a moment I will always cherish as it was the first recognition for our film.

Two national awards while studying is highly improbable. I was going through a very difficult phase in my personal life while shooting ‘Kamuki’.  I was very confused about the idea and had an extremely difficult time casting especially the main character of the 17 year old school girl. The shooting had to be cancelled once due to the elections. I didn’t enjoy the shooting experience but managed to pull through. Since I had a difficult time making ’Kamuki’, this recognition means a lot to me.

Awards are an inspiration for both the young and the experienced. Given out by a jury, it would reflect their sensibilities. No award jury will be able to take a completely objective decision. This is the case with film festivals too. While some festivals would prefer experimental films, some might be interested in narratives. The quality of a filmmaker cannot be judged by the number of awards rather how his works affect us. While awards are an inspiration, it should never be considered the final judgment.

I have tried to give my 100 percent to my films. Awards haven’t really changed that attitude towards filmmaking. Making a film in itself is the highest responsibility.

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  1. Both Kanyaka and Kamuki are female oriented stories. What enables you to look at things from a female perspective? Do you think there is a need to categorize movies as male or female centric?

A lot of people have asked me this question. I don’t know the answer yet. I feel empathy towards female characters while developing a story. Our society criticizes a woman more than a man which puts them in a vulnerable situation.

Choosing woman oriented narrative is not something that I consciously do but I am aware of it. I am fond of films wherein women are the protagonists like Mouchette, 4 months 3 weeks 2 days, Two days one night, Rosetta and Onnu muthal poojyam vare. Women are more complex creatures than men and at the same time they have a beautiful way of expressing themselves.

I discuss all my scripts with my teacher Putul Mahmood who guides me in the right direction. I converse my ideas with my friend Sreeraj R S who gives a perspective to it.  The deliberations on the story with my editor Goutham Nerusu and cinematographer Lalitha Prasad Kalluri helped me in giving new dimensions to the narrative. Shyamlal Sengupta, my mentor gave important suggestions for the climax. Sutanu Gupta, who came for a script workshop, helped me in choosing the idea of Kamuki when I had a tough time fixing the same. The thoughts of my cinematography teacher Neeraj Sahay were really relevant.

I don’t think we need to categorize the films as male or female centric. What we really need is to create an environment where making independent and parallel films becomes commercially viable. It is only possible if our film viewing culture becomes better.

  1. Kanyaka speaks about the life of nuns. The nun depicted is a movie lover. Why did you choose this theme? Any inspirations?

The only thing I knew was that I wanted to make a film on nuns. I was very curious to know about the life inside a convent. The first script was about a nun who lost her faith and physically tortured herself to get it back. However as my mentor at the institute pointed out that the script had a hangover of European cinema, I decided to change it. I then came up with the idea of a nun’s fascination for an actress who came to the school for the distribution of prizes. Because they take a vow to remain committed to the rules of the convent, there is a genuine drama when a nun’s personal interest is in conflict with that of the convent.

As for that nun being a movie lover, there is no special reason. Her interest could have been anything material, silly and personal. But I didn’t go for an alternative as the people I discussed the idea with were convinced about the nun’s fascination for the film actress.

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Christo Tomy

  1. How have you improved technically in between the two movies- Kanyaka and Kamuki? Where do you think are the shortcomings?

The more you do, the more you learn. It is difficult to pinpoint the progress I made. However, I feel confident about my craft and have better control and understanding of the process. Having identified the mistakes, I am careful not to repeat them.

The main difference between the two films was in its scripting. Kamuki dealt with a common and predictable idea which made it more difficult. It exposed my limitations as a writer. While scripting Kamuki, I realized the significance of writing for a film. There was novelty to the idea of Kanyaka, hence the scripting was smooth.

While Kanyaka was shot in a studio, Kamuki was shot entirely in the busy streets of Kolkata. It was a huge challenge to manage the crowd. Though there were mistakes, it turned out to be a learning experience.

I am improving the way I deal with actors. Getting truthful performances out of my actors is of utmost importance to me. One area where I want to improve is choreographing actor’s movement with camera which will enable me to take lengthy shots. I want to develop a style of my own which gives prominence to the characters and the narrative.

 

  1. Do you follow the recent trends in the regional film industry? Which director do you look upto in the regional sector?

One doesn’t get to watch good regional films as they are released only in their state and a few other cities. New filmmakers are coming up in regional sector, which is a very good sign.  I believe the strength of Indian film lies in regional cinema. Therefore, we should ensure that they get due promotion and distribution. The centre and state governments should support such filmmakers.

Of the regional films that I have watched recently, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court is one film that I like. It reflected on the absurdity of the judicial system. The casting was superb and he has used the actors to their full potential. It takes great courage to write such a script which is independent of the narrative drama.

I have read a lot about Kanu Behl’s Titli and Raam Reddy’s Thithi, but haven’t got the opportunity to watch them. Kanu Behl is also an alumnus of SRFTI. They are great inspiration.

  1. What are your view points on appointing Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of FTII? As a former film-student how do you see the student protest movements?

It would have been appropriate if a person worthy of respect were to hold such a post in FTII. Every political party tries to appoint the people who are close to their ideologies to key positions. The current government is not the first government to do so and won’t be the last either. It is very disappointing to see that despite huge protests from students and distinguished FTII alumni, the government didn’t care to change the appointment. They could have negotiated with the students and addressed their concerns in a better way.

Political and social events are way more complex and absurd now than it was before. So a careful scrutiny of each issue is important without being judgmental and emotional. But in most instances we fail to get to the root of the problem.

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  1. Bahubali had been selected as the best movie at the 63rd national film awards. Do you think there is a need to constitute anti-national awards at present scenario? Do you think there is politics at play?

As I told earlier, every award reflects the taste of its jury and is very subjective. Commercial films tend to simplify things and find solutions which might not even exist. This is a dangerous trend which can have an adverse effect on people’s psyche. I believe that the content of the film and honesty of the filmmaker should be the main criteria for judgment. I would have been happier if films with stronger content had won more awards. National Film Awards should encourage and promote films that are truthful in their content yet excel in their craft. This year some excellent regional films did not get their due. Good films not getting acknowledged can hamper the growth of fine filmmakers.

  1. Are you interested in literature? Do you think a good film maker should be an ardent reader?

It was my love for literature which led me to filmmaking. I took up reading seriously during my late teenage years. I loved O.V. Vijayan, Anand, Basheer, Dostoevsky and Kafka. A few works that has astonished me are V S Khandekar’s Yayati, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali, Sylvia Plath’s Bell jar and Nikos Kazantzakis’s Saint Francis. Literature contains some of the most insightful studies about human beings and it really fascinates me. So many great works, so little time.

Those interested in films should take up reading seriously. I fail to put into words the relevance of literature but reading is a habit that everyone should cultivate.

   13. What are the challenges you face as a new comer in the film industry? What are your future plans?

The main challenge would be getting a producer who would completely back your film. But that would be highly risky if your work doesn’t have any commercial value. Thus it is difficult to market independent films and get production cost.

The real problem is lack of audience for serious cinema. If Aravindan’s and Adoors’s films had more spectators, the scenario would have been different. After all, it is upto the people to decide the movies they want. Greater the audience more would be the chances for independent cinema. Unlike literature or other art forms, filmmaking involves huge investment. So if good films are not being made, then film viewing culture has to take its share of blame. For me, marketing, distributing and finding the production cost for films are the real challenges.

I am currently working on the script of my feature film. Once I feel confident about the script, I want to start the pre-production works.

 

  1. What is your message to the aspiring movie makers?

With the little knowledge I have, I think honesty, simplicity and perseverance are the keys to pursue filmmaking. Try to watch a lot of films especially the classics and understand how and why is it made.  Read and be attentive to the things happening around you.

Make a conscious effort to understand people and your surroundings better. And before making a film, ask yourself why you want to do it.

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Quick takes:

Favorite films – Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan, Carlos Reygadas’s  Battle in heaven, Cristian Mungiu’s 4months 3weeks 2days, Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara, Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Antonioni’s La notte, Alain Resnais’s Last year at marienbad.

 

Favorite directors

Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Godard, John Abraham, Anand Patwardhan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Dardenne Brothers, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Richard Linklater, Werner Herzog, Antonioni.

Calcutta or Kerala?

Kerala, because I love home food.  Just kidding, because I belong here.

 

Commercial/ art house movies?

Every film has got these two aspects. It would be a blunder to ignore either.

 

If not a film maker, then?

Haven’t really thought about it.

 

Anamika is a second year graduate student of Journalism and mass communication at English and Foreign Languages University, Shillong campus.

 

 

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