How I Became a Filmmaker: An Ode

Along Australia’s Eastern Coast, 1985

After completing my one-year diploma in mass media from Delhi back in the late 1980s, I was recruited by Hindustan Thompson’s Agency (now J. Walter Thompson) to work in their audio-visual department as that’s where my interests lay. I worked there for a year.

But having been brought up in a Punjabi family, eldest of the three children, the pressure of marriage began solidifying.

My parents had already spoken to multiple business associates for finding me a suitable match. As a result, there would always be somebody or the other, mostly uninspiring bachelors, invited home. I was asked to doll up, behave myself, display my culinary skills, demonstrate skills in stitching, knitting, etc., except that of the mind.

Anyway, I followed suit a few times but felt like a dressed up chicken ready to be butchered. After a few incidents where I didn’t like the boys at all because they were spoilt children of very rich parents, I refused to give in to the idea of sitting like a piece of furniture in a rich man’s house. So I revolted and decided to put an end to this drama.

On the side, running away from this mess brewed in my head and I kept a watchful eye on opportunities that could keep me away from all that was happening. Coincidentally, a rather close family friend was posted to Australia as the Indian Ambassador around the period. Considering my situation, the family invited me to come spend time with them. Of course, I didn’t have the money to fly to Australia so resolute as I was, I interviewed for a protocol assistant position with India’s Ministry of External Affairs for the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference that year.

Getting selected, being posted at the VVIP (very very important persons) lounge, and delegated the task of receiving foreign dignitaries was perhaps a stroke of luck and more than what I had asked for. It also brought in a significant amount of money that helped in buying a flight ticket to Australia!

Lo and behold, I found myself in Canberra no sooner than the conference ended without having informed a single family member.

However, most of what I had saved went into smuggling myself out of the country leaving me with little else to call home. Simply listening to my parents’ concerned voices left me in tears ever so often. Nonetheless, steadfast in making the most of my decision, I left my adopted family in Canberra and embarked on a quest to see the world through my own eyes, or so I told myself.

As somebody wrote in my forlorn diary dating back 29 years, I was “all revved up but no one to blow at”!

Armed with a backpack, I left for Sydney and found a job at a local bakery. One opportunity led to another and I soon found an inexpensive accommodation in a room with bunk-beds shared among six other young, adventurous travelers from all over the world. One of the bakery’s regular patrons, an old woman, for reasons best known to her now departed soul, invited me to move in with her. Little did I know that Betty Argent from Tasmania, New South Wales would go on to become another mother to the one I already had (she even attended my marriage back home at a time when sustaining domestic onslaught no longer was an option).

I later quit working at the local bakery and took up a night-shift at a pub instead, unknown to what lay ahead. Interactions with pub-goers were certainly interesting but more so with a rather old man who would regularly drop by for a quick drink every evening.

A documentary film-maker by profession, Ken Dyer was instrumental in igniting a passion for film-making and creating a blueprint for what I would pursue for the rest of my life.

In spite of broadly working in “mass media” with a corporate advertisement agency, documentary film-making was foreign, unchartered territory. By opening the doors to his house and heart, Ken Dyer, almost 40–45 years elder to me at the time, left quite an innocent, naive young woman such as myself in awe with his enthusiasm and passion for the causes he stood for, believed in, and worked towards. Believe it or not, his passive mentorship and influence inspired my decision to quit advertising and carve a new identity for myself… as a documentary film-maker.

Destiny bore fruit yet again and presented an opportunity in the form of a project by BBC Wales looking for prominent women to feature on their radio show across India. As the ball continued rolling, our association melted into another research-based project on people from Coorg in Karnataka, a community few people have an in-depth understanding of given their reclusive nature. Coorgis, as they are called, are predominantly coffee-planters but distinguished with respect to their physical attributes. This was, of course, my first taste of film-making. The rest as they say, is history.

Although style, content, approach, and presentation has changed over the years, I can tell with utter, unflinching conviction to any person struggling to find satisfaction with the status quo, to listen to their heart.

Over 25 years, I’ve worked across multiple time zones, been questioned, criticised, sometimes even ridiculed, but always chosen to take risks. Our comfort zones are designed to instill a complacent attitude. But few are aware of the treasures lying beyond admitting the truth to oneself. Even fewer are able to trust the journey required to unravel the chest.

As Ammi, a person in my life who is all but a mother once quipped on a cold and quiet afternoon in Canberra, 1988, “always walk towards light and not darkness, for the light in you grows stronger and darkness, weaker”.

As a film-maker, perhaps Ken Dyer, the man who once lived at 45 Young Street, Cremorne in New South Wales, may not be remembered for producing groundbreaking work. But it is individuals like him who inculcate a sense of excitement and adventure into young novices and help develop a panache for recognising the subtle beauties in every moment, personal or otherwise. A film is simply a tool. The real value, however, lies in the experience itself. “Like the boomerang, may you come back… only to build anew”, as he used to say.