'Cinema cannot change a mind that is already closed'

Indian-American film-maker Nikhil Kamkolkar in an exclusive interview with Hardnews

Mehru Jaffer Vienna

This spring time is like no other for Nikhil Kamkolkar, the new sprig in the colourful garden of cinema. For this spring will see the North American release of Indian Cowboy, the debut feature film of this Indian-born actor, director, writer and producer based in New York. A romantic comedy, made by one who admits to often experience melancholic preludes, Kamkolkar came to the US to study at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He later worked for Microsoft, developing software for film studios on such projects as Godzilla, Shrek and Titanic till a sunny afternoon in Seattle, while he stirred spaghetti, sparked in him the idea to make his own film.
Kamkolkar talks to Hardnews about the state of the world we live in as seen through the lens of one who threatens to continue to tell stories for the rest of his life.

I feel we are being forced to cope with a world full of fear today. As a film-maker how would you describe the world you live in?
Human society is changing thanks to technology. The double-edged sword that it is, technology makes things easy in an agnostic manner. For those who use it to bring back comet dust, and for those who use it to blow up innocent people on their way to work. Societies plodding along with their non-agile mechanisms are trying to comprehend these events, political systems that move slower than a turtle are trying to regain control from an agile and dispersed enemy, and inevitably, fear, a mechanism rooted in our survival instinct, has kicked in.

I feel a great sense of foreboding on days I watch the news, and a great sense of joy and optimism when I turn off the TV and instead play with my beautiful daughter. I wonder if most people are swinging between these extremes of optimism and great pessimism for our collective future? I just can't bring myself to relate to the events I see on the news on TV or the Internet and which are so incongruous with what I know of myself. Can people really do this? Can they really be
this way?

The very same tools of technology I use to create my art and to promote it are being used to spread terror. How can I promote my love-love story on the web, when on another site you can watch a human being get beheaded?

As a powerful medium of communication do you think cinema fulfils its role of lessening misunderstanding between people, societies and nations?

Cinema can serve as a revelatory medium. On my personal website, I have listed Majid Majidi's Baran as a movie to watch. Cinema takes us into other worlds that we may never visit and helps us see the similarities and the differences too. And if its good cinema, it can take us beyond the differences, which, I believe, are merely superficial.

Given the democratisation of its production methodologies thanks to digital technology, now more than ever, cinema has become an extension of human conversations on a mass scale. But ultimately, cinema can seldom change the mind that is already closed and not ready to change.

For me though, cinema is and always will remain a medium for telling the story of a set of characters in their own unique and specific circumstances. If that ends up creating world peace, so be it. But my focus as a filmmaker remains on ensuring the character's story is told well and truthfully.

How would you describe the state of world cinema today? 

I personally think there's great cinema out there. But getting to it is not yet easy. Despite the various avenues of distribution that have exploded, it is the gatekeepers who determine what gets shown where. I'm hopeful that the distribution end will soon get democratised and I will have the opportunity to watch the obscure Korean film as easily as I can catch the latest Hollywood release with the revenues flowing back to the filmmakers. I have no doubt this will happen.

Do you recall a time in history when cinema proved what an influential tool it can be in changing people, values and societies? 

If ever there was such a time, that time would be now. When the Taliban was overthrown in Afghanistan, the first thing it seemed people did was start watching Bollywood films again, which were banned under the Taliban's regime! That is how entrenched and emotional our bond can be to our cinema. But my opinion is that cinematic values generally lag society, and don't lead them. Filmmakers, I believe, simply reflect upon what they see. Rarely do they start with a revolutionary mindset. I am generally not appreciative of filmmakers who take their "issue" film on the festival circuit instead of fighting to have it viewed in the milieu that generated it.

Share with us your impression of Hollywood? The good and the bad?

I spent a couple of years working for a company called Softimage (a subsidiary of Microsoft) which manufactures animation and other software supporting the special effects pipelines of major Hollywood studios. That got me into studios such as Dreamworks (which was in development of Shrek at the time) and I got a first-hand taste of Hollywood at work. It truly is a machine. But creativity and genius along with lots of money drive this machine and great stuff does come out every so often.
As part of my acting class, I got to be on the set of The Green Mile. I stood right behind the director, Frank Darabont, watching the monitor as Tom Hanks and James Cromwell did their respective takes, and I witnessed their brilliant work unfolding right in front of my eyes. The game is played at very high level in Hollywood.
Hollywood has the power of money and attracts the best talent the world has to offer. And that's certainly is its best asset. But the power of money comes only when you keep making more! And that's why Hollywood is resistant to diversity as it can't take too many risks. This is now changing behind the camera where international directors are now offered Hollywood projects. But my hope is for South Asians to make it in front of the camera as well. That is our best shot at getting into the mass consciousness of America. Actors like Sheetal Sheth (Indian Cowboy, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World) and Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar go to White Castle) are leading the way from amongst the newer South Asian crop of actors.

Share with us your impression of Bollywood.

Bollywood has had the reputation of not being the most professional industry. But the industry is getting more professional now. I just wish Bollywood would focus on more original stories instead of mishmashing three or more Hollywood films into one insipid and unsatisfying film. There is tremendous talent in India as well, but we just don't have the kind of money to make our production quality match Hollywood films. And we don't have our Will Smith, or Tom Cruise that can easily cross borders with their films. To make our cinema go beyond the South Asian diaspora, I believe we need to value, bring in, and reward originality.
 
The whole world seems to be annoyed with America today. How would you describe your life in America as an individual, and as a film maker? 

I was an American before I even knew what America was. It's not just a country to me, but a concept, a way of life. I like America because it bucks old world traditions. I am a bit of a rebel myself and I like to shake up rigid, tradition-bound entities that wish to impose their views on me. But today, I'm a little miffed with America too. I see it's becoming an old world itself. It's gathering and claiming traditions and becoming more conservative. Anti-immigrant sentiments are high. Not only do I have to worry about the terrorists who would love to harm my kind but also about fellow citizens who would like to act out their prejudices. Having experienced prejudices in India as well, I understand that things are the same all over the world. And I think it's important that we all try to participate in the governance of the places we live in, and try to make it a little better for all.

Name films that matter most to you?
Several. But three come easily to mind. A French film called Betty Blue directed by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, Yimou Zhang's The Hero, and the Wachowski brothers' Matrix. I'll let the readers figure out a common thread between the three.

What film-makers inspire you most?
I admire a well-constructed Bollywood film, as I do a gritty Hollywood cop drama. While I was at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I began my film appreciation with the films of Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Krystof Kieslowski, Govind Nihalani and last but not least, Steven Soderbergh. I consider these filmmakers my masters.

Will Indian Cowboy be distributed in India?
I certainly hope so. But I have nothing set up as yet. My prime goal was to get through the theatrical distribution in the US. And it's certainly a difficult goal, given the unfortunate effects of piracy. But I believe in the film, and its commercial potential, so I raised money for supporting the release.

Do you have an Indian story that you would like to film in Bollywood?
Yes. I'd like to explore some of Indian mythology via film. I'd also like to do traditional genres such as thrillers, or action-adventure, but set in India and within
its context.

Do you imagine yourself making films for the rest of your life? 
I imagine telling stories for the rest of my life. Any which way I can. 

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