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Jayati Godhawat

IWB Blogger

Filmmaker Amitabha Singh Explains How Learning Cinema Can Unlock Your Child’s Potential

  • IWB Post
  •  November 14, 2017


Amitabha Singh is a celebrated cinematographer, producer, and director of Bollywood. Graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), in 1994, he is one of the top celebrated cinematographers of Bollywood. 

His most noted works as a Director of Photography include movies like ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla,’ ‘Chillar Party,’ and ‘The Good Road’ which all bagged National awards in different categories. In fact, the movie, ‘The Good Road,’ which he produced too, was selected as the official Indian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards.

For his debut in direction, Amitabha made ‘Shortcut Safaari,’ in 2014, which revolved around the story of a group of 7 children who get trapped in a dense forest during their school outing. It’s the story of how their adventurous experiences over the next three days make them realize the importance of mutual respect, team-spirit and perseverance on the one hand; and the vital relevance of a clean environment with a balanced wildlife, on the other.

However, Amitabha is now working actively towards changing the cinema for children. In 2016, he started ‘Cinevidya,’ a social endeavor where he’s conducting country-wide Children’s Film Festivals and Workshops with the main aim of sensitizing children about the role of audio-visual media for community development and creative expression.

With the motto, “Cinema for Life,” Cinevidya is providing a cinematic platform to the young generation for their holistic growth through the art of expression.

We got a chance to interact with Amitabha where we explored the many facets of his life and his vision for Cinevidya. Below are some excerpts from our interview with the filmmaker:cover_1

Describe that moment in your life when you decided ‘Cinema for Life’ for yourself.

My ‘First Look’ at the main gate of the Film and Television Institute of India! 

Getting into the Film Institute at Pune was predestined, I guess. Because landing there and learning filmmaking was nowhere on the logical map of my early life and education. Still, I cleared my entrance exam, and when I reached Pune for an orientation course and stood in front of the main gates of the institute, I could hear a clear resonating call- Cinema for Life. 

In 1990, with no background, knowledge, or information about the profession of filmmaking, to the wandering, confused youth in me, those gates welcomed me with a singular direction in life and purpose. In the blink of an eye, it all settled in my mind and heart: This is it! This is where I belong!

I would run short of words and expressions for my family, and we are a big family, who believed in me and supported me in taking that leap of faith.

Which child artist made you see the untapped potential in children that eventually led you to set up Cinevidya?img_4

Not just a Child Artist! Cinevidya is the result of a lot of factors, the chief being my concern about the rapid, unhindered invasion of the audio-visual in a Child’s World. Cinema is a magical medium of expression, absorption, and sharing. It’s persuasive. It influences our thinking and behavior. With children being bombarded as end-user recipients to a lot of content using the vehicle of Cinema, my concerns continue to grow manifold looking at some of the core values being delivered with no room for children to “Talk Back.”

We all know children love to talk back and discuss their experiences. Personally, I learn so much from what they have to speak because mostly their thoughts are rooted in purity, innocence, and freedom. Cinema is a very powerful and effective medium for voicing one’s thoughts. And the rapid progress in technology is making it practical and much convenient for all of us to use this medium. That’s why I say, “Camera is the new Pen!”

Your directorial debut, ‘Shortcut Safaari’ had 7 child artists. Tell us about your casting experiences. Also, handling kids isn’t an easy task. Share with us the behind-the-scenes madness which took place during the shoot of the film.

Casting those 7 child artists is a story in itself. Like all films, while writing, we had a fairly fleshed out character sketch of each child, and our casting team had a good understanding of them. Moreover, one principal creative decision that I had taken during the development of the story was that all the 7 children would be such whom one would naturally find in every class, every school.

So, our auditions were also special. We would go to schools and observe children during their break times or while they were at play without any supervision of any adults. This was important for my story since the 7 children would be stranded in the forest without any adult’s presence for a long time. That way we could look at the children in all their primary elements.

Another peculiar principal decision was that the 7 Children would NOT be from Mumbai or Delhi. Coming and connected from the interiors of India. I belong to Banaras, and having shot innumerable advertising films featuring children from Mumbai and Delhi, I was very sure that the 7 artists of ‘Shortcut Safari’ are not ‘Metropolis Children.’ 

Kindly forgive me, nothing against metro kids, but the quality of ‘innocence’ that I was looking for in the eyes, faces and body languages of the Children, the sense of ‘wonderment’ and ‘exploration’ they may reflect upon, while looking at unfamiliar sights, I reckoned, was much easier to spot in children who live in non-metros. This decision was purely aimed at operational convenience and to have a larger sample size of children with a greater probability of finding the right cast. As filmmakers, we say: The correct casting is half the battle won! In fact, we were keenly looking for children who might never have had faced a professional audition before or had made efforts to get into the professional part of ‘acting.’ The children that we had finally selected in the film were all like blessings.

About handling them on sets, my experiences from Advertising came much handy, and we never had a reason to worry during our entire filming process. 

What extra steps, do you think, the on-set team should take to ensure better performance of the child artists without overburdening them?img_6

Relating from my personal experiences, I take-up subjects that treat children as thinking-feeling expressive individuals rather than imitating stereotypes. Hence, to me, it is of great importance that they are brought into a zone wherein they feel ‘natural.’

To illustrate my point, when we design a scene, it is a common standard practice that we define a zone for the Camera so that the artists remain within the desired illumination and focus points for a good quality image. For that reason, all actors are given “marks” or physical anchor-points on the set or in the field to adhere to while they perform. So, mechanically, for a film actor, remembering one’s “marks” and after that, aligning his/ her performance around the marks becomes an unsaid exercise, at times, rather distracting or unnerving for many.

Starting from ‘Chillar Party,’ I got rid of all “marks.” There were no Lights or Fixtures on the ground, and there were no positions for the children to ‘catch.’  For the entire film shooting, my camera was handheld, flexible enough to keep framing the action as the children would perform at will. Thus, the entire field was theirs. They were free! They could move around and perform as they please; how they would be lit and how will all the shots will be sharp on screen remained a professional challenge which I was more than happy to take. Because that gave all the children lesser ‘technical factors’ to worry about.

Besides such technical points, I would also urge all units to ensure ample psychological and physical comfort for the child artists. I prefer that only one person be designated to engage with child actors. No one else should be expected to interact with them. My team is briefed to minimize eye contacts and seldom speak to them while they are preparing or performing. Children are very perceptive and sensitive, and like every artist, need a measured feedback to improve their performance.  

In our shooting scenario, there are at least 50 to 80 people on the set at any given point in time. So the other step which I take is that I make all the ‘on looking’ crew members to step away from the shoot zone as far as physically possible and sit down, avoiding eye contact.

Another important practice that I adopt on my set, and it may surprise you, is that the parents of the child artists are NOT allowed near the shoot areas. So, although I ensure that the parents or caretakers must remain present while we are shooting, they are not allowed anywhere near the shoot zone. Parents talking to the child between shots is absolutely out of the question. It may sound hilarious, but, we often need to ‘train’ or ‘entertain’ parents much more than the children.

For ‘Shortcut Safaari’, since we were in deep of a real forest with wild-life and snakes, we had one Ambulance, medical staff of 3, one Snake Expert, two portable Chemical Toilets and every possible effort in making the entire cast and crew, especially, the children feel happy, healthy, and safe.

The biggest issue related to child artists in films is that their academics are affected. How can this issue be resolved?img_1

Academics are first and foremost. I will never advise a child or any parent to take-up a shooting assignment if it’s coming in the way of a child’s academics in a big way, one odd day here or there may get accommodated. 

On the other hand, to be able to make a film with children, we, as filmmakers, need to train ourselves to get very disciplined. Even the choice of the story and its execution plan needs to be thoroughly thought through and planned to keep the concerns of the child actors in mind.

I would also urge all filming units to not work more than 8 hours. Have short breaks every one hour or so, and long breaks every 4 hours. Basically, work the shooting schedule around their habitual ‘school routine.’

For example, on ‘Shortcut Safaari’, we only shot between 8:00 am till about 5:00 pm with breaks in between. The shooting plan was all based on daylight, knowing that children are habituated to be at their best during the daytime. Even the night scenes were actually shot “Day for Night,” a technique which facilitates us to shoot during the day and turn it into the night by use of special effects during post-production. That way we could take care of safety concerns of the children being in the forest at night and still managed to get best of the performances from them as they were not tired, sleepy or grumpy.

Another crucial reason to plan this strategically is for the sake of minimizing the actual number of shooting days that we may require of the child. To my experience, we are able to comfortably manage about 4 minutes of edited narrative output per day, that means, for a 100-minute film, well-planned scheduling of 25 filming days should be sufficient. To interpret it practically, I would say that a feature-length film with Children should comfortably get completed in under 30 days of filming provided our Scripting is completely tight; accurate up to the last scene. Because scheduling those 30 days is the biggest challenge that any team is likely to face since all the days may not be practically available together. Plus children tend to ‘grow’ very fast- especially for the camera. So, there must not be much time gap between the planning of two schedules.

So for feature films and Ads, my strongest recommendation is to plan them during vacations or prolonged breaks for children.

Many people are of the view that all the reality shows and TV shows having children are negatively impacting the children. Comment.

TV shows, as a whole, are affecting children and robbing them of their innocence by exposing them to adult life and value system too early. Reality and other TV shows featuring children are further aggravating those factors. For me, it’s a cause of far-reaching concern and alarm. And, that what’s I’m trying to change with Cinevidya.

Tell us about the Cinevidya workshops, its eligibility criteria, what all the course offers, etc. How do you select the schools?img_5

Under Cinevidya Filmmaking Workshops, we work to empower participating children in making an original short film of their own. The minimum duration of a foundation level workshop is 3 days. We also have workshop modules of 5, 7, 10, and 15 days, all offering varying levels of complexity and the duration of the final film produced.

So, at foundation level, we are able to make a 3-minute short film in 3 days while in the advanced 15 Day workshop, we easily make a 20-minute short film.

By inviting children to participate in a Cinevidya workshop, my primary focus is on the age group of 11 years to 17 years, also because I am trying to infuse the filmmaking process as a hobby to them.Cinevidya

For older children, college students and even adults, I have customized modules for them that is designed keeping their exact requirements in mind.

With Cinevidya, I am approaching every School under the Sun!

Since Cinevidya is about community building and I am pushing the use of creative application of media devices for the cause, hence, we are adopting an open forum approach to all our workshops and activities. The Eligibility Criteria are rather much relaxed!

Considering that most cinematographers are men, what’s the ratio of girls in the workshops? How would you encourage more girls to take up cinematography or filmmaking for that matter as their career?Cinevidya

Ms. Shanthi Mohan, my wife, is a Cinematographer- we trained together in the same batch in FTII. So, in my house itself, the ratio is 50:50!

As a practicing Cinematographer, my chief assistant has almost always been a girl all along my career, they definitely have been the best colleagues one could ever wish for on a set. So girls in cinematography or filmmaking is a scenario that is changing very rapidly, for good.

During Cinevidya workshops, I have noticed that more than half of the participants are girls, many of them taking a very keen interest in Cinematography. Which I feel is a fabulous sign of the times to come.

Still, with Cinevidya, I am pushing filmmaking at a hobby level, a skill that may reside somewhere in their co-curricular activity systems while they pursue academics. The choice of profession is guided by a lot of parameters, mostly beyond the scope of our workshops. However, I do share my experiences and advises to all the participants and try my best to offer them a realistic Worldview of filmmaking as a profession, while motivating them creatively.

Have you also conducted Cinevidya Workshops in Government-run schools? If yes, how was the experience different from the workshops conducted in private schools?

Till now, I have had no such opportunity to hold a Cinevidya workshop in a Government-run School. I am keenly and eagerly waiting for such an opportunity and making all required efforts to reach many of them. So, hopefully, very soon!

However, I have conducted workshops with Children at some NGOs in Ahmedabad and Delhi, having a fabulous experience at both places.

Their creativity and originality are fantastic. Their ability to grasp ideas and techniques is remarkable.

One of the main reasons for Cinevidya to come into existence is the vision to spread awareness, accessibility and to democratize the entire end-to-end life-cycle of a creative media entity like a short film.

In that direction, I feel, I have been receiving encouraging equal responses from children across all spectrum of our diverse society.

As a filmmaker, one lesson you learned from the kids and incorporated in your filmmaking?img_7

To me as an adult, children have taught me unconditional forgiveness. They are remarkable in their outlook, their practical wisdom is mostly beyond the confines of an adult world. That, naturally, has changed me as a filmmaker.

Usually, parents see it as an extracurricular activity and not a mainstream career choice. Share your conversations with parents regarding this topic.Cinevidya

I completely agree with every parent who feels that filmmaking is NOT a ‘mainstream’ career choice because it is not.

I feel every effort to make ‘filmmaking’ appear like a ‘mainstream’ career choice is akin to proposing a ‘Chimpanzee’ to be a ‘Monkey.’

Filmmaking is a ‘passion profession.’ It’s an Art in practice. It may be commercial in nature to some extent. Still.

To all the participating children in my workshops, and thus to their parents, I make it a point to sensitize them that no matter how hard, how long or how intensively one may try; filmmaking is an art and hence remains unpredictable.

In a nutshell, given all the right intent, efforts, resources, and devotion in place, you don’t choose Art. Art chooses you!

Agreed! So, in your childhood, tell us about the first time you held the camera. What did you love to capture?Amitabha Singh

In 1983, when I was 15, we were in Barauni, a beautiful small industrial township in Bihar. It was an 8mm Kodak ‘Spy’ Camera that belonged to my elder brother. I used to click a lot of black and white photos. Mostly from family & friends. But also that strange shot of a flower, or a leaf or an insect which I am sure is a definite part of every photography enthusiast’s album. That was all in the child-like fun!

But slowly it captured my mind, heart, and imagination. Growing from there, as an amateur, I continued honing my photography skills and taking photos regularly till I reached FTII in 1991. There indeed resides some ‘Life’ in those early photos.

So much so, that when I was undergoing a decisive introspection during my professional journey, a few years ago, I had to sit back looking at those photographs taken during that span of my life and seek inspiration from them, of deconstructing, of simplicity, of the ‘Life’ element!

Share the one thing that brings out the child in you?

Rains are a miracle of Nature! To me they symbolize rejuvenation. Ushering in new life, fresh beginnings. They have a music of their own. Whether I am happy, sad or thoughtful, rains embrace me, comfort me. That’s possibly the reason why I never had an umbrella or a raincoat and still have survived 25 monsoons in Mumbai!

Wow! *imagining*

Tell us about your upcoming project and its theme?

The churning is on, the fire is burning. Presently I am completely devoted and submerged in my social initiative of ‘Cinevidya.’ But I am sure something will spring out of this very soon. And I would hope and pray that my work continues to receive your precious support and encouragement. As artists, we all are basically children.

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One thought on “Filmmaker Amitabha Singh Explains How Learning Cinema Can Unlock Your Child’s Potential

  1. Ajaysuri.chd@gmail.com'Ajay suri

    Good Amitabha proud of you to be at this stage. Nice reading. Nice work. I m ajay suri studied with Ambreesh if you remember.


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