Amit Virmani: Audiences need something to keep them engaged

Virmani_ASingapore-based filmmaker Amit Virmani’s debut, “Cowboys in Paradise”, was one of the most talked-about Asian documentaries in recent years. The controversial film on sex tourism in Bali (Indonesia) garnered international acclaim and has been broadcast in over 110 countries.

His second documentary feature film, “Menstrual Man” (2013), is already making waves. The film documents the struggles of India’s Muruganantham, a school dropout who realised that the majority of women in India couldn’t afford sanitary pads and decided to do something about it. A Netflix audience favourite at Hot Docs 2013, the film underscores the importance of empowering women to combat poverty and highlights the power every individual has to make a difference.

Amit is a graduate of Southwestern University, Texas, where he was honored with the Feminist Voices Award.

Kitaab presents an interview with this talented Asian filmmaker on the art of documentary filmmaking.

You have made two very successful and much-talked about documentaries so far. How did you become a filmmaker?

I think inside every Indian is a storyteller dying to get out. It’s no coincidence that we’re such a (melo)dramatic lot. It just comes with growing up watching all those films.Also, I went to university near Austin, Texas, which is an incredible film town. And in the early 90s, when I was there, it was the centre of American indie filmmaking. We didn’t just watch Linklater and Robert Rodriguez films. We knew the street corners where they had shot such and such scene. We drove past the research joint where Rodriguez signed up to be a pharma guinea pig to finance “El Mariachi”. The consequence of that, other than having silly bragging rights, was that filmmaking became palpable. Suddenly it wasn’t about budgets, but guts.

So I joined advertising after graduation. It’s the field for novelists- and filmmakers-in-waiting, I suppose. Only in my case, it was useful because I had to learn the production process.

In feature filmmaking (fiction), you start with a synopsis and then go on to write a screenplay before you shoot a film. How is the process different in documentary filmmaking?

I’m going to go with something Sidney Lumet once wrote. The starting point for all filmmakers is why you want to tell a particular story. What are the greater themes? I think that’s true for both fictional films and documentaries. Or it should be.

“Menstrual Man” tells Muruganantham’s remarkable story. But the film’s really about certain themes I wanted to explore: triumph in the face of adversity, and the power we each have to make a difference.

In your latest documentary film, Menstrual Man , I could see storytelling and I could see a narrative arch. How much is storytelling important to you?

It’s everything! Without it, audiences can just read an article or two on the subject. There’s no need for them to watch a damn film on it.

I don’t know when we got to the point where people are surprised to see a documentary that tells a story. But we’re there. You wouldn’t have asked the question otherwise. Even industry nomenclature is reflective of this. We’ve got “narrative films” on one side and “documentaries” on the other. And never the twain shall meet! Bullshit. The only dichotomy should be fiction and non-fiction, because docs should have narrative arcs too.

I think it has a lot to do with factual programming on TV. Nothing wrong with that platform, and I’m certainly a huge fan of some shows. But it’s a whole different animal. Just about every one of them has a host or narrator as central character, while those the story is actually about end up as wallpaper. Again, fine for that particular format, but it’s not the only template for non-fiction storytelling.

Of course, some of the blame lies with documentary filmmakers themselves. Sadly, there’s this notion out there that audiences will let a lot of things slide when it’s a documentary. You know, because it’s enough just to be tackling a serious subject. Well, no. Audiences need something to keep them engaged. That was true when they listened to stories around campfires, and it’s certainly true today when they’re always five seconds away from checking messages on their iPhones.

A still from Amit Virmani's Menstrual Man

A still from Amit Virmani’s Menstrual Man

How do you plan your films? Do you shoot first and then tease out a narrative structure?

Yes, absolutely. I mean I go in knowing the general themes I want to explore. And I have a loose idea of key points that will propel the narrative forward. But beyond that, it’s all terra incognita.

With both “Cowboys” and “Menstrual Man”, I went in with just one or two people in mind whom I wanted to interview. Everything else just flowed from there. As Vonnegut once wrote, “Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I’m happy to follow random suggestions or unexpected leads. Something wonderful always comes out of it.

What is the hardest part about being a filmmaker?

Committing to a project. The stakes are so high, financially and otherwise, that you have to be dead sure it’s something you want to pursue. And it doesn’t get easier over time either. With every new project, you’re back at the edge of the ravine, wondering if you want to make the jump.

Do you see yourself only as a documentary filmmaker or do you also want to try other genres, like feature films?

I’m platform agnostic. Whatever works best for the story best is fine by me. I’m working on a scripted film now. But then, projects can be in development for decades in this industry, so who knows!

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?

Hard to say. I’m open to anything when it comes to both interest and inspiration.

What books or films have had the greatest impact on you?

Oh man, that’s a long list. Indian cinema aside, I gravitate towards American films. There are some classics I revisit from time to time just to centre my mind. “Midnight Cowboy”. “Chinatown”. I caught “The Last Detail” at a cinema in New York recently. That was a good night.
Books-wise, “Cat’s Cradle”, definitely. I make it a point to read it once a year. In it, things get out of hand in a spectacularly comic fashion. I guess that makes it a handy instruction manual for all indie filmmakers.

What qualities are necessary to be a documentary filmmaker?

Other than the willingness to be broke all the time? Curiosity, I suppose. And being able to strike up conversations with absolute strangers. That’s not a skill I have, mind you. I’m generally a hopeless introvert. Yet somehow, I manage to summon the guts to do it when I’m filming.

What do you plan to film next?

I wish I knew. Look, I was searching for the next idea for three years after finishing “Cowboys”. Nothing grabbed me until, out of the blue, a friend sent me an article on Muruganantham. Strange travel suggestions, remember?

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