ANANTH Subramaniam’s gift of storytelling is evident. As the opening sequence of Colourless pans to the image of hearing-impaired Samantha sitting forlornly by the swimming pool, there’s an immediate connection to her inward struggles.
She loves swimming, but she doesn’t fit in. The loneliness is palpable. Her world is silent. Her only companion is her father, a single parent struggling to make ends meet.
The simple story shines a spotlight on the world of the deaf which usually receives very little attention in films.
Like blindness and other disabilities, it has often been misused as a plot gimmick in syrupy romances or to advance the story on other able-bodied characters.
In a rare effort to showcase the hearing-impaired, Colourless tells a story of a young girl intent on pursuing her dreams despite the odds and her poignant bond with her father.
For the 27-year-old filmmaker, the protagonist “Samantha” was based on a young mute girl he met when he was around 5 or 6. It was a chance meeting at swimming class. Despite it being so fleeting, the memory of her stayed on his mind for years.
“It was such a brief encounter, but she somehow came to my mind when I wanted to do this film,” he recalls, adding: “I never even had a conversation with her. It’s funny how our memory works… the things you can’t quite remember and the things you never forget.”
Films shape and reflect cultural attitudes and can serve as a potent force in influencing the attitudes of the hearing world who have had few, if any, encounters with deaf people.
Colourless does just that – offering a rare glimpse into the silent world of a teenager with big dreams. The bleakness that father and daughter faces is real, and there’s really no immediate happy ending to typically tie up a story of this nature – except for their strong bond which is the only thing that helps them navigate through a minefield of difficulties.
There’s another way of looking at this question of sentimentality. Somehow Ananth manages to peer quite hard into the dark and ends up finding a point of light.
Samantha may be hearing-impaired but she’s resilient and doesn’t waver from pursuing her dreams. Her father is stressed from being the sole breadwinner, but he understands his daughter’s dreams and wants to see her succeed.
“Society often pushes people with disabilities to the side lines, but I wanted Samantha to tell her story,” he muses, toying with his cup of coffee. He pauses before asking anxiously: “Do I have to speak louder or something?” nodding towards my phone on the table that’s discreetly recording our conversation.
There’s a disarming naivety about Ananth that’s refreshing, despite his recent success which bolstered his reputation as an up-and-coming filmmaker.
The former architect won the prestigious BMW Shorties 2018 for Colourless, and received an RM80,000 production grant to fund his next short film.
The BMW Shorties is a cultural initiative by BMW Group Malaysia to identify, cultivate and support budding film talent in the country; and they’ve been doing just that for more than a decade, providing a platform for digital content creators and aspiring filmmakers like Ananth to tell their stories.
OF DRAGONS AND FANTASY
He sits opposite me, his hands clasped, a smile on his face, and thumbs towards the ceiling with an attitude that says, “What’s next?”
There’s the sense of a fast-processing, friendly intelligence; courteously shutting down the 20 other things he has on the go in order to turn his attention to you. He’s never done a sit-down interview before, he confesses before squinting into my eyes expectantly.
It’s a typical question. When did the love for movie-making start? “Lord of the Rings!” he replies, grinning. He was 11 or 12 when his movie-buff parents took him for the epic Peter Jackson fantasy adventure film that, as he’d describe it enthusiastically: “…blew my mind!”
Eyes shining, he shares: “I remember watching the first part of the trilogy, and not knowing anything about sequels and prequels, I wondered why the movie never ended on a satisfying note. I thought that was really cool!”
He punctuates his sentences with the typical young adult colloquialism, “it was awesome, man!” and “that’s cool!” with such exuberance that it’s hard not to get swept up in his youthful enthusiasm.
“That was my first inspiration… the idea of making films… I didn’t even know directors even existed… I just wanted to make a movie and that was pretty cool!” he reminisces, grinning.
The 11-year-old boy wanted to make a movie about “dragons and monsters”, but there wasn’t the typical Spielberg (he of ET and Jurassic Park fame) coming of age story about discovering an 8mm movie camera when the latter was 12.
“I had Windows Movie Maker instead!” he tells me triumphantly. Ah, technology. “I’d take scenes from video games, splice and paste them together to create a story,” he recalls. You didn’t shoot anything? I ask, a little disappointed. “I couldn’t shoot anything!” he protests, and as if I should know, he adds pointedly: “I mean… you can never “shoot” dragons!”
Unlike young nerdy Spielberg and his dinky little movie camera, editing was Ananth’s foray into the world of filmmaking. He put together short movies, wrote stories and drew out his imagination.
Were his parents on board with his dreams?
“Well, they didn’t say no!” he offers carefully. “It took them some time to get used to the idea, but I kept telling them every day that I wanted to make movies.”
The honest thing, he adds, is that it’s hard to be a filmmaker in Malaysia. “People just don’t get it. Filmmaking? What’s that?” he remarks, shrugging his shoulders. He loved movies. What’s his favourite genre? “Depends on which side of the bed I wake up from!” he replies grinning.
He loved all movies. Period. His father, a former mining engineer, had a huge collection of DVDs, and he along with his wife, a Maths and Science teacher, were movie buffs. That probably rubbed off on you, I note, and he laughs heartily before replying: “They’d never admit it but yeah!”
They were a little relieved when he decided to pursue architecture. “I suppose as with all parents, they wanted me to fall back on to something secure,” he muses, adding: “But I really didn’t want to fall back into anything. I didn’t want a “safety-net” but of course I didn’t tell them that!”
Architecture, he hoped, would be a great asset as it also appealed to his creativity.
After graduating, he took up an apprentice position at a local architecture firm in Kuala Lumpur. “I hated it!” he interjects vehemently before tailing off. He may seem to be a master manipulator of emotions on the screen, but he’s more awkward about them in real life.
He couldn’t sit behind computers, he complains. What he learnt wasn’t what was done in real life. “Do a toilet, do a living room. That’s not fun!” he gripes, shrugging his lanky shoulders.
He quit, and went backpacking for a month around Europe. “I needed to recalibrate,” he confides with a laugh. The trip was cathartic for him. He explored places, watched football (“I’m a huge football fan!”) and opened his mind to new experiences. He decided then to pursue his first love. “I set to do my masters in filmmaking,” he shares, smiling.
ENTER THE FILMMAKER
It was a coming-of-home of sorts for Ananth when he enrolled at the Kingston University in London. “Finally, I was with people who spoke the same language as I did,” he says.
They lived, breathed and talked movies. This was exactly what he longed for. His exposure to filmmaking grew as he immersed himself in learning all about the industry while corroborating with like-minded students who loved filmmaking as much as he did.
Embracing the world of cinema wasn’t without its challenges. The creative scene was thriving but money was scarce, he says. It was a challenge to put together his final film project, a short film intended for film festivals and distribution which incorporated all of the disciplines he learnt throughout his study.
“I wanted to do a medieval piece,” he says, eyes sparkling. “You know… swords and stuff!” It was quite an adventure – and challenging – because he had to approach strangers for help as money was scarce.
“We met stuntmen who worked for Ridley Scott (renowned director known for the sci-fi thriller Alien),” he relates gleefully. It was a trade-off – the students helped them film a documentary and they in turn, assisted the youths with their shoot.
“We couldn’t pay anyone because we were students,” he recalls, adding that his older brother helped him out with money for the project. He tried crowd-funding but there was little success. “No one wanted to give us money!” he recalls. The movie Lily White was born.
What was it about? I ask.
“The bubonic plague!” he replies blithely. This first-ever feature got him participating at the Cannes 2017 Court Metrage. Making Lily White, made him realise the gritty aspects of filmmaking.
“I didn’t realise how incredibly difficult it was to put together a movie. But it was an amazing experience.”
Returning home, he was determined to pursue a career in filmmaking. “It wasn’t easy,” he recalls. He wanted to make movies, but the opportunities were too few, and obtaining funding wasn’t easy. He took on the first job he could find — as a multimedia designer. “It wasn’t ideal but it paid the bills!” he says.
As long as he could hold a camera, edit and stay active in the field he loved, he’d take it. “I recorded interviews, set up lighting, asked the questions, shot the scene – everything! I learnt a lot and so I didn’t complain,” he recounts.
As providence would have it, he met with someone who owned a production house, and gave him the link to his short feature Lily White. The one on the bubonic plague, I reiterate with eyebrows raised. “It was a good movie! I liked it!” he avers with pride.
Why did you not join a production house instead? I ask. There’s no job available for a director, he replies. “I didn’t want to start at the bottom rung. I only wanted to be director!” Incredibly self-aware or overconfidence, I can’t decide. Perhaps it’s a mixture of both.
But Ananth doesn’t seem to be postulating with an oversized ego. It’s simply what it is. “You need to start from the bottom,” I venture again. “That’s what everyone says, but not really,” he responds, adding succinctly: “Spielberg didn’t. Peter Jackson didn’t. So…” he trails off, shrugging his shoulders. “Did YOU do Jaws?” I ask drily. “I will… Give me some time!” he says pleadingly and we both burst into laughter.
Fast forward a few months later, he gets a call from the production house asking him if he wants to do a commercial. He says yes, and that’s when he finally joined SixtyMac Production as a film director. It’s the same team at SixtyMac that put together Colourless with compelling style and aplomb.
Ananth has just completed Liar Land, the latest BMW Shorties production with the production grant money won from Colourless. Holding true to his bold narratives and provocative storytelling techniques, Liar Land is a gripping story of siblings hailing from a broken family, pushed into a life of crime perpetuated by their rogue parents’ criminal activities.
“I always wondered… what if Bonnie and Clyde (the infamous American criminal couple during the Great Depression) had kids?” he muses.
“How would that type of negligent parenting affect children?” His telling of Liar Land not only exemplifies the negative effects of childhood negligence but also a premature de-sensitivity to violence and aggression in children.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
“From life,” he says simply. “I love observing and writing stories,” he says, adding that he doesn’t really care what the audience think. “I make movies for myself.” If they don’t like it, they don’t like it. “You can’t please everybody but it’s nice when people appreciate your movies,” he admits.
People don’t know what they want, he reveals. “It’s your job as a filmmaker to convince them that your movie is what they’re looking for!”
How have you done so far?
“Okay, I guess...” he responds, the self-confidence wavering a little before he gets it together again. “Making movies is a passion, and sometimes you just have to shut out all the other voices and listen to your own.”
Referring to his movie Colourless, he continues: “There’s a ‘Samantha’ in all of us – we’re always working towards that one thing in life that gets us up every morning and keeps us going.” Pausing, he eventually concludes with a smile: “For me, that’s filmmaking.”