DIRECTOR SUMIT SINGH
“I think the most important lesson I learned early on in my life was to understand these systems of segregation can destroy one’s self-worth.”Sumit Singh a Computer Engineer turned director of a sci-fi film titled “Brain in a Box” made his black comedy film “Scaredy Cat” fascinated by the idea of the society. He deeply protests against the absurdity of India’s caste system that deludes innocent people into believing that they are either superior or inferior just because they belong to a particular caste or social group. In an Exclusive Interview with Cult Critic Sumit reveals the whole idea of choosing the traits such as dominance and subservience as the subject of his film “Scaredy Cat”.
Interview by Shailik Bhaumik for Cult Critic Film Magazine
Shailik Bhaumik: Sumit, first of all let me congratulate you for making such a wonderful black comedy film ‘Scaredy Cat’. What actually inspired you to make this film?
Sumit Singh: Thank you so much! I think it all started with a simple yet absurd idea: A man turning himself into a cat! When Jay Adams pitched me this absurd idea, I was immediately hooked in! I knew that I could take this idea forward and fill it with my own personal experiences of the world. Much like our own world, I always have been fascinated by the idea of a society that could push a man to the limits of insanity and that is where Scaredy Cat was born. It was my attempt to understand the system of segregation around the world and portray it in a fictional story that can make people aware about the absurdity of such systems. In fact, my main inspiration came from the caste system of India. It effectively deludes innocent people into believing that they are either superior or inferior just because they belong to a particular caste or social group.
Q: As you have portrayed in the film ‘Scaredy Cat’, we always find that people are divided into two classes, dominant cats and subservient mice. What do you think, what could be the reason of such segregation?
A: I think people inherently have animalistic traits that sometimes become apparent on the surface that often reveal a little something about them. I don’t think everyone can be classified under those two banners but traits such as dominance and subservience are very much apparent in our world. And when we see these traits on the extreme end of the spectrum, it becomes a real problem! They come in forms of superiority and inferiority that people often associate themselves with and go as far as making it their reality without realizing that it’s just an idea that society has conjured up by itself. In my opinion, I think the reason such type of segregation exist is because of our desire to control that which is uncontrollable. It is the desire for power and control that makes people dominate over others. It turns into a vicious and materialistic food chain. In some ways, we are yet to transcend our animalistic notions of power and control. But I do have hope!
Q: Even in today’s world, caste system, the divisions of people in the society still persists in almost every country in different forms. Like black & white people, Upper class & Lower caste etc. What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?
A: I think the most important lesson I learned early on in my life was to understand how these systems of segregation can destroy one’s self-worth. I come from a low caste society in India but I was very fortunate to have parents, cousins, friends and people around me that never let these things seep into my mind even though at times I did feel vulnerable. However, I did see people in my society fall prey to these false notions of inferiority and superiority through caste and completely destroy themselves. Like I said, I was lucky enough to realize through my parents that an individual is more than just a caste and that it is your actions and not your caste or social status that defines your self -worth. And once I knew that we can all rise beyond these man-made systems through right education, love and empathy, I became completely free. And it is this sense of freedom that allowed me to instill in my protagonist, a sense of drive to be free from the chains of society. I think this had a great impact on my film! In my movie, Tom’s drive to be free is what drives the story. Even though at times when he seems vulnerable and confused, subconsciously he longs to be free from this man-made system.
Q: What are the challenges that you have faced while making and releasing this film?
A: I think the biggest challenge we faced was raising money to make this film. Often at times my films tend to get more ambitious than my finances can handle!! But fortunately, in the end we did find a way to make the film! You just have to stay positive! I think filmmaking is all about intelligent compromise. I’m very happy that we figured out intelligent ways to shoot this movie. It was a great ride!
Q: I understand as a computer science engineer, filmmaking was your passion. Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking was not just a hobby, but that it would be your life and your living?
A: Oh yes! I remember I was in my 2nd semester of engineering when a friend of mine called me to act in a short film he was making. I think he never finished his film, but that little experience of acting in his film, lit a spark in me. I always wrote and acted for fun, but never thought that I could seriously visualize my stories through film since no one in my family or even anyone I knew, had a filmmaking background. That thought never even occurred to me until much later! But that little experience with my friend’s film that he never finished, inspired me to make my own. But I always thought that I would do it as a hobby, but the more I did it, the more I fell in love with the art of storytelling. Soon I started my own film society in college and was elected President of the club. The fun never stopped and I finally figured out what I really loved!
Q: Is there any particular director who influenced you the most? Why?
A: Hayao Miyazaki! Even though he only makes animated films, there is no doubt in my mind that he is a true master of storytelling! The beautiful subtleties of the human experience that he portrays in his work is what separates him from the rest in my opinion. I always try to incorporate these subtleties in my work too. He’s a true inspiration. The most important lesson I learned from his work is that beauty lies in simplicity. And as I progress in my career, I’m trying to make things more simple and truthful.
Fun fact: The opening credit roll in the animated show Heidi: A Girl of the Alps was animated by Hayao Miyazaki himself! It was one of my favorite shows growing up. The animation was just so beautiful! Looks like I was always a fan even before I knew it!
Q: What do you think in which direction global film industry is moving and what is the future of Independent filmmakers?
A: I think the global film industry is going in the right direction as far as diversity and representation is concerned. Though no one can predict how the industry will be 20 years from now but I do think we are going to see more and more diverse and interesting stories from people all around the world who haven’t been given an opportunity or simply haven’t had the resources in the past. That makes me hopeful because there is so much content that needs to be out there that we simply just don’t know exists yet only because the creators haven’t been given a chance. But that is all changing! The audience is warming up to these new stories and I think the future looks bright.
As far as independent filmmakers are concerned, I do believe we need to open new platforms or fix existing ones to give independent filmmakers a chance to showcase their work more easily. Hopefully in the future, more streaming services can perhaps effectively tap into the independent filmmaking scene to allow us to get our content to a larger audience without necessarily going through the studio system. There needs to be a greater ease of delivering content to the audience that can allow independent filmmakers to make a good living as well. We haven’t quite figured out the right system yet but I feel like we’re on the cusp of a great opportunity!
Q: What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film better for you?
A: I’m actually quite easy to please when it comes to stories and films! If a film can make me care deeply about a character that even after the film is over, I’m still thinking about what the character might be doing, that for me makes for an effective film. I’m ready to forgive the visual and audio anomalies to an extent as long as you can make me care about your protagonist. Of course, personal biases and interests come into play when I watch a movie like everyone else, but if a movie can make me more hopeful or enlighten me with a thoughtful idea by the end of it, I’d normally be very happy with it!
Q: What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
A: Oh, there are so many! But today I would say: 3 idiots, Lagaan, The Pursuit of Happiness and Shawshank Redemption are my all-time favorite! I think the underlying common theme in all these films is this undying spirit of hope! Hope that is essential for not only survival but also dreams! I always go back to these films to watch scenes or sequences that are so well crafted, that it always makes me see the beauty in our human experience.
Q: When you get angry at a movie, what sets you off? Are there common qualities in cinema today that you dislike? Is there something you try to subvert or avoid or rebel against in your work?
A: Really, I’ve never been angry at a film but the films that I normally avoid or try to walk out of are the ones that you can see that the filmmaker has no other intention other than to make money. And I think there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but I tend to avoid films that have no heart. I believe the desire to create art stems from the desire to express what’s in your heart, but films that suppress that desire and only attempt to put together a makeshift script with big names are the ones that often fail to connect with people in my opinion.
In my own work, I really try to focus and narrow down my own desires at first to figure out what is it that I really want to say through my film. Once that’s clear to me, then I craft my stories. And often sometimes what I really want to say becomes clear while I’m crafting my story but that’s OK too. The more you write, the more you figure out about yourself. That’s just the process. I avoid thinking too much about structure and technique when I write. I just go with the flow and see where I land! And it’s always exciting!
Q: What is your distribution plan for ‘Scaredy Cat’ after its festival run?
A: I do want Scaredy Cat to be streamed on certain streaming services so I can reach out to a broader audience. My previous sci-fi film titled “Brain in a Box” premiered on ShortsTV and was distributed by 7 palms entertainment, so fortunately there has been a lot of interest around my current work too. But in the end, I will like to get distributors who can get it out to as many outlets as possible and even airlines who now play short films!
Q: What is your next project?
A: I’m currently working on a short film titled “Bombay Theater and the Magical Sitar” set in 1930s British India at the height of the freedom movement, which is a story about a brother and sister who stumble upon a magical sitar that promises to make the impossible things possible!
Q: What is the most important quality a filmmaker needs to accomplish in his or her work?
A: In my opinion, I think clarity of ideas is very important! At the end of the day, your ideas must be conveyed effectively in order for your audience to connect to your story.
Q: What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?
A: I believe film festivals are extremely important! There is definitive value in having your movie seen by people who exist outside your bubble so you can get a good understanding of how your film or story is being consumed and what impact it is making. My previous films have played at a few festivals that have helped me enormously as a filmmaker. Not only have I met amazing people that are interested in working with me but also have gotten great reviews that have helped me craft my stories better. You learn so much either way by having your film played at a festival. It’s a great opportunity!
Q: My last question before we say good-bye: what would happen if Sumit Singh didn’t come to the film industry?
A: Oh that’s a difficult one to answer at this stage since I’m just starting out but in an amazing world, I would like that at the end of my career, people can look back at my films and my stories and derive great amounts of hope and positivity from them! I’d like to make a positive impact on cultures all around the world where the stories that I help create can become a source of strength in times of need, so even long after we’re all gone, these stories can remain and keep inspiring the new.
Q: Thanks for your valuable time Sumit. From the entire Cult Critic team we wish you all the best.
A: Thank you so much! It’s been a pleasure!
Shailik Bhaumik is an award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur. Known for his feature film “Dasein”, Shailik is the founder and Chairman of Human Lab Corporation, a Multinational Film Company whose mission it is to help Independent Filmmakers survive and thrive in this highly competitive industry. Shailik oversees worldwide operations including production, distribution, and marketing for HLC’s live-action films, as well as films released under the HLC banner.