In this edition of essai files we traverse cinema, music, and education with AES 12th-grader and former essai student Zeefan Kanwar.
“I don’t know where the ideas for my work come from but I know what my message is. Open your eyes- engage with reality- recognise humanity. Step outside of your materialism and your ego-centrism and start to appreciate everything you’ve got.” Zefaan Kanwar, 2018
E: Let’s start by talking about when you first got behind the camera. Do you remember the exact moment?
Z: My 10th grade English class. We were told to make a short performance of the scene in Macbeth in which Banquo is killed by the assassins, but I decided to film the scene instead. No-one else did this, but I loved how using the camera as a tool enabled me to be more creative and put my own twist on Shakespeare. My classmates liked my work, and after that point I didn’t really look back!
E: And what happened next?
Z: My friend Nolan introduced me to Pulp Fiction, and I was completely blown away by the angles, the lighting, the colours. I can’t describe the way they made me feel. I became hooked on the non-linearity of the narrative, on the way Tarantino messes with the audience’s mind. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar had a similar impact on me- when I left the cinema I knew I wanted to make movies that were capable of provoking such emotion and thought in my audience.
E: How did you go about trying to achieve this in your early work?
Z: I tried to create content that defied people’s expectations. The first proper short film script I wrote was supposed to be an entry for a competition, but it ended up a 90-page thriller about a guy seeking revenge for his father’s murder. He invites all the suspects to his house and kills them off one by one.
E: Sounds dark! What came next? And did you have any kind of unifying ideas or sources of inspiration at this point?
Z: The next movie I made was a silly piece about a guy hallucinating that he’s at India Gate, when actually he’s just crashing around his own house. At the start there really was no ‘message’ or logic to movies I made- they were very much one-dimensional pieces. I just wanted to entertain myself, entertain my audience, and ideally mess with their minds a little. It wasn’t until later on that I focused on conveying a message in my work.
E: What message was this? And what brought about the shift in focus for your film-making?
Z: It wasn’t until I started at AES in fifth grade that I realised how much my life was centred around demanding more, the best, always competing. I was humbled when I realised how different my attitudes were to those of my new classmates, and shocked at how self-centred I’d become.. My eyes were opened to the vast inequality in Indian society, and I began to feel more and more committed to delivering this wake-up call to others.
E: One of your short films was created in order to do just that. Tell us about ‘Rahul’.
Z: I had jumped at the chance to participate in a school CAS project in a city slum, but was struggling to come up with a realistic, achievable plan to help improve the lives of the inhabitants. My school seniors had installed latrines, but I wanted to start a debate about the causes of the problems rather than try to fix the symptoms. Eventually I had the idea that I could use my camera to tell the story of just one boy, and then use (t)his story to spread a bigger message about social inequality - especially educational inequality- in slums across the country.
E: The film is incredibly touching and inspiring, and the cinematography and editing is pretty sophisticated even in this early piece. Did anyone teach you how to create and edit film?
Z: I never had any formal ‘training’ to make movies. I guess I have learnt a lot through experimentation- and also through being incredibly interested in the methods of other directors. I watched a lot of video essays on YouTube- such as the Every Frame a Painting series- where I picked up the language and ideas I needed to get a better understanding of how good movies are made. I find it fascinating to watch documentaries or ‘behind the scenes’ clips featuring movie giants like Kubrick and Tarantino. When I’m watching I try to ‘enter the minds’ of these super-talented directors in order to understand why they made the decisions they did.
E: So would you say you are inspired by big names like these?
Z: Stanley Kubrick is my biggest influence for sure, and also the director I most look up to. Kubrick doesn’t rely on trends to make his movies a success- he’s brave enough to trust his creative instinct. Also, there are so many different themes and interpretations buried within each of his films that every person can create their own interpretation. These elements combine to make Kubrick’s work both timeless and universal.
E: Most recently you’ve thrown a bit of a curve ball at us with the release of several rap music tracks. We can honestly say we weren’t expecting that! Does this signal a move away from the camera and towards the microphone?
Z: Definitely not- my heart will always be in film production! But at the end of last summer I felt completely creatively drained and needed to take a break. I’d just got back from an internship with a small production company in New York, where I’d had a chaotic and pressured experience directing my own film with a team behind me for the first time. We had problems with the actors, I couldn’t get the shots wanted, and the whole filming process on the streets of the city was very rushed. I learnt a huge amount from the experience, but it totally exhausted me. When I got back to Delhi, a few of my friends were recording music and DJing, and one day I joined in one of their sessions. One thing led to another, and I enjoyed it so much I decided to put together an album. I was really surprised by how popular it became on Spotify! Most of the tracks, like ‘Snake’, are my own experiments with mimicking the typical rap style which is so popular at the moment. .
E: But how does the larger-than-life, rap-star Zefaan coexist with the social-campaigner, down-to-earth Zefaan? How was it possible for the same guy to create such polar-opposite pieces as Snake and Rahul?
Z: I guess I’m still trying to figure that out myself! But I know that the stereotypical rap music is not the direction my work is going to take from now on. I’ve got the fun, frivolous stuff out of my system, and I’m ready to get back to spreading my social message. I think my most recent track ‘Alone’- which I created the lyrics and beats for- marks the end of my creative break.
E: What’s the track about?
Z: Being alone.
E: Right.. Well it seems like you’re getting ready to start taking your work seriously as you prepare to leave for college in the summer. Did you get stressed at all during the application process?
Z: I was pretty nervous about getting in to a good college- but then I remembered that no matter what happens I’ll always have my mindset and my health!
E: Haha we like your philosophy! The essai team loved working with you on your film-school applications, mainly because it was clear that you really were passionate about what you were applying for. Did this make it easy for you to write your essays?
Z: I don’t think anyone could say that the essay writing process was ‘easy’, but Nick and Silvio definitely asked me the right questions. The whole process worked so well because they always showed an interest in whatever I was doing, and this made me feel like a ‘real person’ with a real interest in cinema.
E: Was taking the ACT as smooth a process as your college applications? You only came to us for the English section...
Z: Yeah, I’d started my ACT prep somewhere else, but just couldn’t get my English score above a 26. I came to essai for help, and after actually learning about the ‘basics’- like clauses- I jumped straight up to a 31 after one class. I still use so much of the stuff I learnt- like the rules for semicolons!
*Farhad nearly sobs with pride*
E: On that note, it’s time for the colour question. Assign essai a shade!
Z: *Thinks deeply for a long time* Brown. I just feel it.
E: No explanation needed? Okay..! Now, we need to ask you this- if you were going to make a short film about essai, what would you do?
Z: I would make a drama, and Ganesh would be the protagonist. So much potential there...
E: Now there’s a film we want to see! What about if essai were a film- which one would we be?
Z: *Thinks deeply again*. I think you’d be ‘Fitzcarraldo’ - it’s a movie that was made in West-Germany in 1982, about an Irish man who tries to move a steamship over a mountain in order to tap rubber so he can raise enough money to build an opera house in the jungle.
E: So we are equally as determined to do the impossible? Or just foolhardy!?
Z: Hmm maybe a bit of both? Actually, one of my favourite quotes of all time comes from the director of that movie- Werner Herzog. He was talking about the Peruvian jungle in which he shot Fitzcarraldo, but I think it can be understood in the context of the whole world. He said:
“Taking a close look at what's around us there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of... overwhelming and collective murder...We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication... overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order...We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”
E: That’s a wrap! We can’t wait to see what you produce next Zefaan. Good luck.