With a Special Mention for Syaahi at the 63rd National Film Awards, Varun Tandon is one of the youngest filmmakers in India to win this prestigious award. The film has garnered numerous accolades and has been screened at various international festivals, such as Grand Troyes International Short Film Festival and New York Indian Film Festival. We speak to the filmmaker about his career thus far, and his poignant short film, Syaahi.
No childhood is complete without landing yourself in trouble at least once. It could be ruining your sibling’s science project, or unwittingly setting the kitchen on fire in an attempt to surprise your mother. Little Vansh finds himself in a soup when, unable to pay for a trek with his classmates, he takes the matter in his own hands without letting his parents know. A heart-warming tale of childhood desires and the opposition it receives from adults, Syaahi offers a look at seemingly insignificant moments of childhood, which can quietly get etched into our beings forever.
Tandon was always enamoured with stories as a child, and loved listening to and narrating those. “The long car journeys to my boarding school were filled with stories by my father. This fascination made me fall in love with the magic of celluloid and always secretly wanted to get into filmmaking. During my grad-days in Mumbai, I was fortunate to meet like-minded people. Despite zero knowledge about filmmaking, we started to make short films.” By the time Tandon and his friends were 20 years old, they had made 15 short films.
Syaahi makes an intelligent use of light to convey the mood of different characters. The outdoors are bathed in bright, stark sunlight to enhance the emotional and physical challenges the protagonist undergoes. Being a struggling writer whose manuscripts gather dust on the shelves whilst yearning for a publisher, the indoors are dark and dingy, representing the personality of the father, who is suffocating in the lapse of his own artistic ambitions. Yashveer Singh’s cinematography is commendable for making Vansh’s perspective pivotal to the narrative, by starting and ending every frame with him. The camera is placed at angles that we, the viewers, look up at adults from Vansh’s perspective, or Vansh is looked down upon from the adult characters’ point of view. Speaking of their decision that influenced this approach, Tandon adds, “The thought behind this was to show the story from the boy’s perspective, and keep the viewer involved in his emotional journey.”
The exploration of this “emotional journey” — one of the many aspects that drove Tandon to make Syaahi — is twofold: It shows a young child coming to terms with his reality, and how he learns to make peace with it. At the same time, the film stresses upon enjoying the small moments in life, wherein one doesn’t need to chase materialistic possessions to seek happiness.
The task of working with child actors is nothing short of herculean, but Himanshu Bhandari’s performance as Vansh – which earned him a nomination for the Best Child Actor at the New York Indian Film Festival – Tandon makes it look effortless. He calls the experience of working with children “enriching”. They were non-professional actors, who were cast from the surrounding villages and schools. “The children were innocent and also quite sharp, we just had to be patient and be on our toes. We shot a lot of takes, because every take would have some magical parts and also some parts where they would be distracted. Shooting multiple times was all the more difficult as we had only six days.”
Talking about the landscape and viability of short filmmaking in India, Tandon believes it’s still early days for this format. These features are mostly self-funded, or made with support from the trusting and encouraging friends and family network. In the case of Syaahi, his sister, Krati Tandon, served as one of the executive producers. He recalls, “Krati was studying at the Indian School of Business when I was completing the script. She pitched the idea of co-producing the film to her batch mates, who had previously seen and loved our previous short films. They enthusiastically agreed to join our film as co-producers.” The film was ultimately financed by eight producers.
The Special Mention for Direction at the National Film Awards came as a wonderful surprise. The 24 year-old winner explains, “We had absolutely no idea about the kind of response the film would get. We had simply set out to make a film that we truly believed in. The accolades have been overwhelming, and we are immensely happy that the film is touching people.”
With no concrete filmmaking plans in the near future, Tandon now looks forward to get back to writing and see where it takes him. We hope it’s a path that leads to great cinema.
Watch Syaahi here.
Featured Image Courtesy: youthkiawaaz.com