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Australian Actuary & Filmmaker Bahinie Thevarajah's "Kannile Irrupathenna?" Wins Best Original Screenplay At Paris International Film Awards
"Our people worked hard, built temples, established Tamil schools, committees - in foreign countries, all whilst balancing work. Now with the new generation of Tamils, everyday we're hearing success stories of individuals following their passion whilst working. We're a community of side hustlers. Maybe that's where I also find inspiration and drive."
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host ("The Tamil Creator")
Canada
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Tell us about your upbringing and how that may have influenced you becoming a filmmaker?

Yes, actually my upbringing is what influenced my desire to make films. Like many Sri Lankan Tamils, my parents had to flee to Australia due to the war. They hadn't planned for a life in Australia, my dad hoped it would be temporary, that the war would end one day, and they could return to Jaffna, back to their families. But we all know that wasn't the case. I was born in Australia, and hence my parents, especially my dad, did not want my older sister and me to be out of touch with our culture. So in a world of no internet, and with very few Tamil schools, which were located far away (back in the very early 90s), the best source for Tamil culture was Tamil movies.  I fell in love with the stories. We would watch a variety of movies, from super old, to the recent ones back then in the 90s. I loved the emotions and stories I saw on screen. So when I was around 10 years old, I started to write screenplays, my own stories for movies, and that's where the passion started.

Congrats on winning a number of awards (in a field of 450 films) recently at the Paris International Film Awards for "Kannile Irrupathenna?" (“What Lies In The Eye?”), including "Best Indian Feature Film" and "Best Actress" & "Best Actor"!  What is the film about and what sparked the idea?

Thank you so much! The movie is about a Doctor named Shankar and his family. Everyone in his family is hiding a secret. One day there is a murder in his house and the movie goes into who the murderer was and what the various secrets were.

The film deals with a few themes that are close to my heart. Growing up in our community I witnessed some questionable behaviours, such as the conservative mentality that influences parenting methods, judging women for their decisions - where men would easily be off the hook for making the same decisions. And most importantly the ignorance of mental health and the hesitancy to accept that your loved ones may need professional help.

Whilst it's lovely to see some growing acceptance in our society of new changes, I do feel there is room for improvement.

How did you find out you won these awards?  What was your reaction?

I'm still in shock, haha, I definitely did not expect such a reception for the film. First we started winning awards in India, and then we starting winning globally. We actually didn't know alot about these awards, for an instance, we were up against Senior Actress Revathi's Telugu film "Itlu Amma" at the Indo French Film festival, where we had won Best Indian Feature film. It wasn't until awhile later we actually realised which films we were up against. Most of the ceremonies didn't hold the official red carpet event due to the COVID pandemic, so we were mainly reached out via email!

There is a lot of 'symbolism' and 'storytelling through frames' in the movie. I have a reoccurring cassette player in the film, which is to symbolise backward mentality and outdated thinking. But I wasn't sure if viewers would be able to pick up on the references, yet it felt good to have these references acknowledged by some of the most established film juries. It's definitely nice to see our efforts and hard work being recognised. It also felt good that I can give something back to my cast and crew members, who blindly trusted me and agreed to be a part of my film. I'm overwhelmed and proud to see many of them win various awards. 

What was the process like getting your film selected for the Paris International Film Awards?

Surprisingly, it was actually quite a smooth process. I didn't go through any agencies or third parties to put forward our film. It was a simple online application, but first you had to make sure your film fit the criteria to be selected. It had to be certified as a professional film. We were then notified that the film was selected and was proceeding to the finale. I really had no idea we were being selected amongst 450 International films - until we won. That's when I realised how big this actually was.

You wrote, directed, produced and edited the film while working full-time as a science actuary.  That’s incredible!  How did you balance your time between both time-consuming endeavors?

Thanks! Although I do believe this is quite the norm for most of us. I guess when you're passionate about something, you can make the time more readily. I love both worlds, my day job and my filmmaking. That love drives me and because I love it, it hardly seems like work. 

I like planning. I spend most of my time on planning and drafting out timelines, so I can make out how much time is needed, and whether it's possible to execute. Sometimes it might just not work out, but that does not mean it never will, you just have to patiently wait for the right time to make it happen. 

We come from an extraordinary background of hard workers. Most of our parents migrated due to war, moved into worlds they didn't know much about, in an internet-less time and created a life for us. Our people worked hard, built temples, established Tamil schools, committees - in foreign countries, all whilst balancing work. Now with the new generation of Tamils, everyday we're hearing success stories of individuals following their passion whilst working. We're a community of side hustlers. Maybe that's where I also find inspiration and drive. 

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Where do you see yourself in 5 years - still balancing being both an actuary and filmmaker or leaning more towards one career?

In these confusing times it's hard to say just yet.  The pandemic has changed the world somewhat, so I'll see where all this takes us.

I know the creative arts are often looked down on, in the Tamil community.  Have you found this to be the case?  Or has the sentiment changed over time as you’ve experienced more success?  

Definitely, creative arts is in the heart of Tamil culture, yet our elders choose to look down on it.  But i feel it's based more on having financial security than the actual art itself. The Tamil community loves entertainment and push their kids to learn the arts - but according to them, it shouldn't be pursued as a career, as there is no guaranteed or fixed income. You may be really well educated but if you're working in a private company, family friends can still push you to work for the Government. The older Tamil community prefers as much security as possible and hence you're not good enough until you've ticked of their criteria of what financial security is that's also socially respectable. Like you said, I am finding this sentiment slowly changing, and that maybe because we're starting to see many young folks from the Tamil community reaching great heights in the most unconventional jobs. To my surprise, I've been gaining quite a warm reception from the Melbourne Tamil community for pursuing filmmaking, which is a nice change to see. 

What advice do you have for other filmmakers out there, especially female ones in the Tamil community?

For filmmakers, I would say try to learn as much as you can, so that you don't need to rely on someone else. Whether its working the camera or editing, if you have that knowledge, you can fill in for a technican or even spot an inexperienced one. A little extra knowledge hurts no one and I personally find it handy.

For the ladies, regardless of whichever field you're in - never let the anybody's ego bring you down. Other peoples' insecurities may try to hinder your growth. I faced the male ego trying to stop me from making the movie. They were ambitious filmmakers as well, who seemed like well wishers, but i soon realised that wasn't the case. I experienced this with some actors as well. They would arrive to audition and notice that the director was me, a female, and their attitude would change.   Some would openly express that they are not willing to take directions from a female. I simply ignored all that and didn't hire such people.Thankfully our cast and crew were like a family, everyone was supportive. My only focus was reaching my goal, making this movie and making sure everyone involved felt comfortable. I'm glad I didn't derail from my goal and instead focus on arguments or proving to them of my worth. The universe has your back, it will look after such people for you.

What role has your family played in the choices that you’ve made in your life so far?

My dad was an extremely positive person. He loved to see people grow and he encouraged everyone as well. Both my parents never pushed us to pursue any path in particular. They did however make it clear that we had to have an education and a secure job. And it made sense, given what they saw in life, they wanted to make sure we would be able to survive under any circumstances. When I was in high school, I would want to become a filmmaker overnight. I didn't have the patience nor the will to wait until I was an adult. But as I grew and researched, I became to understand what the industry was like. Convincing a producer to finance your film didn't seem so easy.  Moreover, producers are likely to tamper with the film by adding in commercial elements, so that they can make business. I realised I had to be my own boss to have creative freedom. So getting that education and financial indepence my parents lectured me on made sense. Naturally I owe this to my parents - although  i never really told them I had a passion for film making. In fact, I hardly disclosed this to my friends as well. It just seemed like a surreal ambition so i kind of just decided i was going to do it all on my own. I only told my parents once i started filming and by then, I was 26 years old and working fulltime.  What i did on weekends was my own thing. 

When my dad found out he laughed, he thought it was cute, lol. Unfortunately, he passed away one year before the film was released. I would have loved for him to have watched the film and to have shared the victory together. 

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Can you tell us about a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3 years and what you learned from it?

I would call them learning experiences, I believe we can always pick ourselves up and go forward towards success. So everything is either success or learning experiences. I think what i learnt the most from making the film would be to be patient.  Sometimes i just want things done but I've learnt by being patient the most unexpected, better outcomes are possible.

What do you do outside of work for fun?

Spending time with my friends.  It doesn't matter what we do, just being all together is the most fun.

What is insecurity you have?

How my work is perceived. When im dealing with delicate topics in my writing, I have to be careful, or else it can be translated differently by viewers.  The last thing i want is to showcase something that could be harmful or hurting to certain people. 

What do you think you would tell 16-year Bahinie looking back?

Keep believing.

What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?

I really haven't had the time to pick up any books recently, but I love to read biographies on inspiring people.

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

Well this isn't new to me, but I'm usually an early rider and i find it helps me to work better 

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

Food and water for the needy. It may not change the world entirely, but it can change someones life. 

How has the Australian Tamil community impacted you both personally and professionally? 

Personally, growing up in a western country, around a white affluent environment, the Tamil community gave me a sense of identity and belonging.  There were hardly any TV shows or movies i could find relatable. Despite being born here, I felt I didn't completely belong. Australia gradually became multicultural and now its common to celebrate who you are and where you come from. But in my younger days it wasn't really the case, and I found not many people around me understood our way of living, unless they were Tamil too. 

Professionally, the Australian Tamil community has helped me inspire alot of stories and characters for my writing. Ive seen the most interesting characters in our community.

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Kothu roti and Sri Lankan ribbon cake!  I also love watalappam, mutton rolls and the list can go on, haha!

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

I don't know if I can narrow it down to one, but if i have to.. maybe Muthu.

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

It's a big part of me.  The culture has a rich history of strength and love. Tamil culture is a way of living, whether its our Ayurvedic-influenced cooking, or the  superstitions that were rooted for health and hygeine practices. We're so diverse and we have a lot to celebrate.  Though we're spread across the globe we're still standing strong and united.

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Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host ("The Tamil Creator") | TamilCulture.com
Canada
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