Tanmay Chowdhary is an MFA Film and TV Production alum of the University of Southern California. He is an immigrant from India who chose to pursue arts, regardless of his family traditions. So far, he has accomplished a lot, with highlights being Color of November, a film that he shot and directed. It had its world premiere at the 47th Festival du Nouveau Cinema and its European premiere at the 31st Filmfest Dresden.
Tell us about yourself outside of your work.
A lot of me is so intertwined in the work that I do, that I feel like even when I am not working, I am reading or engaging in activities that primarily serve the creative process. I am completely consumed by this art form.
What motivated you to pursue the arts even though it was against family traditions?
I grew up being a huge fan of Bollywood. My siblings and I would enact entire films out at home. Later, I was drawn into photography as a hobby and I fell in love with the medium. My family has been running their own business of copper manufacturing for three generations now. Being the eldest of my generation, I always assumed that I would be required to run it after my education. I studied business at the University of Illinois and I started working at a multinational corporation before joining the family business. The experience of working in the corporate world was soul-wrenching in many ways and I wanted to run as far away from that as possible. I had sustained a concrete passion for image-making and had been making content on the side in hopes that someday I could get a formal education in the field and pursue the craft professionally. In 2018, I got accepted into USC Film School and I was lucky to have the support of my parents, who encouraged me to go ahead and take the plunge.
Who or what inspired you to become a cinematographer?
I remember watching Samsara by Ron Fricke and I was glued to my screen. It was a very spiritual experience. Then, a few months later, I watched Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky. Both of these films played a huge part in me realizing that I had a passion for cinematography. I was enamored by the fact that a film could have such a deep impact merely by the way an image is captured and presented. For me, the language of images has been an organic approach to understanding the truth of a given moment.
What have you struggled with when creating a movie and how do you overcome it?
The biggest struggle I usually face while creating a movie is to find a language that does not rely on the traditional coverage model of capturing the scene. To challenge the direction of the way a scene can play out and how the camera can play a part in psychologically creating an experience that strives to create a new vocabulary is something that often gets challenging to push for. The best ways I have found to overcome this is to have a very close-knit relationship with the director and work off the trust that we can find in each other.
What kind of media have you worked with in the past and what is your favourite?
I have mostly worked on narratives, documentaries, commercials and music videos. I enjoy working on narratives the most because it allows time and resources to craft every bit of it with delicate care and precision.
What is the most rewarding production you have worked on so far?
This is a tough one. It would be a tie between A Craftsman, Binimoy and Tsugumi. A Craftsman was my thesis project at USC. It was directed by Sanford Jenkins and it was a very rewarding process. The film went on to win various accolades including a nomination at Camerimage. Binimoy was my sister’s thesis film that I shot in India. It was a very special film as we shot it in our hometown and it was the first collaboration we shared as brother-sister. Tsugumi is probably the most beautiful film I have shot so far. The film was devoid of a traditional script and the director Shiyu had a very spiritual approach of decrypting plot and character.
Tell us about the “Waiting for me” music video and how you came up with some creative decisions for it.
The music video for “Waiting for me” was an intensive collaboration that involved a lot of people. It was one of the tightest schedules that I have ever had to execute. We were shooting 23 set-ups a day for two days, where each day had location shifts and a single camera set up that went from the crane to the gimbal to the sticks. I had flown down to India from LA a week before the shoot and I was constantly revisiting the location and planning my shots so that we had everything we needed to ensure the vision was executed.
How did you use the arts to connect with your culture?
The arts, to be more specific in this case – film – has become a medium through which I am constantly finding inspiration to dig deeper into my roots. My affinities and sensibilities have deep sooted connections to my culture in very subconscious ways and I believe that the only way to grow as an artist is to stay in touch with my culture. This is also a big reason why I am constantly working in my hometown on projects that tell stories from my community.
Do you feel that there is a responsibility for those in the arts to give back or tell a particular story?
I feel that the responsibility that one has to any story that they are trying to tell is to be honest with it. I’ve seen a lot of films in the recent past that are made out of a need to cover a social topic, but these films often end up sensationalizing the subject. I think the first and foremost purpose of art is to heal oneself. If one can use the medium for self-love, then it will inevitably reach and heal others as well. I think that one can’t truly heal if they are not completely honest with what they are trying to create.
What advice would you give to the Asian youth who want to pursue a career that their parents do not approve of?
I would encourage them to never lose touch with their passion and to continue to believe in themselves. Most parents want the best for their children and a career in the arts has a reputation of being a rocky one. However, faith is a strange and very real thing. If you will something and keep putting the work in, you will make it. It is very difficult for the first few years and the “artist’s struggle” is a real thing. I’ve lived cut to cut, hand to mouth, for four years in LA and with freelance it is like that. But, things do pick up eventually and the most rewarding part of this process is that you get to do what you love.
Edited by Tyler Vu & Lindsay Zhang