Yuga J Vardhan’s Sincere and Truthful Storytelling Clinches Top Prize at SMHFF Short Film Youth Competition
Director: Yuga J Vardhan
Producer: Yuga J Vardhan, Sadesh Nambiar
Director of Photography: Sadesh Nambiar
Story: Yuga J Vardhan, D Vel Murugan
Screenplay: D Vel Murugan
Cast: A Panneeirchelvam, Vanitha Elansharan, Thiviya Ganesan, Jaarvis Ali, Cloey Teng
Singapore Mental Health Film Festival (SMHFF) held its inaugural Short Film Youth Competition recently, with When Mirrors Had Meaning winning the best film out of 10 finalists. Following the story of a 70 year-old man and his family, the film revolves around navigating the delicate and very painful experience of dementia.
At the helm of the film sits director Yuga J Vardhan, who also produced and co-created the story. Sinema.SG had a chance to speak with the director to understand his process for the winning film.
Congratulations on winning the inaugural SMHFF short film youth competition! Let’s start by learning more about your filmmaking journey.
Yuga: I graduated from film school about 10 years ago. I made some indie films that were screened around the region, Malaysia and Thailand to name a few. I was involved in some productions too. For some reason, I never really got fully into it. I had an opportunity to work with renowned Bollywood director, Anurag Kashyap, but somehow it did not click.
To survive, I started teaching and went into the finance sector. I got married and needed to provide for my family. Those were my personal choices that I had to make at that time. I was doing well in the finance industry but there was always this hankering that I needed to make films. My life was supposed to revolve around filmmaking and production. I kept questioning why I was not in the film industry and why I did not have satisfaction with what I was doing. That was really bothering me.
With that feeling of immense dissatisfaction hankering at me, this opportunity with the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival presented itself. I thought this was the time to do it. I wanted to make a film and see if this is what I was supposed to do; I wanted to restart. Together with my co-producer, Sadesh, and my writer, Vel, we decided to make this film.
The things that never happened for me, the opportunities that weren’t presented and the people that I couldn’t meet 10 years ago – they are all happening now for me. Such is the circle of life. Maybe that is how the universe works.
Tell me about your inspiration behind this film. What did you want to convey?
Yuga: When I was writing this film with Vel, I wanted to convey a true story. I am not a creative enough person to create a story from scratch. I always use stories that are around me – incidents that may have happened to me or things that I have heard from others. There comes my need to tell a story – to tell a particular story. I recalled that both my grandfathers had Alzheimer’s disease. So I decided to dig deeper into it and find out what the experience was like for my family. I also drew on my own observations. I was so inspired to tell this story. By telling a true story, it connects and relates to a wider audience.
I wanted to convey that there are stories like that all around us and this is what mental illness “looks” like day-to-day. I wanted to share the experiences I’ve had and heard about, while weaving it into a story. With my three main characters, I wanted to metaphorically represent the three different groups of people with regards to mental illness.
The daughter represents the ignorant masses who don’t understand the severity or seriousness of mental illness until it is too late. The father is, of course, the patient who suffers from mental illness, sometimes without even knowing that he is. The wife represents the caretakers who tirelessly dedicate their lives to taking care of the mentally ill, often at their own expense.
No further details since we’re trying to avoid spoilers, but the decision to highlight an interracial marriage was interesting. What inspired you to do that?
Yuga: Singapore has been independent for more than 50 years and we have been multiracial since the beginning. It is funny to me that interracial marriage is still looked upon as a suprise. Isn’t it supposed to be normal? It is sad that we haven’t embraced our various cultures more wholesomely.
I am a Singaporean Indian filmmaker. I did not want to make an Indian film; I wanted to make a Singaporean film. I feel that it is important for us to make Singaporean films to share our culture and stories with the world. Show them that Singapore has these cultures, these races, these languages that are spoken, that this is what people eat, and these are the places that people go to.
Interracial marriages are part of our culture and it is normal. I have met Indian uncles speaking very good Hokkien, Mandarin and Malay. I have met Chinese uncles who speak fluent Tamil. I have met Malay uncles who speak fluent Hokkien, Tamil and Hindi; all at the coffee shop.
In the past, this was very common with kampung culture. People weren’t as boxed up; the culture was very open and friendly. I thought that it was important to highlight that aspect in my film. That is why I included a Chinese character and interracial marriage amidst a primarily Indian cast. It is still love, it is still a relationship. We must see beyond their race and skin colour; and see them as individuals.
Could you tell us more about the artistic style you wanted to pursue with the film?
Yuga: Honestly, we did not take any artistic style in particular into consideration when making this film. What I did was to watch many other films before making my film. I was doing this after many years so I needed to get inspired. I watched Japanese, Korean, Indian films; from Netflix to websites and theatres. I needed ideas and inspiration.
Fundamentally, every area of filmmaking from editing to cinematography to colouring, they were all done without a particular style – only with the intent to tell the story better. There is minimalism in the sense that we had limited resources. We had to use that to tell the story the best we could. If you see any particular angle of a shot, it was done solely to convey the message clearly.
A special mention goes out for the music. There is a longer cut of the film where I included an Italian Opera piece called Sento In Seno by Antonio Vivaldi. I wanted something very different. I kept listening to classical music and I wanted to experiment with symphony. A Singaporean film featuring a primarily Indian cast and household, with opera music in the background. I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition.
What do you think sets your film apart from the rest?
Yuga: From the beginning when I decided to tell this story, I did not want to make a very obvious dementia or Alzheimer’s film. I did not want it to be so in-your-face. I always saw film as a medium that hooks people in to sit together and watch it. Mainly, I wanted people to be entertained. After which, comes the in-depth enquiry about what the film is about and the accompanying questions. I was not making a documentary, I was making a film. I wanted it to be more entertaining before being educational.
The other films are very clear, from the first scene, which mental illness they are honing in on. I wanted to make a film that does not clearly state that and allows the audience to infer for themselves. I did not want a film that was show and tell – I wanted one that was show and infer.
Did you watch the other films from the festival? Which one(s) did you like?
Yuga: My favourite other film is BLACK BOX. Kartik Anand created and acted in the film; he actually has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He sat down and spoke about his condition in an extremely stylistic way. When I was sitting down and watching it, I stood up and went closer to the TV. I was mind blown. It was so real, strong and bold. It takes a lot of courage to do something like that.
As a filmmaker, how do you feel about the initiative behind SMHFF?
Yuga: Film or any form of art is a great way to bring people together and create awareness on social issues. This initiative is great because their purpose is very strong. They want to create awareness on mental illness, which is a very alarming issue in today’s day and age. Everyone is concerned about chronic physical conditions like diabetes or heart disease. Mental illness is still not accepted or received well.
We see an individual with mental illness and we brush it off. A healthy mind is a healthy body. You make a film to entertain people and get them together, all while learning something. Everyone needs to take this as seriously as they would a physical illness.
How can the local filmmaking scene be better?
Yuga: We have a great filmmaking industry in Singapore that has made films that have gone on to gain international exposure and recognition. It would be great if these big filmmakers with so much experience, wisdom and knowledge, impart this to the next generation of filmmakers. Help them with their process. There is always this idea that the industry is very difficult to break into and excel in. If an acclaimed filmmaker can change this by inspiring the youth, it would be so great. More films would go international and gain recognition.
Upon winning SMHFF’s short film youth competition, When Mirrors Had Meaning will be screened on the opening night of the film festival, once it announces its new dates after its postponement due to COVID-19. Additionally, it will be screened at the New York City Mental Health Film Festival and Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival in Toronto, Canada. We at Sinema.SG wish Yuga and his team great success on their endeavours and look forward to their next creation.
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