Interview by Anna Harrison
Manahar Kumar is a Student Emmy Award-winning actor, director, and producer who starred in and produced the short film “Distant,” following Indian immigrant Richie as he struggles to support both himself and his ailing mother back in India.
First off, how did you get involved with the project? In addition to starring in the film, you were an associate producer as well—did you always plan to both produce and star? Or did one come after the other?
Akhil Deva, the director of “Distant” and I became friends at the start of my MFA journey at Savannah College of Art & Design in Atlanta. Having limited South Asians at SCAD, further limited in the Film program brought us closer in our creative chapters, whilst experimenting and seeking our individual voices.
For “Distant” we became flatmates as well as began prep on our first ever schedule all the way 10,000 miles away in Hyderabad, India, Akhil’s hometown. We even crowdfunded for the film and the room used for Richie was actually mine, and completely turned around by our immensely talented production designer. Having been such an intimate part of both the behind the scenes as well the performance, the role of being an associate producer came in organically.
Even post the production Akhil and I worked intricately, in terms of music choices and especially the length of the film, targeting certain film festivals, globally.
How did serving as a producer inform your knowledge of your character, Richie? Did it change anything in how you approached your performance?
Serving as a producer definitely gave me an insight to characterize and strategically plan out Richie’s pathway in detail, especially considering knowing the line up for locations and shot design that Akhil and his DP worked on.
Richie is passive for most of the film until the end, and when he finally snaps after everything that’s happened to him (and is currently happening), it’s very cathartic, even though his situation has arguably gotten worse. What did you make of his character arc and that moment when he finally takes matters into his own hands?
It’s true that Richie is passive for most of the film, but the answer lies in the question itself. In order to become an active protagonist, rather a proactive son, he had to stop being in his head all this while, rather take matters in his hand and create his own destiny.
When Shekeb, my co-actor and I, who played the manager rehearsed the particular scene you mentioned, we always knew it was imperative, a climatic and turning moment for Richie and the film. Having said that though, on set when we decided to film the long take, without any coverage, after me having covered the ending sequence of running in the rain, an extremely exhausted, both physically and spiritually, we didn’t know what will happen. Shekeb and I took were off-camera and when Akhil called action and I moved in, the scene escalated with every beat, so much so that I actually slapped Shekeb, something switched for everyone on set. It is only when I look back now, I realise the silence after cut, was that of having captured truth in its essence.
Akhil got his moment, in the only take we did. And I profusely apologised and kissed Shekeb on the cheek for the heated conflict we went through. We’re truly connected, only then were we able to reach that level of authenticity.
Richie ends the film by going back to India to see his mother. Do you view that as a triumph or something more complicated?
I believe that the story only began at that point, when he decided to head back to India. There’s so much more to say in this film, but we kept it short, only to believe and dream that there’s a feature looming around Richie, his mother and their aspirations somewhere in Akhil and my future collaboration, together, who knows?
There are some scenes filmed in India—how was that coordinated? I noticed there are several credits for people that—it seems—only worked on the film in India. How important was that authenticity of location for Richie’s story? Was it difficult to pull off?
Having shot in India first made the foundation of the film. With locations cancelling at the last minute and us shooting in the middle of a loud festival, definitely didn’t make things easy, but we did what we had to do, using the Indian jugaad mentality. As they say, when in Rome…
Hyderabad gave me the core of the film and more importantly Richie, the soul. Being a fly on the wall, and just sponging in all information, later using as memory strikes in Atlanta, I believe played out well, in terms of the silences lingering yet, thoughts sprinting all along.