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FACULTY SPOTLIGHT – PRASHANTH KAMALAKANTHAN

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Where did you go to school and what did you study? 

First I went to Duke University, where I studied political science and cinema, then later I studied directing/screenwriting at NYU’s graduate film program.

What would you say is your main focus in Cinema? (ex. Writing, directing, camera, etc.)  

I’m a writer/director who’s also a professional editor/DP.

Who are your top 3 favorite filmmakers? Why?  

Oh man, tough one. Just based on the duration of my obsession and the consistency of their work, though, I’d have to say: Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, and Satyajit Ray. 

Are you currently working on any personal projects?  

Yeah, definitely! I always try to have a few buns in the oven, as they say, at various stages of baking.

Most notable at the moment, my first feature as a writer/director is premiering at this year’s Maryland Film Festival, titled Have a Nice Life. It’s a surreal comedy-drama and road movie about two women on the run from the law, starring my mom in a first-time acting role alongside the wonderful actor Lucy Kaminsky, and shot back home in North Carolina, where I grew up. It’ll be available to stream starting May 23 across North America via the festival, so we’re super excited to finally share that project with a wide audience. 

I’m also developing a couple of upcoming features. One is a comedy-thriller about a disillusioned Indian IT worker and suburban dad, desperate for his TikTok-addled son to get serious and ace his job interview at a promising Bay-area tech startup. The other is a longer-term project set in India, based on the true story of how my father narrowly escaped a human trafficking scheme while job searching as a young man in Bombay. 

What is your main piece of advice to give to students?

My main piece of advice for students is to envision and start practicing long-term strategies to continue making their work. Committing to and finishing projects, one after the other, is the only surefire approach I’ve ever seen to becoming a successful artist; and the ability to do so over the long run, through a reflective, incremental, and iterative process, seems to be the primary ingredient of success and self-improvement — much more so even than any significant talent or intelligence. That’s why in all my classes, I encourage students to conceive their filmmaking practice in terms of endurance, building a process and mindset capable of not just producing one strong film, but one after the other, each growing from the experience of the last while building a rich, fulfilling body of work independent of gatekeepers and institutionalized finance. 

How long have you been teaching?  

I started teaching pretty early — beginning as a teaching artist at museums and nonprofits in North Carolina about 13 years ago. 

What’s your favorite thing about teaching?  

Corny as it sounds, my favorite part of teaching is learning. Becoming sure of a topic, enough to build a lesson around it already forces you to learn something you thought you knew too much greater depth than before. And then, of course, the experience of “teaching” others is, for the teacher, also a process of learning how to best help your students. Art education in particular is so gratifying because for me the greatest art reflects this fundamental spirit of giving, taking the material substance of life and through immense sacrifice imprinting it with a higher, abstracted ideal. Teaching art in this light truly means teaching your students how to give of themselves, how to listen to and make peace with the world — and through this process to commune, expanding their very notion of selfhood. 

Growing up Hindu, I always understood this to be the essence of realization, to “know oneself,” in one’s most capacious and universal sense. Getting even a taste of that can be the most liberating, empowering experience, a sense of freedom and unity available to anybody, anywhere — and it’s exhilarating to be pushing those boundaries every day in class.

What got you interested in film?  

I first came to filmmaking through my engagement with community organizing and politics, oddly enough. I was pretty radicalized as a young man by the experience of immigration and my family’s general sense of rootlessness as we drifted with my father’s search for work in those early days. So I arrived at college with a strong sense of the world’s injustices, and no idea how to solve them. I grew very involved in Durham-area community groups and started the first Duke chapter of the leftist antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I became a columnist and editor at the Duke student newspaper, the Chronicle, first to draw attention to these groups and issues before I started to realize that perhaps my work wasn’t quite achieving its intended effect. I began to feel as though I were preaching to a small choir, heightening barriers of understanding that really ought to be demolished.

Though I didn’t realize it then, a course I took on a whim at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies dropped the solution into my lap. The film medium’s distinct power became crystal-clear to me then, in a moment I’ll never forget. For an early practice production exercise, I’d gone to visit my grandmother, the woman who’d raised me back in India. I filmed her going about her usual business — cooking, laundry, Tamil soap operas. I edited it together quickly and showed her the piece. As it started playing, she began to cry, moved. I was shocked. Nothing I’d ever written, not even music I’d made, had reached this English-illiterate woman, let alone affected her. And here was this dinky practice doc, doing all that work. That’s kind of where my long obsession began…  

Do you have any other hobbies besides filmmaking? If so, what are they? How do they contribute to your art/craft?  

Photography and music are my hobbies, the kind of private artistic practice where I’ll work alone, rarely to show others and mainly as a form of meditation and art therapy. 

On the one hand, they’re very different from filmmaking — as Nuri Ceylan says, behind the stills lens a photographer is “like God,” unaccountable and creating utterly alone. It’s a refreshing change of pace to be able to create with such independence, coming from the film world where one has to depend on literally hundreds of people sometimes to complete a project.

On the other hand, photography and music are, to me, two of the most important constituent elements of the beautiful composite art of filmmaking. In its pure abstraction and direct, emotional appeal, Andrei Tarkovsky remarked that music is the closest of all the arts to cinema, much more so than stage drama, and I tend to agree. The logic of cinema, at its heart, is not so much the dramatic world of causality and consequences as the poetry of music, linking images and sounds with the flow of a song.

Link to Prashanth’s Short Film “Houseplants”: http://nobudge.com/main/houseplants