By Renu Chandarana Bollywood and Entertainment Writer @Renujc
When my husband and I first moved to Calgary two years ago, a few mutual friends told me that I must meet Punam Gill. I was told that we had a lot in common and we even connected over email. It wasn’t until a chance meeting last month, at a 1 year- old’s birthday party, that we finally connected in person and I was blown away by not only her unique story, but also her confidence and her perseverance. It’s easy to say you want to make a dream come true, but it’s another thing to actually follow through and do it.
Coming from a South Asian mom perspective who has a TV/film background, I have a lot of respect for what Punam does and how she does it. She is an independent filmmaker who quit her lucrative job in public relations and communications to pursue her dream of creative story telling. Having no experience with the technical aspects of filmmaking, she started with an intense vision and passion to make her dream a reality. It’s amazing what the spirit will do, despite many obstacles, when it knows it’s on the right path. To me, this is what Punam represents: hard work, dedication, and an attitude that says, “This is me, take it or leave it.”
I hope her story inspires other moms out there to start pursuing their dreams. She has taught me that being vulnerable is normal and just a mindset and that there is tremendous value in every piece of work you do – big or small. I encourage you to visit her award winning blog at www.punamarts.ca Like her Facebook fan page and follow her on Twitter: @PunamArts. I had the chance to interview her recently and here’s what she had to say about her life and path to success thus far:
Tell me about how you got inspired to be a filmmaker. When did you know exactly that this is what you wanted to do?
It started with me having an idea for a documentary, this story about the young competitors of the WorldSkills Competition. As I started pitching the idea, I realized that if I wanted to see it made and tell it the way I envisioned, I would need to just do it – write, produce, fundraise, direct, edit and even hold the camera. So I became a filmmaker by making a film!
I had no background in film, but I felt so compelled and had this almost bizarre confidence in myself. It made no logical sense, making such a drastic change from a business suit and polished nails to a lowly production assistant, but I just knew it was what I was supposed to do. I can’t explain where I was getting that information from, somewhere deep within.
Every step of the journey – from fetching coffee for the crew on my very first set (really a low-budget soft porn…we all have to start somewhere), to directing my own crew and seeing my film on the big screen, to now writing a very complex script for my next project – continually nourishes me and re-affirms that this is the right path for me.
How did your family take the news? South Asian parents like stability…it’s not easy pitching an idea to them saying, ‘I’d like to leave my lucrative career to be a freelance artist!’
It’s funny, after I produced YOUNG MASTERS, which is about young people pursuing and mastering their chosen vocation, no matter how it is received, a whole spectrum of people told me about their challenges in following their passion, and I realized that it’s not just a South Asian thing.
From my own personal experience, not only do our family members need to hear about our dreams, but they also need to see our commitment. I think, in the past, the times that I have tried to pursue something but didn’t get the backing, it was because I didn’t show them that I had the drive or the conviction, myself. This time, they saw that I was ready to take a leap into the unknown, and they were more than willing to jump with me.
Part of the fun for me has been seeing their reactions on this wild ride – like, “Wow, she’s actually really good!” or “Bummer, she didn’t get the funding.” It’s family, so we are all in this together.
They see how much I put into my work, how challenging and difficult it can be at times and that I am still at it, doing something that engages me to my full potential. So when I get to show my most recent finished film, a glimmer of pride will come across their faces. It’s so subtle and they may not know how to say it, but it feels like, “So glad she quit her job to become a filmmaker!”
My husband, our families, our friends – their love has made my films.
How do you find being a mom influences your projects?
Parenting is another realm, like the arts, where you have to step out in the world with a point of view. Someone may like the choices Tej & I make for our son’s nutrition (or clothing, education, discipline etc.) and another may not. Being a mom reminds me to show up with a point of view – to say what I need to say in my films, to pick an approach, to stand behind my creative strategy, even if one person in the movie theatre gets it, and the person beside them does not.
What is the most special project you’ve done and why?
Well, there’s really nothing like your first. Even though my first film idea was about the WorldSkills Competition (YOUNG MASTERS, 2010), my actual first produced film was THE LESSON in 2007, my father’s life story.
It was my first film, it was about my dad, but when he passed away shortly thereafter, the film also became an heirloom. Hearing someone’s voice, their particular way of saying something, while seeing their facial expressions and gestures are all the gifts of motion picture. I am so grateful I have this gift to give to our son, who never got to meet his grandfather.
What’s the hardest part about being an independent filmmaker?
I think sometimes people assume that because someone is following their passion that they have it easy. On the front end, fundraising is tough, very competitive, and rejection letters still leave me depressed for a couple days. On the back end, promotion is tough because all you want to do is rest after you have finally given birth to your film, which can take years to make. But you have to find the strength to get your work out there, because no one else will, and you didn’t just make a film for it to sit on a shelf somewhere. Promotion, especially doing it yourself, takes as much energy and creativity as production.
Also, I wonder if I will always feel such intense vulnerability when showing my work. These are all strong inner forces that I work through on an ongoing basis. But I love it, it’s all part of the creative life, and I’m glad it isn’t easy.
How has it been documenting your parent’s life?
My first film was about my dad’s life story, and the project I am currently developing is my mother’s story. It’s such an honour…and an heirloom.
Tell me a little bit about your recent trip to India to discover your mother’s side of the family.
Yes, I went to discover my mother’s and my grandmother’s India. We stayed in Punjab, in the home my mother was not only raised in, but also born in. And my family has a strong legacy of meditation, independent thinking, and spirituality that I wanted to explore.
When I became a mother, I would often catch myself wondering how my mother or my grandmother did it. So I went back to India to more deeply appreciate what the women in my family have gone through.
What do you hope to achieve with this career path?
I’m at about the five year mark in my career and it’s a cool place to be – I still have a lot to learn and do, but I’m no longer in survival mode trying to answer the question ‘Can I do this?’ I now have a small body of work in which I can see a style emerging. It’s called creative non-fiction, a hybrid of documentary and drama.
At this stage in my career, I want to keep developing this signature style by retaining creative control on my projects, even though it is very tempting to trade that for short-term gains. I hope in the future, my commitment to my own voice and way of seeing a story will create a demand for my particular style.
I would like to meet and film some of the great minds of our times, learn from them and share that learning with others, which is what I am germinating with my 5Q Interview web-series. So far, I’ve gotten to learn first-hand from chef Vikram Vij of Vancouver, New York jewellery designer Amrita Singh, painter Chantey Dayal, photographer Punam Bean, and songstress Kiran Ahluwalia and her husband/jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi (in post-production).
My goal as a filmmaker has always been to make the world better. My films may not reach the masses, but they do reach many hearts.
What do you hope your son will learn from your filmmaking?
That he should be a doctor!
Just kidding. I hope he learns what every parent hopes their child learns – that he is loved, that the world is his, that only he knows fully what is inside of him, that challenges and adversity can be embraced, that everything works out the way it needs to. Tej is also a natural storyteller so we hope to use stories as a way to guide our son.
What can the world look forward to from PunamArts in the near future?
I am putting my financing in place for my next film, UNMENTIONABLES: CONFESSIONS FROM A BRA BOUTIQUE, the story of a 3rd generation lingerie shop owner.
My 5Q Interview with Kiran & Rez will be up on my website in a couple of months.
When I was starting out, the Internet was a huge resource for me so I built my website with new artists and filmmakers in mind. PunamArts.ca ’s tag line is ‘Save Money. Find Money. Make Art.’ so I want to keep sharing my journey, hoping it will spark a new creative/funding/promotion idea for a reader.