Visual media has the power and influence to bring about a change in the lives of people across the globe, by depicting the truth, however harsh it might be !
Areeb Hashmi, our next pathbreaker, is as an independent filmmaker, freelance documentary photographer and media producer for various organisations in the development sector.
Areeb talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his transition from the lucrative world of corporate films to the world of meaningful and compelling films/documentaries that raise public awareness on pressing issues.
For students, it is not easy to turn your passion into your profession. But if you manage to do it, there is no looking back !
Areeb, can you talk a little bit about your growing up years?
It is rare, to be able to find that one thing you would want to do for the rest of your life, especially when you are a six years old kid. I have been lucky that way. Unlike today, when I was growing up, having access to a camera was a matter of great prestige and privilege. Needless to say, some families could afford to own one, though children were not allowed to come anywhere near it, let alone play with it. I was so fascinated by the one we had at home, that at the risk of getting a scolding, or worse, getting beaten up, one day I took it out, sneaked into our bathroom and clicked a picture of the commode. At least I thought I did, since I never got to see the picture taken immediately. I never bothered thinking that eventually the film will be developed and it will come out, I was too excited because I was able to hold the camera and use it for a few minutes. The sound of the shutter and the reel rolling down inside the camera felt like music to my ears. Weeks later, when the film was developed at a local photo studio, it had all the pictures which constituted freezing memories of a middle-class home of the 1980’s in India however there was one picture with a commode in the middle. Something that could have been a reason for scolding me became a joke, as everyone in the joint family we lived in at that time was guessing who must have done it and why. I got to see the first picture I ever took, as it did rounds, along with funny comments within the family, but, for obvious reasons, I could not claim it to be mine.
As I grew up, my love for films increased. I would spend all my pocket money and extra cash collected during birthdays and festivals in local theaters or renting films on VHS tapes. I was born in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh in a progressive and literary family. Since my father took a long sabbatical from his government job to work for the private sector, I changed schools three times. Later, I moved to Pune when I was in the 8th grade. Moving cities did bring better opportunities and different experiences for me, but the love for films and cinema remained unchanged, it simply increased with time. By this time, handy-cams were available in India and I volunteered at every birthday party I was invited to, to shoot it, for no reason, as long as there was a handy-cam available. I remember shooting the lavish party my brother-in-law had thrown for my sister who had just received her PhD in Chemistry. I shot that party using a handy-cam at home and I am yet to see my footage. It all started with the love for shooting, while editing came much later. My sister who had received her PhD from the National Chemical Laboratories, apart from being a scientist, is an amazing teacher. Along with raising her own kids, she helped me through my boards. Had it not been for her, I would not have ever been a graduate.
There was a time when Doordarshan had its broadcast for only a few hours in a day, I must have been very young though I remember asking my father after watching the opening credits of a film, “If the cameraman does the camera, editor does the editing and the actor acts; what does a director do?” Too weird a question to be asked to a Horticulturist, but he responded stating, “He is the captain of the ship.”
Who does not want to be ‘the captain of the ship’? Who does not want their children to be the captains of the ships? Yet we find parents looking for ‘safer’ career options for their children and they are not wrong. Our parents only want the best for us and I believe it is all subconscious, but you got to be a rebel in some way to follow your heart, and if you are passionate enough for something, you will eventually do it. Coming from a literary family had its downsides in the 80’s, beating up children was a norm especially in the Zamindar (Landlords) clans. I liked reading comics, playing cricket, swimming and painting while growing up. Yet, above all, I liked taking pictures from a camera which may not have been very accessible at that time, but that did not take the edge off my love for it. Though I did not consciously think of it at that time, everything that followed makes me believe that everything is subconsciously aligned. Yet, it requires conscious efforts to follow through. And if you are willing to take the beatings literally, emotionally and economically, things will work out just fine.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
By the time I reached Pune, it was clear to me that I would pursue the post graduate diploma in film direction from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune (FTII), which was then considered the temple of filmmaking in India. Since the eligibility for this course was a graduation in any stream, I chose to graduate in Economics as I had studied the subject earlier and had found it easy compared to the rest of the subjects in the 12th grade. Economics was not important for me, being a graduate in any stream was, to be eligible for the FTII entrance exam. I graduated with distinction and based on merit, I was awarded admission in the masters in economics program at the University of Pune. My family was delighted, they were already imagining me pursuing my PhD at the London School of Economics once I completed my masters; but there stood me, between the dreams of my family for me and my dreams for myself.
Even though I prepared for the FTII exam to the best of my ability, in my first attempt, I realized that I will never be able to crack it. There was no syllabus, anything could be asked about filmmaking in general. I still remember questions like, ‘When was the Eastmancolor introduced?’. I thought it was for nerds. In the whole question paper, there were only 20% questions pertaining to creativity and aesthetics of cinema, the rest were for bookworms who could mug up history and blurt it out whenever needed. I knew then and there that I would never be able to crack the exam. I never appeared for the FTII exam again, but I wanted to make films, especially documentary films as they capture real human beings and their natural emotions rather than something that is paid for, like fictional films. A year after my failed attempt at FTII, I learned that foreign film schools have a different way of selecting their students; they look for aptitude over bookish knowledge. In 2007, I applied for the post graduate diploma at London Film Academy (LFA) which required me to send them a video/film made by me and a script of a short film. I had no clue about making a film or writing a script. But Google, which was accessible by then, helped me a great deal, by suggesting that I download Windows Movie Maker to edit something shot on a Canon Powershot digicam borrowed from an uncle. Whatever my submissions must have amounted to, I not only got admission at LFA, but also the half-scholarship that only one student gets per intake. This reduced my tuition fee to 50% and I was excited to begin learning filmmaking in London! But the British Embassy rejected my student visa twice even though LFA carried forward my scholarship for the next intake. I had no clue at that time as to why my visa was being rejected, but over the time I learned that LFA could see a potential filmmaker in me and British Embassy was worried that a fresh passport holder with a Muslim name from South Asia could be a potential terrorist. It’s a hard reality to accept, but this is how things are in the real world.
Years later, in 2014, I visited London on a business visa and this time the British Embassy could not reject my visa because the organization I was working for had His Highness Prince Charles as its Chancellor and anyone invited by that organization is considered a guest of the royalty and rejecting such visa applications is considered a disrespect to the crown. I had no clue it was to come, but it did, because I continued in the same direction of making documentaries, no matter what.
I wasted a lot of time before realizing that I could pursue any small-time course in filmmaking in India and go to Mumbai to start working, as the ‘real learning happens on the sets’. But that was not to be true. Even though I pursued a post graduate diploma in film and television production from Noida, getting work in Mumbai was not an easy task and it is a myth that real learning happens on the set. The truth is that nobody tells you anything on the set, they are too insecure to share their skills with anyone. They are in this to pay their bills. Yes, it is true that there are people working in creative fields to pay their bills and you must make sure that you are not one of them. This is how stock clerks are spread everywhere.
What were some of the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I can attribute my inclination towards cameras and lenses that made me choose this career. Reading influenced me a lot. Going through biographies at one time used to inspire me, now they reaffirm my choice. There is one thing common in all the biographies I have ever read, they were all passionate about what they did. Though they all had to deal with setbacks, they continued. This perseverance can only come out of passion because otherwise the road is too tough for anyone to tread.
I remember living in with seven other strugglers in Mira Road in a one bedroom flat and traveling to Andheri West every day in the local train to look for work inspite of being a post graduate in film and television production, and trying to sneak in to get to the receptionist through the watchman at the main gate of big production houses on Yari Road. We seldom succeeded. Most times, we were asked to leave our resumes on the watchman’s desk at the gate and we did, only to be eating ‘chana jor garam’ in a folded resume that was similar to our own. It was dearly frustrating.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
Around the same time, I felt that even if I got the job of an assistant director that I was looking for, it would be for fictional films while I wanted to make documentary films; this feeling was a sigh of relief in the middle of a hailstorm caused by the dilemma of not being able to perform. There was no way to perform as there was no vacancy. This made me think that if I could create an opportunity for myself to make a film , it could be a window to showcase my talent and get some work. When I researched, I realized that documentary filmmaking had no market in India, but corporate filmmaking had its avenues open. I pitched an independent corporate film to a real estate association for a giveaway price and roped in my fellow classmates struggling in Mumbai to make it together. The film came out well and when it was screened at Le Meridien, I got multiple visiting cards from corporates who were interested in outsourcing similar projects. From then on, I started making corporate films.
How did you get your first break?
I was making corporate films; it was paying well. I was no longer living at Mira Road. Though the economics of life was getting better, I was craving to make documentary films and looking for ways to make them. In 2010, I learned that there was a job opening at Greenpeace, they were looking for someone to set up and run their video production department in India. Even though the salary was much less compared to what I was earning by making independent corporate films, I applied for the position even though there were many people telling me that it was a wrong decision. But it was very clear for me that if I got through this, I would be able to make documentaries and create some meaningful content. I went through the selection process at Greenpeace and was assessed by the Senior Producer at Greenpeace USA. The whole procedure lasted a few weeks and I was offered the position. This was my first break.
It was a roller coaster ride at Greenpeace from day one, from looking for a single opportunity to make a documentary, to being bombarded with requests from all over to make them! There were more than seven different campaigns running, from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to anti-nuclear and coal movements to renewable energy to saving Olive Ridley sea turtles and more, and I was the only point of contact for all video needs across India. There was a need for a system to be in place so that all video needs of the organization are met efficiently and in a timely manner. It was a great learning experience setting up protocols and procedures to streamline the video department. I worked for Greenpeace for around three years and got to create content that was published by various international news agencies like The New York Times, BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN.
Another interesting thing that happened during my tenure at Greenpeace was that within a few months of my joining, I started receiving resumes for internships which also included some of the graduates from FTII.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
In 2013, I decided to leave Greenpeace as I wanted to make an independent documentary on the Syrian conflict. I wanted to tell those stories from Syria, which were being overlooked by the mainstream media. By then I had gained enough experience to be able to single handedly make a feature length documentary film. It took me a few months to make a proposal that was submitted to the Jordanian Embassy, as my film was based on the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The Consulate General of Jordan was impressed by the research on which my proposal was based and had a few meetings with me informing me that they have sent my proposal to the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defence and if all these ministries give my proposal a go ahead, I would get the permission to shoot my film. Even though it was a self-funded project, the permission from each of the ministries was important for the Consulate in order for them to allow me to go to Jordan. The Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Interior did not take time to respond and gave their respective permissions, however, the Ministry of Defence did not respond. I waited for weeks and kept visiting the Jordanian Embassy, but to no avail. One day, the Consulate General, a tall, middle-aged man, who was always very nice to me, told me ‘unofficially’ over tea in his office that the permission from the Ministry of Defence might never come because the situation there is getting from bad to worse and since I was an independent filmmaker, not backed up by any organization like Reuters or AFP, my security could be of concern. I wanted to make this film because these were stories which were not being reported by mainstream agencies and I was not able to make it because I was not working for them. A classic case of a Catch 22 situation! So, that was the end of my first attempt to make an independent documentary film. I moved on and joined Video Volunteers as Senior Producer taking care of their video production department based in Goa wherein, I got to work with varied communities across India and the content I produced for them was featured by various national and international media agencies.
Moving on to take up the next job was a challenge. I was living and working in Goa, undoubtedly the best place to live and work in India, and that too in the field of my choice and that’s when I learned about an opening in WaterAid UK; they were looking for someone they called the “Voices from the Field” Officer. Even though WaterAid had been operational in India for over two decades, the quality of visual content coming from India was the reason for this vacancy. I learned it much later as I realized they wanted a local guy to deliver international standard visual stories about the impact of their work. My reason to apply was clear, if I got through this, I was supposed to go for training in London and that would mean that I would outlive the two UK Visa rejection stamps on my passport. I applied, and after a grueling selection process, I was offered the position, and to complete the joining process, my flight to London was booked. Bidding goodbye to Goa and going back to the insane traffic of Delhi was not an easy task, Video Volunteers did not want me to go and offered a raise in my salary, but as always, it was a career move, it was not about salary.
I found myself having coffee at WaterAid Headquarters in Central London. In the three weeks that I spent in the UK office, I saw how effective the meetings were as compared to what we have here in India. People know what they have to do and they deliver it. I could realize the difference between how an Indian office of the same organization works wherein days are spent in meetings as people rephrase and reinstate what is already being said whereas in the UK, a meeting that would take a day or more in India was over within ten minutes. It has been my greatest learning from that trip, I have always excused myself from meetings that go on and on for no reason so that I could work on something tangible, like a video or a documentary. I used to excuse myself from meaningless meetings while working for Greenpeace as well, this was just an reaffirmation. I realized that people who take up jobs or careers they do not like, tend to spend their office time in meetings as they do not have to do any real work and are being paid for the day. This happens all the time in India. And as I returned to New Delhi, I faced the same problem. Great promises were made by the Indian office to the head office, but when they sent their representative to complete the task and bring stories of success, things were not as good on the field as they seemed.
I was first resented by the local staff who tried to lure me by telling me how lucky I was to be working for the UK office, living in India and receiving my salary in Pound Sterling. I had two choices; stick to a well-paying job and be a party to what was happening or call out the sham. I chose the latter not only because it gave me freedom but also because it made sure that henceforth I would only work with those who meant business and not with those who made excuses to be paid every day for sitting in never-ending meetings.
I left WaterAid UK within six months of joining them. I went freelance.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role as freelancer
I have been working as a freelancer since 2015 and these have been the best years of my life so far. The fact that I shoot, edit, record and design sound all by myself gives me an unmatchable advantage over my competitors which are production houses who come with a crew. I deliver impeccable content at 1/10th of the assumed cost and that is what keeps me afloat in the market. Strange that someone who never cared about money is talking about money in the same interview. The thing is that we are all learning and this is how it works. What I have learnt is that if you follow your passion, money becomes a byproduct and if you make career choices based on money or status, you get Monday Blues. Mark Twain was right when he said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” While it may have passed off as a random comment, one should give it a serious thought, “why am I am able to shoot, edit, record and design sound all by myself ”? There is usually a cameraperson who has no clue about the editing software or recording device, and the same is true for the editor and the sound recordist. It is true that these skills are in demand right now, but when I started, they were not. The roles were clearly divided and people were comfortable within them. I learned it all and kept refining my craft because I wanted to create my own films single-handedly. It paid then and it is paying now. This ‘pay’ is more of a creative satisfaction than the monetary earnings. I am not making mountains of cash; my lifestyle is as minimalistic as one can imagine. But remember how difficult it was for me to leave my job in Goa; the place where people want to retire, come for vacations and wish that they could work here. Yet I did it because it was a career move. I did not know what was coming next and I still do not know, but I now live in Goa working as a freelancer. I also found the love of my life while all this was happening. Saumya and I met shooting shit literally. She was working as a freelance producer and researcher with WaterAid UK when I was on their payroll. We met during the production of “Across the Tracks”, a film by WaterAid on open defecation and as we crossed tracks, we found each other complementing our capabilities. Today, we are our own boss, we don’t work; we just do what we love!
How does your work benefit society?
I have always believed that visual media has the capability of bringing about a change in the lives of people across the globe. Documentaries tell the truth and most of the time it is harsh. The work I have done so far has been instrumental in raising public awareness and advocacy. I believe that even if my work touches one person, inspires a single soul, it is all worth it.
Choices and passion are subjective things, what I love doing could be really boring for someone else.
Instead of getting inspired, strive to be the one others get inspired from. Introspect, trust your gut and always follow your heart.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
‘Gangnauli: Life in Chocked Desolation’ was my second independent project after the Ministry of Defence in Jordan rejected the first one. I made this film in 2016 after I came across an article in a newspaper; people were suffering because of contaminated water just a few miles away from the capital city of India. Apart from being selected at an international film festival, it did no good to the people there. But in 2020, an international agency approached me to make an updated version of the film. I did it, and I made some more money out of it whereas I had initially thought that, with my film, things will change for the people there. It did not and I still wonder if I used their plight for my benefit? That is what documentary filmmaking is, it leaves you with more questions than answers.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Eventually, everyone has to work for a living. Nobody wants to grow up and be a stock clerk though you will find a lot of stock clerks around you. This happens because, as stated earlier, everyone has to work for a living. In a country like ours, it is common to have goals of becoming an engineer or doctor. But these goals are not the goals of the person concerned, but that of the society around him. It is simple for our society to expect one to become a doctor/engineer, get married, have kids and live on. The fact is that many of these doctors and engineers complain about ‘Monday Blues’. This happens because everyone has to work for a living. So why not work on something that you love and make it your career. Everything pays money, be it cutting the grass or climbing mountains. It is important to have a clear goal as to what you want to do and why, because your work is going to fill a large part of your life. Without a clear goal the society will turn you into a stock clerk as J.C. Penny rightly said, “Give me a stock clerk with a goal, and I will give you a man who will make history. Give me a man without a goal, and I will give you a stock clerk.” There is no difference between the life of a stock clerk and those who are coerced into becoming engineers or doctors, they live to pay their bills. On the other hand, if you turn your passion into your profession, you will look forward to each day. The ‘Monday Blues’ are for the people who did not follow their passion and I am amazed at how openly they claim it these days on social media. If you have to be brave, be brave now, be brave for yourself and not for society.
Be brave, be bold. Love what you do and the rest will follow.
Do I need any? I am living in Goa now, working in my own field and also on my own terms as a freelancer. It is simple for me to settle here, but I do not think I will. Because, as the age old adage conveys, ‘I did not come this far to stay this far’. I am trying to find better pastures. Any guesses on where I would go next and why?
For those interested in Filmmaking, I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org