Three Questions with Cyrus Sundar Singh

Posted: July 20, 2011 - 13:35 , by ROM

Popular imagery of India is often full of bright colours that create vibrant landscapes. Taking a closer look it becomes clear that not only are India’s many forms of street art a huge source of these aesthetics, but also that they are changing. Canadian filmmaker Cyrus Sundar Singh, enchanted with the hand-painted billboards apparent on the Indian streetscape since he was a child, has made a documentary looking at where these billboards come from and what is happening to them. His documentary film Painted Nation is being screened for free at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto on Thursday July 21 at 7pm, followed by a Q&A with Cyrus and the producer of the film, Vanessa Laufer. In the lead up to the screening, we got him to answer a few questions of our own.

You are not only a filmmaker, but have also been a musician, and your documentary Painted Nation shows a clear passion for visual art. What connects your involvement in these different art forms?

Music, dance and art are all connected and are contributing parts of the whole on the larger canvas of Visual storytelling (filmmaking).  I always ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the music that I compose and perform. For me they have always been connected. 

Here’s the short version of my path to making films…

After many years as a guitarist and song writer touring in bands, producing and recording, I had just released my seminal solo CD titled Sun to Star—independently produced and nationally distributed with a MuchMusic Video Debut!  The key here is independent. Everything was being paid for out of personal resources. Personal savings, family, friends, donations, etc. By the end of that year, as I was still on tour with a radio-single about to chart, I ran out of money and depleted all my resources. Having scored music for several award-winning short films and in an attempt to find work, I decided to put together a “composer’s screening,” inviting Producers, Directors and Filmmakers in hope of getting hired for their projects. 

While I was collecting names for the invitations, I was on the phone with Karen King—a producer at the National Film Board (NFB) who offered to share her rolodex (old school contact list).  And while chatting, I told her a story about a Super-8 film I had made as a 7th grade student as part of an after-school “film club”. Abruptly, her voice on the other end went dead for some time and moments later (felt like hours) Karen came back on the line and said, “Tell me more.”  She encouraged me to apply with my ‘story’ to an upcoming national competition seeking new filmmakers at the NFB.  Two years later, my directorial debut “Film Club,” produced by Karen King for the NFB, won the prestigious Gemini Award. My first!

By the way, both the “composer’s screening” and the ”Film Club” premiere were held at the ROM Theatre.

The billboard art in Painted Nation is beautiful in its own right, but what do you think is its larger significance in India’s urban landscape?

As a child in India I was mesmerized by the remarkable hand painted trucks which rattled down my street, bulging with goods on their way to market. I loved to imagine that I was the driver. Garishly decorated, and lovingly adorned with gods and goddesses, these mobile canvasses were only one example of “street art” in the hand-painted landscape that surrounded me. One-of-a-kind billboards, posters and signs jostled to sell me the latest Bollywood movie, the whitest toothpaste and the most aggressive political slogans.  I was constantly struck by the array of colours, the brushstrokes, the calligraphy and the sheer intensity of the artwork. But it wasn’t until I moved away to Canada that I realized just how distinctive this commercial art form was and that some of its creators were great masters – Asian Andy Warhols, if you will— displaying their works to millions in the gallery known as the streets. 

For almost a century, the Indian urban landscape has been populated by these billboards. However, with a middle class larger than the entire population of the United States this landscape is changing by the hour! “Hand-painted” billboards selling locally available products have been replaced by “computer-printed” vinyl signs selling cars, fast-food and mobile phones with apps directly linking people to their Gods.  Although change is inevitable, the constant thread in the content of these billboards is that they have always reflected current values, goods, and fashion

What do you think documentaries should seek to accomplish?

Documentaries are wonderful story-telling palettes and the success of a great story is in the telling. The audience is transported away through compelling circumstances, challenging ideas, entertaining visuals and brought back a little bemused, bewildered and a little wiser.