I Want to listen, explore and co construct narratives that shape the world - Harleen Singh
After lot of patience we were finally able to get the interview of Harleen Kaur, who left a successful corporate career in marketing to follow her passion of making documentary movies. And yes, she aspires to win an Oscar some day!
1- What is the meaning of your name "Harleen"?
Harleen means “Absorbed in God’s Name”. It’s composed of two parts - “Har” means god/ waheguru and “leen” which means absorbed.
2. You were working in the branding team initially with Colgate Palmolive and then with Bolthouse Farms. Why and how did you transition your career towards films and how did you start your venture - Kaur Films?
Early in my career, I worked with The History Channel and National Geographic Channel. I always loved documentaries, but working there, my appreciation reached a new height. The insights that I gained there have stayed with me and it is here the bug to make films bit me.
When I went to the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad I was the founding president of the Media Club and organized events featuring the top media voices of the time including Arnab Goswami and Prahalad Kakkar. At Colgate I was the brand custodian for a few brands. I was specifically involved with the biggest launch of Colgate Total at the time and managed Multi cultural marketing. So I have always been involved with media.
At Bolthouse Farms I managed all marketing for their juices, dressings and carrots. I established a product placement partnership with the hit movie Hop, by Universal Pictures. While the role was great and I loved it, my inner calling was always documentaries and media. After careful consideration I left a well paying corporate job and started afresh. My husband encouraged me to follow my heart and it was films and media that attracted me and hence I jumped right into it and started Kaur Films.
3. Tell us about the movie "The Odd Couple: A Story of Two Triathletes"? What inspired you to make this movie and how was the response after its release?
Most of us have dreams but very few of us pursue those dreams and get past our challenges. I wanted to showcase how in pursuit of dreams, it is possible to overcome tough situations and challenges. This was the inspiration behind The Odd Couple: A Story of Two Triathletes. The films talks about the physical and mental challenges endured by two triathletes.
And brings to light Jeff and Parvin’s inspiring friendship and their positive attitude to achieve their dream of being a triathlete despite their daily struggles. Contrasting their challenges, the documentary honestly explores the similarities in their motivation. The film transcends cultural and demographic barriers and has a universal appeal in how we all can all overcome our own challenges.
The film resonated with the audience. It was screened at 10 film festivals globally and gets a lot of plays in Germany. It was specially chosen to be part of Parliament of World Religions and also the United Nations Association Film Festival. Even today, two years after the release, I get emails from people across the globe where they share their stories and how they got inspired by the film. That is really gratifying.
4. How do you go about finalizing which movie you want to direct as you must be having hundreds of different scripts/ideas? What is your selection process?
There are two things that help me in choosing an intriguing subject for documentary. First the topic needs to interest and connect with me, because if I have a personal connection with it then I can drive it, push myself to give it my all and eventually complete it. It takes about 2- 3 years at a minimum to complete a documentary, if I am not 100% confident it will be difficult to keep the momentum going. Second, it is equally important to take up a topic that the audience will also enjoy and connect with. More than anything else, I aspire to tell stories that inspire and make the audience think critically. My goal is to use my bilingual, bicultural, and binational status, to listen, explore and co construct narratives that shape the world.
5. The movie Drawn Together: Comics, Diversity and Stereotypes is your attempt to break stereotypes? What are the main messages which you want to convey to the audience via this movie?
Drawn Together: Comics, Diversity and Stereotypes have shaped into an extremely interesting and unconventional film. It looks at the pervasive culture of racist stereotyping in society through the lens of comics and their dynamic creators. Here is a link to the trailer of the film which will give you a glimpse - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i80YhJs4S4k. For more information go to www.kaurfilms.com
With a lively backdrop of superheroes, comic books, and animated comics, the film brings together three talented artists—a Sikh, a woman, and an African American—who are challenging the racist stereotyping currently endemic in America through their work. Behind the scenes, my production team for the film was very diverse as well. You can perhaps sense it the most in the background score and the theme music.
The goal of the film is to explore the subjects of race, gender, and religion stereotyping through the universally popular medium of comic books and cartoons. Through the film, we try to encourage viewers to unlearn stereotyping, look beyond the obvious, and confront media prejudices—all through an uncommon and inherently engaging everyday source.
6. You have been both the Producer and the Director of your movies. What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced while making your films?
Challenges are part of every profession and documentary film making is no different. The kind and scope of challenge differs at every stage of film making. As a director, I am essentially the CEO of the film and all decisions stop at me. It really starts with assembling a great team that buys into the vision and says yes to the idea. For me personally it was difficult to shoot on certain days as I had a toddler at home and I was 7 months pregnant with my second child. Jeff Gary did a remarkable job of bearing with me and also being the most efficient cinematographer I have worked with.
The film really comes to life at the editor’s desk and in the post production process. So it is important to find creative people like Tal Skloot who will challenge you to think about every frame in the film. You have to also worry about the music and the subconscious stream of thoughts that it enables in a movie. Ryan Spratt did a remarkable job of bringing out the emotions with the visual cues. Ironically, when the music works, viewers don’t care about it - they are subconsciously feeling the emotions, but when it is missing, they really feel disconnected. But all through, one of the biggest hurdles was finding funding for the film. We did run a successful Kickstarter campaign, but as our scope increased, I had to keep chipping in with my savings.
These challenges have taught me a lot of things - from technical aspects of film making to what kind of stories do I want to tell. In many ways I am much stronger as a person and much more self aware.
7. What does women empowerment mean to you?
Empowerment to me is a process. It is really a shift in the mindset from thinking “I can’t do” to “I can do” and “I will do”. It is not one aspect, though. It includes economic empowerment, socio-political empowerment, education and access to resources. As women, it is necessary for all of us to encourage and support other women, share our learning and help make that shift in mindset possible.
8. If you had a super-heroic power to do one thing to improve life of women globally, what would that be?
To me, education is the key to improving lives, reduce poverty and empowering women. Education provides transferrable knowledge, skills, access and confidence. Education allows anyone to improve their own lives and of those around them. I believe it’s not super powers that can make this a reality, but determination by each one of us to help other women that can make this happen.
9. What would be your advice to aspirants who want to direct movies?
You need self-reliance, conviction, and dynamo to make a movie. I truly believe in what Quentin Tarantino once said. "If you truly love cinema, with all your heart, and with enough passion, you can't help but make a good movie”. So go ahead, follow your heart and give it your best shot and everything will fall into place.
10. Some fun trivia questions for you:
a. Your favorite Bollywood movie: Sholay and Andaz Apna Apna (Classic Bollywood)
b. Your favorite Bollywood director: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
c. Your favorite Bollywood actor: Aamir and off late Raj Kumar Rao
d. Your favorite book: Recently I started reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariley
e. Three unchecked items from your bucket list:
Winning an Oscar
Traveling to Antarctica
Sending my parents on a world tour