The first time you speak to Anshul Sinha, you feel like he’s just an average boy-next-door. He loves to play cricket, has had a middle-class upbringing and likes to live within his means. His father works in a bank, mother is a Hindi professor and elder brother runs a fast-food joint. What’s unusual about this […]

The first time you speak to Anshul Sinha, you feel like he’s just an average boy-next-door. He loves to play cricket, has had a middle-class upbringing and likes to live within his means. His father works in a bank, mother is a Hindi professor and elder brother runs a fast-food joint.

What’s unusual about this boy-next-door, however, is that he cares a tad too much about the issues we care less about, things we read in the newspapers, television channels — every day.

Farmer suicides, organ donation, biomedical waste — name it and Anshul’s made a film on it. That’s his attempt at trying to make us aware and shake us from our comfort zones.

Did it make any difference? You and I may ask.The answer is a yes and a no. Well, to shoot some of these films, Anshul put his life at risk — he even received threat calls…

Then of course, there were films that were not well-received in India, but went on to bag critical acclaim at international film festivals. In fact, one of his films Gateway to Heaven will be opening the International Festival of Local Television to be held in Slovakia commencing June 15, 2016.

When no one was willing to produce his films, he put in all his hard earned money to finance and release his work in the public domain.

Anshul’s story is spun by desperation, anger and criticism, dotted by brief moments of success and heartfelt appreciation.

Here, he takes us on a journey through those fascinating moments… read on.

Cricket: Love and heartbreak

“I had always wanted to do something for my country. I loved cricket so I thought I’ll get trained and play for my country. I played cricket at the state level for the Under 16 team and received training under Ajit Tendulkar.”

After class 10, Anshul’s family moved to Hyderabad from Mumbai where he played in the Under 19 team at the district level.

“Unfortunately, due to politics (certain bias), I wasn’t selected in the national team and my family advised me to get serious about my life and career,” he says.

Heartbroken, Sinha enrolled for MBA in Bharti Vidyabhavan in Hyderabad. There too, the idea of serving the country was so strong that in the year 2010, he came up with a plan.

“I realised that there are so many underprivileged people in my city. I wanted to do something for them. So I initiated this campaign where I would ask people in my college to donate Rs 1 per person. At the end of the month, the money collected would be donated for some social cause.”

During his first trip to a blind school in Malarpet, he spoke to the principal of the school and shot his interview on his mobile camera (a Nokia 1100 touch screen model).

“Since we had collected the money from so many people, I felt it was important for everyone to see how their money is being spent and changing lives.”

In his interview, the principal of the blind school mentioned that the school did not have computers.

“The computers for the blind were costlier than the normal ones as they had special keyboards. I realised that it wouldn’t be easy if I stuck to collecting Rs 1.”

Anshul showcased the film at In Focus, an intercollegiate film festival held at Loyola Academy.

After watching the seven-minute video, an NGO came forward and donated 12 computers to the school.

Next, he visited an old age home in Secunderabad and interviewed an old man who was abandoned by his son. “The eight minute documentary was so powerful that a few weeks later, the son took his father home.”

One of his films featured an orphanage where he profiled a girl who was kidnapped and rescued. “The man who had rescued her wanted to put her in a good school, but did not have the money for it. After watching the film, a local newspaper published the story and a local businessman who read the story came forward and donated Rs 26,000 for her education.”

His desire to help took him to a deaf and dumb school that had no access to electricity. He ran an eight-minute documentary film featuring their problems. A month later, the State Bank of India got them access to electricity and installed fans and computers.

Halfway through the conversation, I interrupted Anshul and asked him, ‘Why do you keep referring yourself as ‘we’. Did you shoot these films with a crew?’

He said, “No, I shot them on my own. But I like to use ‘we’ because I feel it’s a collective effort — in thoughts, prayers and actions — and I don’t want to take the entire credit. Each month, I remember asking my classmates to vote for the cause they wanted to support. I never wanted it to be about me. Whenever I use the word ‘we’ I feel inner strength; that I am not alone (in this).”

In 2011, Anshul made a comprehensive documentary chronicling the lives of the poor in Hyderabad. The documentary — Remove Poverty from India — suggested the idea that if each one of us decided to (in our own little way) uplift the people in our towns and cities, we could collectively remove poverty from the country.

But it wasn’t as easy as some of you might think.

“I visited at least 10 well-known colleges in Hyderabad and requested the principal if I could showcase my documentary to the students. Most of them misunderstood that maybe I was asking for donation through the film. Without even watching the film, some of them wrote me off saying ‘chanda maangne aaya hai.’ It was disappointing because it wasn’t about the money. I wanted to reach out to the young crowd and get the message across and I wasn’t being able to.”

“Meanwhile, I continued making short films. After 14 films, I grew confident. My parents had always supported me. I started looking for film festivals and registered for them. My 11 minute film Remove Poverty won 12 awards at different college festivals.”

His film Lapet — featuring the story of four kids from different religions running after a kite — won him 25 awards and got screened in Los Angeles, USA in December 2012.

Getting threat calls

During this time, he also took up the job of a programme co-ordinator with Hyderabad Media Pvt where he was required to make documentaries that would be telecast on television.

“I made quite a few documentaries with them; the most important being the one on biomedical waste. I researched for two months and shot videos of people dumping hospital waste and dead bodies in the drain.

“I did six to seven sting operations to expose the people behind it. The movie Unseen Disaster was uploaded to the video library but I wasn’t able to find a producer to sponsor it.

“For me, it was more important that the video be telecast so that people are aware of the crime, I even approached the health minister of Andhra Pradesh at that time (T Rajaiah) but nothing came of it initially. I started getting threat calls from the local goons asking me to stop shooting such films and to destroy what I had gathered, but I was adamant.”

“I sent it to film festivals in Mumbai, Vijayawada…it was the official selection at Flexiff International held in Sydney, Australia. Back home, an enquiry commission was set up and some of the local ministers and doctors involved in the crime were asked to resign.”

Anshul now no longer wanted to make films that will become ‘library content’ (stored unused as research data). That, he says, would have “killed the filmmaker inside (me)” who “wanted to make films that will change and benefit society.”

So, in January 2013, he put in his papers and started research on his next topic.

He shot The Road of Spero — the story of Vijay Reddy, an MNC employee who had quit his job and was teaching rural kids.

“I went around the village and spoke to several families where young boys had committed suicide because they could not speak English and could not find a job. I could not believe it at first, but that was the hard truth.”

“When I could not find a producer for The Road of Spero, I self financed it and took the film to Darbhanga International film festival in Bihar.”

Now Vijay Reddy is an ambassador of education and works under the Telangana government where he counsels rural kids.

So passionate was his love for socially driven films, he did not realise that his next film Gateway to Heaven would put him and his family in the centre of turmoil.

For the film, he profiled Rajeshwar Rao, a man who had performed the last rites of at least 12,000 orphaned dead bodies across 20 years of his career.

“During my research, I realised that Rao was also the only man in Hyderabad who was single-handedly fighting the organ donor mafia. It was a story waiting to be heard and one that affects the nation.”

To fund his filming and research expenses, Anshul took up a night job at HSBC.

“I would shoot during the day and at night, I’d go to work. I did 17 sting operations almost often putting my life at risk trying to film the people behind the organ donation scam.”

It took him a year and half to finish the film that was 1 hour 10 minutes long. It had cost him Rs 3 lakh. But Anshul could not find a single producer who would finance the film and release it in a theatre.

“They told me no one will pay money to watch dead bodies on the screen.”

Add to this the random threat calls he received from people. “They’d even call up my parents and threaten them. My mother once replied, ‘Jo karna hai kar lo, maar bhi doge to uske maa hone ka garv hoga.’ (Do what you can. Even if he were to be killed, I’ll be proud to be his mother.) Rajeshwar Rao, Anshul says, was offered Rs 2 crore for keeping his mouth shut, which, he obviously refused.

Meanwhile Anshul’s performance at HSBC dropped because he wasn’t able to cope up with the pressure of work alongside his struggle to release the film. He quit the job so he could focus on the film.

“I remember calling up Just Dial and asking them to share numbers of the top studios in India. I even travelled to Mumbai and approached Red Chillies, Yash Raj….some of them did not even let me enter the office, forget meet the concerned people or have a discussion.

“Even leading news channels like CNN-IBN weren’t willing to consider the film. They told me ministers and big names were involved and they could not telecast it.

“I wrote letters to the Prime Minister’s Office but nothing had come off it yet. It was disappointing, I almost went into depression; but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I took it as a challenge.”

In December 2015, Anshul booked a theatre in Hyderabad, self-marketed and released the film.

“There were five shows in a day, but I did not make any profit,” he says. And it did not matter as long as he had the audience. I told the youngsters that if they wanted me to show the film to their friends, they could call me anytime. If they could gather a crowd of 20, I said I will come with my projector and do it.”

In Feb 2016, he received a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt of India stating his “RTI application is being forwarded to the division for taking necessary action.” (Click here to see the letter)

Anshul did 45 road shows across India and raised Rs 1 lakh for the Satya Harishchandra Foundation (an NGO that cares for unidentified, unclaimed bodies). On his return, he joined an ad film company in Hyderabad, where he is currently employed.

“I took up the job because I was in need of money. Unlike making independent films, there is no creative freedom here. We are merely following the clients’ briefs.”

The cause of farmer suicides

His latest film — a 60 minute video on farmer suicides — has given him a newfound purpose in life.

“During my research, we came to know that in India, every few minutes, a farmer commits suicide in India. In my interactions with families of farmers, we realised that some of them killed themselves because they could not repay a loan of a few thousand rupees.

“In the village we visited in Hyderabad, the maximum loan this farmer owed was Rs 25,000 and he took his life because he could not find a way to repay it. I did not want to be among the ones who could feel bad about it at one minute and go back to sleep the next. We felt responsible and wanted to do more than just donate money.”

In his research, he’s also found that majority of farmers committed suicides in the months of May and September.

Anshul is in talks with agriculture scientists and local government officials to find permanent solutions.

“I have shown the film to several officials. I want to organise a QnA session where agriculture scientists and local officials will listen to the problems of farmers and come up with a positive solution, rather than donating money or simply waiving off their debts.”

Responsibility as a filmmaker

“India makes 1000 films every year. We have one of the largest film industries in the world, some of the best talents and brains too. While it is okay to make films on superheroes, romance and action, if each filmmaker decided to highlight a social issue through their films, it will go a long way in changing mindsets and make each one of us more responsible,” he says.

What inspires him to keep going?

“If we had not shot the first film, those blind kids wouldn’t have got computers… the old man wouldn’t have reunited with his son… someone had to do it. If your intent is good, you will find a way out. You have to keep going, keep trying,” he sums up.

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