Omung Kumar is a national award winning filmmaker who earned much critical acclaim with his directorial debut Mary Kom in 2014. Kumar was an art director before he switched to filmmaking and is currently working on the biopic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He speaks to Guardian 20 about his interest in biopics and his journey in the entertainment industry.
Q. Your first film as a director was Mary Kom, which was a huge success. How did that idea come to you?
A. While working as an art director, I began writing two scripts simultaneously for my directorial debut, none of which were made. After my discussion with writer Saiwyn Quadras about wanting to make my first film on a woman subject, I was introduced to the story of the five-time world boxing champion Mary Kom, who, despite her numerous achievements, was not a known name in India at that time. On hearing the script for Mary Kom, I immediately decided to make my directorial debut with a film based on her life and struggles. My team and I carried out an extensive research through available sources, such as online information, newspaper archives and Kom’s videos which played a key role in the research.
I wanted to bring this sports icon’s story alive on the screen. I wanted the nation to know about the boxer Mary Kom who has won so many awards and accolades for our country in boxing. Her story is an inspiration for everyone. Being a mother and a sportswoman, she managed her family alongside sports. And I felt the urge to give back to society by telling a story through the medium of cinema which inspired me personally and also inspired the nation after they watched it.
Q. As a director,how do you approach any subject for a film?
A. There is no specific style as such. If there is a story or concept or an idea that really fascinates me, I would start thinking about how I can make that into a film. If there is a story from real life, of a real character that intrigues me, I just go for it. Later, I put that element in a different context, whether sports, human relationships, family or anything else.
Q. Your first two films—Mary Komand Sarbjit—were biopics. What is it about the genre that interests you the most?
A.When I decided to make my directorial debut with Mary Kom, biopics were not as popular in India as they are today. There were biopics, but very few. Biopics attract the common man. They are relatable, and people see themselves in such films. The struggles of a real-life person interest others. When I initially set out to make a film, there were issues with the story, the actors and what not. It was then that I came across the story of Mary Kom. She was a five-time world champion, but not many knew that. Fortunately, the Olympics also happened around the same time, and she came back into the limelight. My second film was, again, not planned as a biopic. I was thinking of going back to the story I had initially planned to do, but Sarbjit (2016) fell in my lap. I saw Dalbir Kaur’s [Sarabjit’s sister] videos on YouTube and was convinced that this was a story worth telling. The film’s script was floating around for almost two years. The film was to be made while Sarabjit was still alive, but it didn’t work out. I was blown away by Dalbir Kaur’s videos and decided to do my own script for the biopic. There are so many unsaid stories that people want to tell. Abroad, this has been going on for decades. Films on real incidents and true stories as well as biopics have been made there. It is a newer phenomenon here and there is a flood of such projects in the industry now because everyone wants to be a part of it. Everybody wants to tell a story. It is not going to die anytime soon because this is a new avenue of telling stories. When you get new avenues, then even actors are willing to try something different. They want to do realistic acting which you find in biopics.
Q. Would you like to experiment with other genres in the future, maybe some light-hearted comedy or romance?
A. Yes, definitely. I would like to try my hand at experimenting with different genres. The stories which are unheard and unusual appeal to me more. Stories which have the element of “zero to hero” are my favourite. As a writer, when I look for a story, such things interest me.
Q. How did your experience as an art director help you in filmmaking? How did the shift happen in the first place?
A. In a film, it is an art director’s role to truly give life to a world, which a director is visualising. So as an art director, my imagination is my toolkit. I work with my imagination to make and create a unique world, which makes my story better. The art director has the potential to create, destroy and change the world one lives in. From being an art director to a filmmaker, it’s been a long journey for me. I had a happy childhood and since then I was always involved in the creative space. My parents always motivated me. They themselves were associated with the Film and Television Institute Of India (FTII). As writing had been my interest, I started writing scripts. Along with writer Saiwyn Quadras, it took us two years to complete the script for Mary Kom. And it was after watching Dalbir Kaur’s videos, which were heartrending, that I was inspired to make Sarbjit.
Q. The portrayal of women characters is changing in Bollywood. What are your views on this?
A. Women were always powerful in any line of work. Though in films, women-oriented roles were not experimented with, as it was assumed that such roles won’t get much business. But yes, Mary Kom and other films that year redefined it all. There would be many more from now on because there are too many stories to be told, and women don’t need men to tell their stories.
Q. You have been an art designer and now a filmmaker. Which role excites you more?
A. Whatever I’m doing currently excites me. When I was hosting, that was my life as I got to connect with people on a one-on-one basis. When I became an art director, it gave me a creative high. As a director, I do both the things at the same time; that is, applying the expertise of my acting and exercising creativity when I’m doing all my film sets.I combine and put everything into direction, telling different stories and connecting people. This is what I live for.
Q. What is more appealing to you—box-office success or positive response from the critics?
A. It has to be both. How can only box-office success give you a high, if you make a bad film? I have to have both.
Q. Many mainstream directors are experimenting with the digital space. Are you open to such a venture?
A. Yes, I would be experimenting with the digital space, but it will be something big.
Q. What’s next in the pipeline for you?
A. I am currently working on a sports drama film called Yubi Lakpi. I’ve been writing this film for the past two years. It’s on rugby, a game that has its origin in Manipur, where it was played with a coconut for centuries.