OTHER people’s stories matter, and collectively, these stories can tell us more than we think we know about who we are and where we have come from.
At least that’s what Manesh Nesaratnam has come to understand.
Little wonder, for the 29-year-old creative director of Malaysian production house Sunny Stories often finds himself at the receiving end of other people’s stories: renegade mobsters converted by the discovery of love, corporate high-flyers getting their hands dirty as undercover saviors of sex-slave victims, silent and courageous subverters of the unjust.
And so he embarked on Your Grandfather’s Road (YGR) early this year, an innovative project inviting audiences to become participants in the filmmaking process from start to finish.
Starting in mid-January, several contributing writers began posting entries online, sharing stories, anecdotes and experiences.
A related question was then posed after each entry calling on the public to respond, giving Nesaratnam and his fellow producers Amy Lim and Roshan Ravi a chance to interact with readers’ comments or stories.
The most suitable ideas were then honed and woven into a full feature-length screenplay.
“We began sifting through the stories with the writers early March but only finished writing the script at the end of April, regularly returning to the website to check in for inspiration,” Nesaratnam said.
“So the public had about two months or so to collaborate about the script.”
Now, the public has the opportunity to suggest locations for shoots; compose music they think would be suitable for the movie; recommend people they feel would befit characters in the movie; or apply to be an actor, extra, set photographer, wardrobe assistant, cable wrangler, driver… and the list goes on.
“Oi, you think this is your grandfather’s road, ah?!”
For the uninitiated, “your grandfather’s road” is a Malaysian colloquial phrase yelled indignantly at those who hog the road as if they owned the rights to the land.
And the film’s title was chosen as a tongue-in-cheek way of appealing to a Malaysian’s sense of ownership, Nesaratnam said.
He is a firm believer in the power of shared stories.
“Your Grandfather’s Road, above all things… is a celebration of our country as people know it,” he said.
“We’ve got all these interesting characters and all these interesting stories out there, but I think they are all hidden… A lot of these stories are so big they are beyond the capacity of one writer to bring to the screen.”
It’s easy to brush past people without giving them a second thought, Nesaratnam said.
“There is so much prejudice that exists – we immediately put people in a box.
“We’re so quick to judge snatch-thieves. Is it as simple as that? Why do they do what they do?
“Maybe [people’s] perspective would change if they only looked deeper,” he said.
The Malaysian film industry
After graduating in 2005 with a degree in visual culture at Monash University, Nesaratnam began writing for television and dabbled in directing before setting up Sunny Stories.
Local expectations are low, Nesaratnman said, reflecting on Malaysia’s film industry with a twinge of frustration.
“They [watch a Malaysian film and] say, “Oh, it’s good – for a Malaysian.”
But he acknowledges on the opposite side of the same coin lay the industry’s potential for growth.
And so, he has chosen to aim high.
“Everybody makes a positive impact, you know. You push the industry forward two inches forward, two inches forward,” he said.
“We have to tell them that we can do better. They actually want to believe it, and you have to help them believe it.”
He remembers a friend’s words well.
“She told me, ‘Manesh, when you watch a Zhang Yimou film, you will learn more about China in those two hours than you will learn reading an entire volume of textbooks.
“And it was completely true,” he said.
“We’re doing this project because we’re yearning for the day we can walk into a Malaysian cinema and say the same thing about a Malaysian movie.”
The YGR team is now raising funds to produce the film. Your Grandfather’s Road is expected to be released in the first half of 2011.
Visit www.yourgrandfathersroad.com for more information about the project.
Nesaratnam will be in Melbourne for the screening of his short film The Invigilator at the Australian Malaysian Film Festival on October 3. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with Nesaratnam and other Malaysian filmmakers.