May 29, 2019
Alumni Spotlight: Cinematographer/Director Tanmay Chowdhary ‘18
By Andrea Ngeleka
Immigrating to the United States, especially if you’re a person of color, comes with certain expectations. Not only do you have to work twice as hard, but you also have to bridge together two cultures that value and define education, work, and success very differently. For MFA Film and TV Production Alumni Tanmay Chowdhary ‘18, this is a feat he is accomplishing from behind the camera. His journey from India to USC was driven by one thing: his passion for photography.
Chowdhary’s accomplishments are myriad. He was a recipient of the Edward Thomas Troutner Endowed Fund for accomplishment in Cinematography at USC. His thesis film A Craftsman (screenshot below) was accepted into over 15 international film festivals and was nominated for Best Cinematography in the student category at Camerimage in Poland, the world’s eminent cinematography festival. For the same film, he was awarded for Outstanding Cinematography at both First Look Film Festival and Tide Film Festival. Color of November, a film that he shot and directed had its world premiere at the 47th Festival du Nouveau Cinema and then its European premiere at the 31st Filmfest Dresden. Despite the accomplishments Chowdhary’s eye for the film frame and steady hand have accrued, cinematography was not his first calling. He never planned on passion, instead, he was devoted to the life laid out for him.
"I come from a a traditional conservative family in India. For the past three generations, everyone’s just been involved in the family business. I was the oldest son in this generation and I came to America to study Business,” said Chowdhary. “The plan was that I would go back and I would help run the family business.”
However, even with this seemingly established path already set in motion, Chowdhary cultivated his affinity for photography. With access to his father’s camera collection, he started taking pictures at a young age and as he grew older began working as a photojournalist for local magazines while an undergrad, at the University of Illinois. “As I made the move to America for my undergrad studies, I realized that photographing my surroundings was way more fulfilling than attending business classes. So, I began focusing on photography more and obviously, my grades suffered,” said Chowdhary.
This didn’t stop him from experimenting with video and learning how to shoot moving images as the technology became increasingly available to him.
“I’ve always loved movies but it never occurred to me that I could make one. The first time I opened iMovie and like tried to edit something it sort started to make sense. I was like oh, this is how they make movies. That got me really excited because I thought I could do this,” he said. “But then I graduated with a business degree and had to reorient myself back to the original path of pursuing a corporate career.”
After returning to India, he started working for a company in Bombay but was deeply dissatisfied. He was realizing that going to an office every day was not for him, he felt he was not doing what he honestly wanted to do. But of course, with the pressure as the eldest of the family, the first to be sent to study in America, he couldn’t simply tell them he wanted to abandon everything and pursue film. However, an opportunity from a former classmate to shoot a show in Bali pushed him to tell his family about what he was actually passionate about.
“When I told my dad he was extremely supportive. I was honestly surprised because I always thought that he wanted me to take on the business, and I’m sure that a small part of him still has that dream.
But he really understood where I was coming from. And that was a moment that really helped me make a decision,” he said. His decision: start a real film career. It began with shooting every day, honing his skills with a camera, learning to use an art form for self-expression, building a portfolio to apply to film school.
"I just kept thinking: if I can make it back to America I can do this. But then I went to my ancestor’s town where my great grandfather left to start a business. I had almost no money, I was staying at places that cost like less than a dollar a day and I was just shooting every single day. Just meeting interesting people and trying to really get in touch with my roots,” he said. “And that’s when I realized that I didn’t need to be anywhere else in the world. If I could just do this and figure out a way to sustain myself I would be happy.”
Chowdhary did find his way back to America. He returned to USC, completing his MFA in Film and TV Production in 2018.
"I got a scholarship my first semester, then a student assistantship the second semester, I’m working 20 hours a week and shooting through the weekend but I also just get to express myself,” he said. “I am meeting all these wonderful people and I have access to this community of artists, which I felt like I had been missing in my life. Things were starting to work out”
Currently, he is working on several projects. He is attached as a cinematographer to a feature awaiting funding. He is also working on a documentary about India in all of its various forms and languages and facets.
"I traveled through villages, towns and cities, exploring the Indian Subconscious through everyday life. I keep going home to ground myself because I think the fact that I’m from India is a huge advantage,” he said. “I’m really, really lucky.”
"Color of November" is a contemporary portrait of the relationship between two young women in the month of November in Poland. It is a hybrid narrative-doc short that explores cross border perspectives on the relationship between identity, space and memory in the post globalization era.
Premiering at Montreal’s Festival Du Nouveau Cinema before garnering acclaim at Filmfest Dresden and the South Asian Short Film Festival in Calcutta, India, “Color of November” will premiere on online platforms like NoBudge, FilmShortage and Directors Notes at the end of this month.
Watch it on Vimeo, here.