Indian filmmaker Ajitpal Singh’s self-taught journey to success

Indian filmaker Ajitpal Singh reflects on his self-taught journey to success | Soho House

The award-winning director and Soho House member is now the BAFTA breakthrough artist of the year, despite never going to film school

Wednesday 30 November 2022   By Tilly Pearman

Ajitpal Singh was 32 when he discovered his ‘true calling’, yet his mark on the international film circuit has already been widely felt. His first feature film, Fire In The Mountains, premiered at Sundance Film Festival; his short film Rammat-Gammat won an award at the Oberhausen International Short Film festival in 2018; and his debut web series, Tabbar, was listed as one of the best international shows of 2021 by Variety magazine. 

Unquestionably, Singh paints a picture of modern success, but his own story is just as nuanced as the films he now creates. Born in Punjab, his family ran a cinema hall in Bathinda until it was shut down during the insurgency. Moving to Ahmedabad, Singh’s daily view became polluted with violence and poverty until the day he watched The 400 Blows by François Truffaut. 

Falling in love with world cinema, Singh embarked on a self-taught journey into filmmaking, applying his learnt skills of discipline, resilience and social empathy to not just himself, but his craft too. Here, he reflects on the barriers, lessons and euphoric feelings that helped shape his critically acclaimed career so far. 

My first job was as a 3D animator 
‘I was paid ₹4,000; after my first salary, I spent ₹3,000 on buying gifts for my parents and brother. My father asked me how I would survive the whole month with ₹1,000; I was confident I could. But after a week, I borrowed money from him.’ 

I watched The 400 Blows by François Truffaut, which blew my mind
‘I didn’t know that you could make something so realistic. That film introduced me to world cinema, and I fell in love with movies.’

I didn’t study filmmaking, I learnt it on my own
‘Finding my voice as an artist was the biggest challenge. When I started writing my first screenplay in 2010, I quickly realised I didn’t know enough about filmmaking. So I started watching films and analysing them. I would watch them scene by scene, and after each one I’d pause and wonder why it was done like that. I filled notebooks with my analysis, which served me well, and with my first screenplay I got into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2012. My script was well received by distinguished mentors such as Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Babel and Amores Perros), Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Asif Kapadia (Senna). It gave me confidence and faith that I have what it takes to make films.’

I don’t wait for motivation. Motivation is for beginners, amateurs or romantics
‘I believe in discipline. Most days, I don’t want to write, but I have made a set of rituals that lead me to the desk – my hands type even if my mind doesn’t want to. Sometimes, once in a few weeks or months, something magical happens while writing. I type quickly, reaching a trance-like stage, and something stirs within me. There is this orgasmic feeling – it lasts only a few seconds, then reality pulls me back. But those few seconds are so addictive that I can spend an entire lifetime trying to get those few seconds back. And it’s this, not motivation, that keeps me going.’

In my head, making films was all about meeting the right people
‘When I read an interview with Guillermo Arriaga, the journalist asked him about networking and he said: “If your work has limbs, you will run. If your work doesn’t have limbs, you will crawl, it doesn’t matter who you know.” I made it my mantra, and I have been constantly trying to improve my craft. I didn’t know many people when I came to Mumbai, and I still don’t know many. I kept making short films, learnt from my mistakes, and then made new ones. This focus on learning has brought me to where I am today.’
Observing the ugly dance of humanity is what makes me an artist
‘The world is unfair. Every day, I see children who can’t afford education, girls who are not allowed to study, parents who struggle to provide two meals, and labourers who build houses but will never have their own. Then I see how politicians worldwide use religion, immigration, etc as tools to distract people from seeing the loot that the elites have been carrying on. And all this boils my blood and drives me to write stories about injustice.’

Read fiction and read some more fiction
‘Fiction can make us empathetic towards people, culture and places. And once you have empathy, the rest can be learnt and refined.’

Apart from screenwriting labs, I’ve never had a mentor
‘For a long time it pained me that I didn’t have someone to guide me, but without a mentor I turned out to be someone whose vision is shaped by my learnings and failures. There is this famous hymn in Sikhism called ‘Waho waho Gobind Singh aape gur chella’, which roughly translates into ‘Wow! Wow! Gobind Singh, himself the guru and the disciple’ – and I think that has been my life.’

You can learn filmmaking without going to school, but the sense of community you develop there is very precious 
‘When I meet filmmakers who studied filmmaking at The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) or Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), there is a strong sense of bonding.’
It’s OK not to know what you want to do 
‘If I could go back and give advice to my younger self, I would say: enjoy the journey and don’t worry about the destination.’

Ajitpal Singh’s next project – a limited series set in Mumbai – explores the stories of three women from different layers of society and how their lives collide due to a scam in an under-construction housing complex.