“No one even knows about my first movie that was destroyed or the fact that I quit my job, lost all my money and used all my savings just because I really wanted to make a feature film,” says director Anshul Chauhan.
It has been a long and unique journey for Chauhan to finally get his feature film “Bad Poetry Tokyo” to the big screen. His story is testament to the power of sheer will when everything else — from lack of money to language and cultural obstacles — is stacked against you.
Originally from a small town near Agra in northern India, Chauhan spent most of his school life boarding at a military academy in Rajasthan, as his father hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and join the army. But Chauhan followed his own path, one that has never aligned with his parents’ wishes.
“I was the only one of three siblings who went to military academy. My parents were really happy and proud, but the whole school life was like a punishment for me. The military school was a very tough lifestyle,” he says. “Somehow I survived, but I went against my father’s wishes by not joining the army after school.”
Chauhan later moved to Vadodara (formerly known as Baroda), a city in Gujarat where his father had retired and currently lives with the family. He got a degree in geography and took an entrance exam for a master’s degree in geoinformatics in 2005. But on his way home from the exam, fate intervened.
“I met this person on the train and became friends with him — a typical Indian train scenario,” he says. “He told me about his job as an animator. At the time, I had no idea what that was. Later, I looked for more information on the internet in a cafe.”
Even though he passed his entrance exam, he told his family he failed and went to Bangalore to study animation. He joined a private school there to learn the craft and spent around five years working in India as an animator.
“My parents were not happy and would never tell people that I was doing animation,” Chauhan says. “They would say that I was doing a diploma in engineering.”
In 2011, Chauhan moved to Japan to work as an animator and CG artist. Despite the different work culture, he enjoyed the job.
“In India, we have this word juggad. If there is any problem, there is a solution. We just need to talk to the team and ask them to help us solve it. It is pretty fast,” he says. “(But) in Japan, there is a proper channel — first email and then wait for the reply. Then, there is a meeting and hardly anyone knows what was discussed in the meeting. And then eventually the problem will be solved. A bit frustrating for me and other Indians — too many rules.”
A couple of months after arriving in Japan, Chauhan decided to buy a video camera, figuring it would give him something to do in his spare time.
“I had time on the weekends, a camera and, now, suddenly I had the passion,” he says. “I got desperate about making films and told my friends I was going to make a feature film. My friends thought I was crazy, but I was very serious. I left my job.”
Despite having no formal training in live-action filmmaking and no connections in the field, in 2013 Chauhan moved back to Vadodara to make a film, which was to be about smugglers defying the alcohol ban in the state of Gujarat. He made a short clip to raise funds, and also used the savings that he had from his years in Japan.
“Somehow word spread that I was shooting, and then one day the cops came to my apartment,” he says. “They started beating the actors who were staying with me, and then my hard disk was also broken with all the recordings (on it). I tried to recover the data but it wasn’t possible.”
Chauhan was devastated, having lost all his footage and with nothing to show for all the funds he had raised. Three months later he returned to Japan and his animation job in Tokyo.
“For three years I was super depressed,” says Chauhan. “I even sold my camera and didn’t even think about shooting until 2016, when I decided to first make short films. I looked for actors and a cinematographer on social media. Most of the shooting was done in my apartment. I did costume, makeup as well, and I learned to edit.”
Chauhan was again consumed by the idea of making a feature film, and in 2017 he quit his job for a second time. He spent months writing the script for “Bad Poetry Tokyo” in English, and his wife, Mina Moteki Chauhan, translated it into Japanese. The film was shot over a two-week period and then he spent the remainder of the year editing.
“My whole team is bilingual,” says Chauhan, who speaks only basic Japanese. “And additionally, I gave a lot of space to my actors and let them be in character and experiment with it. I dealt with a lot of body language and emotions when I did animation; this time I was doing it with real people and I wanted them to explore their film characters.”
Chauhan sent “Bad Poetry Tokyo,” a story about an actress who works as a hostess on the side, to various festivals, where it was well-received. It picked up the Best Narrative Feature Film prize at the Brussels Independent Film Festival and two best actress awards elsewhere, including at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. He was able to find distributors in Europe, but Japan didn’t pay his talent much attention.
“The biggest challenge was that I was told by several distributors and a popular Tokyo festival that the movie isn’t considered a Japanese film, even though it is a Japanese film,” Chauhan says. “But on the other hand, the Osaka festival accepted it and we even won an award. So there are both types of people — some who support and others who’d question your work based on your identity.”
Chauhan was adamant about releasing his first feature film in Japan, as it was made here, despite getting the cold shoulder from distributors. After years of trying, he decided to approach theaters directly, and “Bad Poetry Tokyo” finally began screening at Image Forum in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in January. The film is now showing in several cinemas across the country.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Chauhan has already completed his second feature film, “Kontora,” which follows wild high-schooler Sora as she deals with the death of her beloved grandfather by immersing herself in his illustrated diary of his time as a soldier in World War II. The black-and-white feature premiered in November at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia, where it picked up the Grand Prix, and has been entered in the competition category for this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival. The movie had its U.K. premiere at the Glasgow film festival and will be released in Japan later this year.
“I want to make films,” says Chauhan. But, he adds, “I’m not sure if I want to make more Japanese films. It’s really hard here. The industry is very closed. They don’t know how to challenge (themselves), they have a system of doing things, which every film repeats. The process can be annoying.”
However, Chauhan still does not have the financial freedom to make films without holding down another job.
“I think people just see that I have become a director and maybe they think it happened overnight, but what they don’t see is the whole struggle behind it. I was passionate about it but it cost me a lot,” he says. “I love directing, writing and editing films. It’s a completely different world for me, and I enjoy that zone. But I have to go to work to be able to finance these films I make.”
“Bad Poetry Tokyo” is currently showing at selected cinemas in Japan. For more information, visit www.kowatanda.com/theater-information.
Megha Wadhwa, Ph.D., is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Comparative Culture, Sophia University. Her research focuses on the Indian community in Japan.