Australia based documentary filmmaker Simon Kurian has journeyed from the small town of Tiruvalla to make insightful films for international TV Channels

Rituparna Mitra, a young girl wonders, “I sometimes think why we came here. We had everything there.” ‘Here’ is New Zealand and ‘there’ is India. Rituparna is one of the children of immigrants in New Zealand who features in a two – part documentary Coping in Paradise for Television New Zealand (TVNZ) directed by Malayali documentary filmmaker Simon Kurian.

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The children try to make sense of their situations - Having to move to a smaller house or missing a grandparent, finding comfort in a cat, adapting to life in an alien place and accepting life as a gift….Coping in Paradise is the not so rosy side of the story of migration.

Rituparna from India, Abdullah Alacozai from Afghanistan and Alexandra Chan from Hong Kong are some of the kids in Simon’s documentary. Simon Kurian unobtrusively manages to capture these stories with his camera and it is so with his many documentaries that he has worked on, as director, editor and as director of photography.

Some of the international television networks that he has worked for include BBC, Channel 4, CNN USA, TVNZ and Australian networks. His too is a migration story. He migrated to New Zealand and later to Australia a decade ago. Before he left he was based in Kochi.

Did he face ‘adaptation’ issues as in Coping…? “No…it wasn’t tough.” His move was not the conventional migration story. “I have in fact spent most of my adult life overseas in the UK and the US. I returned to India after my marriage and lived there for about 12 years while continuing to travel. So I was not leaving India so much as returning overseas albeit to a new place.”

He and his wife, Geethanjali, were ‘doing things’ and it wasn’t about starting from scratch. His wife is a journalist and he was making films and for him it was just about continuing that. “But for some people, like those who featured in the documentary, it is tough. Going back to their native countries and facing ridicule is not an option and they just hang on. There are doctors doing very small jobs.”

Creative career choice

So how did a boy from Tiruvalla, much before filmmaking became fashionable, end up wanting to make films? “A childhood spent watching films.” His parents, however, did not take the ‘creative’ choice of career well. “They, understandably, objected when I told them I wanted to learn photography in the UK. They would have preferred I opt for something more conventional like engineering.” Reservations aside, they funded his education.

Simon later went to learn film making at the Art Centre College of Design in California. His first film, in 1985 after graduation, was for the BBC called Shiva’s Disciples. Besides BBC, the film was broadcast in USA by Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Shiva’s Disciples focuses on the tradition of music and dance in Kerala.

Some of his major documentaries are Thameswallah (as director of photography for BBC), All Our Children (as director, cameraman and line producer for BBC), Odyssey (as director, cameraman and line producer for Channel 4), For Better or For Worse (as director, writer, editor, producer for TVNZ) and most recently as director of photography for Felicity Kendal’s Indian Shakespeare Quest, in 2012, which was part of the BBC’s pre-Olympic special programming which followed actress Felicity Kendal as she retraced her father thespian Geoffrey Kendal’s journey through India in the 1940’s with his Shakespeare troupe. Simon was first assistant and additional photographer on the Merchant Ivory production, Cotton Mary.

His current projects include Toxic Valley (which is in post-production), Shadowdancers, Abdullah’s Story and Dying in Varanasi. Toxic Valley is a feature length documentary which is due for theatrical release this year. For Abdullah’s Story, Simon will follow a young refugee boy as he returns to Afghanistan.

Issue-based films

He is commissioned to shoot some films (as director and/or director of photography) or he approaches television networks with a proposal (for a project). Since he has a body of work to his credit, getting work is not tough. His company is called ‘Kurian Productions’. Toxic Valley, which is about the pesticide menace across the globe, is his baby. He says he didn’t set out to make a film about pesticides, it just came about.

“I was in India doing research for a documentary, Shadowdancers, which is about people on the fringes of the film industry in Chennai, when I came to know about the pesticide issue,” Simon says. Besides India, the film was shot in Australia and the US.

A full length documentary then why not a feature film? The chaos that was his one exposure to the workings of a Tamil feature film put him off Indian feature films.

“It requires a special mindset. Everything that you have learnt goes out of the window.” He plans to make an Indian feature film, but on his terms, he says.

That is not to say making documentaries is cakewalk. Funding, he says, is a major problem. The other is low quality programming, fallout of the digital revolution. The many television channels are not particularly discerning when it comes to the content that they put on television, “they fill time with anything that comes their way.”