Amit Virmani | Documentary Filmmaker

Amit Virmani’s debut, “Cowboys in Paradise”, was one of the most talked-about Asian documentaries in recent years. The controversial film was featured on CNN, BBC and various international media, and is regarded as a valuable counterpoint to “Eat, Pray, Love”. His follow-up, “Menstrual Man”, was a Netflix audience favourite at Hot Docs and will be presented at IDFA 2013 in the Best of Fests category.

Amit Virmani
My Definition of Success | Success for me is to be free of envy and regret. I’m not saying I’m in that position, but it’s what I strive for.
Lately, I’ve included another criteria: helping others. I used to think it was something you did after you’ve attained a fair measure of financial comfort. But I just made the film “Menstrual Man”. It’s about a guy who helped thousands of rural women even as he was fighting his way out of poverty himself. I realise now that you’re always in a position to help someone, and that doing so is what makes us decent human beings.
What Drives Me | Loving what I do. There’s no substitute for that, really. There will be days that batter you, but as long as you’re passionate about what you do, those dog days will never break you.
The Difference Between Good and Great | Hard work and focus. Natural talent only gets you so far.
My Key Talent | I remember when I graduated from university, my mentor told me, “Congratulations! I hope you’ve learnt to learn.” And I thought, “Gee, thanks. Four years of tuition for that?” Now I get what she meant. Accepting that I don’t know anything, and learning as fast as I can — that’s made all the difference.
I’ll give you an example. I spent my 20’s wanting to make films. At 33, I realised that if I didn’t act soon, I’d never have the guts to pursue my dream. You have to get a taste for risk-taking early because it gets harder as you get older. As Picasso said, “The older you get the stronger the wind gets — and it’s always in your face.”
So I set myself a deadline: first feature-length documentary film by 35. Problem was, I didn’t have any technical film-making skills. After losing a year trying to raise funds for a crew, I decided to shoot everything myself. I read online forums to figure out the ideal equipment for a one-man crew. Then I borrowed money to buy a camera and just started shooting. I was reading operating manuals at night and making my film during the day. Ditto when it came time to edit. I bought the software, next I bought one of those “For Dummies” guides for that software, and I just started putting the film together.
That film, “Cowboys in Paradise”, was completed a day before my 35th birthday.Now my example may be film-making-specific, but I think the attitude is useful for everyone regardless of their field. We live in a time of permanent disruption. Every industry, every belief, every skill set is up for constant renewal. You have to unlearn and learn at every turn. Fortunately, knowledge has never been more accessible, so it’s not as difficult as it sounds.
The Best Advice I’ve ever Received | “Never stumble over something that’s behind you.” I read that in a bar so it was probably directed at drunk patrons, but it’s still a valuable lesson. You got to look ahead in life.
Lessons I’ve Learnt | I interviewed an Indian woman for my last film. She’d managed to turn her life around after years of being in an abusive marriage, putting up with nasty in-laws, and raising four daughters on less than $1 a day. I asked her how she did it. How did she manage to keep going when many others would have given up? She just shrugged and said, “If I didn’t do it for me, who would?”
I think that’s true for everyone. I’m not saying success is a solo effort. Life is the sum of your individual choices and collaborative efforts. But you’re responsible for both. You’re always in the driving seat.
Dealing with Doubt | I view those as positive forces. Self-doubt and fear force you to be better, to constantly improve. As for negativity, it’s useful because it tests your faith in yourself. Everyone comes up against a brick wall from time to time. Not everyone has the conviction to scale it.When the trailer for my first film, “Cowboys in Paradise”, went viral, I found myself at the centre of controversy. Rumours spread that the film was pornographic and meant to shame Indonesia. Neither of which was true, but it didn’t matter. The rumours were enough for people to attack me on the internet. Some even sent death threats. Talk about fear and negativity!But I had faith in the film so I stuck it out. Rather than hide, I defended myself publicly in leading international media. Also, I knew the film was its own best defence so we held several special screenings. With each screening, more people came out to defend the film. Many Indonesians even. That turned things around. What were the haters going to do? Argue with people who had seen the film?
Resources I Use | As a general rule, I keep myself open to everything. You never know where inspiration might come from next. But you need a structured approach because there’s simply too much of everything out there. We’re all drowning in information now, and not all it will be relevant or of interest to you.Social media helps. I follow some blogs to keep myself up-to-speed. You don’t want to be the last person in the room to discover the party has moved elsewhere. And I use Twitter to connect with like-minded people. That drastically improves the signal-to-noise ratio. If they recommend something, chances are it’ll be of value to me.Another thing I’ve found useful is keeping a list of heroes. It comprises people from various walks of life but, given my own aspirations, they’re usually ones who’ve managed to juggle creativity and commerce successfully. I read stuff by or about them. That allows me to use their experiences and lessons as my road-map. Besides, it helps to know that others who made the journey before you came out okay.
Advice On Building Wealth | Well, I’m not sure how I can answer that with any credibility since I’m neither rich nor have I amassed any wealth. But just about every person I admire insists that the trick lies in doing things you love, that you find meaning in. You’ll face many challenges along the way. As long as you pursue passion and purpose, money will eventually pursue you.