/Short film director Singara Mohan on his award-winning film A Date in the Dark and entrepreneurial journey

Short film director Singara Mohan on his award-winning film A Date in the Dark and entrepreneurial journey

The virtual audio short film A Date in the Dark has received rave reviews for its innovative treatment to a tragic story…

39 official selections. 23 nominations. 15 wins. That’s precisely the tally summarising the impact that short filmmaker Singara Mohan’s A Date in the Dark has made at film festivals across the globe as of January 28, 2021. The Telugu virtual audio film is set completely in the dark and is backed by a unique plot (surrounding an ailing husband and his once-blind partner) that complements the setting. This is Mohan’s first brush with films and was conceived, put together entirely during the lockdown in 2020.

The sound texture of the film is one of its major highlights, giving you a sense of location, mindset of the characters through minute details. And by now, if you’ve made an opinion that he’s just another filmmaker, think twice. The 20s something boy is also the founder of a startup, Vector Academy, that helps children understand core concepts for engineering entrances through animation lessons. Riaan TV takes you through the journey of this passionate film buff.

Of his love for films and the inspiration to become a filmmaker

My ultimate goal has always been to become a mainstream filmmaker. There’s no better medium than cinema to convey our ideas to so many people. I am addicted to the big-screen experience and can’t stand watching films on smartphones. It’s probably a reason why my knowledge about cinema is restricted to the films I watch in theatres. If I have to name a filmmaker who inspired me to enter the film industry, it has to be Sukumar. Arya 2 remains one of my most favourite films in terms of screen-writing – the skill in the screenplay while dealing with the complex lead character blew me away.

With filmmaking, I understood that it needn’t abide by a strict rulebook – the aim is to tell a story in the best way possible and one that appeals to a majority of the viewers. You could call me a self-learner. I am well aware of the difficulties of writing a story, getting an appointment from a producer, winning their approval and finally getting to make a film. So, being an independent filmmaker was a relatively practical option and to do that, I needed another vocation to generate revenue. Vector Academy was an idea born out of that need, during my Intermediate days.

The idea behind Vector Academy

Most school students in Telugu states between their sixth and tenth grades attend IIT coaching classes and I observed that there was a dearth of study material that could captivate their minds. What if I used animation as a tool to make their lessons more interesting? There was no looking back. Even during engineering, my mind was more or less preoccupied with the startup or my film scripts. By the second year when the startup was ready to go to the market, it became increasingly difficult to focus on engineering and I had no option to drop out midway.

Having studied in a remote village and observing many schools in the nearby areas, I can vouch for the fact that the quality of education isn’t great in the interiors of the Telugu states. Though the teachers who train students for the IIT entrance examinations fare slightly better, most of the students don’t grasp what the teachers say and pass out of high schools without any knowledge of core concepts. The focus is more on earning marks, scraping through exams than about understanding. There’s an undeniable attraction when we use animation to teach them such lessons.

Dropping out of engineering

My parents weren’t shocked by my decision to drop out of engineering because they knew academics wasn’t my first priority. The fact that I established a startup at 19, made reasonable progress with it in quick time, had convinced them that it wasn’t a hasty decision.  In the very first year of the startup launch, we tied up with 35 schools and went onto add another 10 in the second year. There are roughly 150 students in each of the schools.

All within the family

My brother, a graphic designer, is a partner at the startup. Once I explain to him the core idea behind the lesson, he takes care of most technical aspects related to the animation design. While I deal with Maths predominantly among the animation lessons, my friends help me with the physics and chemistry lessons. We reach out to schools and get the managements to sign contracts; charging a very nominal amount from the students yearly (close to Rs 1000). The profit motive here is secondary; our main aim is to help the students.

The choice of an unconventional theme for the short film

I want my films to be poetic and tell stories that haunt the audiences well beyond the film duration. I didn’t want A Date in the Dark to be any other regular short film with a usual ending. The advantage of a dark ending is that it will make the viewer think. Additionally, there can also be a sense of disappointment and there’s a good chance that the viewer could criticise the film/filmmaker for the same. I intentionally haven’t mentioned the timeline in which the story is set. To justify the fact that it was a virtual audio film, the protagonist is told to be a blind woman (the hotel in which she resided was set amid darkness too) and we had used a device like the tape-recorder in the background to add authenticity.

The biggest challenge while executing a virtual audio film is to get the ambient sounds right. The sound has to take us to the location where the story is set. I meticulously research for the stories I write and I took note of all the sounds that I need to make a virtual audio film – the car drive, the hospital lobby and all other little elements that contribute to the soundscape. I’ve used royalty-free sounds whose creators have been credited as well.

I was inspired by filmmaker Prashant Varma’s short Dialogue in the Dark (which was also a virtual short film) but knew that I had to either better that or tell a different story to grab audience’s attention. I wanted to begin my film career in some form during 2020 and the virtual audio format was apt during the lockdown where everything could be done at home. I had approached several Youtube channels to take the short film but the prerogative was to have a visual element in the story, which I didn’t have. I had to upload the content in a channel that hardly had any subscribers – precisely a reason why the film didn’t get its due in terms of reach despite the novelty in the story.

On balancing time between his films and startup in the future

There’s no worry that my startup would take a backseat when I pursue filmmaking because the groundwork for it was extremely strong. The startup has reached a stage where I need not dedicate my entire time and energy towards it always. There’s a strong team in place and the business has reached the stage of revenue generation; so balancing time shouldn’t be an issue. My next short film is Vagyamana Vibhathi (listening to silence), a love story revolving around two specially-abled characters

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Srivathsan, an independent journalist working for publications like The Hindu, Deccan Herald, News Minute, Film Companion and several other portals, is keen to live life by the moment. From engaging himself in technical writing to involving in translation work to seeking inspiration for his poems from nature, writing is what he savours the most. His words are his creative outlet through which he channelises his fears, hopes and ambitions constructively. However, it's his love for regional literature, history and reading that completes him. He stares at life through the window at his house, while his penchant for carnatic music humbles his soul.