The explorer

Documentary filmmaker Dhruv Dhawan on his adventures
The explorer
Dhruv Dhawan

Adventure' might as well be Dhruv Dhawan's middle name. Inherent in this 32-year-old engineer-turned-documentary filmmaker, photographer, dog trainer and rock climber, is a sense of journey and a desire to uncover the not-so-comfortable truths about society – a quest that has led him to embark on unique, sometimes dangerous territory. From living with Tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka in 2005 to making his debut feature documentary, From Dust, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to spending months on the mean streets of Mumbai capturing the unconscious side of maximum city for Mumbai Sleeping – The City That Never Sleeps, Dhruv loves the challenge that danger presents. But ask him about it and he masks his decision to take the less-trodden path with a quirky sense of humour and cool attitude. Indeed, we felt we can never know enough about the very interesting Dhruv Dhawan!

What are your memories about your childhood?
I was born in Mumbai and a year later, my parents decided to move to Dubai. I don't really remember being consulted on the decision at the time! Our early years were spent in Satwa and on Sheikh Zayed Road at a time when Interchange One used to be called the Defence Roundabout and Pizza Hut was considered exotic. I was raised in the respectable English schools and Irish pubs of Dubai till the ripe age of 18 after which I went to the US to study engineering.

What inspired you to start your freelance film direction business?
When I arrived at Duke University, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of academic disciplines and the eclectic minds I was interacting with. Alongside my engineering courses, I began to satiate my curiosity of other disciplines by taking courses in Indian cinema. A year later I decided to quit engineering as I felt that our world was too interesting to confine the bulk of my mind to a pedantic science. So I studied cultural anthropology instead – a discipline which could quench my search for cultural identity as an Indian who grew up in British schools in the Arab world.
My mother's appreciation for the visual arts had inspired me to start working with cameras from the age of about 16 and once I was in college I deviated from using text to express
my ideas and experimented with visual techniques instead– a practice known as
Visual Ethnography. After graduating, I studied film direction for a year at the New York Film Academy and then returned to Dubai to set up Film Real as a freelance film direction business to offer the documentary and commercial sector credible content with a fresh visual vocabulary.

What made you choose the Tsunami in Sri Lanka as a subject for From Dust? What are your enduring memories of that stint?
I chose the Tsunami as an event within which to find a subject. The subject of my film was gentrification – even though I didn't know if it was going to happen or not, this is a chance you take as a documentarian. I had a feeling that an event like this which was one of the world's largest aid efforts and natural disasters would rear some interesting facts about human nature and eventually I was right, although it took a year for the story to reveal its twist. During the months I lived with Tsunami survivors, I learnt more about filmmaking, friendship, politics and the media than what any university can teach you and I thank my parents for supporting my decision to go there. I have lovely tea-time memories of Sri Lanka! I love their tea, coconut pancakes and fish curry.

What other documentaries have you worked on?
Since From Dust I have not produced my own films although I have directed and photographed films for other producers – a series about the Indian fashion industry and another one about modern-day arranged marriages in India with Soniya Kriplani. I also had the fortune to direct a documentary film about an autistic savant called Stephen Wiltshire who visited Dubai in 2008 and sketched an aerial view of the city from memory after only a 20 minute helicopter ride! Working with Stephen was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. I was also hired to direct 18 short documentaries about the aspirations of some of the most talented young Emirati men and women, most of whom live in rural parts of the UAE.
How important is online media in the advertising and communications industry?
Online media is more accountable than other media. Every page view is monitored and recorded. Often when I am asked to design a film project for traditional media I feel guilty if I do not offer my client an online option as well because the benefits are so great. However the most significant aspect of the online media environment is that it has brought advertising autonomy to the entrepreneur and small businesses that earlier could not afford to work with an agency and a media buyer. This has allowed small businesses more marketing freedom and consumers, more choices.

What do you like to do when you are not working?
I enjoy training dogs and I have two dogs called Duke and Skye who are my pride and joy. Skye can sing better than Pavarotti and Duke can eat more than him. I ski with a bunch of crazy Euro snowboarders and enjoy rock climbing. I love dancing and good bhangra drives me wild. I love to travel. My idea of travel is packing a jeep with water, fuel, firewood and your dogs and driving where the streets have no name through the deserts of Arabia; where you can hear the timeless silence and watch the history of your life flicker in the fire in front of you.

What did you rediscover about Mumbai while working on Mumbai Sleeping ?
An interesting truth that I discovered about Mumbai is that it's a lot safer than it looks; the Mumbaikar on the street is not a dangerous person until you offend his mother, masculinity or God. Various people (including the police) told me that I should not be going onto the streets and slums of Mumbai at night with expensive camera equipment. But the only real trouble I ever found was with the cops themselves! Of the few people that woke up while I was photographing them, none of them got into a confrontation with me even when I was inches away from their face when their eyes opened; in other big cities this style of street photography could lead one down a dark alley. I have been attacked by a metal baseball bat and a box cutter knife in New York (and I wasn't even with a camera then). In Mumbai, no one even lifted a finger on me; I'm very grateful to India. I never had to fear confrontation there.