THIS young, cherubic, barely-a-grown-up, an award-winning filmmaker?
What kind of sorcery is this?
Eyes crinkling, the 23-year-old Sanadtkumar Ganesan laughs heartily at my expression. I was expecting a young man, of course. Just not THIS young. I confess I’m not just startled. I’m downright a little envious of this grinning man-child in front of me.
His credentials are jaw-dropping. International award-winning documentary filmmaker; co-founder and chief operations officer of Ascendance (a nationwide youth movement founded by Sanadt and three of his friends in 2015); film production student at the Toronto Film School, Canada; recipient of the Diana Award for Social Change and Humanitarian Action in 2019; and Top 50 Asia Young Talents Award — Monstar Awards 2021.
In recent times, Sanadt’s (as he’s fondly known) latest installment of the WANTED: Shades of Life documentary series had won a slew of awards, including the LA Film Award for Best Inspirational Film, Filmcon Award for Best Documentary Feature, Festigious International Film Festival Awards for Best Indie Feature and Best Documentary Film Feature.
His latest documentary featured Genkeswaran Muniyan.
The “tragedy to triumph” story features chess master Genkeswaran Munian, who wrestled with his past as an ex-convict and turned his life around, inspiring thousands of students across the country to pick up the game as a means of achieving their dreams.
As Sanadt blithely reels off the awards he’d garnered so far, I realise he doesn’t seem to be basking in the pride of the accolades. They’re just a pleasant addition to what is a lifelong passion. “I used to love watching movies. Now I also love making movies!” he blurts out, shrugging his shoulders.
I’m still not quite mollified by his lack of vanity. I mean, he’s 23, for God’s sake. I can’t even remember if I did anything remotely significant when I was his age.
To his credit, he’s clearly uncomfortable with the limelight shining on him. “Teamwork,” he insists, telling me that he had a group of people who supported and helped helm the documentary together.
The team comprised 24-year-old Syarvin Sugumar who was the cinematographer, 19-year-old Mahalaxcme Ganesan (Sanadt’s younger sister) who took the role of production manager, together with 15-year-old Pruneall Shevan Pierre Raj and 26-year-old Kaviarasu Anparasu, the production team in charge of lights and cameras.
The original score was composed by 23-year-old Heerraa Ravindran, a singer-songwriter who recently won the “Best Female Solo Artist” award for her song, Attention Island, at the 6th Annual California Music Video Awards recently.
They. Are. All. So. Young.
Just when you think that today’s youth have been raised on cell phones and social media — and while there has been much hand-wringing about this cohort, also called iGen or the Post-Millennials — the stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media-savvy and inclusive young people like Sanadt and his band of young friends.
“What can you guys not do?” I ask brusquely, one eyebrow raised.
“Oh, a lot of things!” he replies, before adding half-wistfully: “Cannot sleep, cannot take a break… Oh, those normal teenager things everyone else takes for granted!”
“Was there even a normal childhood?” I ask again.
Sanadt grins and nods. “I’m not sure what ‘normal’ really is,” he muses, adding: “My parents were tuition teachers and I used to help tutor students as well. I live in Kampung Sungai Ara in Bandar Utama. Now it’s quite a posh place, but back then… it was really a kampung. Even to this day, that small row of houses where I live remains the same!”
Sounds normal enough. Except it wasn’t.
Sanadt’s parents, Ganesan Sivaperuman and Rani Arumugam, both quit their high-paying corporate jobs to pursue their passion in teaching. “Once I came along, my mother wanted to spend more time at home raising me. They always enjoyed teaching so they decided to take the plunge back in the early 2000s,” he recalls. His parents started tuition classes in their home, which eventually grew to become a small tuition centre that they continue to run to this day.
“What’s different about them was the fact that they weren’t all about teaching subjects alone. They taught students how to set and achieve goals, and all those soft skills needed to excel and succeed — not just at studies, but in life as well,” says Sanadt, adding: “Most importantly, they listened to them and heard what they had to say.”
Ganesan and Rani were mentors to many young people. “Many students would come back thanking my parents for their help. My parents were there for them through thick and thin. When they couldn’t afford their fees, my parents would tutor for free. I grew up watching all of this. There was a lot of community building that goes on till today,” he continues, beaming with pride.
So, you learnt a lot from them? I remark and he nods. “Of course!” he replies. “My parents involved my sister and me in their work. We’d help with issuing receipts, talking to students and parents and also tutoring! I got my first job at the age of 14, tutoring Standard Six students!”
What did he teach?
“Bahasa Malaysia!” he says blithely.
They were definitely inspirational, insists Sanadt. “Later on, when we founded Ascendance, I realised it was something I always wanted to do because of my parents. They’ve been making a difference in people’s lives for as long as I remember. I guess that had rubbed off on me and my sister too.”
Things weren’t always smooth.
Sanadt was bullied at school and the experience caused him to retreat into himself. “I was this odd kid who didn’t quite fit in. I didn’t have any perceivable talents and hadn’t a clue as to what I wanted to do with my life,” he reveals, adding quietly: “The bullying made it worse.”
The only thing he did love was watching movies and animes. “Watching movies was the outlet I needed to process my thoughts and feelings,” he muses.
Continuing enthusiastically, he shares: “I discovered a few filmmakers whose films stuck with me. I thought The Shawshank Redemption was a brilliant movie. I loved all of Kamalhaasan’s movies, especially Anbe Sivam. My other favourite filmmaker, whom I discovered much later, is Yasmin Ahmad. If I could do half of what she’s done in her movies, I’d be so happy!”
His eyes light up as he talks in a rush. Movies are obviously his passion. “She (Yasmin) had her finger on the ‘Malaysian’ pulse. She knew the kind of stories we possessed that no one else can tell. That remains my inspiration. To tell stories of everyday Malaysians who veered off the beaten track and left a lasting impact in their communities.”
Filmmaking was far from the younger Sanadt’s mind at the beginning. But a decision to join a social business incubator platform called ET Ideas soon changed his life.
“ET Ideas was formed by a group of social entrepreneurs to inspire young people and help develop them in the fields that they’re passionate in. They used to organise a talk show called ET Youth, which I used to attend when I was 12,” he explains.
Thanks to his parents who encouraged him to attend the talk show, Sanadt reluctantly agreed to go. “The show was all about inspiring the youths to follow their passion, teaching goal-setting and more,” he recalls, adding candidly: “But I was this shy, quiet kid who watched from the side-lines. I hardly spoke much. I mean, I only started attending because of my parents!”
But he couldn’t stay a spectator for long at the ET Youth talk show. One day, Sanadt was asked what his passions were. He replied haltingly: “I love watching movies!” and was immediately thrown a challenge: “Why don’t you make one then?”
This stopped the young boy in his tracks. Could he possibly make a movie? At his age?
That is in essence what ET Ideas was about, he continues with a grin. “You can be anything you want to be. This was why they built ET Ideas in the first place. If you wanted to be a businessperson, they’d pair you with a businessperson so you’d learn what it’s like first-hand.”
Continuing, he says: “If you wanted to be a swimmer, they’d bring you to meet a swimming coach so you’d learn what it’s like. The idea was that if you dream of something, you can make it happen. So, when they knew I loved movies, I was given a chance to help behind the scenes with their camera crew.”
Sanadt soon learnt the ropes behind making videos, editing and picked up the skills he needed with the media company who’d been instrumental in producing the talk show.
The idea that he could do anything and pursue his passion impacted Sanadt deeply. “I think it gave a lot of youngsters attending this talk show, the opportunity to view the world differently. We could do anything we set our minds to.”
It was at ET Ideas that he also met Mathura Kannan, Harsha Ravindran and her sister, Heerraa, who eventually joined up to create Ascendance, a global youth organisation that has impacted over 58,000 students across 28 countries.
Ascendance encouraged youths from all backgrounds across the country to believe in their potential, through motivational talks and peer-to-peer sessions.
Says Sanadt: “We realised that many people out there didn’t have the opportunities that we had. So, we first set up an online platform and encouraged young people to submit articles about their own unique experiences.”
Continuing, he elaborates: “We also put in stories and blogs about dealing with school, parents and other experiences that students could resonate with. We created videos and organised shows for young people to attend. Ascendance started and grew from there,” he recalls.
Since they founded their group in 2015, the four have been invited to speak at schools, public forums and events around Malaysia.
Their efforts won them the Diana Award for Young Changemakers, offered by the British charity of the same name — set up in tribute of Princess Diana Spencer — to recognise “outstanding young leaders, visionaries and role models” from around the world.
“Our vision is to provide the resources, guidance and platform for teenagers globally to discover their passion, create sustainable careers and give back to society. It’s a big dream and everything we do now is towards that vision,” he shares.
His inspiration to create the Wanted: Shades of Life documentary series was inspired from the many outreach programmes organised by Ascendance.
Continues Sanadt: “We’re deeply affected by what we read and watch. We don’t realise that the stories we consume actually wield a lot of influence. This is especially true in communities where kids don’t have enough role models to look up to.”
The first of the Wanted series which premiered in 2019, told the story of Mathura Kannan (co-founder of Ascendance) and her initiatives to uplift the lives of young people like herself.
The second episode was about Agnesmary, a Bharata Natyam dancer who rediscovered her passion for classical Indian dance after a long hiatus. The second episode bagged the silver award in the Best Feature Documentary category at the Tokyo Film Awards.
With the resounding success of the third episode on chess teacher Genkeswaran, there’s no turning back. Sanadt has plans to take this award-winning episode to a larger audience in March.
“I want to bring this story to hundreds of students in Malaysia, who — I hope — would see this story and learn to start seeing the world a little differently like we did,” he concludes, smiling.