An Indian immigrant’s son defies gravity in screen success at the Toronto film festival
When Akash Sherman walked towards the stage to present his first movie at the Toronto film festival recently, it had ‘immigrant story’ written all over. Joining the 22-year-old Canadian filmmaker was his father, who was born in Rajasthan, and mother, whose family came from Lahore, along with his elder sister, who had just completed her medical studies.
Clara, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10, tells the story of a scientist and an artist collaborating to find life on distant planets. While the film, part of TIFF’s Discovery programme, appeals to the audience for its sheer optimism, the story of its director’s roots stood out for the inspiring journey to the top of world cinema. Sherman, who dropped out of film school in Toronto to make Clara, considers the film as his education. He, however, owes his work ethics to his father. “My father really has the immigrant story,” says the filmmaker. “He grew up from humble beginnings and came to Canada at the age of six. He worked very hard while dealing with a lot of racism and poverty,” he adds. “I think I got a lot of that work ethic from him.”
Raj Sherman, the father, was the head of Canada’s Liberal Party in Alberta. First arriving as a six-year-old from India in British Columbia, he moved to Alberta to become an emergency services doctor. Then, he joined politics. “My father wanted to become a politician to support people,” says Sherman, who was born in Canada. “He had a big run in politics.” If Sherman learned the importance of hard work from his father, he heard many stories from his maternal grandfather while growing up. “My mother’s father moved to Canada in the Sixties and became a teacher. He was my teacher too,” he says. The film is dedicated to Sherman’s grandfather, Satpal Singh, who died two years ago.
Sherman’s family still lives in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, where his mother is a pharmacist and father a doctor. “I moved to Toronto four years ago,” he says. The move was for joining Ryerson University for its bachelor’s film programme. It was in one of the classes that the young Sherman discovered the story for his first film. “I was in my art history class learning about renowned artists. I was sitting, wondering if I could get a chance to create something one day. That day, I promised myself that I would write a story. So I went back to my dormitory room and wrote on my laptop for seven hours straight,” he recalls. The story was about an astronomer and an artist, who collaborate to discover something in the universe.
Sherman was 19 when he wrote the story. A year later, he pitched it to Ari Lantos, a film producer in Toronto. Lantos, who is known for producing films like the Christopher Plummer-starring Remember (2015), read the story and decided to hire the young university student to write and direct the film.
Casting for the film began in 2016, with Patrick J Adams, who plays Michael Ross in the American TV series Suits, coming onboard. The next to follow was Adams’ fiancee, Troian Bellisario, who played Spencer in the American television blockbuster Pretty Little Liars. Adams and Bellisario got married soon. “We started shooting a few weeks after their honeymoon,” laughs Sherman.
In the film, Bellisario plays Clara, a young artist who joins Adams’ astronomer character as a researcher. Both are looking for life on other planets. The film crew shot all over Toronto. Sherman had scientists advising him on his science-fiction drama. “All artists need to be connected to their subject,” he says.
“Clara is very connected to space and I am also very connected to space,” he adds. “I wanted to depict what a scientist and an artist could do together.”
After selling his film script a year after joining college, Sherman dropped out to make his first feature film. “I would have graduated this year,” he says. “But I consider this film premiering at TIFF my graduation. I learned a lot about filmmaking, science, art and people,” he says. The film, which will have a theatrical release in Canada next month, will travel to the Mumbai Film Festival in October. That will be a memorable homecoming for the Sherman family.
-The author is a freelancer