Anyone who has interacted with award winning Malaysian filmmaker, Dr Vimala Perumal always talks about how humble she is.

Having received numerous awards on the national and international level, the director has her feet planted firmly on the ground. “Every award I receive feels like the first, the recognition is really special,” she says as we congratulate her on her latest award for Vedigundu Pasangge, Best Tamil Film Diaspora at the Norway Tamil Film Festival.

It’s not just her humility, but her passion for films that radiates through every conversation she has on the topic.

This was what drove her to acquire her PhD in Filmmaking in Universiti Putra Malaysia. In addition to her production house, Veedu Productions, Dr Vimala is also a Senior Lecturer and Head of Department (Foundation & Humanities) in the Faculty of Creative Multimedia in Multimedia University (MMU)

The Varnam team speaks to Dr Vimala about her passion for telling stories and her dedication to the field.

A mixed childhood laden with lessons

“I was blessed to have a wonderful childhood. I was born into a mixed race family, and exposed to both Chinese and Indian cultures. This taught me a lot of understanding,” Dr Vimala tells us. “It also has indirectly influenced my way of telling stories,”

Dr Vimala with her parents, husband, two children and her second brother.

Hailing from an orthodox family, she had never considered a career in film. “At the time, I wanted to be a chemical engineer and my father wanted me to be a doctor!” she laughs.

Her brother was the one who took her onto the path of films. “My brother was attached to Telekom, and he brought home this scholarship form. He told me, multimedia is going to be the next big thing. My parents relented, and I filled out the application,” It was not long before Dr Vimala heard that she was awarded the scholarship to pursue her undergraduate studies in film and animation from MMU.

“I believe in education,”

“After completing my degree, I continued to do my Masters in the same university,” Education, she says, is important to her. “I believe in education. It is the only thing that can uplift our community. I have to thank my father for instilling this in me. He would always say, the only thing that will die with you is your kalvi (education),”

my father would always say, the only thing that will die with you is your kalvi

“And since I didn’t fulfill his wish to become a medical doctor, I did it by acquiring my PhD!” she jokes. The process of pursuing a PhD in filmmaking from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), however, was far from funny. Dr Vimala credits her success to her incredible support system.

“It took me 7 years to complete my PhD. I took two years off in between as I fell pregnant. I always say, during my 7 year PhD journey, I made two movies and had two children!”

A support system like no other

“In all seriousness, it taught me a lot. It was tough, especially in a public university. I managed to complete it because I have a very supportive husband, encouraging parents and brothers, and children who inspire me. When I am studying, my kids would sit beside me and do their colouring,” she reminisces.

“Denes was amazing throughout. I would share my research with him, and he’d listen attentively. Before I go for my presentations, he would be my audience. And there were all these sweet gestures of making coffee for me without me asking. It was very touching. When I received my scroll, he said it felt like he had also completed his PhD!”

When I received my scroll, Denes said it felt like he had also completed his PhD!

Dr Vimala now balances her filmmaking with teaching, and she enjoys it. “We learn the theory in university, and when you come to filmmaking, it is practical. You need a bridge, and that is formed beautifully when I teach. I am able to share my on site experiences with my students. In today’s world, you need both theory and practical knowledge, there is no two ways about it,”

Oh, so cynical!

With all three of her feature films, Vilaiyaatu Pasangge, Vetti Pasangge and Vedigundu Pasange , Dr Vimala has the knack of weaving themes about Malaysian Indian social issues, without being preachy.

“When I meet people, the story is automatically about our community. I make it comical, and cynical. Let’s face it, people don’t like to take advice and forcing them to listen will merely put them off. That is the approach I use. If people think it is mere comedy, then that’s fine. But if they go home and ponder upon it, that would be fantastic,”

Let’s face it, people don’t like to take advice and forcing them to listen will merely put them off.

The story behind Veedu Productions

“Denes and I started making short films and music videos, but not once did we imagine that we will be making feature films,” Dr Vimala did not anticipate the recognition her short films brought about.

“It took us to many international film festivals, and seeing that appreciation from an audience of another country was phenomenal,”

“One day, Denes asked me, why don’t we extend this into a full length feature film and screen it in the cinema?” Dr Vimala was very hesitant to go with her husband’s suggestion. “Are you sure, I asked him. It would involve a lot of work and even more money. He was very optimistic, and that got the ball rolling,”

The team then embarked on Vilayatu Pasangge, “It was guerrilla filmmaking. We had a skeletal crew. It was released in the digital format, but only 3 cinemas had a digital screen,” In spite of that, the audience’s reaction was shocking. “The support and love we received was marvelous!”

But is there enough support from the Malaysian government?

Dr Vimala and her husband Denes, flanked by film critic and historian, Pak Hassan Muthalib, who is also Bapa Animasi Negara (The founding father of Malaysian animation) and filmmaker Bea Tanaka.

“For the past 3 years or so, the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) has begun to support Malaysian Tamil films by way of grants. As a result, the growth of the industry is very positive. A decade ago, only 1 or 2 Malaysian Tamil films will be released in a year. Now, we are averaging at 10 films per year,” she gushes.

A decade ago, only 1 or 2 Malaysian Tamil films will be released in a year. Now, we are averaging at 10 films per year.

“We received a grant from Finas for Vedigundu Pasangge, and we went all out. We wanted to give the audience a real cinematic experience, so we spent a lot on the technical aspect of the film. Ultimately, we wanted to raise the bar for Malaysian Tamil films,”

Dr Vimala’s Vedigundu Pasangge exploded the Malaysian box office and was the first Malaysian Tamil film to cross the RM 1 million collection mark.

Healthy competition

Denes, Dr Vimala and their daughter with veteran Malaysian filmmaker, U-Wei Haji Saari

The sheer number of Malaysian Tamil films may seem like they pose a competition for Dr Vimala’s films, but she disagrees, “I don’t see fellow filmmakers as competition. I want them to do better, so that I will do my best on my next project. Otherwise, I will lie in my comfort zone, without pushing any boundaries. This is the true definition of healthy competition,”

Opportunities are out there!

To those who keep using their skin colour as an excuse, she has this to say, “Opportunities are out there. If we focus on opportunities, we will work towards achieving that goal. But if you keep complaining, you are taking your eyes off the prize. Channel that effort needs towards looking for more avenues,”

If we focus on opportunities, we will work towards achieving that goal.

The director is also a firm believer of social media. “Use social media as your resume. Work on building your profile. People will see that you are showing progress. Be positive, and optimistic. That is the most powerful weapon,”

Her many, many awards

Dr Vimala worked on a film, Chalanggai as a writer and producer. The film was a success, and won Best Digital Film at the 20th Festival Filem Malaysia in 2008.

A decade later, she received the Special Jury Award at the 30th Festival Film Malaysia for Vedigundu Pasangge . And yet, she is humility personified. “It wasn’t just the Special Jury Award, just being nominated, a Tamil film is up there among all these fantastic directors. That itself filled me with gratitude,”

“When they announced the award, they mentioned Vedigundu Pasangge won for successfully portraying the Malaysian Indian socioeconomic struggle and cultural norms, we were overwhelmed. The feeling is something I really cannot describe,”  Dr Vimala was also the only female on the list of nominees for Best Director.

Dr Vimala’s words of wisdom

“If you really want to be a filmmaker, take up a course, equip yourself with the education in that field. If you are sincere in what you do, the progress will definitely show,” she says.

To those who are already enrolled in filmmaking courses, she has this to say, “I tell my students this, once you graduate, you can’t leap into the director’s chair just like that. I myself began as a production assistant, and worked my way up to a production manager, scriptwriter, producer and only then did I direct my first short film,”

If you are sincere in what you do, the progress will definitely show

A big inspiration in Dr Vimala’s film career is the late Yasmin Ahmad. “She told me, whenever you tell a story, tell it from your heart, and it will surely reach the people,” she says with a smile. We then see the reason for her humility, the common factor in all her films – heart.

Keep up with Veedu Production’s upcoming projects on Instagram here.