Amar Wala: All Shook Up

Witness the evolution of a filmmaker.

For the past 10 years writer/director Amar Wala has chronicled the lives of others through his award-winning documentaries such as The Secret Trial 5 (2014), focusing on the unjust incarceration of five Muslim men, Salaam B’y (2018), an uplifting look at the life of a Muslim Newfoundlander, and episodes of the TV show In the Making (2018), spotlighting creative artists.

He now shifts his focus to narrative filmmaking with Shook, his debut feature film set for release later this year that’s loosely based on his own life experience of growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, after immigrating to Canada from India with his family. 

Now and Next caught up with the 40-year-old filmmaker over the phone from his Toronto office to chat about the inspiration behind Shook, why he’d like the movie to be this generation’s Good Will Hunting, and his continuing work championing BIPOC filmmakers.

Amar Wala. Source :

What inspired you to make Shook?

The film is based on personal things, including my father's diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. That was something that happened to me in my twenties, and it was obviously a very defining moment in my life. And years later, I don't know, every time I thought about writing something, it just seemed to be the thing that would come popping out of me whenever I sat down to write.

And you did just that in 2018, writing and directing the short film Shook, which serves as the basis for the feature.

Yes, I decided to make the short first. It’s sort of similar to Lulu Wang's The Farewell, which is about her, and the illness in her family, and the specifics of how you deal with illness in an immigrant family. So, there's some parallels there. 

Can you give us a brief synopsis of the film?

It’s about a young aspiring writer named Ash (3 Body Problem’s Saamer Usmani) who is trying to find his own path in the city when his father is diagnosed with an unexpected illness. It’s about trying to figure out your own life and your own path forward while staying connected to your family. 

And it was when I watched the finished film with the cast and crew, I realized the film is also about how adaptable human beings can be when bad things happen. New situations don't always have to be a negative thing, you can still adapt to them and grow, and move forward with the people you love.

Shook Short Still
Still from 2018 short film Shook

This is a film celebrating positivity and hope.

I co-wrote the script with Adnan Khan, a friend who's an incredible writer, and when we finished it came out funny, warm, and much lighter than I thought it would have been if it were written a few years ago. 

That was a reaction to the type of BIPOC work that's been getting made in the last few years. A lot of it is very focused on the difficulties of facing racism and the barriers of that - and trauma - which is not a bad thing. But I also think that I, as an audience member, wanted to break out past that. I think a lot of people may not expect that from me. 

This is your first scripted feature. What surprised you most about the process as you sat behind that camera on set? 

Nothing was surprising. I mean, I was surprised at how natural and how good it felt! The production was really smooth and the vibe on set was very warm and very community oriented. It was what I was hoping it would be, which is a bit of a surprise because filmmaking is really hard. Most of the time we're making work that's tremendously under-resourced. Whereas this is a small film, we're considered a low budget feature film, but we had enough resources in place to take care of me and protect me as a director, of which I was deeply appreciative. It was a reminder of what it's like to make work when you have the right resources in place and how creative and how wonderful it can be.

Did you look to other films to find the right tone or style?

In Shook you see a bunch of young guys from Scarborough going around town, and so Good Will Hunting was a reference that we kept coming back to. It's obviously a very different film, it's about a person from a certain part of Boston entering this world of, in that case, wealth and academia, whereas our character is trying to make it as a writer and enter the literary scene. Both films capture the kind of distance you feel when you're from the outskirts of a city, or from the wrong side of the tracks. 

Did you always want to become a filmmaker?

It was an obvious choice for me. Both my parents are very artistic people. My dad was a television producer in India before we immigrated here, so there was never really any question of what I wanted to do and that I was going to try to do it. They were always very supportive, and also, we're from Mumbai, one of the few cities in the world where the film industry is huge and massive, so it felt natural. 

Tell me about the work you do with diversity and inclusion within the industry. What does that entail?

I am co-founder of an organization called the REMC - The Racial Equity Media Collective - which works very closely with the CMF in terms of its programs for racialized filmmakers and race-based data collection. During the pandemic, and after George Floyd, there was this moment in the industry where it was seemingly receptive to really changing things and its approach to anti-racism. 

So, it felt like a great moment to push some reforms. We were able to get certain organizations, including the CMF, to start tracking some race-based data on where the funding goes so that we can actually solve problems. That work is perpetual. It's going to go on forever. And hopefully we start to see quantifiable results soon.

Back to Shook. What do you want audiences to feel after watching it?

Oh, man, I guess I want them to feel happy, energized and empowered. I want them to feel like movies used to make me feel when I was young, when I really watched something that was f***ing awesome (laughs). Like that vibe you get when you walk out of a theater, and you know you've just seen something awesome and you're going to see it again. Obviously, that's very ambitious! 

But really the vibe we want is that this film feels familiar but is radical because of who's on screen. You just never see brown characters like this. So, for me, that makes the film radical. And hopefully that means something to the audience.

Ingrid Randoja
Freelance writer Ingrid Randoja is the former film editor of Toronto’s NOW Magazine, the former deputy editor of Cineplex Magazine, and a founding member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.
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