An interview with Asham Kamboj

In wanting to investigate and understand the experiences of British South Asian creatives further, I’m delighted to share my interview with filmmaker Asham Kamboj. Kamboj is a writer and director who has made a number of short films including Rent (1999), The Sandwich (2002) and most recently A Place To Stay (2020). He directed his debut feature film, Basement, in 2010. I started our conversation wanting to know what inspired Kamboj to want to make films.

I was a video geek, everything I've learned about film is by watching films. I don’t know if that sounds stupid but for me, no one really taught me, I just watched films and read biographies. I read as many books [as I could] about directors, actors and writers who influenced me.

Digital illustration of Asham Kamboj.
Asham Kamboj, digital illustration by Hamish Mèk Chohan.

What was your journey to making your first short film?

I was very interested in film [but] I was just a lonely person in Slough and didn't have any connections in film so I started to ponder how I could go about making my own film. I wrote a script, a suspense [film], a fifteen minute piece around a location of a house. Once I had that script I basically contacted my council to see if there was any funding opportunities and by chance I spoke to this guy, Andy Lee, who was the Arts Officer for Slough Borough Council and he sort of pushed me in the right directions to get the funding. That led to me getting funding from the Arts Council and from Southern Arts, who were based in Winchester, as they were sort of in my borough. So, once I had the money, I went about making the film, getting the crew together and getting Bhasker [Patel]...

As an aside, I think it would be fair to say that actor, Bhasker Patel, has very much been a mentor and confidant to Kamboj since Rent. And further to this a highly positive and proactive supporter of new talent, including South Asian filmmakers, having also starred in Isher Sahota’s The Saint Of Southall (2020).

Bhasker was very helpful in getting me contacts to crew members, so that's how I formed the team. On set, I think people thought I had already made a film before [so] I had to blag it, pretend that I did, and they just went along with it, and I made the film, yeah!

When I look back at Rent, one heavy influence was Eraserhead [1977]. I've always been a fan of [David] Lynch, it wasn't to do with black and white, it was more to play with image and sound, so at the time, for me, when I was writing Rent I always had to mind how I was going to use sounds in the film. How am I going to make the visuals look, how am I going to make this particular house in a claustrophobic setting look so surreal and abstract. In reality I want it to look out of reality. So, Lynch was a great teacher in that, he still is.

Has your British South Asian identity ever impacted your decisions or experiences within your practice?

For me, first I want to make the film, and then I want to put my own colour in the film, meaning brown people. But I don't want to put brown people in for the sake of having to talk about some taboo subject or I have to put some cultural meaning into it. If I want to make a thriller, there may be a [South] Asian guy in it who the story is based on, regardless of their religion or a cultural aspect, I'm not interested in that, not in a bad way but for me it's about the story.

If you ask me to make a film like Bend It Like Beckham [2002], I could never do it. I wouldn't get past the first hurdle because it’s not something that interests me. I just want to get [South] Asian characters to be looked at beyond colour, to be looked at in the context of the story.

After Rent, Kamboj was ready to move onto his next short film, The Sandwich. With funding in place from the London Film and Video Development Agency (LFVDA), now Film London, unexpectedly a year was taken from him due to an illness which has remained unexplained to this day. Thankfully the LFVDA put aside the money allowing for Kamboj’s recovery.

What made me carry on was I was committed to someone [the LFVDA], for them to believe in me to make another short.

All the people [the crew] who worked on Rent, they all came back for The Sandwich. Like my cinematographer, Steve Kendrick, he said "Let's do it, you need to get back into film and forget what happened in the past, just carry on" and the editor as well, so it became almost like a band of brothers, “Let’s go back and do another film!” It was good.

A personal observation now is the small sphere within which British South Asian creatives navigate, from cast to crew. So, it was not surprising when Kamboj told me of the time Asif Kapadia afforded him time, around the period of Kapadia’s debut feature, the utterly sublime The Warrior (2001).

I remember when I went to watch that, I went to the showing. I got to know him [Kapadia] when he had the showing for The Warrior and I asked him, "I'm doing a short, would you come down and have a look?" And he actually came down and gave me some good points. It was for The Sandwich, which I then went to the London Film Festival with. But The Warrior was a big deal, not an inspiration but, it was a nice feeling to witness a South Asian guy, as a filmmaker, making this film in India bringing [Akira] Kurosawa to the Indian desert.

Do you think filmmakers of colour, those representative of minority groups, have a responsibility representing their communities?

It's a tough one, I mean when you look at M. Night Shyamalan sometimes people ask, “Should he have more South Asian representation because he's South Asian himself?” It's a fine line, an argument, but then maybe it's to do with economics you know. Is Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense [1999] going to take the film further than a South Asian character playing the lead?

But, then you can also look at a film like Slumdog Millionaire [2008], which had no major international stars [at the time] in it, and it became a sleeper hit. Even Gurinder’s Bend It Like Beckham found an international audience. I guess if the story connects it can travel regardless of who is leading.

Kamboj’s trajectory has a very DIY sensibility to things, in the spirit of Roger Corman - if you were as inspired by the Corman's World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel (2011) documentary as I was - he just went out and did it. There wasn’t any waiting for things to happen, he wrote the script, sought the money, got the actors he wanted and went out of his way to create.

When I did my first one [short film] I just did it because I wanted to do it, but then you start to learn where people say short films are a calling card. I never knew they were calling cards, I just thought, “I want to make a film!” but then I realised I'll make The Sandwich and it’ll be my calling card, so that was the whole idea. To get it into festivals but use it as a calling card for a feature. There was a lot of things I didn't know; I was pretty wet around the ears when it came to the business side of film. I was able to put a film together, but there was a lot to learn beyond making films.

[However,] I think, if I'd gone down the film school route at that time, they would have probably taught me everything which is going to happen but the chances of me doing it were going to be very slim. But I knew nothing of that, I just thought I could write a script and if it’s any good someone will give me money. I was just a kid from Slough, I worked at a bookshop, read books on the till and on the weekends wrote my script. I knew nothing about that end. I just thought, that's how I'm going to go about doing it.

After a decade of shorts and making corporate videos, leading to having an office at Pinewood Studios, Kamboj was on his way to directing his debut feature, the thriller horror, Basement. I think it’s fair to say that whatever one’s opinion of the film, there aren’t many who can say they have directed a film, not least a feature. But it was also fascinating to learn how different Basement could have turned out.

Basement was a good experience. It was one of those where you suddenly have a script, and suddenly get a distributor interested in the film and then, within 6 to7 months, you're making the film. But, you're in the clouds and sometimes when you're in the clouds you're all excited that you're making a feature film, and sometimes you may not see straight. It was a good experience, but I never felt that it was my film. If you look at my shorts, there's nothing in it that speaks to my style. Everyone who worked on it must have learned a great deal. Sometimes the way I look at things, you can have a bad experience but then there's always something you take away from it.

[Beforehand,] I was about to do it independently, the same script, and I was going to finance it myself, using my own crew, but then suddenly things changed. A distributor got involved and it became something else. In hindsight I think I would have gone down my own route but at that time you think, when am I going to get this opportunity ever again?

After Basement Kamboj did choose to step away from filmmaking, but I get the feeling that the creative bug never really left him.

There were a few times I wanted to get back. I was thinking of becoming a Producer, there were a few projects that came along, and I was trying to raise money for them but that didn't materialise. So, I thought, if I'm going to come back, I might as well help someone make their film and then once I got the confidence back, I'll do something for me, but that didn't materialise either. In the end I just went into property and carried on with my day job.

At one point making films was your job, do you still see it as such or is it your side project now?

Now I want to go to films I am more passionate about, even if it's just towards a self-financed short film, I'm more than happy [to create on my terms]. I just want to put my films out there for audiences and I feel more relaxed about it.

What makes a perfect short film?

What makes a perfect short? Every filmmaker is going to come out with something and is going to put their own hallmark on it, but I can never say to someone this is the perfect way to make a movie. It’s always a feeling, an emotion. When people go, "This is how I think you should go about making your film," I never tell my students that, I say here's a bit of paper, you tell me what story you want to write, or how you're going to go about it. I will give you some voices [inspiration] but at the end of the day you take away what you see in them and you write what you want to write.

A Place To Stay film poster.
A Place To Stay film poster.

Kamboj’s short films are available to watch via For your consideration, including Rent, The Sandwich and Stealing. His most recent short film, A Place To Stay, starring Bhasker Patel, was shown at the 2021 London Short Film Festival.

He is presently developing a docudrama with Ravi Singh, founder and CEO of Khalsa Aid, and is also developing a four-part drama series which Bhasker Patel is also involved with.