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Artist Keertana Sreekumar reflects on career evolution, working with memory loss

Keertana Sreekumar poses for her headshot. The first-year English literature student became the youngest winner of the Toronto International Film Festival's featured screenplay award in 2021. (Courtesy of Shraesht)

This post was updated Oct. 31 at 8:06 p.m. 

From writing about memory loss to womanhood, Keertana Sreekumar is making a splash in the entertainment industry.

The first-year English literature student began her exploration of the arts with hyperrealism when she was around eight years old, with which she raised funds for the Endangered Species Coalition. Less than 10 years later, she became the youngest winner of the Toronto Independent Film Festival’s feature screenplay award at 15 in 2021. What drew her to screenwriting was not actually an interest in film but rather in storytelling, Sreekumar said.

“I personally was not a movie watcher or moviegoer when I was younger,” Sreekumar said. “So, when I had this idea for the story of an Indian American girl living in California, … I initially wanted to write a book with that storyline, but then I realized it’s more of a visual story rather than a written text.”

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The Toronto Independent Film Festival only takes submissions from those over the age of 18, Sreekumar said, a common feature of many film festivals. To get around this barrier, Sreekumar said she submitted her work under an alias – that of a 35-year-old white man. She said hardly anyone close to her knew she was working on the project because she isolated herself in a creative bubble, but she eventually had to explain the concept of screenwriting to her parents when she won the award. Because she was so young when first exposed to the entertainment industry, Sreekumar said there was not much of a transition upon entering.

“It was more like being thrown into the industry rather than a transition,” Sreekumar said. “I think that is pretty evident with a lot of young people in Hollywood. But I was lucky enough to have great mentors that protected me and made sure that, ‘Hey, is this the right contract you want to sign? Is this the right option for you?’”

Sreekumar said she likes to explore womanhood and growth in her stories, an interest which stems from her own experiences transitioning to young adulthood rather than media she consumes. Athena Cheris – producer for Sreekumar’s upcoming directorial debut “Mothers Daughters” – said there was an alignment between the topics Sreekumar and Cheris wanted to delve into, such as the relationships between mothers and daughters.

Another aspect of Sreekumar’s writing comes from wanting to document her process of growing up, something she said she is worried about forgetting because of the memory loss she experiences. For example, she does not remember writing her first script, she said.

“I think the reason I wrote my first scripts … was because I really wanted to make sure I didn’t forget my high school experience,” Sreekumar said. “With memory loss, there’s no telling what you’re going to forget and what you’re going to remember. … I think that continued even to this day – I think any type of project that I do, even if I don’t realize it yet, is a way of preserving what I did.”

Rosa Morales – the artist development manager of the fiction program at the San Francisco International Film Festival and Sreekumar’s mentor at the program – said the work Sreekumar showed at this year’s SFFILM festival stood out to Morales as moving, artful and touching. The film, titled “Growing Up With Memory Loss,” depicts a young artist with an impaired memory reflecting on what it means to grow up. Morales said Sreekumar was able to take the project’s complicated emotions and present them in a meaningful and beautiful way.

“(Her film) managed to accomplish all the things you want,” Morales said. “You walked away feeling richer for it.”

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Sreekumar’s current script, which she has worked on for about a year and refined during her residency at SFFILM, looks into the relationship between a godmother and a goddaughter, she said. Instead of a story based on her own experience, she said this is a path she sees playing out in her future, as she might adopt a teenager while she pursues a doctoral degree.

This project is different from her other work, she said, because she talked to others about its content before finishing. Morales said Sreekumar’s SFFILM residency group worked through the pages together and gave each other feedback on how to improve the piece. Morales said she hopes Sreekumar continues to write and find a strong community in the industry. Ultimately, Sreekumar said it is important to find communities who are easy to work with and welcoming.

“I think the whole industry, of course, is very cutthroat, and it can be an unsafe environment if you don’t understand the intentions of people,” Sreekumar said. “The most welcoming communities I’ve encountered are youth filmmakers and also South Asian filmmakers. … It’s been super cool meeting people that look like me and had those problems and hurdles in the industry similar to mine.”

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