Monsoon Wedding. The Namesake. Water. Bend it like Beckham. Desi stories have been coming-to-a-multiplex-near-you so regularly these days that just another South Asian-themed movie doesn’t make news anymore. The immigrant experience and the story of the homeland have finally found celluloid storytellers in the West.
The interesting thing is that almost all the best-known names in this new generation of filmmakers have been women—Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta.
Now add two more women to the mix—Los Angeles-based Shonali Bose and London-based Pratibha Parmar.
“Being a mother formed my identity as much as being in film school,” says Bose. The UCLA graduate’s first feature film, Amu (www.amuthefilm.com), has been feted on the festival circuit, in Toronto and Berlin, just enjoyed a limited release in the United States, and is coming out soon on DVD.
Bose had her two sons while getting a Masters in Fine Arts at UCLA. “It was bloody hard to have small children and be a filmmaker,” she says. She recalls breastfeeding in class and desperately juggling schedules. She remembers taking her first film, a documentary about the effects of economic liberalization, to India. “People would ask for my card and the DVD and I had diapers instead,” she chuckles. “For two years, I was just a mother. I felt I didn’t know how to be a filmmaker.”
But now with Amu behind her, Bose has a different perspective: “I think mothering actually taught me something. You need your actors to feel so safe in front of you, like your children. They need to feel naked in front of you and let go.”
Being a woman also came with a different kind of baggage. When Bose landed in India to make Amu, even the spot boys had more experience than she did. “All these men could tell I had no idea what they were talking about. I was a woman and I was that even more hateful thing—an NRI come to make a film in India with a UCLA background,” says Bose. “So I had to prove myself. But I am a full time mother. If you can be a mother you can do anything.”
Pratibha Parmar’s ethnicity and gender have also played a major part in her films. In two decades of documentary films, she has taken on the stories of lesbian and gay South Asians, female genital mutilation in Africa, and South Asian artists in Britain. Her first feature film, Nina’s Heavenly Delights(www.ninasheavenlydelights-themovie.com), is a love story between two women in Glasgow, Nina and Lisa, one desi, one white, set against the backdrop of the Best of the West Curry Competition among Glasgow’s Indian restaurants.
But as a pioneering feminist filmmaker and an out lesbian at a time when few South Asians were out, Parmar has learned the hard way that while India might be cool and chic and eminently marketable right now, there are desi women, and then there are desi lesbians.
Sespite being an award winning documentary maker, it took her seven years to make Nina’s Heavenly Delights. “I had distributors say we love this script, we think you are a talented filmmaker, we want to work with you but can you turn Lisa into John in your script?” Parmar recalls.
As films, Nina’s Heavenly Delightsand Amu couldn’t be more different. Amu follows a young Indian-American woman, Kaju, as she journeys back to India in search of her roots. Bose realizes full well that the looking-for-roots idea is one many Indians roll their eyes at: “I had to overcome my own prejudices about the ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) and understand the poignancy of the diasporan youth who may not feel they belong here or there.” But that journey leads Kaju into a nightmare she didn’t know anything about—the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. As Kaju tries to piece together her past and her connection to the deadly riots, Bose offers up a scathing indictment of “state terror.” The film has been controversial. Many Indians would rather see that sorry chapter of Indian history buried and forgotten. When Bose applied for a censor certificate in India she was told to cut or change several lines of dialog, all of which pertained to the Indian government’s role in the riots. She refused and chose instead to show the film in India with those lines muted.
“At first you saw the audience straining to hear. They thought the sound went off,” says Bose. “Then it was like a ripple that went through—‘censor, censor.’ So it was powerful in its own way: fictional characters in a fictional film were being silenced 22 years later.”
Nina’s Heavenly Delights, on the other hand, avoids all political hot buttons. It plays instead with some more familiar themes: immigrant families and food. Nina comes home from her father’s funeral after she had precipitously run away from home on the eve of her wedding. There she finds herself caught in the cross-currents of family dramas and secrets and eventually decides to try and fulfill her father’s dream and enter the Best of the West Curry Competition. Her co-chef is her former college mate, Lisa, and as the two women start cooking, love blooms. “Ultimately food is a metaphor for love and the movie is about love, including forbidden love,” says Parmar. But after making hard-hitting documentaries like A Place of Rage and Warrior Marks, Parmar has had to face her share of critics who wonder if this feel-good romance, with its lovingly shot spices and curries, isn’t a little too “Like Water for Curry,” a tasty but fluffy confection. Parmar shrugs it off: “I have experienced love and I want to celebrate that. As a filmmaker I want to stretch my boundaries.”
A friend told Parmar that he saw her film on the long haul flight from London to New Delhi. “He got everyone from Rows 17 to 27 to watch it and then he said he led this discussion about it on the airplane,” Parmar says with a laugh. “He said it was a great springboard. He said after a while they forgot it was a lesbian film and were all rooting for Nina to win the curry competition.” Recalling that story, she says, “Sometimes it’s important to show the anger, the rage. Sometimes you say it in a more subtle way, and come at it from a different angle.”
The Birth of the Films
But while their films are very different, both Bose and Parmar could easily swap horror stories of trying to get their films made and into theaters. Parmar says she clearly faced homophobia. And it wasn’t just from distributors who thought there was no market for lesbian films. Even the United Kingdom Film Council told her that “lesbianism has had its sell-by date.”
“Absurd as it, it’s worrying,” says Parmar. “Because these are mostly so-called liberal and progressive institutions saying these things.”
Bose had her own headaches trying to make Amu. An independent producer who promised her the entire budget decided midway through casting that it was too risky and decided to invest in a Bollywood film.
“I knew it would be hard. The film is strongly political and a difficult subject,” says Bose. “It’s not accessible like The Namesake. It’s not happy-go-lucky likeBend it like Beckham. And I am an unknown.”
But she got it made. She remembers the night she got the email from the would-be producer telling her he was pulling the funds out. Just at that time, her husband, Bedabrata Pain, a NASA scientist, got his royalty check for his patent for inventing the world’s smallest camera in 1995. He just handed it over to her and that became the seed money for Amu.
Though the film was lauded at the prestigious Berlin and Toronto Film Festivals, Bose could not get a distributor in North America for a long time. She screened the film in Canada by raising money from the Sikh community doing radio-thons. In India, the film got slapped with an A-certificate, which means it could not show on television. When it released theatrically, the distributor was so dubious about whether audiences would want to see such a politically charged film that they only wanted to take out one print. “We raised the money for more prints and to do publicity and advertising,” says Bose.
When it came to the American release, she approached Fox Searchlight. But they had just picked up Deepa Mehta’s Water and didn’t want a second foreign film, “let alone a second Indian film which was also controversial.” Eventually, Emerging Pictures picked it up, but after having taken the film to New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and attended countless screenings, sometimes three shows a day, Bose is ready to launch the DVD and move on to her next project—a big budget Hindi film set against the Chittagong Armory raid of the 1930s.
Though both Parmar and Bose felt compelled to make their respective stories, both were nervous about how the films would be received. Bose was apprehensive whether even Sikhs would want her to dredge up painful memories from over two decades ago.
Despite the censor nightmares, she says the “greatest reward” has been Amu’s reception in India. The film ran house full for three months. Whenever she showed it in schools, she was astonished at how young Indians, supposedly the apathetic MTV-McDonalds generation, peppered her with questions asking what they could do. Even the Hindi film industry was impressed. Actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Jaya Bachchan have asked to be involved in her next film. Bose also got received glowing testimonials from Shyam Benagal, Aamir Khan, and Hema Malini.
Bose says she is surprised that although the best-known diasporan desi filmmakers are all women, that’s not true in India. While Aparna Sen, Tanuja Chandra, and Meghna Gulzar do make films, they remain more the exception than the rule. She smiles when asked if there is a ya-ya sisterhood of desi directors in diaspora, but says she’s happy with the support she’s received from all of them. “I’ve gotten a lot of warmth and generosity,” she says. “Deepa Mehta was headed to the Academy Awards but took the time to see my film and give me a quote.”
Parmar was nervous, too, about how her film would be received. When she herself had come out as a lesbian, the reaction from her family and community had been difficult. She says some of Nina’s story is based on her own personal life. Her parents had also tried to arrange a marriage for her. “I had to leave home and not see them for a number of years before I could go back,” says Parmar. “I understand that pain. We want to do right by our family, but at the same time the traditions they are following are not doing right by us.”
In her 1991 documentary Khush, dubbed a celebration of South Asian queer sexuality, there is little mention of the families of the people interviewed. In some ways, the lesbians and gay men in Khush needed to go outside the family to create community and celebrate sexuality. Some 15 years later, Nina is also a celebration, Parmar says, “but within the embrace of family.” It’s about coming home, playing against the stereotype of the rigidly homophobic parents.
When the film screened in India for a largely heterosexual audience, Parmar was doubly nervous. She remembered the brouhaha over Deepa Mehta’s Firewhen angry mobs attacked movie theaters. But instead Parmar got a “wonderful response,” with people telling her that Nina needed to be in multiplexes: “I think there is a hunger in India among the middle class for intelligent and entertaining movies.”
Why Make Movies?
Parmar made Nina’s Heavenly Delights because it was a story that she had carried with her for years. She met her partner Shaheen, at one of the earliest lesbians of color gatherings in London. “We didn’t know each other and someone suggested we cook some food,” remembers Parmar. “Shaheen offered to cook. And I said I’ll help. I had already noticed her by then and wanted to do whatever she was doing. So we made dal, alu gobi, and argued about the right way to make chapattis. But while we were arguing things were getting spicy between us.”
Shaheen actually grew up in the kitchen of her family-run Pakistani restaurant. Parmar says that inspired her to write Nina’s Heavenly Delights in order to go behind the façade of the Indian restaurant: “There are so many Indian-Pakistani restaurants in the United Kingdom, and behind every single one there is an immigrant story.”
Bose is herself an immigrant, but for her first film she didn’t want to make the “immigrant story,” though Kaju’s mother, Keya, is an immigrant. She says at some point she would like to make a film about immigrants, perhaps about what is happening to them post-9/11, but she would not like to just make it about South Asians. Where the story of Amu personally connected with her was in the relationship between the immigrant mother and her daughter. Bose left India after her mother died in what she says angrily was “medical negligence.” The pain of that loss knocked her off course and forced her to leave India. In Amu, the role of the mother is played by Communist Party leader Brinda Karat, who is Bose’s aunt and surrogate mother and acting in a film for the first time. While the film is about riots, cover-ups, and history, its core remains a much more vulnerable story of a mother and daughter rediscovering each other. In the course of the film, Keya has one line which Bose says is really her own. Keya has a successful life in Los Angeles, but when she lands in India she says she breathes differently. “Not only do I breathe differently,” says Bose, “I still feel torn between two worlds and stuck.” In the end, Bose says that you just have to make the film you are “compelled to make.” She loved Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and grew up with actress and director Aparna Sen as a neighbor but “never thought I could be like that.” Now, she says, in “directing Amu, I have truly found my calling.”
Parmar, with a long history of activist films, says she is thrilled with her first feature film because she wants people to also “laugh and enjoy and celebrate life.” After Nina’s Heavenly Delights screened in San Francisco, Parmar went to a local Indian restaurant. The waitress there told her she had seen the film, and that after the screening the restaurant was full of people who got hungry watching Nina cook her chicken xacuti. As for Parmar, after shooting food for days she says she didn’t want to look at an Indian meal again for a while. “Well, about three days,” she chuckles. “And then I said let’s go get some dal.”
Who Were Kaju’s Birth Parents?, a review of Shonali Bose’s Amu
Making Cinema Out of Jhal Muri, a profile of Mira Nair
Hollywood Meets Bollywood, a profile of Gurinder Chadha
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|