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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Indian retirees on an American adventure 

Finding purpose, care, and company for our aging parents is a challenge many South Asian Americans are all too familiar with. Forced asunder by jobs and geography, many of us want our parents to join us stateside in their sunset years–the perfect recipe for social isolation and alienation. In his first Hindi feature film, “Shiv Shastri Balboa”, New Jersey-based writer-director, Ajayan Venugopalan, uses adventure, humor, and heaps of hope to highlight the challenges of two older Indians rediscovering themselves in the U.S.

With veterans Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta in the lead, “Shiv Shastri Balboa” opened with much fanfare and rave reviews in India. It premiered at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival last year, picking up the runner-up award for Best Fiction Feature Film

The interview has been edited for clarity.

An NRI’s eye view

Writer-director Ajayan Venugopalan strikes a pose. ((Photo courtesy: Ajayan Venugopalan)
Writer-director Ajayan Venugopalan ((Photo courtesy: Ajayan Venugopalan)

Born and raised in India, Ajayan Venugopalan came to the U.S. as an IT professional. His film career took off with the runaway success of the Malayalam diaspora sitcom, “Akkara Kazhchakal”. His popular web series about a Gujarati immigrant family, Metro Park (Apple TV), raked in awards and an upcoming third season. He now lives in North Brunswick, New Jersey, with his wife, Nisha, children, Nila and Nakul, and puppy Ladoo (which explains the screen time given to lead pooch, Casper).

Ajayan is also a product advisor for a video strategy startup that I co-founded; I have had the pleasure of watching this detail-oriented master storyteller at work.

In an exclusive interview with India Currents, Ajayan tells us how his experience as an NRI sparked the idea for “Shiv Shastri Balboa”, and how a rethink on retirement in the Indian community is long overdue.

Immigration is a one-sided affair

SS: Aging Indian parents feeling displaced in the U.S. What a sensitive topic for NRIs! Isolation is a problem for the older generation everywhere. What struck you the most about the Indian diaspora-aging parents dynamic? How did this influence your storytelling?

Ajayan: Most of the story of “Shiv Shastri Balboa” has come from my personal experience and what I’ve seen around me in New Jersey for the past 20 years. For most first-generation immigrants, immigration to North America has been, in some sense, a one-sided affair; we move in and start making this new country our home. But that’s not the case for our aging parents. They have lived their entire lives in India with a great social fabric and support mechanism. When they come to the U.S., they feel like fish out of water, stuck in a large house in suburban America. That got me thinking about making this film. 

Also, we South Asians have this cultural stigma about age. We expect our retired parents to take life easy, to try and not to rock the boat too much. I wanted to question the idea that it’s too late for them to start something new or to embark on an exciting journey.

SS: You mentioned your story was partly inspired by your parents’ experience when they visited you in the U.S. Have they watched the film? 

Ajayan: They finally got to watch the film, although we had a limited theatrical release and they had to drive a couple of hours. I was very excited that they could watch the film because it was inspired by their personal story. They also told me that they could see a lot of themselves in the film. 

Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta look quizzically into a car in a scene from Shiv Shastri Balboa. (Photo courtesy: Ajayan Venugopalan)
Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta lead the charge in Shiv Shastri Balboa. (Photo courtesy: Ajayan Venugopalan)

SS: Have you met a Shiv Shastri (Anupam Kher) or an Elsa (Neena Gupta) in real life, or is this story your ideal?

Ajayan: Living in the Edison-New Brunswick area, I meet Shastris and Elsas every single day. Most of the retirees take walks in the morning and the evening–the brightest, best times of the day–something they look forward to. For the rest of the day they are mostly stuck at home, watching TV. One of the coolest things I have seen is South Asian seniors gathering in small groups around park benches every evening to chit-chat. It really makes me happy to watch them socialize.

The pain of displacement is universal

SS: The film got rave reviews in India, though. Did you expect the audience in India to relate to an expatriate story? 

Ajayan: The film received great reviews in India. The Times of India gave it four stars, which is rare for a film like this. Even though the story is set in North America, older citizens everywhere feel the same pain. A lot of people are moving out of their hometowns into large metros for work or better lives. The loneliness and struggles of our parents are similar, as they adjust to new lifestyles in big cities.

Also, Indians retire very young; you can do so much more with your life after 60. So this is a story that will resonate with every Indian who has an aging parent.

SS: What has been your biggest challenge as a filmmaker based out of the U.S.?

Ajayan: The biggest challenge for filmmakers like us is that most of our work gets branded as NRI films. Even when our themes are universal, it is hard to sell, because it gets labeled as a diaspora film. In India, we have a rosy, glamorous picture of life in the U.S. We are a successful immigrant community, but that comes with a lot of hard work, tears and pain of leaving our families behind. Many immigrants have built nothing short of small empires, but they started from scratch. Success comes with a lot of sacrifice, and those stories need to be told and documented. 

SS: What do you want retirees and the Indian diaspora to take away from Shiv Shastri Balboa?

Ajayan: “Shiv Shastri Balboa” is not a preachy film. It does not have all the answers to questions about aging. These are complex issues. Instead, it challenges some established norms about aging. Should age be a consideration for somebody to stop dreaming or aspiring? Once you see the film, you will notice that none of the characters are shown in a negative light. Every character has struggles of their own and is doing what they think is the right thing to do. I hope the film will help us appreciate our aging parents better. Many in in India told me that the film made them think about what their parents or grandparents may be going through.

Shiv Shastri Balboa is now running in theaters near you in the U.S. Starring Anupam Kher, Neena Gupta, Jugal Hansraj, Nargis Fakri, and Sharib Hashmi

Ajayan Venugopalan is a product advisor for video strategy startup, UpendNow, co-founded by Snigdha Sen and Archita Mandal.

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Snigdha Sen

Snigdha Sen is Contributing Editor at India Currents and Co-Founder & Head of Content of video strategy startup, She holds a Master of Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism...