A South Asian writing-directing duo, Gayatri Bajpai and Nirav Bhakta, scored the first prize for their work Halwa at the HBO Asian Pacific American Visionaries short film competition. This is the first-ever South Asian film to have won an honor or been included in the visionaries program. HBO held the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and its success was further sweetened with its timing in the Asian Pacific American heritage month.

The evocative creation is refreshing in its portrayal of the older South Asian generation. Halwa shows the life of Sujata, an older Indian immigrant woman living with an abusive husband until she finds her childhood companion through Facebook and reconnects with her after decades. The film delicately picks chords from reality with subtle portrayals of a same sex relationship, domestic violence, and a second chance at love.

“We don’t do justice to the older generation of South Asians in the creative space — they are one-dimensional,” says Gayatri. Nirav and Gayatri feel strongly about the representation of South Asian culture in the media. “They are typically played for laughs with older Indian characters always arranging someone’s marriage. With our film, we hope to draw our audience into the quiet psychology of these characters. It was also important for us to portray an immigrant LGBTQ person, and celebrate the spectrum of what makes us Asian American.” True to their word, the characters in their film aren’t just boring, or melodramatic, or silly parents, but individuals with desires of their own.

With global and mixed nationality upbringings, both Nirav and Gayatri’s united passion for telling Asian-American stories comes with a bird’s eye view and from the space of belonging everywhere, and yet nowhere as well as their individual, unique experiences.

Nirav was brought up as an undocumented migrant in motels. He studied architecture, has lived in Panama, and is now based in the US. He started his film journey as an actor. With limited authentic roles for Asian-Americans, he channelled his energy into writing and directing, creating narratives on the immigrant experience. His first experimental short film Honor tackled honor killings and was shown in film festivals around the world, including UK Asian Film Festival.

HBO APA Visionaries 2019. Photography by Steven Lam. Instagram @stevenlamphoto

In contrast, Indian-Canadian Gayatri’s journey was straightforward into the creative space. Her interest in stories about people who find themselves caught between cultures, comes from a multiethnic, international upbringing. She earned an MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in directing from UCLA. She directed short films Muck (2014), Housewarming (2017), which won UCLA Directors’ Spotlight awards for Best Documentary and Best Comedy. Another directorial venture Rio (2017) was produced by James Franco and incorporated into a feature film anthology of the same name. She also produced a documentary on Francis Ford Coppola’s Live Cinema production, Distant Vision (2016).

The team found out about HBO Visionaries Program through a Facebook post by CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment). Nirav says, “CAPE does solid work for Asian Pacific Americans in Entertainment in Hollywood. Right from the CEO level down to the talent, they are not just talk but also action. We took a chance and went for it.”

Halwa was specially created for entry into the HBO competition within six weeks. The team worked together long-distance, Gayatri from Vancouver (Canada) and Nirav from Houston (US). They had a tragedy and many creative obstacles but finished right on time. “It was a race to the finish down to the last upload. We kept that as our goal, and that drove us to get there,” says Nirav.

Sujata is played by actress Vijaya (Vee) Kumari, known for GLOW, Anger Management, Teachers, Criminal Minds etc who is based in LA. An accomplished neuroanatomy professor and a neuroscience researcher, in 2012, she retired to pursue a career of acting and writing. According to Vee, it was “a journey from the left side of my brain to the right.”.

The story has traces from Vee’s past experience with domestic violence. “We wrote the movie with great care to ensure Vee was comfortable with whatever was being written and shot as we wanted to get the tone right,” says Gayatri. The films refreshingly draws attention to the survivor’s strength. “We were clear there would be no violence on screen as we wanted to focus on the agency of the survivor. We listened to people who have gone through it to make sure we serve the story right for them,” says Nirav.

The team tried a new filming technique while shooting. “Our cinematographer told us about ‘silent takes’ by director Andrea Arnold. She does a silent take of each scene and then picks the best one while editing. We tried that and it worked very well for us,” says Gayatri. Piquantly, the technique also gives depth to the depiction of domestic violence, showing underlying silences and dynamics of power on both sides. The silence works beautifully in the scene where Sujata removes her makeup and faces her abusive husband;, the layers of oppression come off and she claims her power again.

Next, Gayatri and Nirav are now working on a screenplay and finishing a documentary about the experiences of a Mexican trans woman who was human trafficked by a drug cartel into sex slavery.

Halwa (2018) Writers & Directors: Gayatri Bajpai, Nirav Bhakta. Players: Vee Kumari, Asit Vyas, Sanchita Malik, Sonal Shah, Samiya Khan, Aishveryaa Nidhi, Puja Gupta, Renu Razdan. Music: Jacob Yoffee. Television release: Now streaming on all HBO platforms within United States & territories. 

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor, Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.