If a picture is worth a thousand words, the moving picture creates a lasting memory. The video, images, and reporting of Middle East events in the last few weeks are a testament to this. Media has the power to magnify muted suffering, be the collective declaration of a people, and lend a sustaining power to voices that are otherwise easily ignored.
We focus on five filmmakers who have chosen to place their art and craft in the service of their community, highlighting social issues and capturing culture and its icons, and keeping a record of a changing society and its change-makers who might otherwise languish in obscurity. In the relentless pace of the world, they have chosen to inspire reflection; to ask, in Bob Dylan’s words, “how many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”
These filmmakers are driven by a passion for the movies, no doubt, but that passion is sustained by a desire to tell stories, a sentiment that truly is the mark of humanity.
“Film-making is not for the faint-hearted,” says Anjoo Khosla, adding, “You have to be your own cheerleader many times. But I am ecstatically happy to be given a chance in life to finally follow my dreams and passion.”
Khosla did a Bachelors in Economics and Political Science, followed by a degree in Communication Arts from Xavier’s Institute of Technology in Mumbai. A few years of working in advertising and film paved the way to a Masters in Film and Television from the New York Institute of Technology. Then came a career-flip. Khosla went back to the family business and started a medical equipment company in New York. However, even a six-figure income and 15 years of business success could not overcome the yearning Khosla felt for her first love, film-making. So with her husband supporting her decision to embark on “another mad escapade,” she sold her company in 2005.
She found her groove in films dealing with social change and cross-cultural awareness. One of her early films, Veil of Silence, sought to break the secrecy surrounding domestic violence in South Asian communities. A chance encounter with a young boy at one of Mumbai’s busy intersections led her into making Wahid’s Mobile Bookstore, which won the jury award at the Indian Film Festival in Los Angeles in April 2010.
The film is about Wahid, a nine-year-old boy from an immigrant family in Bombay who sells pirated paperwork books—cheap print editions of best-sellers. The “mobile” nature of his bookstore is that Wahid approaches people in cars stopping at a traffic light. The opening sequence shows him talking with a prospect over the rolled-down window of her car—the bargain has to be struck by the time the light turns green.
Wahid cannot read English, but knows that the author of one of his books, Barack Obama, is the mantri (minister) in America, and is going to make everybody rich. “I think I got lucky with [Wahid],” says Khosla about the film’s critical success. “He touches you. People have really connected with him.” Wahid is quite the international star now; his movie has made it to over 20 film festivals worldwide.
Khosla’s next project, The Sun Rises In The East, currently in development, is a feature documentary on modern Indian art. The film is an extension of her other passion, that of promoting emerging Indian artists. She has been successfully running an on-line art gallery (www.art-hi-art.com) spotlighting works of several painters like Anuradha Thakur.
The Sun Rises in the East chronicles the history of modern Indian art beginning from India’s independence. It profiles established and emerging Indian artists, their inspirations and struggles to create art amidst the constantly evolving economic and socio-political landscape of the country. Some of the artists featured are Raja Ravi Verma, Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil, M.F. Husain, Souza, Raza, Anjolie Ela Menon, Atul Dodiya, and Nikhil Chopra.
Khosla says she realized that “to date, nothing has been done to (promote) modern Indian art. My film seeks to entertain and educate Western viewers about modern and contemporary Indian art while celebrating India’s arrival on the center stage of modern art.” The film will be offered for broadcast to TV channels like PBS (USA), BBC Channel 4, Arte (France), ZDF (Germany), as well as worldwide DVD sales to museums, universities, art galleries, colleges, and libraries.
Antara Bhardwaj was a teenager when her mother decided to take her along to Bombay and make a movie (Vaade Iraade, starring Suchitra Krishnamoorti). It was an influential time for Bhardwaj, who says, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just been bitten by the film bug!”
Bhardwaj admits that movies were a large part of learning about her roots. Having come to the SF Bay Area when she was two, at a time when there were only two desi restaurants and a handful of stores, Indian-ness was what your parents told you it was, and desi culture was what you saw on the DVD player. A strong counter point to this vicarious cultural setting came when she began her training with Pandit Chitresh Das in kathak in 1989. “Dance has been an ancient story-telling art, and I saw my calling in it,” remembers Bhardwaj.
In modern times, story-telling has a moving voice through film, so it seemed natural for Bhardwaj to pursue a career in film. A year of training in directing at the New York Film Academy paved the way for work with director Jagmohan Mundhra on films such as Provoked. Then came the Spice Girl Melanie Brown starrer Telling Lies, which Bhardwaj herself directed. Bhardwaj then took on the producer’s role on Mundhra’s Shoot on Sight.
However, Bhardwaj’s biggest struggle was having to choose between her two passions—dance and film—at any given time. She remarks, “Every time I was working on a film, I was pulled away from my dance. But when I was offered a chance to work on Upaj—it brought my two worlds together into one medium. It has been such a wonderful journey and experience.”
Upaj, meaning improvisation, is a documentary that takes us behind the scenes to watch the birth of India Jazz Suites, a phenomenal East-meets-West dance collaboration featuring Das and Emmy award- winning tap star Jason Samuels Smith. Das is 64 years old, and exemplifies the elegance and mathematical precision of kathak. Smith is a 29-year-old African American tap dancer who hails from the freestyle, streetwise American tradition of contemporary tap. As the two join forces, an unlikely friendship develops that bridges continents, generations, and cultures. At one point in the documentary, Das, with the magnificent view of the ocean in Mumbai as the backdrop, exclaims a greeting to Smith, “from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea!”
Upaj is also a record-keeper of the essential tumult of two forces being forged. The clashes between the dancers threaten to unravel their groundbreaking collaboration, and each performer must come to terms with his personal and artistic demons. Upaj captures the resolutions Das and Jason must make to complete their artistic journey together.
The film is shot and directed by Hoku Uchiyama, winner of the Cannes Young Director Award. Bhardwaj is the producer under her own banner—Hindipendent Films. In her own words, a producer is “the person who facilitates the director’s vision.” She was tasked with providing whatever resources and raw material were needed to make it happen—hiring the cast and crew, booking the equipment and locations, getting the rights and clearances for all legalities, etc.
Upaj will be screened on the opening night of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival on March 18th, 2011, along with a performance by the artists themselves, and a meet-and-greet with the artists and filmmakers.
For Asha Ghosh, the path to claiming her own voice as a filmmaker was a meandering albeit interesting, one, through childhood and adult life. Born in Knutsford, England, then moving to Montreal, Canada, finally growing up around Boston, Mass., Ghosh learnt early to observe and appreciate the delicate bonds that hold people of different communities and races together. She adds, “It forced me to find ways to relate to people who have had different upbringings than I.”
The time she spent in several cities she had to call home also stirred an intense desire to get to know her own roots; she gradually discovered a passion for development work and for India. So after an under-graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering, Ghosh spent a year in Mussoorie at the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) academy as a research assistant. By then, her interest in photography had segued into a way of documenting people and places. As video cameras and editing software became more accessible, she began to explore short videos as a way of capturing people’s experience in a particular place, elaborating, “I was particularly interested in personal stories, especially set in the context of larger currents of change.”
Ghosh got interested in the cause of sustainable energy technology development in India and worked in energy consulting for a few years. Her stint in Delhi with an American energy company is what brought home to her the political angle to problems around development. A move to Bangalore for a chance to work independently with local groups on questions of urban governance and poverty beckoned her, and she moved there for four years. In the final year, the larger context merged with her own aspirations, leading her to make her first film Mr. Shanbag’s Shop.
“I had been visiting Premier Book Shop, owned by Mr. Shanbag, over the years and it was my favorite book shop in the city. I would often tell myself I would only browse and not buy anything, but inevitably I would leave the shop with at least one, and often a number of books,” she reminisces. “Mr. Shanbag always pulled out books he thought I might be interested in and I often found rare books by some of my favorite authors.”
Then came news that the shop was closing down as the landlord had decided not to renew the lease. The Bangalore citizenry and fans of the shop raised their voices against what was then felt to be the demise of yet another original, individual identity at the hands of homogenized, faceless urban construction. Several newspapers bemoaned the imminent closure, and there was also talk of demonstrations. “When I heard that Premier would be shutting down, I really wanted to capture a sense of the shop and of Mr. Shanbag and why so many people in the city were so attached to it. I also wanted to explore the question of the role we play as [spectators to urban transformation].”
Her subsequent move to San Francisco delayed the project; the first screening took place in 2010, at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. It has stayed popular since then, and was screened at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York City, the 9th Annual Asian Film Festival of Dallas, and at the 3rd i Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco.
Ghosh is staying true to her personal-within-the-community standpoint. Her current project is about a music teacher in San Francisco who goes by the name of Mr. Natural.
A six-week course in movie-making in the summer of 1998 in Manhattan got award-winning director, Tanuj Chopra, in touch with the director within. There has been no looking back since.
Chopra, who owns the production company Chops Films, is best known for his feature film, Punching at the Sun, about a South Asian teen in Queens who struggles to cope with the aftermath of 9/11 and his brother’s murder. The movie made the Official Selection cut at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. It also won the Grand Jury Award at the San Francisco International Asian American Festival in 2006. His sci-fi movie, PIA, bagged the Technical Achievement Award and the Best Science Fiction Award at the 2010 Phoenix Comicon.
Nothing is run-of-the-mill about Chopra—not his educational background, not the subjects he chose to study; in addition to an M.F.A. in film direction from Columbia University, he has a B.A. in Art Semiotics, from Brown University. (Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols used as an expression to communicate.) His choice of profession, with the financial uncertainties so disliked by Indian Americans, nevertheless found support with his family.
When asked for his motivation to enter the industry, Chopra says, “When I started, I wanted to make original work that broadened representations of South Asian Americans in this country. I wanted to make movies that starred people like me. I was inspired by movements in Black, Latino, and Asian American cinema and all the brave filmmakers breaking ground since the 60s.”
Chopra has directed both feature films and shorts. He compares feature films to marathons. “They require endurance and stamina. Shorts require much sharper thinking and more streamlined choices—often a short is a process of removal, where you strip away everything that prevents you from telling your story in the most efficient way. The competition with shorts is also much higher, which seems counterintuitive, but the fact is that there are way more shorts in existence on our planet.”
His new short PIA delves into futuristic themes. It is part of the Future States online initiative funded by ITVS where 12 filmmakers were selected and and asked to make films about their American perspective. The only directive was that the film had to have a science fiction, magic realism, or fantasy element to it. Says Chopra, “I’ve always loved movies about androids like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, so those films became jumping off points. A futuristic movie wasn’t more difficult to make—it just required an attention to different elements to bring the the world to life.”
Audiences at Sundance connected with his earlier movie Punching With The Sun on a visceral level. Adds Chopra, “It was a timely film that touched on political sentiment of the moment.”
Asked about his challenges as a filmmaker, Chopra has quite a laundry list. “Getting out of bed, catching inspiration, disproving critics, not enough storage space for media, feeding my crew, keeping up with technology, choosing the right lens, installing FCP plug-ins, deadlines, the 32nd pass on the cut, what to wear at a premiere, color correction, importing pro-tools files, existential meltdowns, narrative integrity, the search for truth, uncovering the meaning in a dramatic text, articulating motivation, remembering to pay my cell phone bill!”
Chopra is particularly proud of movies that he has made for non-profit organizations like SAYA! (South Asian Youth Action) and, more recently, the WCI (The World Children’s Initiative) which “showcased the organization’s efforts to bring non-invasive procedures to children with heart disease in Uganda.” He finds it personally rewarding when his skills bring light to an impacting issue like global health.
The subjects that he tackles may be serious, but Chopra is not without a sense of humor. When asked how a novice film-maker would go about funding a venture, he quips, “Rob a bank at gunpoint.”
Currently, Chopra is developing a couple of feature films. He says, “Development is the best part of making a movie, as you can make up whatever you like and dreaming is free.”
When Vaishali Sinha was working on a Bachelors in Physics at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, she had no inkling that she would one day b
ecome a movie-maker. Pursuing an interest in social work, she switched gears from the sciences and worked as a program assistant in a women’s rights organization. It was there that she discovered her interest in filmmaking as a potent means of communication on social issues. She sought work at a production company where she had the opportunity to observe and work with the Bollywood cinematographer and director, Kiran Deohans who worked in films like Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gam, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jodhaa Akbar.
Sinha scripted, directed and edited her first movie Choose Life? in 2005. The movie, a short narrative, deals with the issue of abortion and personal choice, and portrays a day in the life of a young woman who has discovered that she is pregnant.
Her next, Red Roses, a documentary short which she co-directed and produced, depicts the lives of South Asian women who come to the United States to fulfill marital and family obligations. It was screened at the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, the South Asian International Film Festival and the Globian Doc Fest in Germany.
But her latest movie, Made in India, which she co-directed with Rebecca Haimowitz, is an attention-grabber and raises many questions about women’s rights and ethics. It deals with the issue of outsourcing, which doesn’t sound sensational, till one discovers that the theme is of reproductive outsourcing and surrogacy.
This movie, which received numerous competitive grants and premiered at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, “shows the journey of an infertile American couple, an Indian surrogate and the reproductive outsourcing business that brings them together.”
Undertaking a subject that is controversial, private, and delicate in nature presented its own set of challenges, but Sinha feels fortunate to be let into the lives of the Switzers, a coupley in San Antonio, Texas who were contemplating surrogacy. Sinha also had to consider the privacy of the surrogate, Aasia.
The draw of money was a strong motivating factor for Aasia who despite her conservative society, decided to take on the role of surrogate. But Sinha feels that “medical, legal, and contractual matters emerged as the bigger issues” during the movie process. While India has guidelines relating to the ground-breaking issue of surrogacy, it does not have laws in place yet.
Sinha is hoping to stay independent and is committed to film-making full time. She freelances in video production and direction when she not working on her own films. But the road is not without hurdles, with funding being a major one for all documentary film-makers, who have to prove themselves over and over again by showcasing their originality, creativity, and passion.
Today the director, whose film has been nominated for the Ridenhour Institute’s documentary prize for excellence in truth-telling, is working on producing and co-directing a feature length documentary on Kashmir.
With women’s rights and societal issues close to her heart, Sinha has tackled subjects that are current, relevant and thought-provoking. Not bad for someone who never saw herself as an artist!