I have lived in the Silicon Valley for over twenty years and watched the Indian American population increase in number and influence but some things stay the same, the stubbornly insular thoughts on what success is – meteoric academic success followed by a STEM degree and financial success in a tech company. There is nothing wrong about those dreams, but it leaves little space for any others.
Saila Kariat started on the same path, a doctorate in Electrical Engineering followed by a successful career in the tech world. But she was not happy because, since her childhood, Saila had always dreamed of being a filmmaker. So, she took a chance and went to film school to learn about screenwriting, directing and film history.
And then her brother died. Losing a sibling was traumatic, but what was more devastating was that her brother, who was schizophrenic, never got the help he needed.
Her family was not alone in their failure to help a suffering child because they were unable to cope with an illness they could not understand.
Saila acutely remembers the pain of being shunned by other Indian families because of her brother’s mental health condition. For a long time, mental illness has been a taboo subject in the Indian American community, and society at large did not recognize or acknowledge the issue, or provide much needed therapy.
“My brother had a very rough life,” said Saila. She realized that this story was replicating itself over and over again, and it gave her the impetus to write what would become her first movie – The Valley.
As a novice scriptwriter, it took her nine revisions, and input from many folk for over a year, before Saila had a finished script for The Valley.
Then came the really hard part – finding the money to produce the movie. Saila encountered various obstacles, including potential producers who suggested that she make her characters Caucasian, to appeal to a wider audience.
Eventually, she found the right investors and cast and learned how to schedule and budget the making of a movie – competencies Saila is now confident about when she makes her next film.
In 2017, Wavefront Pictures released The Valley, written, directed and co-produced by Saila Kariat, and starring well-known actors Ally Khan and Suchitra Pillai. The movie has been invited to 22 film festivals. It has won several awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island International Film Festival as well as Best Original Screenplay for Saila Kariat at the Madrid International Film Festival.
The Valley addresses a difficult subject matter. It raises issues like self-harm and suicide, as well as sexual assault and violence. It is important to understand that watching or reading about these themes could serve as a trigger for individuals suffering with mental health issues; according to experts, stories about teen suicide (currently the second leading cause of death for children and young people 10 to 24 years old), can have a ‘contagious’ or copycat effect. So while movies like The Valley can serve as a powerful teaching tool, “children in groups at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and actions should not watch the show alone.” The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers additional guidelines on how to view such programs with vulnerable or at-risk children.
I saw The Valley at a premiere in Palo Alto, Calif. and was moved. The story centers around Neal Kumar, a father agonised by his daugher’s suicide, who goes on a quest to understand what happened to her, and why. His search reveals that there are no villains in this story and despite everyone doing their best, nobody recognized the signs of anxiety and depression. And that was the ultimate tragedy.
That the story plays out against a backdrop of affluence and success in the Silicon Valley, is fundamental to understanding how some vulnerable kids lose their way. The devastated father is confused by his daughter’s suicide in a family that had the best life he could provide.
In the Silicon Valley the pressure to succeed is extremely high, especially on kids from successful, immigrant families, where parents are not able to stomach any failure from their children. It’s hard to tell desi friends you are struggling with anything, because everyone pretends to be perfect. The Silicon Valley loudly trumpets the mantra of “Fail fast, Fail often”, but also masks the fact that there is frantic pedalling going on unseen, underwater. This sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Saila shares her motivation, “I wanted to tell a story that shows that every person – regardless of their ethnicity, position, wealth or education – has intrinsic value. And I want to shed light on mental health issues, which often go unnoticed and untreated, particularly within the Asian community. I want people to think about the inherent conflict between ambition and human connection. The first breeds hyper competitiveness, while the latter encourages empathy. Empathy is what is needed to deal with any mental health issue.”
Does Saila think her movie is a success? Yes, because she has seen first hand the impact that it has had on some young people who are now getting the help they need.
Saila has other ideas in the pipeline on hard hitting topics, including gun control. It takes a lot of courage and grit to launch a new career. But Saila is doing them for the right reasons. I applaud her for it!
You can watch it on Amazon Prime and YouTube, among other streaming services.
Saila Kariat is writer, director and producer at Wavefront Pictures
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
Edited by Meera Kymal