Disney doesn’t have a great track record with diversity. When I was young, the only character that possibly represented me was Princess Jasmine, and she wasn’t even Indian, not to mention severely stereotyped. Growing up, I hated that teachers always mispronounced my name or that kids would say my lunch looked gross. I wanted to see the classic Disney story with an Indian heroine rising above all obstacles and getting her “happily ever after”, mostly so I could see that there was one for me too.
When I heard that I was going to be reviewing a Disney movie about an Indian-American girl, just two years older than me, and interviewing the cast and crew, I was ecstatic. I have a long history with traditional Hindustani music, so the element of Indian music being incorporated in this film resonated with me.
And then I proceeded to watch a typical Disney movie in which Indian culture was lazily thrown about in the film just so Disney could fulfill their quota of representing Asian-Americans.
For those who haven’t watched it, Spinis about Rhea (Avantika), an Indian-American high school student who is introduced to the world of DJ-ing by British transfer student Max (Michael Bishop), while simultaneously waitressing in her family restaurant run by her widower father Arvind (Abhay Deol). The restaurant is also staffed by her supportive grandmother (Meera Syal) and her younger brother (Aryan Simhadri). Arvind is not supportive of Rhea’s DJ interest and wants her to commit her time to his restaurant.
One thing that became glaringly obvious as I watched the movie was that the script was not made for Indian-Americans. The setting, the characters, their interactions, and their challenges showcase a version of Indian culture as perceived by western eyes and ears. For instance, in the movie, Rhea’s friends (none of whom are Indian by the way or seem to be acquainted with Hindu culture) throw a school dance “inspired” by the Hindu festival of Holi. Yet, other than Rhea and Arvind, everyone refers to it as “The Festival of Color”.
“Everyone gets Festival of Color,” says director Manjari Makijany. I’d argue, the onus isn’t on Indian-Americans to make our culture acceptable to a mainstream audience by renaming it into something more comfortable. Also, the Festival of Color dance thrown by the school is an extremely white-washed version of Holi. The only details retained were the white clothes and color powders. The music played by the DJ (who is a white British-American, which feels like a problem in itself) had no Indian inspiration, although the movie claimed it was about a girl mixing her cultures.
The setting also has a utopian feel about it. Even though Rhea is the only Indian-American in the school and freely expresses her culture, there is no commentary on how the non-Indian classmates feel or react to this choice.
Makijany comments, “It was very important to make sure that Rhea’s character was not completely Western or American.”
While it is great that Rhea feels comfortable wearing her kurti to school, it is not realistic. Indian-American teenagers are still teenagers and are into the same trends that other teenagers like. It’s more complicated than just choosing a side or wearing clothes — it is about finding the balance between our Indian heritage and Western culture.
This film also failed in the one thing it promised to do. Marketed as a film about a girl finding the mixture of Indian music and DJ beats, there was no effort to delve into the complexity of Indian music. Instead, the film relies on sounds that Western audiences have stereotyped to sound “Indian”. India has beautiful regional sounds and systems of music that have lived many years, having been being finely carved into beautiful compositions. What better way to educate a large audience on intricate music styles that a new generation might carry on and keep alive? It was a missed opportunity for Disney, who is also known for creating songs for the next generation.
So why? What happened?
The film has an Indian director, a strong majority Indian-American cast, Disney’s funding, and the ability to use countless resources for an authentic story. What went wrong?
I believe the answer lies in the two white writers of the movie, Josh Cagan and Carley Steiner. The script was written by two non-Indians who have no background in Indian culture, much less any knowledge of being an ethnic minority. Disney didn’t even bother to recruit Indian-American or even Indian writers to write a movie about Indian Americans.
“They did a great job doing their research and their homework,” Makijany notes, “and having an Indian filmmaker come in and add in the details and nuances and I made sure that that happened.”
While Makijany is to blame for a lot of the directorial choices the film made, it’s not her fault that Disney chose to make a show of an Indian cast and crew while shielding the fact that the people in the writer’s room were the exact opposite of that.
The acting was probably the best part of the movie. Abhay Deol’s performance gave a character, that the writers didn’t give a good presence or story, a deep and complex history. Avantika did well with her character, especially during the scenes where she interacted with music. Despite needing to work on her dialogue delivery, she is immensely talented and I can see a great future for her career. Meera Syal makes a great character in Abha and does a wonderful job of creating a mother figure for the protagonist Rhea.
This movie had everything to be successful. Disney had a chance to make Indian representation healthy and influential. Ravi from the Disney show Jessie had an Indian accent, a pet lizard, spoke Sanskrit and Hindi even though he was adopted at the age of 5 by an American couple. He was also portrayed as nerdy and socially awkward.
Baljeet from Phineas and Ferb also suffers from the same portrayal being nerdy and having a thick Indian accent, despite having moved from India when he was young.
Even portrayals of Indian-Americans in shows not aimed at children have been severely wrong, with such characters as Raj from The Big Bang Theory. I just wish that I, and many other South Asian children, had an accurate Indian-American representation in media. But, alas, that may not happen.
Medha Sarkar is a Freshman at Los Gatos High School. She enjoys writing, music, and having a good laugh.
As U.S. minorities grow to the fifty percent mark, efforts to stifle their voting rights acccelerate.
Sara Sadhwani, one of 14 members of theCalifornia Citizens Redistricting Commission, has her task set out for her. Over the next few months Congressional, State Senate, State Assembly, and State Board of Equalization districts and cities will be adjusting their boundaries to reflect the 2020 Census data. Sara and her Commission are charged with drawing the political boundaries that reflect the new diverse, biracial, more urban/suburban than rural America. They will have to ensure the redistricting is done fairly, that communities of color get a seat at the table of governance and their voices are not muted.
The census tells our American story since the first survey was conducted in 1790. It’s a count of everyone living in the United States, regardless of background, immigration status or citizenship. It paints a picture of who we are, ensures our political representation and ensures funding for the fundamentals of our lives.
The 2020 Census revealed an increasingly diverse America. It’s getting closer to being less than fifty percent white non hispanic.
“The nation has steadily changed over the course of the last five decades,” Lopez said. “The big story here is that there are about 5 million fewer white Americans. 32 states saw their populations rise, but within those states, the White non-Hispanic population fell. Their populations became more diverse.” Meanwhile, the number of Americans who said they are of two or more races also increased (34 million).
Based on these data, political boundaries will be redrawn at the national, state, and local levels over the next several months.
Districts will adjust to reflect the demographic changes that have occurred so that growing Black, Latino, Asian and Native communities that have historically faced discrimination, have an equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidate.
California has been a white minority state since 2000 (the US Census),Non-Hispanic whites decreased from about 76.3–78% of the state’s population in 1970 to 36.5% in 2019.
In 2000 the racial makeup of the nine-countyBay Area was 50 percent non-Hispanic white, in2010 the Bay Area was 42.4 percent non-Hispanic white and in 2020 the Bay Area was 34.7% non-Hispanic white.
The trends could fuel more calls for diversity among elected officials, and the data will inform a contentious Congressional redistricting process.
The U.S. mainland’s only Asian-majority congressional district District 17 is in California’s Silicon Valley. It is currently represented byRo Khanna.
California will redraw its congressional district maps in response to the 2020 census. To see updates clickhere.San Jose is getting ready to redraw its 10 City Council districts—and will decide whether some populations should be grouped together based on common interests. The Zoom link for public hearings is:https://sanjoseca.zoom.us/j/97678000504.
With California losing a congressional seat for the first time in its history, many political observers are watching which region — and which incumbent politicians — may be disadvantaged by the new maps. The lost district is likely to come out of Los Angeles County, which grew at a slower pace than other parts of the state.
Sara Sadhwani is working hard to ensure a fair outcome. To ensure fairness she invites participation, “We need your input on how to draw the political boundaries to empower and optimize civic participation! @WeDrawTheLines”
It is therefore imperative that Congress set up powerful safeguards and legal tools that advocates can use in court to police redistricting. To safeguard our right to vote, two bills currently in Congress — For the People Act (S1), and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, both with strong bipartisan support, aim to counterbalance voter suppression initiatives.
On Aug. 24, the House of Representatives approved the John Lewis Act that among other things, seeks to restore section V of the Voting Rights Act that gave the Department of Justice the power to review any proposed legal changes in states with a history of discrimination against voters of color. In the Senate it faces strong Republican opposition.The “For the People Act” was also approved in the House and action is expected on it in the Senate in September.
This bill addresses voter access, election integrity and security, campaign finance, and ethics for the three branches of government. Specifically, the bill expands voter registration (e.g., automatic and same-day registration) and voting access (e.g., vote-by-mail and early voting). It also limits removing voters from voter rolls.
The bill requires states to establish independent redistricting commissions to carry out congressional redistricting.
It is imperative that these bills pass into law to ensure citizen’s right to vote.
“There are political forces that view the fact that this country is becoming a pluralistic and multi racial one as an existential threat. Democracy itself is being narrowed to exclude certain members of our community,” saidYurij Rudensky.
Engage! – Discussions on active involvement in personal health and global wellness.
Bhageeratha performed austerities for a thousand years to bring goddess Ganga down from the heavens to Earth to purify and release his ancestors from a curse. Varuna, Poseidon, and Neptune are deified as Gods or Kings of the oceans by Indians, Greeks, and Romans respectively. World mythology attributes over 200 gods, goddesses, kings, and queens as rulers of this precious element that is Water, be it in the form of an ocean, sea, river, spring, stream, lake, tide, rain, or even their inhabitant serpents, dragons, and nymphs.
At a less celestial level, water is required for earthly life as we know it. Human existence and biology are predicated on it, and all early civilizations were settled around access to water. But it had to be drinkable, and human ingenuity was put to the test again.
Enter the ‘hot water and alcohol’ cultures. Early civilizations found two ways to make water potable, with the aim of disinfecting it and in some instances just making it taste better. Some boiled it, while others added alcohol to it.
Beer and wine were the earliest fermented alcoholic brews. Early cultures who concocted these are thought to be the Chinese and regions around ancient Mesopotamia and present-day Iran, but common partaking of alcoholic brews was known in Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Babylonian societies. Beer was made by fermenting various grains including barley, corn, wheat, oats, and rice, and the fermentation of grapes with rice potentially led to the first wines.
While these versions of alcohol probably tasted good and had a lower microbe count, it was not optimal for all and sundry, including young children, to imbibe it from the morning hours. And so, Romans and Greeks were famously known to drink diluted wine. Although this may not have necessarily made the water microbe-free it must have made it taste better. Some historians even believe that the use of lead vessels by Romans for boiling down grapes and creating syrups led to lead poisoning unbeknownst to them, and contributed to the fall of the Roman empire.
While early evidence of distillation of alcohol (to enable the making of the more concentrated spirits) was discovered in the Indus Valley Civilization, India is one of the ‘hot water’ cultures and keeps company with Japan, Korea, and China. Boiling water was resorted to in order to disinfect water in these societies, and the overall preference for warm or even room-temperature water over chilled water is prevalent.
In India, the positive qualities of hot and warm water are advocated in yoga and Ayurveda. Drinking several glasses of warm water is recommended in the morning to flush away toxins People undertaking a fast are encouraged to consume warm water as it promotes a feeling of fullness, and one can imagine that this could be sage advice for persons consciously controlling their diet.
Ayurveda also suggests storing water in copper and silver utensils, which are thought to possess anti-bacterial properties among other health-promoting aspects. Elders in my own family prefer hot water, decry all chilled beverages, and invariably ask for hot water in restaurants of any cuisine. However, China exemplifies the modern-day cultural preference for hot water, where it is a favorite drink of young and old. They consume it in its pure form or as tea, and this practice is thought to have arisen from ancient wisdom as well as more recent public health promotion efforts.
Obviously, this is not meant to imply a clear divide between the so-called hot water and alcohol cultures, and alcohol was consumed in various forms in the Eastern and Southeast Asian cultures too, but they were probably indulged in for reasons other than the purification of water. While boiling water still remains a good strategy for purifying water of micro-organisms, when one is in a bind and stranded with an absence of fuel, other strategies are suggested such as filtration. An important consideration is that some impurities in the water will not be inactivated with these above treatments.
And when I recently ordered water in a restaurant in Brazil, I was asked, ‘With bubbles, or without bubbles?’
That’s progress for you.
L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas, and writing. Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar. www.liyengar.com.
Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.
As a community in the Bay Area with strong roots in India, we have been befuddled in our responses to our newfound freedom from the pandemic scenario while holding onto the complexity of the continued struggles of our friends and family back in India.
I could relate to the isolation and suffering of the pandemic from when I dealt with a difficult illness for some years with no break of ‘normalcy’. I decidedly trained myself to accept my new normal, and then the days that felt really hard became just like any ‘normal’ day. It lifted the burden of “Why Me” and made it somewhat more acceptable to live through the ordinary pain of a seemingly extraordinary situation (or vice versa).
It helps to blur the line between ordinary and extraordinary, whichever end we think us to be on. When extraordinary strength is required for long-term challenging situations, it helps to remember that even ‘normal’ life feels the same periodically.
And when we think of ourselves as ordinary and normal, it helps to remember that we hold the potential for the extraordinary. When life is ‘normal’ we take for granted that only some special people have strength. We forget that they are choosing to be strong. All of us have the choice to go a bit beyond our comfort zone. Extraordinary resilience can emerge out of simple shifts in perspectives.
Choice of perspectives Is a gift of universal views Though reality seems tentative Be keen on your objective
As we choose to look at things differently Struggle becomes our responsibility As we refuse to think at things rigidly Change becomes an indisputable possibility When it seems like stuck for infinity That’s when actually life is flowing rapidly Let go and we get unstuck very easily
Choose what you want to change Change what you choose to change Insist to receive from what you perceive Find it within you to realize your view
The perceived may be turbulent When you be present and persistent Look at and let go of being resistant The received is sure to be opulent
Be relentless in pursuing life A glorious one now that you are at it And watch how life becomes relentless In what it has to offer you It is up to you how much you catch it
All things big and small when dropped to the felt sense become our internal experiences. No experience is ordinary or extraordinary, in some ways. Just because it happens to everyone and is normal, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be affected. If our thoughts and emotions are taking over that means our experience is real. It is affecting the quality of our life. Acceptance is being aware of all of that.
When fear grips, it means some perceived and real experiences of the world around us have left us with no control over how we feel and choose. When our system is out of balance the fear might bring up some pain or symptoms in the body. We might feel agitation, worry, or confusion in the mind, we lose the capacity to trust and feel positive. It becomes a struggle even when we have had a taste of divine faith before. We now seem to have lost the ability to be congruent with the core of our original being.
It is helpful at such times to create experiences to influence our system in the direction of balance. This can be done in various ways. A breathing practice that brings the body and mind to a calmer & clearer state of being, time in solitude, or nature with nurturing activities. Reading and music provide that relief for some. Sometimes we just need honest conversations with people who can act as authentic mirrors to us. Either a friend or mentor who reinforces and channels that sense of trust, faith, or divine connection back in our system.
There is tremendous rich value in this process of intentional shifts between imbalance & balance, ordinary & extraordinary, and fear & faith. I am blessed to be a receiver of such reinforcements from friends and teachers that I reach out to. I am also grateful to have opportunities to facilitate such shifts through the yoga classes that I teach in group and private sessions.
Pragalbha Doshi lives with her husband and 2 teenage boys in San Jose, CA. As a yoga teacher, she facilitates therapy & change for people who struggle with chronic symptoms of stress, physical & emotional, and who want a productive & fulfilling life www.yogasaar.com.She is deeply grateful to the community Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley and founder Jyoti Bachani for having a friendly affirmative space to read poetry aloud for a very generous audience during their weekly virtual meetings.
As India gears up to its 75th Independence Day on August 2022, Indians in Atlanta had their own reasons to celebrate this Independence Day this year with even more pride and patriotic fervor. With earnest efforts initiated by India American Cultural Association (IACA), Governor Brian Kemp issued a Proclamation declaring August 15, 2021, as India Day in the state of Georgia. The presentation of the proclamation was held at North stairs of Georgia Capitol Thursday, August 5, 2021, in the presence of community leaders and representatives from various organizations of the community.
“We are honored and thankful to Governor Brian Kemp for recognizing the contributions of the Indian community in the state of Georgia with the declaration of August 15th as India Day. This gives me immense pleasure as a member of the community,” said Chand Akkineni, President, IACA who initiated the process for proclamation.
The proclamation reads:
“Stepping into its Diamond Anniversary year, ever since August 15, 1947, India’s non-violent struggle for freedom, its rejection of terrorism and extremism, and its belief in democracy, tolerance, and the rule of law have been an inspiration and beacon of hope for people around the world, including Atlanta’s very own Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was inspired by Gandhian principles; and
On August 15, 2021, India American Cultural Association (IACA) will host its 25th Annual flagship event, Festival of India at the Gas South Convention Center inviting people of Georgia to celebrate India’s Independence from the British, showcasing India at its cultural and intellectual best with spectacular performances from the finest dance, music and all performing arts academies across Atlanta and an interesting line up of seminars on diverse themes, both classical and contemporary; and
IACA’s Festival of India represents diverse Indian population from various regions of India, including Georgia’s multifaceted Indian Americans who are entrepreneurs in myriad of fields, health care providers, engineers, technocrats, educators, small business owners, attorneys, judges, writers, authors and artists who continue to contribute greatly to social, economic, and civic health of Georgia; and
India’s Independence Day is one of India’s three national holidays celebrated by 1.3 billion people across the country and two million in the US with flag-hoisting ceremonies, parades and much more; and
The fact that Georgia features in the top ten U.S. Metropolitan areas that houses the Indian American population of 137,000 as of 2019 bears testament to the fact that Georgia fosters and nurtures diversity; and Indian corporations and businesses working with Georgia to open up trade relations between them, aided by local Indian American Georgia residents binds and builds strong relations between the world’s two largest democracies.”
“We are grateful to our Governor for recognizing the many contributions of the Indian American Community in Georgia and honoring India on its 75th Independence Day by declaring August 15, 2021, as India Day in Georgia,” stated Neera Bahl, Director and Appellate Division Judge at Georgia State Board of Workers’ Compensation. Bahl played an instrumental role in the implementation of the proclamation.
Incepted in 1971, IACA is the oldest Indian American organization in Atlanta represents a unified Indian community with diverse and dedicated membership comprising people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. IACA has stood the test of time, braving through evolving social, economic, and political landscapes in the city and its people, Indian Americans, in particular. The multitude and multi-faceted Indian populace that call Atlanta home today are rooted in organizations such as IACA founded by its earnest pioneers who collectively carved a niche for the community, garnering adulation from people of their adopted country while paving a smoother path for generations to come.
Festival of Indiawas conceptualized by IACA in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. One of Atlanta’s largest South Asian events, the signature event continues to draw thousands of audiences each year. The festival showcases India at its cultural and intellectual best with spectacular performances from Atlanta’s finest dance, music, and all performing arts academies, an interesting lineup of seminars on diverse themes, competitions, shopping, and quintessential aspect of every Indian home – food. This year FOI will be held at Gas South Convention Center on August 15, 2021, an in-person event with covid safety protocols. IACA extends a warm welcome to all interested attendees to register at foi.eventtitans.com
At a time when the community sensed the need for Indian organizations to safeguard their ethnicity and heritage, back in the 60s and 70s, IACA stepped in and continues to be an effective platform and a catalyst in bringing the community closer. Organizations such as IACA and events like FOI play an essential part in raising awareness, showcasing our culture, and shaping the perspective of American society.
“This is a historic and proud moment for the community, to be recognized and have representation in the state of Georgia. I am thankful to Governor Kemp for acknowledging India’s contributions to the world and the role of IACA in fostering community activities. I am honored to have drafted this proclamation on behalf of IACA,” said Jyothsna Hegde, editor of the IACA newsletter, and city news editor of NRI Pulse.
Graced by humor, Gabriela Ledesma’s The Last Conception seeks to spread the radiance of humane values amidst its laughable moments. It is the story of the Sikand family, whose quirkiness mixed with their sweetness, takes you on an eighty-five-minute exhilarating ride.
Meet the Sikands and know their story
Savarna (Nazanin Mandi), an Indian-American young woman, is an embryologist at an IVF lab. Her parents Davidia (Marshall Manesh) and Mira (Veena Bidasha) have burdened her with the responsibility of getting married and having a baby to carry on the bloodline.
The parents present their arguments to convince Savarna.
a) Her sister Chitra (Lovlee Carroll) is barren, and she and her husband Mike (Josh George) have adopted a child who is not part of their lineage.
b) Her cousins from India, who were in the race to grow the family tree, have died in an accident. So they have no other option but to pin all their hopes on Savarna to carry out this task.
A bombshell drops when Savarna announces that she is gay and in a serious relationship with her Caucasian-American partner Charley (Callie Schuttera).
After some initial disappointment and drama, Savarna’s parents accept her sexuality. But Savarna’s mom is still insistent that she has to have the baby some way or the other. Tension brews with the arrival of Savarna’s grandmother, who comes from India with a spiritual assistant to ensure that Savarna gets pregnant.
A big surprise greets the Sikand sisters when they learn that they are Buddhists and not Hindus. Their parents reveal that they are the direct descendants of Gautam Buddha, and the child born to Savarna is the only hope to maintain the sacred family name. It is speculated that the new baby could even be Buddha reincarnated!
Savarna, with the approval of her family, gets married to Charley. But will she give her parents the grandchild that they have been waiting for? Join the lovable Sikands till the finish line to know about it all.
A humorous plot and brilliant performances make the film enjoyable.
There is never a dull moment in The Last Conception. The humor is not forced and flows spontaneously through the dialogues and actions. The actors need to be credited for doing justice to their parts as they ably contribute to keeping the laughter ball rolling. They perform with natural ease, and that’s what keeps the comic elements alive.
I laughed when Chitra stumbled between the words lineage and linen!
Then there is Savarna’s boss Jackson (Matt Richards) at the IVF lab who, while putting the samples in the freezer, called them babies.
The family moments are captured naturally, and the scenes fit into the right places.
Husbands and wives can act extremely silly when they argue over trivial things, and Savarna’s parents are no exception. In one such scene, Davidia snubs his wife when she simply inquires why he is breathing so hard.
Charley, surprised, asks Savarna if she has more than one father when her father knocks at their door and announces “It’s your Dad. Davidia.”
Close on the heels of one another, there is a refreshing shower of humorous moments that keep one thoroughly entertained.
It’s all there in a solid script!
Thanks to screenwriter Gabriel Constans, there is so much that is tenderly handled in the story. The idea of the divine child is a rather unique paradigm that offers freshness to the script. Constans maneuvers the story artistically with a twist at the end that one would anticipate the least.
Besides the humor that flows perennially throughout the film, we experience a family camaraderie that is so heartwarming. Also, the concept of multiculturalism blends beautifully into the story. After Savarna surprises the family by telling them about Charley, her sister casually remarks: “Takes the heat off me for marrying a white guy!” But we see no traces of ill will towards any culture or community. Instead, a thought rings loud that humanity flourishes by embracing diversity.
The film addresses the LGBTQ perspective through the story of Savarna and Charley without any spoken words, sending a message that love, respect, and acceptance can create wonders and pave the road to happiness.
It’s all about laughter, kindness, warmth, and affection in The Last Conception, and it’s this sweet package that leaves you with a feel-good experience at the end.
Rashmi Bora Das is settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. She has written for various platforms including Women’s Web to which she regularly contributes. You may visit her atwww.rashmiwrites.com.
“If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination…Housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic in 2014.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Hello, Srishti. You have time to help me?” I know who it is. Like clockwork, she came to my office every day.
Judy (56) was a Korean American resident in the Mountain View low-income/affordable housing building, Tyrella Gardens, where I was working as a MidPen Family Services Coordinator.
A divorced, immigrant, single mother, and a Section 8 recipient, Judy had to navigate the bureaucratic Santa Clara County Social Services system alone. She often reached out to me for rental assistance, legal advice, tax education, resume building, or job search help, and to decipher the English legalese on official documents.
In August of 2019, armed with Coates’ wisdom and a naive passion for justice, I ventured into a career in affordable housing. Little did I know, my clients and I were ill-equipped and set up for failure. I was just another added number to a high rate of attrition of Resource Coordinators at affordable housing facilities, and Judy’s loss of housing was collateral damage.
When Judy tried to access resources in Santa Clara County, it often resulted in confusion, frustration, and even aggression from county employees. Judy, lost in the labyrinth of an unfamiliar language, would repeat herself and struggle to answer the litany of personal questions asked. The county employees, overwhelmed with the number of calls received, tried to get through each client quickly.
English language fluency, dedicated time, and deference dictate the probability of a positive result.
Case Study 1: Judy frantically calls various organizations for a government-issued cell phone plan. They tell her she is ineligible. I call a few hours later and she has a phone in her hand within the week.
Case Study 2: Judy reaches out to the local church for rental assistance. They tell her she isn’t the right fit for their donation program. I reach out to the same church on her behalf and a few weeks later, after some paperwork and interviews, Judy receives rent relief.
Affordable housing corporations build a niche market of jobs for Resource Coordinators, capitalizing on their empathy and desire for equity, to meet the demands of their municipalities. Housing instability positions 40% of Californian renters with the invariable choice of having to allocate half of their income for rent. These renters become financially vulnerable and are increasingly reliant on government-funded resources. Lip service and self-congratulatory behavior about housing policy by notable leaders calls for media attention. Instead, left in the wake are the underpaid, understaffed Resource Coordinators with the onus of uplifting the disenfranchised.
“I can’t imagine you not here, Srishti. You help me so much,” Judy said to me one afternoon after searching for jobs.
Those words echoed heavy and hollow.
It was a laborious job. I serviced the residents at two different housing locations, independently taught and developed the after-school program for kids (many of whom had learning disabilities), created the high school program for teens, ran the farmer’s market, conducted countless engagement events, and more. To top it all off, a lot of my time was spent tediously cataloging my work on Salesforce for upper management, who seemed more concerned with the data-tracking tool than with their employees on the ground.
For many months, I was at an impasse. I couldn’t decide if I should leave Tyrella Gardens. I didn’t feel valued, I didn’t feel supported, I wasn’t paid well, and I was perpetually ill.
Internally struggling, I went back and forth between these questions: If I left, how would my absence make Judy feel? How would my coworkers fare without my help? Was the pay worth the hours I put in? Did I feel valued by MidPen Housing? Did I feel supported by MidPen Housing? Was the job sustainable?
The pandemic was a chaotic trigger in my life and Judy’s. I quit my job at Midpen Housing in February of 2020 and the lockdown began soon after. My immediate worry was — how would Judy fare?
Perhaps, I should have been apprehensive of my own housing situation. I was living with three roommates and three out of the four of us were without consistent sources of income. We concluded that the responsible thing would be to break the lease.
Our property management company made it an arduous and expensive ordeal — it would cost me more to break the lease than it would be to stay. Either way, I didn’t have the funds. I never thought that I, an educated and resourceful Indian American from the Bay Area, would be caught up in what felt like housing injustice.
I received a Facebook message from Judy, who continues to reach out to me for help.
April 12, 2020: “Hello. I will stay home April & May. Coronavirus. Do I need time off? Could you call me?”
Judy was concerned about her job as an Amazon shopper at Whole Foods, which I had helped her attain.
Unclear of what to do about my housing, I searched “tenant rights for San Jose residents” on my phone as I logged on to Judy’s work portal on my computer to figure out how she could take time off and pay her bills.
Judy, a proactive woman, is a byproduct of circumstance. I know this because I know Judy — why she needs help, her backstory, how to communicate with her to get an informative response. But most importantly, our shared history as Asian immigrants help us have productive, respectful conversations.
“You are so nice, Srishti. You always help,” she said once as she handed me fruits. She was grateful to be shown kindness, but I was only doing my job.
I knew the residents disliked the turnover of people in my position. They told me stories of all the other Coordinators who had come before me. Those in my position felt like bad actors in a mythical story. I didn’t want to be another in a series of transient people in their lives that seemed to care momentarily. I lugged this weight around with me.
I kept promising them I would stay, but I had noticed a trend. Our group of around fifty Family Service Coordinators would meet once a month and one by one, I saw older coworkers exit the organization and new faces replace them. After 8 months, I was a replaced face too. At least 10 out of 50 employees were gone within the year — a 20% loss and a turnover rate that is high for any organization.
In June of 2021, I contacted the cohort of coworkers I worked with at MidPen: Jennifer Villasano (23), Kristi Seymour (24), Diana Lumbreras (25). We had started our time at MidPen together in August of 2019 and they were still there when I left in February of 2020.
Family Service Coordinator – Jennifer Villasano
Family Service Coordinator – Kristi Seymour
Family Service Coordinator – Diana Lumbreras
Were they able to debunk my theory that the Coordinator position in affordable housing is an unsustainable job?
Villasano laughed and thought back to when she first joined MidPen, “It was my first job out of college…At first I thought, I get to give back to my community” and then she noted it became “hard to give more” partially because of the organization she was working for.
She continued to work during the pandemic and was appalled by how MidPen did not value her safety. “Residents and co-workers wouldn’t wear masks during the pandemic and I didn’t want to be exposed [to COVID],” she continued, “One of the residents got COVID and because of some Act, management wouldn’t tell us who.” She felt this was a breach of her well-being since she had to continue to “flyer” at the housing facility and interact with all the residents.
“No one was checking in on the coordinators. It was exhausting.”
Jennifer Villasano quit in July of 2020.
As to why she left, she decisively stated, “Instead of speaking up for us, [management] would ask us to do more. They wouldn’t support us…They need to do better.”
Kristi Seymour, a Guyanese-American woman, corroborates that, “Management wasn’t the best. Expectations weren’t met. That could also tie into the high turnover rate. If you don’t feel like your managers care about you … you’re not going to tell them anything and leave at the first chance.” Seymour felt slighted by the inconsistent nature of support provided and emphatically asserts, “I think its pay. I think it’s management. As the people actually delivering the services, you’re not getting paid enough for what you do…They expect a lot out of you — running after-school programs and delivering services to 40-50 units.”
Kristi Seymour quit in June of 2020.
Diana Lumbreras, a Mexican-American woman, shared a similar narrative to mine: “MidPen was my first job where I was working with housing, it was interesting to see how it worked. It was about numbers. We didn’t have time to build relationships because we had to get stuff in.”
Lumbreras forged on during the pandemic. The lockdown exacerbated the pre-existing concerns that she had with MidPen.
“Something that happened during the pandemic that actually bugged me was that, of course, mostly everyone at my [housing site] lost their jobs. I was going door to door ‘flyering’ with resources for food banks, assistance for rent, anything and everything that I could find to help [the residents]. When it came to documentation…[management] said that there was no way of documenting my work because it wasn’t something [they] had asked for.”
Diana Lumbreras quit in August of 2020.
“What am I doing here?” She asked herself before leaving her job. “I was told that even if I did more, that there was no way of getting credit for that work … essentially saying, don’t even do [the work] if you can’t document it. That was the part that got me so upset because I was doing so much. I was printing out flyers in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and going door to door.”
The stories relayed to me by the Ghosts of Coordinators Past held a valuable nugget. The Family Services Coordinator position entrenched within the affordable housing complex is integral to the health of the community it serves. Lumbreras poignantly reminds me of this when she tells me, “As an essential worker during the pandemic, I felt important because people were coming to me when they actually needed help.” That weight I was lugging around was part of Diana’s story too. In reality, this burden wasn’t ours to bear. The responsibility to the community of clients and employees should be accounted for in the system attempting to address the housing crisis in the Bay Area.
Family Service Coordinators are servicing low-income to median-income residents and, yet, they are well below the low-income threshold of $58,00 for housing in Santa Clara County themselves. Hourly pay at between $19-$20/hour, the average person working in affordable housing is making a yearly salary of a whopping $38,400 before taxes, and are most likely people of color. How can those tasked to elevate the marginalized put their best foot forward when they are being marginalized themselves?
California housing prices have been on the rise. In May of 2021, the median home price in California was $818,260 with the SF Bay Area region clocking in at a 38.9% increase in the median home price since 2020 — the highest increase in the state. The nuclear family home, which was more attainable for the Baby Boomer generation, is a far-fetched dream for 44% of California residents. Despite the eviction moratorium being extended for another three months with the offer of all low-income past-due back rent being paid by the state, renters have been in a precarious situation for the last year, their benefits and interests at the whims of their landlords.
Since 2016, Santa Clara County has been on track to exponentially increase accessible housing when residents voted for Measure A in an effort to alleviate housing injustice. Measure A approved $950 million to build 4,800 affordable housing units in the county. Since then, the county has dedicated more funds to affordable housing while overlooking their commitment to the communities they serve.
Affordable housing is the future of Bay Area housing. Thus, forthcoming policy must account for evidence-based case studies. Narratives of employee loss and its subsequent adverse effect on residents are an emerging barrier to housing equity.
Ultimately, the residents suffer.
I kept reaching out to Judy but hear from her less and less. Embroiled in my own housing fiasco, the upkeep of our relationship recedes to the backburner.
On May 25, 2021, I finally received a message from Judy: “I stay in Korea. I can call around this time tomorrow.”
When we speak, she informs me that in September of 2020, her Section 8 rent had increased from approximately $120 to approximately $600. Unable to afford rent and scared of resuming work, Judy moved back home with her parents in Korea. She decided to wait out the pandemic in Korea but was hopeful she could come back to the US after the pandemic. With no address on hand and no paperwork filed, Santa Clara Housing Authority (SCCHA) revoked Judy’s Section 8 housing when MidPen marked her as an absentee renter.
Since May of 2021, Judy and I have been trying to access her SCCHA specialist to figure out how to move forward. Judy wants to resume residence in America but cannot do so without Section 8 housing. The SCCHA offices are closed (in a time when their services are most necessary) and the operators manning the phone lines have not given any clear answers — we are stuck in cyclical redirection.
Affordable housing was effective for Judy when someone could guide her through the government regulations. Diana Lumbreras similarly posited, “I would put the resources out there, but the same people that lived in the housing were limited in the knowledge that they had to get the resources.” Judy’s back-rent can be paid by the state, but that decision came too late in this particular case. The system failed Judy.
Though I was edged out of the apartment I was living in at the beginning of the pandemic, I finagled my way into a Below-Market-Rate apartment that was listed as an affordable housing unit in San Jose. I managed to pay off the previous landlord and save money at my new complex. Affordable housing isn’t perfect, however, it did lend itself perfectly to me.
Judy and I had inequitable outcomes.
Creating resources and delivering resources seem to be at odds with one another. What they require is synergy.
Here are the asks:
The base pay for Resource Coordinators needs to increase to a number that reflects their invaluable service to the community.
There should be an increase in employee retention rates at affordable housing sites.
There should be more on-site staff for support.
There should be more focus on relationship-building and less on the number of initiatives implemented.
There should be a symbiotic relationship between resource coordinators and the county services staff.
There should be a creation of a Union for workers in social services in the state.
“Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute,” proffers Ta-Nehisi Coates.
No home. No country to call her own. Judy embodies the silent way in which housing inequity diminishes a person’s agency and identity.
We need to do better. We have to do better — Not just by creating accessible housing, but by creating sustainable networks of people that can ensure the diverse and equitable growth of our community in the Bay Area.
*We reached out to MidPen Housing for comment. They did not respond to our request.
Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
*Srishti Prabha wrote this article with support from Ethnic Media Services’ Housing Fellowship program.
Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts.
“Indian Americans, Asian Americans more broadly, have been strategically used as a wedge against other communities of color.” This is Sundeep “Sonny” Singh, in a clip from Mosaic America’s series From Diversity to Belonging. The Mosaic series was created to enable people to understand the history of and potential solutions to the social issues in the US, especially those to do with identity and culture.
Sonny spoke in an episode that aired conversations with some of the participants in Christina Antonakos-Wallace’s film, FROM HERE. Set in Berlin and New York, FROM HERE is a hopeful story of four young artists and activists from immigrant families redefining Belonging in an era of rising nationalism.
When posed with a question about his activism, Sonny spoke on the massive change in immigration law in 1965 – recruitment of skilled labor was suddenly made easy, the US had a need for a labor pool in hard sciences. Sonny noted, “[That was the time the country was in the] midst of the Black freedom movement, massive social upheaval demanding racial and economic justice.” Basically, the powers told “Black folks, Chicano folks, what are you saying, there is no racism! Look how well they [brown people, ie Asian Americans] are doing! … Too many of us in our community, unfortunately, have bought into this. Anti-Black racism is deeply embedded in our community.”
FROM HERE captures his experiences as a resident, artist, educator over a period of ten years. Also included are 3 other artists, Tania from New York, and Akim and Miman in Berlin. The film accompanies them as they move from their 20’s into their 30’s, facing major turning points: fighting for citizenship, creating a family, surviving violence, and finding creative expression.
Sonny remembers growing up wanting his name to be John and wanting to cut off his hair-wanting to blend in; heckling about his turban was always just a matter of time. He works with the Sikh Coalition to educate Sikh children about bias-based bullying. Sonny hopes that people will start to think critically about the root causes of social problems, “I dream of a world where humanity comes before profit.”
Christina elaborates, “The design of our systems are the reason for many of our problems. The system is working exactly as it’s meant to be. Who has access to citizenship has always been racialized. Laws have been crafted around preserving the rights of certain groups of people and extracting labor and resources from others. Immigration is not a national issue- it is global. We can’t solve this by protecting our national borders. Let’s see our identity as fluid…Understanding that we are way more complex … we need to stop policing people along identity lines.”
Tania, who finally came out as undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic, says “America loves our food, our language, but they don’t want us.” She talks about the first hate mail she got, addressed to her personally, saying, “Go the f*^& back to where you came from.”
What does solidarity mean in these circumstances, where some of us stand in a Place that somehow, we are told, isn’t Home? How long will it take to reach our Place, when and how can we act to stem this tide of exclusion?
Mosaic America’s series “From Diversity to Belonging” attempts to find some answers. For Indian Americans, demonstrating solidarity is a way to give back to the generations that paved our access to the American Dream. Many of us, as Usha Srinivasan, co-founder of Mosaic America says, “buy into the “model minority”…we believe that we are exceptional, [is why] we are treated differently from other people of color.” We need to question these long-held beliefs.
We need to work harder to come together as part of a larger community. To stand together as one, to see a world that belongs to each of us, is to be in solidarity. In as much as the word means agreement, it means resistance too. Standing for who I am, for who each of us is; standing up against norms that divide; standing with people who need a voice. In essence, it is a journey that starts with identity and continues through Belonging; fueled by each purpose; marked by each person it scars. We need to live our lives in solidarity, find pathways to build a common, inclusive future.
As Sonny says, “It is our political duty to remain steadfast and fight another day,” reverberating Antonio Machado’s poetic lines, “se hace camino al andar” – The way is formed by walking.
Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.
I have a small addiction to Instagram filters. I can and have spent too much time finding the craziest filters possible. There are filters that make you look like cartoons, princesses, and even pirates. My favorite one is a filter that tints the screen a deep pink and makes it look like glitter is dripping down your face. But as I explore the vast jungle of filters, it is inevitable that there are some marshes…
Those marshes come in the form of filters that vastly change your appearance. I encountered one of those filters on a Wednesday afternoon when I was supposed to be doing homework.
I was extraordinarily tired from a long day of school and I decided to take a break from the seemingly endless pile of homework by scrolling through some filters. There were the normal ones, the ones that put strawberries on your cheeks or the ones that make it look like you have rainbow hair. Then I stumbled upon a filter that made me freeze.
I had this image in my mind of the creator of this filter sitting down with their phone, sipping a cup of coffee, and then thinking aloud, “How colorist can we be today?”
This image had pale white skin with red-tinted lips that would make Snow White jealous. My nose was slimmed down and my jaw was reduced. As I stared in shock at the image on my screen, a thousand words just rushed into my head. I subconsciously reached for my computer, angrily typed “blogspot.com” into the search bar, and began to write this.
Now some readers might be asking why an Instagram filter would make my blood boil. Why didn’t I just scroll to the next filter and forget that it didn’t exist?
Because that image was clearly meant to make me beautiful. It was meant to make me achieve that beauty standard – that beauty standard is being white. The pale skin? White. The red lips? White. The slim nose? White. This filter is telling me that in order to be portrayed as beautiful or pretty, I have to aspire to be a white person. This isn’t entirely Instagram’s fault though. Society has decided that looking like white people is the goal. And it isn’t limited to filters or even appearance.
I remember when I first moved to a majority-white town, I began to realize that to be a part of the community, you had to throw away all semblance of uniqueness – culture was one of those things. To gain the acceptance of the community you had to reject your culture.
One time in my third-grade class, I decided to show some friends the pirouettes I had learned from my Indian Kathak dance lessons. As I turned around, one of them turned and looked at their friend and began to snicker. When I asked them why they did that, they said my turns look weird. When I would bring in food from home, the word “exotic” would be mentioned at least once. When I would insist that they pronounce my name right, they would give up after two tries and continue to use the white version of my name. I saw it happen with the other Indian kids at my school. They would introduce themselves with the white version of their name, bring Lunchables to school instead of idlis or sambar, and pursued ballet or “white” activities instead of Hindustani singing or Bharatnatyam. All of our culture swept under the rug for the sake of the community.
This is an issue far bigger than filters. You have to plant a small seed in order to produce a tree. That can be taking an extra few minutes to try and pronounce someone’s name or treating all food like food, no matter the look or smell. You can appreciate the culture somebody comes from because it is what makes them radiate. And you can make that filter you are creating more inclusive by removing the white skin, nose trimmer, and lip tint on it. It would make all of our lives a little better.
Medha Sarkar is a student starting at Los Gatos High School in the Fall. She enjoys writing, music, and having a good laugh.
“Cinema becomes a way of searching and learning through culture, history, music, beauty and eventually truth.” — Amit Dutta, Many Questions to Myself
UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is UC Berkeley’s resource for artistic resources and serves the broader Bay Area population. Their mission is to create dialogue and community engagement through art mediums on local and global topics.
In pursuit of diversity in history, BAMPFA is showcasing Indian filmmaker and writer Amit Dutta. Dutta is known for his distinctive cinema through deep explorations of India’s artistic, literary, and cultural traditions, both contemporary and historical.
Dutta’s landmark film Nainsukh, on the eighteenth-century painter, is also a part of the series. The 2010 film first took Dutta back to the Kangra Valley near his childhood home, a land from which he has since drawn much of his inspiration. Dutta, who characterizes his films as research- and process-based, notes: “I became very interested in indigenous knowledge systems and the workings of tribal/folk and classical modes. How could these systems produce such stunning works? What was the source?”
Shambhavi Kaul describes his varied films as “travers[ing] genres, moving effortlessly from crafted scenario to spontaneous encounter, from mindful self-reflexivity to ghostly magic.”
Whether in sensuous tracking shots of past paintings on gallery walls or ancient sculptures in their original setting; animations of artworks that reveal their underlying effects; moments of improvised acting; or expeditions and visits with unanticipated results, Dutta’s evocative films find new and beautiful expression in dialogue with their subjects.
Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
When Sen. Alex Padilla took the California Senate seat left by V.P. Kamala Harris, the American immigrant story achieved two remarkable milestones.
Harris’ election to the vice presidency marked the unprecedented ascendancy of the first woman, Black and Asian, to a top political office, while Padilla became the first ever Latino to represent California in the United States senate. After twenty seven years of fighting for immigrant rights, Alex Padilla is finally in a position to achieve the immigration reforms he has long pursued.
At an ethnic media briefing on April 16th, Padilla was proud to announce ‘The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act‘ – the first bill he has introduced as a United States Senator to honor “immigrant essential workers with action”.
Padilla’s focus on immigration reform begins with a proposal to deliver a pathway to citizenship to frontline workers – a ‘long-overdue recognition’ that ‘they have earned, and they deserve.’
He described the Bill as legislation that “urges a fair, secure, and accessible pathway to U.S. citizenship for over 5 million immigrant essential workers in critical infrastructure sectors such as health care, agriculture, construction, food, energy, emergency response, and care-giving.”
Padilla explained that during the COVID19 pandemic, frontline workers have been critical to keeping the country running and saving American lives, despite the risk of COVID19 to their health and that of their families. “They continue to show up to work every day.”
Essential workers put food on our tables, take care of our loved ones, clean the hospitals, restaurants, and offices. They ensure “that communities stay healthy, and that the economy continue to move,” added Padilla.
To him, COVID Relief not only means addressing the health impact of the pandemic. It also means rebuilding and stimulating an economic recovery that is “much more inclusive.”
Padilla’s home state of California has the highest concentration of immigrants (11 million) of any state in the US, but Padilla sees CA’s diversity “as a tremendous strength” and, that “the entire nation stands to benefit from thoughtful immigration reform.”
Immigration reform had stalled for decades, until the Trump administration declared war on immigrants with a slew of restrictive policies – setting limits on legal immigration and family-based immigration, building border walls, and enforcing child separation. Now immigration reform is also tasked with overturning the anti-immigration directives from the Trump era.
Padilla believes the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act will mark a ‘rather pivotal moment in the nation’s history’ when it’s in the best interest of the country to rebuild from the economic impact of the pandemic.
He reiterated his commitment to “bringing the urgency to immigration reform that this moment demands and millions of hard working immigrants have earned. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to restore dignity and humanity to our immigration policies and to respectfully uphold America’s legacy as a nation of immigrants.”
“The Bill will help boost our economic recovery and will benefit communities across the country.”
The vast majority of current and future workforce growth will be met by immigrants and the children of immigrants, said Padilla. He referred to a 2016 study by the Center for American Progress which found that undocumented workers contribute $4.7 trillion to the United States GDP, while undocumented immigrants contribute $11.7 billion in state and local taxes, and $12 billion in social security revenue every year.
Given their financial contributions, “We can no longer ignore the 11 million plus people who have been living…’in the shadows’ in this country but working and paying taxes and contributing,” added Padilla.
They have earned their right to citizenship through their service and sacrifice, said Padilla, who together with Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), sent a letter to President Biden, urging the inclusion of the Bill in next infrastructure package.
Padilla was optimistic about helping President Biden move forward with a comprehensive immigration reform package to congress and ‘making significant progress.”
“It is personal for me,” he said, drawing parallels between his immigrant parents and the service of essential workers. “These workers – they remind me of my own parents who worked jobs considered ‘essential today.”
A ‘proud son of immigrants,’ Padilla grew up in the northeast San Fernando Valley, where his parents raised three children in whom they instilled strong values of service to others, in their pursuit of the American dream.
Padilla came to public service following the example of his Mexican immigrant parents.
“It was through their activism and community organizing that in many ways led me to public service”, he remarked, describing how his family worked with neighbors to curb violence in heir neighborhood.
Padilla paid tribute to his parents – for 40 years his father worked as a short order cook and his mother cleaned houses. Their inspiring ‘journey and life experience’ is the backstory to Padilla’s fight for immigration rights from his time on Los Angeles City Council through to the California Senate and his 2015election as secretary of state
“I firmly believe that we can’t simply rely on hardworking people to keep our nation afloat and keep our communities safe in times of crisis and then turn our backs on them as soon as the pandemic is over. That would just be wrong.”
“I believe its time need to honor them and their work and their service with more than just our words”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
How far would you go for freedom? A choice between survival and social acceptance.
For girls of Kiddirpur, a small Muslim neighborhood in West Bengal, the path they chose was something no one even dreamt of; a path less trodden. To be women boxers, carving out a space of their own in a male-dominated sport, that too in a patriarchal society. Burqa Boxers, an internationally acclaimed documentary portrays the incredible life story of these Muslim women boxers, how they shatter the preconceived notions incredulously and stand up for their fight for survival.
Written and Directed by California-based Indian American Alka Raghuram, the documentary is currently premiered on Cinemapreneur– an OTT platform for independent filmmakers, and has already received rave reviews from across the world.
“When I heard about this unusual story of girls from a traditional community stepping out of their comfort zone to do something unique, it just inspired me right away. One of my photographer friends had shot these women in action and seeing those photographs gave me a massive adrenaline rush, and then and there, I decided that I want to tell this incredible story to the world,” said Alka Raghuram, who is also the producer of the film along with Deann Borshay Liem, 24 Images from France and Premlatha Durham.
With three women boxers belonging to different age groups as main protagonists, trained under Razia Shabnam, one of the first Indian women to become a boxing coach and an international referee, the documentary sheds light on their life trajectory amidst societal acceptance, financial conditions, aspirations, and dreams. Smitten by poverty, for these girls, boxing is not just their passion, but a path to attain financial independence. Being an earning member of the family empowers them to take their own decisions. The only way to break free, or else they are married off.
“Kolkata has a long history of boxing with many public boxing rings around and these girls have seen their brother or father in the field and that gave them the exposure. Coming from underprivileged communities and boxing being a cheap sport compared to others, they saw this practical opportunity and grabbed it right away. Boxing gives them financial independence and also the confidence to defend and stay strong when needed,” adds Alka, who spent nearly a year for research, building relations with the conservative community, and understanding the intricacies of complicated dynamics of the society.
The movie explores the emotions of not just the three boxers but people around who influence them and how boxing acts as a catalyst in life-changing decisions. For Ajmira Khatoon, an aspiring boxer from the neighborhood, boxing is her future and leaves no stone unturned to attain the goal, even if it means regular beatings from father and family fights. To be financially independent is boxer Parveen Sajda’s dream, who is already a state champion but still struggles to get a job amidst societal marital pressure. And for Taslima Khatoon, who resides at a hostel for kids of impoverished communities like sex workers, run by New Light NGO, boxing has opened up new avenues to flourish.
Apart from these main protagonists, the documentary also brings to fore many alarming issues like the rise in the number of rape cases in India, an upsurge in fear, and how girls discover the need to rise, fight, and conquer their fears. Through the eyes of coach Razia Shabnam and her son, it also delves into prejudiced notions of society that perpetuate unknowingly and engulfs even the educated minds.
Funded by Independent Television Service (ITVS), Diversity Development Fund, Centre national du cinema et de l’image animee (CNC France), and Visions Sud Est, Burqa Boxers has already many accolades to its credit. Screened at the Locarno Film Festival co-production market, it received the top honor and the team also exhibited a compilation of photo, video and art installation based on the project at the venue.
“Even though the setting of the movie is a poor neighborhood in West Bengal, people from across the world could resonate and relate to it during the screenings, which I consider as most rewarding. To be able to convey a story crossing all cultural boundaries was fulfilling as a visual storyteller. I would love to take Burqa Boxers further ahead to many more public platforms where it reaches a wider audience, especially educational screenings that initiate a conversation on women empowerment and the need for change. We need more stories like these for people to step out of their comfort zone and discover their dreams,” states Alka, who is all set to embark on a new project – fiction feature film ‘Ayna’ starring acclaimed actress Mithila Palkar, a psychological thriller with cinematography by Gurgaon fame director Shanker Raman.
Alka also collaborates with other artists for different projects and is currently working on five short films based on choreography by Charlotte Moraga, artistic director at Chitresh Das Institute that encompasses the theme of five elements of life. She is also working on advocacy videos profiling mothers of kids with serious mental illness.
Dreaming high with her best-laid projects ahead, Alka contemplates the proclaimed theme of Burqa Boxers, women need to step out of their comfort zone to discover their true self. Raised in a small town of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, filmmaking was never her childhood dream but it was her hidden passion that she unraveled while living in the US, returning to school after having kids. “We must always continue to explore ourselves. Nobody comes on the world stage with everything in hand. The only thing required is to be able to ask questions without any hesitation. You just have to ask, to learn, to empower, and to discover yourselves!” concludes Alka.
Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.