Tell A Story – a column where riveting South Asian stories are presented like never before through unique video storytelling.
May 2021 marks the 100th birth anniversary of legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Though centenary celebrations are stalled amidst pandemic, filmmakers across the globe paid respects and remembered one of the world’s finest directors, who still remains the only Indian filmmaker to have received the renowned Academy Award.
Ray directed 36 films including feature films, documentaries, and shorts that earned international acclaim. In his lifetime, he was bestowed with many accolades – 32 national awards that include the six National Awards for the Best Director, which is the most by any filmmaker so far.
But did you know there is an inconspicuous mystery that surrounds his illustrious career including deceit? Though Ray had laid his footprint in Hollywood in the 1960s and even grabbed an opportunity with Columbia Pictures for making a movie, he was unfortunately deceived and later got disillusioned with the project.
In the 1980s, Steven Spielberg came up with the much-acclaimed Hollywood movie E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. The movie faced plagiarism charges for having replicated an Indian Filmmaker’s script, who was none other than Satyajit Ray.
Unknown to many, Ray had penned down the first-ever script on aliens in 1967 named ‘The Alien’. The screenplay was based on his Bengali science fiction story, Bankubabur Bandhu, published in Ray’s family magazine, Sandesh. He had envisioned a movie on aliens, discussed its pursuance with Hollywood producers, and even had talked for a US-India co-production with renowned actor Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando as leads.
The striking similarity between the Hollywood movie E.T and Ray’s alien indeed became a talk of discussion. It is believed that this was one of the main reasons for E.T underperformance at the Oscars, only receiving technical awards. Rumors also claim that it is guilt that compelled Spielberg to recommend Ray’s name for the Academy Awards.
Tell-A-Story unveils this obscure mystery through this video story detailing the facts that uncover the resemblance between E.T and Ray’s Alien. It unearths the story behind Ray’s journey to Hollywood, the talks he had, and the bare truth that he revealed in his own words. A remarkable writer cum director, an exceptional illustrator, storyteller, and music composer, Satyajit Ray’s astounding creations continue to marvel filmmakers across the globe and no wonder he is still commemorated as one of the World’s greatest filmmakers.
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. Tell-A-Story is her latest venture into video storytelling that includes video narratives along with thought-provoking content in less than 5 minutes, to engage and entertain the audience.
“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.
A poignant tale about dealing with the loss of a loved one, Ladybug is based on a heartfelt true story. The 14-minute long film is about Olivia, an artist who struggles to come to terms with her father’s death. As she recalls the tragic events that unfolded and the last conversation she shared with her father, she breaks down and lights a candle in his memory. It leads her to finally face the truth, and also repair the conflicted relationship she shares with her mother.
“All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. We have our own unique ways of dealing with grief. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate affair—all you need is that one moment,” says Chandra about the idea behind the film.
Born in Kerala, Chandra grew up in Nepal, studied in Dehradun, graduated in Delhi, and did his post-grad in Mumbai. Chandra who has backpacked across India, claims that his work is informed by his diverse background. He can speak five languages — English, Hindi, Malayalam, Nepali, and Maithili. He believes that his connection to these places and cultures has greatly helped him understand the people and stories about them.
A huge fan of Indian mythologies, he has read most of the epics and hopes to adapt them into a modern retelling for western audiences. “We have such fantastic stories, characters, and plots in our mythology within these old texts that we can put films such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones to shame,” he says. Currently, Chandra is busy working on scripting two projects—a dark-comedy gangster love story and adaptation of a chapter from the Ramayana for a TV pilot. “Even if you take Krishna, Narad, or Rama, the way he led his life, you can build seasons of great television. I want to open the world to some of the most epic characters and stories from India,” he says.
After graduating from Whistling Woods in 2010, Abhishek co-founded a production house called Joker Films in Mumbai. For the next six years, he produced award-winning audio-visuals and commercials for major advertising agencies. He soon learned that telling stories in the shortest format with a lasting impact requires an impressive command over every aspect of production—from scripting to post-production.
After shifting base to Los Angeles in 2016, Abhishek completed his yet-to-be-published debut book—And Then There Was One—a collection of poetry. He also collaborated with his long-time friend and artist, Sapra, on two Hindi music videos—“Ishq Nashila” and “Ishq Nashila 2.0”. Further, prior to Ladybug, Abhishek directed shorts in Los Angeles, such as Borders (2017) and Coco (2018).
Recently, he collaborated with LA-based hip-hop artist Jesse Cooley aka FOUR on his comeback album, which Chandra has produced and directed. Bringing together some of LA’s finest talents (including Gareth Taylor, Vihang Walve, and Michael Philpot), its songs are mounted on an incredible scale with a mix of live-action and VFX. The first song “Rock and Roll Soul”, released at the end of March, and the second song, “Love and Hate”, at the end of April.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.
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.
Prarthana, also known as PJ, is an independent filmmaker born and raised in Pune and currently based in Los Angeles. What began as a pursuit of architecture in Mumbai, ended with a thesis dedicating a museum to the history of Indian Cinema. It was this bout into Indian cinema that sparked joy. From there, PJ knew she had to pursue filmmaking.
Prarthana Joshi is a trailblazer. She is a woman. She is a filmmaker. She is an Indian-American transitioning from Bollywood to Hollywood, setting the stage for Indian stories and narratives in global cinema. India Currents interviews her to get insight into how her identities play a role in her unconventional, male-dominated career path.
IC: What is the importance of filmmaking to you?
Filmmaking is a way of life. I remember when I did my college application in 2009, I said that cinema is my religion. What I mean by that is that you start looking at the world as a storyteller, you see hurdles in your life as character-building exercises. You appreciate each and every profession because you start realizing that everyone has a story to tell. You become eager to learn new things and new possibilities. Stagnancy and normalcy are like death. You start to appreciate the journey rather than the award or the end-result.
Most of the time when a project is over, you feel life is leaving something behind and just eagerly waiting for the next one to start. And it feels like…this is all I know.
It is 100% love for the process. Discovering the story, meeting new people, exchanging ideas and thoughts. It becomes part of your lifestyle and there is nothing glamour about it. Lots of hard work, lots of hair pulling, and problem-solving going hand in hand with the creative stuff.
IC: Do you feel like you have to erase parts of your culture in order to make movies in America?
Erasing a part of your culture is not possible. I believe that who you are, runs in your blood. I can pretend all I want but my brain works the way it has been trained to. My perspective has changed though. When a world of possibilities opened to me and I saw a different way of living and thinking, I did start being more critical about my culture and my beliefs. I questioned my morals and became more investigative in general. I don’t accept things blindly. I don’t do things because everyone does it. This particular change has nothing to do with culture. It is just part of growing up.
And there could be certain cultural things that I might not partake in but that doesn’t mean that I hold a judgemental point of view towards them. I think certain things are for me and some things are not.
And as for making films in American, I think the definition of good and bad is synonymous no matter where you go. People feel the same feelings and hence…the basic story is always about a journey of a character finding it difficult to get what they want to achieve. The circumstances, the world,and the obstacles might be different but they are humans no matter where they are and what they want. So I am not sure if I had to give up anything as such. I think I have gained a lot more.
IC: What do you want to add to South Asian representation in global/American media?
When we talk about the representation of the entire South Asian community, it already sounds like we are trying to blend in so many smaller communities and putting them in a box of a sort.
I wish I could break that box and not make it so symbolic or isolated.
I think I want to tell stories about people who are passionate about their dreams and desires and happen to be South Asian. I wish I get to a point where I could talk about the diversity within the community, the struggle to hold on to the culture in the modern world. A stateless, countryless, boundaryless world with infinite possibilities and yet the perpetual longing for a community. There are so many issues that are dear to the South Asian communities that never get discussed. Like how do they communicate with families that are in South Asia? What are these long-distance relationships like? What it means to create strong nit communities here. What are these communities like? What are their problems like? I hope, I can tell stories about things that matter to this community.
IC: What was the journey of crossing cultures?
When you decide to travel to another country, especially a country like the US, you have a preconceived notion of what it will be like. We have seen movies and TV shows from the US so we think that we know everything about this country. But when you actually get to live there then you really begin to slowly understand the culture, bit by bit. Your perceptions start to change.
Moreover, cinema is a reflection of pop culture, history, and social conversation. Conscious or subconscious documentation of life as such. So to truly understand a country’s cinema, I knew I had to learn a lot about the country itself. This was something I realized early on. I also grew up watching Bollywood films and realized that I had a lot to catch up on. So most of my free time was…reading, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, older films, and TV shows. After living here for 10 years… I still feel that I am catching up.
I also learned a lot but just talking to my friends, who grew up in different places within America. I had no idea that someone who grew up in Wyoming and someone who grew up in New York could have so much different upbringing. Had no clue of the cultural diversity within this country. It is a reflection of how little we know about other countries. When I met people from different parts of the world in LA, I constantly felt like my mind was opening up. I was learning to see the world and its people in a whole different way. Respecting and learning and valuing the differences and similarities.
When you look back at where you come from after having this changed perspective, you learn to appreciate what you had in your upbringing and culture and also learn to critique it as well.
Then there are other struggles like being away from family and friends; Struggling to create a new world and a support system. But the best part is that this all seems worth it when you are so driven by your passion and the work. So all these things happen naturally and effortlessly.
IC: What obstacles have you faced?
When I came to LA, to do my Master’s in 2010, I did not know a single person in the city. I had an aunt who lived in San Francisco but that’s it. I was on my own. When you are creating projects in school, that are each individual short films and it takes a lot of resources to make them happen. When I had directed my first short in India, my parents and my family came and helped in gathering all these resources. In LA… It was left to me and my classmates, who were equally new to LA to just figure it out. That was the first lesson in learning to be on your own and thinking on your feet and taking responsibilities that will directly affect your project and many times your classmates’. You slowly learn and figure out the city, where you can resource what things and start building your network. Those days were without social media and online resources, so we had to physically go to places and ask around. No Whatsapp or Facebook groups that could help you or guide you. Now it is so easy to find things.
The best part of knowing where you started is releasing how much you now know or have learned that you didn’t when you first came. A city so foreign slowly becomes way more familiar than the place you grew up in.
IC: What advice can you offer other South Asians pursuing filmmaking?
I would love to say that be true to yourself and your experience. Each of us has a story that comes from the unique upbringing we have. Don’t try to blend in with the mainstream or modify your story because of what people may or may not understand. Because people do. We have. We have seen films from other cultures and have understood and appreciated them so there is no reason to compromise on authenticity.
Also…do try to find out why you want to tell the story you are telling? What conversation are you trying to have? Has this conversation happened before? What is my unique take on it?
IC: What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on a couple of different projects. They are both in the pitching stages. Both stories about Indians in the US.
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant 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.
Raised in a small town in Maine, born to immigrant parents, it has indeed been a long journey in filmmaking for the Indian American writer and director, Mahesh Pailoor.
Having studied filmmaking at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and later honing the skills from various film schools, Mahesh did his first short film, Little India in 2001. It premiered at SXSW and screened at different film festivals around the world. He has also directed award-winning documentaries, commercials, and branded content.
On May 1st, 2020, he made his episodic television directing debut with NBC’s The Blacklist.
“I always wanted to be known as a visual storyteller, creating as many unique stories as I can. It has been a long journey so far and the goal was always to break into TV, meeting and networking with acclaimed directors. This Emerging Director program opened up a new universe for me and I would love to venture more in this space. Hopefully, this opportunity will pave for others,” opined the director.
Mahesh was chosen from 500 applicants for the NBC’s Emerging Director program, the network’s annual initiative for ethnically diverse male and gender non-binary directors.
Celebrating its 10 year anniversary, the program aims to increase representation among scripted series directors. It took Mahesh years of hard work, perseverance, and rejections before this golden opportunity knocked at his doorstep.
“I have been eyeing on this program for a while and had even applied once long back but did not get through. Though many networks offer such programs, the one offered by NBC is one of the best amongst them mainly because they offer lots of support, opportunity to shadow the directors, and then guarantee an episodic directing credit. The entire process involved the submission of my work and different levels of interviews. Once selected, my work was then sent to its different shows for the various teams to review. I was lucky enough to be chosen by the episodic directors of The Blacklist to shadow them,” said Mahesh Pailoor.
Lauding the team, Mahesh claims the experience on The Blacklist set in New York as invaluable, which helped him learn more about the nuances of television direction. “The shadowing experience was really amazing, especially to work with such experienced directors. Right from being on set, pre-production to post-production, it was great to have the first-hand experience. I got to work with them twice before embarking on my own directorial debut,” he said. “Once the crew knew me, they were really supportive as I ventured into directing. They were very cordial and rooted for me, which was the best part. The entire period with the team was phenomenal. To be a small part of this incredible series that has been running for seven seasons with remarkable characters, was an enriching experience,” added Mahesh.
Fascinated by his father’s video camera, Mahesh was attracted to the craft of storytelling at a very young age of 12. The captivating power of visuals made him realize its potency in communication and connecting with the minds of people. “The great stories around and the visual medium always inspired me.
Growing up, I realized the need for having more stories that I could relate to and which later steered my path into filmmaking,” recollected the director. Speaking further on how the representation of Indian Americans in Hollywood and American TV space has been evolving, he added, “Earlier, we could not relate to any characters on screen and the representation was very less. But things have changed over the last 3-5 years with more Indian Americans not just behind the camera but also in front of the camera. Even programs like NBC’s Emerging Director makes it more welcoming for all. Changes are evolving but still, there is a long way to go.”
Aiming at the television space for his immediate future plans, Mahesh is currently looking out to venture further into episodic direction. He is also co-writing a dramatic feature, an immigrant love story based on true events, which he also plans to direct with half setting in India and rest in the US.
Foreseeing a remarkable era for creativity and cinema, Mahesh concluded, “This is a golden time with so many digital platforms evolving, we get to watch such amazing content, accessible to all from anywhere around the world. The geographical barriers are disappearing and with the advancement of technology, anyone interested can now make a movie even with their iPhone and broadcast it. My advice to upcoming filmmakers is to grab this promising phase. Don’t wait for someone to say yes. If you have an amazing idea to share, then just do it. There is no need for a big crew or equipment, you can make something with friends. The goal should be to passionately follow your dreams and you will definitely find your way.”
Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.
From Indian engineer to international filmmaker, Aditya Patwardhan is making a mark in Hollywood and we need to keep an eye out for him. Aditya is rare – his filmmaking combines aspects of engineering, music, cinematography, and multilingualism.
Relocating from India to LA to pursue his passion, Patwardhan has worked on a multitude of projects, from documentaries to series pilots and shorts; some of his works included Kiski Kahani (music director), Red House by the Crossroads (director), Red Souls (director) and are in international markets including in the US, India, Baltic and Eastern European countries, and South America.
Though it may seem that the skills between the two careers are non transferable, the Indian diaspora might disagree. Indian culture is entrenched in the arts and it can be traced back to one of the first comprehensive books on performing arts, Natya Shastra (NS), written in 200 BCE by Bharat Muni. Far beyond the theatrics, the NS is ingrained in almost every aspect of Indian society. It has influenced Indian sculpture, architecture, painting, poetry, day-to-day normal conversation, forming the connection between Indian mathematics and music. So when Aditya felt drawn towards filmmaking, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
Aditya confesses that switching from engineering to films was borne out of a natural subconscious process. It was during his time as an undergraduate in engineering college that he created a few ‘zero-budget’ musical videos, with his friend and music composer, Hiren Pandya.
He took a bite into filmmaking and liked the taste.
Graduating from engineering college, Aditya knew his calling but the path wasn’t linear.
Aditya got a big break in 2013 during the Vidhan Sabha (state legislature) elections in the Indian state of Rajasthan. He worked in the IT and social media department of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His group ran a very successful social media campaign and the BJP won in a landslide. From IT to social media, Aditya began deviating from the standard.
It was during his time working in Social Media Management that Aditya came into contact with a musician and composer, Gaurav Bhatt. Gaurav, a Jaipur-based musician who had trained in the famous Bhatt Gharan, had composed a few Hindi songs and was looking for someone to help popularize them on YouTube. The two collaborated and created a music video. Grainy images shifting through a dreamlike narrative, overlaid with the poignant Indian classical fusion melody of Garauv Bhatt created magic; it received considerable attention and was featured in local newspapers and TV, including The Rajasthan Patrika and The Times of India.
“The success I received in these low-cost music videos gave me the confidence to enter into filmmaking professionally,” Aditya fondly recounts.
Newfound success and a heavy dose of determination brought Aditya to Hollywood. Eager to learn the tricks of the trade, he enrolled in the Masters in Film and Media Production program in the Los Angeles branch of the New York Film Academy. His thesis – ‘Red House by the Crossroads’ – a film about a Jewish family in 1970s Poland who were facing the backlash of the Nazi era occupation – culminated in a showcase at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Aditya hasn’t looked back since.
He is versatile and diverse, much like the background he comes from. His documentary ‘Eastern Shores of the Western World’ explores “cultural, linguistic, and genetic similarities between India and Eastern Europe.” And in the same breath, he has made films with social and environmental causes. In his soon to be released ‘Rivers: The Upstream Story’, he takes on the issue of river-water depletion through a civilizational lens.
Filmmakers, like Patwardhan, with a voice and cultural competence are filling the gaps in global cinema. Aditya Patwardhan is slowly becoming a household name, as he continues his journey of Eastern dreams on Western shores.
Afters spending several years in IT, Avatans Kumar now works as a Columnist and PR professional. Avatans frequently writes on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, Language, Culture, and Current Affairs in several media outlets.