Tag Archives: Suchithra Pillai

Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with this book 'Dragon Summer: A Magical Journey of a Boy and his Dragon Friend'

A Magical Pandemic Journey of a 10-Year-Old Indian American Author

A child’s creativity has no bounds and holidays are the perfect time to explore their inquisitiveness. Once their imagination attains wings, it’s a magical world that transcends limits and expectations. For Indian American Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash from Brookfield, Wisconsin, Summer 2020 was that moment. When his third-grade teacher Mrs. Heitman came to school at the end of the academic year with summer treats, she fostered the idea of writing a story during the vacation.

Little did she know that the seeds of a budding author were sowed. And a year later, the book Dragon Summer: A Magical Journey of a Boy and his Dragon Friend got published and a ten-year-old author was born.

“I always loved writing and when my teacher suggested that I write a fiction story about what I would like to do during summer, I was really excited. As I love magic and flying creatures, my immediate choice for protagonists were dragons,” said Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash, a fourth-grader from Burleigh Elementary School.

Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with family.
Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with his family.

Started off as a short story with two chapters, his parents, Arsha and Abhilash, encouraged him to explore further and continue writing. “When he approached us with the first two chapters, we really liked the beginning and were curious to know how he would take it along. With pandemic and online sessions, we were in search of options to reduce the screen time and thought of giving this as a challenge and promised to publish the transcript once the story is completed. Just a single printed copy from a nearby shop was our plan and we never thought this would pan out to this extent,” beamed the mother, Arsha Abhilash with pride. 

The 30 chapter book boasts of fantasy entwined with magic and creativity. Travel through portals, dragon kingdoms, magic potions, unique names, and fancy passwords; it has everything that a kid desires. Not just wishful thinking, one can also witness the keen interest of the author towards science and nature through his writing. Annotations on different elements of nature, scientific explanations on birds and correlating them with flying dragons, it’s a story that goes beyond illusion and even educates the young readers. 

“Once the book was finished we as parents were indeed surprised but wanted to confirm its reach and potential before moving forward. We approached published authors and dear friends, Richard and K V Manikandan for a review and their feedback was endearing. They entrusted the thought that this book truly addresses the fervor and curiosity of a kid, written by a kid himself, which is actually a rarity to find. Hence, we landed upon the decision to publish it, considering it would also be an inspiration for more kids to come forward with their creations,” added Arsha, who herself is a blog writer and has a few published pieces in the Malayalam language to her credit. 

Teachers from his school district, Elmbrook School District backed the first-time author in the process with his favorite second-grade teacher, Mrs. Indestad, and current fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Erica Phillips writing the foreword and blurb for the book, respectively. The book is now available to order through Amazon for US readers and is published by Pithal Books in India. 

Not just in the writing process, Thaathwik also played an integral role in the illustration of the book. Being an artist himself, he had a fair perception of how the book should appear. Initially, he drew corresponding pictures for the first ten chapters but later, apprehending the time it consumed, he concentrated on finishing the book at the earliest. Eventually, a family friend and animator from India, Animesh Xavier came to their rescue and conceptualized the beautiful pictures for the book.

The book has so far received rave reviews from kids across the world with many of them posting online reviews and having lively discussions on the storyline with the author himself. However, for Thaathwik, who aspires to be an ornithologist cum writer, this is just a start and has already laid out plans for his upcoming book. “I have started writing for my second book named Apocalypse – an adventure of four friends with monsters. Am aiming for a series without limiting the story to a single book,” concluded the aspiring writer, who believes that one should always let their thoughts flow and never hold them back for any reason. 

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.


Is Oxygen Costly or Is It a Global Crisis Overlooked?

Tell A Story – a column where riveting South Asian stories are presented like never before through unique video storytelling.

It is appalling to see such a colossal struggle for the air we breathe. If someone would have suggested ten years back that oxygen would soon become an essential medicine that is scarce and needs to be carried with you for emergency care, we would have brushed aside the idea as bizarre. Unfortunately, it’s a reality now faced by billions of people around the world. 

Covid-19 second wave has toppled the crux of the global healthcare system, especially in India. With over 200,000 new cases reported and over 3,000 deaths per day, the unforeseen repercussions have left the Indian population vulnerable.

The scenario is not just limited to India but over 20 countries across the globe, who are facing the same crisis. And the prime concern is the dire need for oxygen, which is vital for the recovery of Covid-19 patients. India requires nearly 16 million cubic meters of oxygen per day, meanwhile, the global oxygen unmet needs have tripled over the last four months from less than 9 million cubic meters a day to more than 28 million. The dramatic shift did not happen suddenly; lethal oxygen shortages had hit many parts of Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Afghanistan early this year. 

Unknown to many, global health experts had raised a red flag much before the pandemic. Oxygen production, supply, and access were never prioritized and left long-neglected from the entire health system planning process. Even though oxygen plays an indispensable role in emergency treatments for pneumonia, accident trauma, childbirth, and many other medical procedures, hardly a few hospitals across the world are self-equipped to provide oxygen to a patient by his or her bedside. There is a dearth of oxygen storage capacities at hospitals with no proper pipe connectivity. 

Though oxygen constitutes 21 percent of the atmosphere and medical oxygen can be harvested directly from the air, the essential facilities like PSA plants are limited and the local governments didn’t pay any heed to develop this sector until the pandemic created an emergency –  leaving the destitute patients to hoard expensive options like oxygen cylinders and concentrators, especially when oxygen produced otherwise via plant is 10 times cheaper. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) was approached by various countries citing these requirements years before the pandemic even began, but unfortunately, no measures were taken. It has now launched a COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Task Force to measure oxygen demand, secure supplies, and provide technical support. Estimates show to clamor for immediate funding of nearly US$90 million for 20 countries. It is believed that Covid-19 was just a trigger and the global oxygen crisis is here to stay.

Tell-A-Story brings to you an in-depth analysis of the global oxygen crisis – the emergency faced by 20 countries, how it all began, what needs to be done, and the global oxygen task force measures to contain the damage that, otherwise, could become an unimaginable catastrophe. 

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.


Satyajit Ray's 'Bankubabur Bandhu'

How Satyajit Ray Influenced E.T.: Remembering the Legend on His 100th Birthday

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.

For more such intriguing stories, subscribe to the channel. You can also follow the stories on Facebook @tellastory2020 and Instagram @tell_a_story2020

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.


Is Gender Parity in Politics a Distant Dream?

Tell A Story – a column where riveting South Asian stories are presented like never before through unique video storytelling.

As another election season comes to an end in India, it leaves us with lingering doubts – introspection into what could have been avoided and needs to be mended. Aggressive campaigning amidst pandemic led to a rocketing spike of cases, an unexpected setback for the central ruling party.

But the fundamental and crucial issue that remains unnoticed is the staggering ratio between the number of male contenders to female contenders in the election. Have you ever pondered on the count? Well, it’s shocking to note that the count not even close!

This is an issue that is very much prevalent across the globe. In America, we saw the first woman win the vice-presidential election campaign only in the recent 2020 election. Prior to Kamala Harris, the first female, first African-American, and first Asian-American vice president, only five women throughout history had made it to a major party’s primary debate stage.

According to the UN Gender statistics 2020, globally, only a quarter of seats in national parliaments are held by women. In local deliberative bodies, the count is hardly 37 percent. When it comes to the world’s government heads, only 6.7 percent are women. With the current rate of progress, the UN believes global gender parity can be achieved only after 2060. And even that looks dicey with the number of gender discrimination cases rising across the world.

Not just for women to come to the fore and hold the reigns of power, the journey of disparity goes a long way back, right from the procurement of the basic right to vote in elections. The odyssey of women’s suffrage is unimaginable considering the outrageous reasons cited for denying voting rights to women. Absurd denial reasons included women’s incompetence to understand politics and how they would neglect home and wreck families if allowed to venture into politics. 

It took more than 75 years of struggle, protests, and agony for women to obtain their basic right to vote. However, it’s surprising to observe the superpowers of today were not among the first on the list to embrace the change. New Zealand was the first country in the world to proclaim the right of women to vote in 1893. Followed by Australia, Finland, and Norway. It took yet another seven years for 28 other countries to join the wagon including the U.S, Germany, Canada, Britain, and many other European countries. For Asian countries, they had to wait until the end of World War II.

Unknown to many, few conservative nations withheld the rights until the start of the Twenty-First Century. Oman approved the rights in 1994 and UAE only in 2006. Saudi Arabia became the most recent country to grant women voting rights in 2015. Currently, Vatican City is the only country in the world to deny voting rights based on sex. 

2021 saw a welcoming dawn with Estonia, a country in Northern Europe, becoming the only country to have both a female president and prime minister. But still, the women leaders who have emerged from the shackles of patriarchy are only a handful, while many others are only in the game to honor family names or to be mere puppets in the hands of male supremacy. 

Through this video story, Tell-A-Story unfolds the historical women’s suffrage movement, the journey of the incredible women in power, current staggering gender economics and the need for miles to go, and millions to empower for a gender-neutral world!

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.

For more such intriguing stories, subscribe to the channel. You can also follow the stories on Facebook @tellastory2020 and Instagram @tell_a_story2020


Neel Murgai Ensemble’s New Album Will Reorient You on Love and Loss

With a unique amalgamation of traditional Indian Raga with chamber Jazz sound, the well known Brooklyn based music band, Neel Murgai Ensemble has come up with its new creation, ‘Reorientation’. A magical combination of ethereal overtone singing, slow-moving psychedelic-soundscapes with alluringly irregular time signatures and resonant scales, the new album boasts of an exotic musical experience for all music lovers across the world.

Recorded at Eastside Sound in Manhattan, Engineered by Sam Crawford and Lily Wang with mastering by Kane Mathis, the album is partially funded by the American Composer’s Forum, with additional funding provided by the Spark Plug Foundation. More than a new album, the musical compilation signifies a reorientation of both self and music that describes a story of loss and eventual recovery with a newfound love for the composer, overtone singer, sitarist and teacher Neel Murgai.

“The album is very close to my heart as it incorporates my journey of self-healing after I lost my old partner. Most of the compositions, especially the ensemble ones, were created in the past when I was with her and recorded them nearly 5-6 years ago. Music helped me to self rejuvenate myself, overcome the loss of someone special and move on from the tragic past. This album is dedicated to all those who are struggling from a personal loss and it is to convey to them that we can definitely move on from these tragic experiences. If I can do it, then it is a medium to inspire others too,” said Neel Murgai, the ensemble leader. “For some reason, I sat on these recordings for a long time. But just recently, my new partner and I had a baby. So it felt like it was time, like I needed to really just finish this up and move on from it in a way.”

Though the older ensemble pieces rooted in Indian classical instrumentation make up the backbone of the album, the nine tracks of Reorientation also includes recent work of solo overtone singing and looping pieces, resulting in elaborate aural explorations. The entire album is an artistic dialogue with Murgai’s older music and newer creations, providing realignment for heart and mind after devastating loss. 

“Reorientation is a combination of older ensemble tracks and newer tracks of solo overtone singing like the Mongolian throat singing using looping technology. Though they are divergent and so different in many ways, it’s like they’re talking to each other like my new self and my old selves are having this existential conversation,” the composer added, who had been working on this newer project of overtone singing and looping to concoct sublime sonic landscapes for over the last four years. 

One of the older tracks in particular, “Sunflower” was written for and dedicated to Murgai’s previous partner. This second track of the album is based on Raga Yaman. Raga, the form of Indian classical music, literally means “that which colors the mind”. The name for the final track on the album “16251”, actually represents the chords played. 

In contrast to the tradition-steeped in virtuosity that characterizes the foundation of the ensemble pieces, the more recent contributions are improvisational, self-reflexive, and inherently psychedelic.  “Music can always be used for healing,” opined Murgai, “but especially this overtone singing has been great for my own self-healing and for helping others because it is spontaneous and allows practitioners to facilitate a sound meditation experience.”

Many of the compositional ideas for Murgai’s overtone singing on tracks like the lead “He’s Got a Pulse,” came out in the spontaneity of improvisation. He developed a kind of improvisatory language, singing random vowels, syllables, and consonants while at once examining how they shaped the overtones. 

For another track, “Moom Moom Gong Bong,” Murgai utilized this language, along with Mongolian vocal techniques, as well as techniques pioneered by Timothy Hill of the Harmonic Choir, a seminal group in modern overtone singing who systematized the use of vowel sounds to elicit overtones.  Yet, sometimes real words emerged out of that process too, like in the track “Speak True,” a song in which words just kind of emerged spontaneously, partially because of the way that the vowel sounds elicit certain overtones that he was going for. 

Though Neel Murgai entered the world of music by playing tambourine in school in New York City and then learned Jazz music, it was his acquaintance with Indian classical music in Varanasi as an adult that helped him gain a new direction in music. Combining Raga with jazz sound, incorporating different talas and creating own versions of different talas, it paved the way to create a signature style for the Indian American musician internationally. After the worldwide release of his new album, he is also looking at exploring new opportunities, presenters and promoters in India for next year. Reorientation’s live emanation, performances will also feature ensemble members who are also connected with the Brooklyn Raga Massive, including Trina Basu on violin, Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, and Sameer Gupta on tabla.

Murgai is also the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM), a NYC-based artist collective dedicated to creating cross-cultural understanding through the lens of Indian classical and Raga inspired music. The collective, which has a dedicated following community who love Indian classical music, not only organizes weekly concerts but performs at bigger venues like Kennedy center and has an annual 24 hours music festival as well. 

“I want to continue experimenting with Indian classical music through our collective. We were one of the first bands to bring Indian classical influence to western minimal pieces and now we have performed nearly 80 concerts in a year. Right now Indian music just involves 3-4 musicians playing at a time and I want to experiment it with having a repertoire with over 20 people performing together, expanding and exploring the loneliness of Indian classical music,” said Murgai. Further adding on his future plans he concluded, “I have already started planning for my next record that would be completely focused on solo performance based on overtone singing. I have a new idea of presenting raga as a kind of abstract expressionist, using raga phrases with minimal music. My direction is currently headed in that way, which is also known as yamanism.”

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.

Entrepreneurial Mother Unlocks Kulture

Who else can know a child’s needs better than a mom. And it takes a strong woman to go beyond and fulfill the gaps, irrespective of the circumstances.

Putting aside the pandemic we are facing, it is still International Women’s Month! India Currents would like to tell the story of one such strong Indian American mother, Akruti Babaria, who recognized the importance of conveying Indian traditions and culture to her child and she knew she had to be the one to start a venture to accomplish the feat.

Kulture Khazana is an online portal that unlocks Indian cultural treasures for children using different interactive mediums. From online content, workshops, newsletters, seminars to children’s books – the portal is a one stop destination for every Indian mother who seeks to impart her culture to her kids.

Established in February 2018, the journey was not a cakewalk for the mom-entrepreneur, who had to travel halfway across the globe to find the right sources for her endeavour.

“It was when I started to speak to my 3 year old son about Indian culture, did I realize the lack of resources around us in the US. I wanted him to learn about our values and traditions and could not find any authentic source here. I had to travel all the way to India to purchase nearly 400 books, back then for the purpose. The journey and the realization paved the way to curate something that can be beneficial not just for my son but for every kid in the US,” said Akruti Babaria, who left her full-time job to pursue this venture.

Right after its establishment, the portal was well received by all Indian American parents who were eagerly in search for a repository that offers them the right resources, especially books that do not highlight any violence but convey the needed context in an appropriate way based on the aptitude of a kid. Surprisingly, even the local libraries welcomed the cultural materials and were more than happy to display the collection. 

Akruti storytelling at her local library

Though the initial acceptance helped Akruti to establish her endeavor across the community, finding feasible partners for the business was a challenging task.

“It required lots of research, meetings and effort to find genuine partners to do business with. We needed people who share the same passion for children’s literature. Though at first I used to work with distributors, now over the years I have been able to establish direct contacts with publishers and authors, which has helped the process to be more smooth and effective.” 

Not just limiting the scope to online content, Akruti understood the need to be innovative and went on to explore new avenues to spread awareness on Indian culture. A unique approach of mixing storytelling with activities and movements, she was able to find new ways to engage the kids in learning about their culture.

“I wanted to do something which is not monotonous and kids should find it interesting rather than preachy. The interactive workshops and seminars gives an all-rounded experience for kids with lots of activities and fun learning exercises. It’s been well received and many schools and organizations like children’s museums, libraries, literary communities, temples, and grocery chain stores have come forward to organize such events. Surprisingly, even the non-Indian communities have shown interest and attend these workshops in large numbers to learn more about Indian culture and global diversity,” 

Akruti using different mediums to teach culture

Currently, she has also been approached by the school district of Texas to create a cultural kit as part of the curriculum for 2020 with special focus on spreading awareness about culture and diversity for students and on how teachers should plan to include the framework within the curriculum.

Akruti also conducts professional development seminars for educators on how to interpret culture in a classroom. She feels that if the kids are knowledgeable about diversity and inclusion at such a young age, then they grow up to become open-minded individuals. Most of the organizations have workshops on inclusion as part of team building exercises and Akruti asserts that if these cultural values are taught to them right from childhood then there is no need to retrain them in future. 

The dancer cum MBA graduate is all set to enter a new phase as she plans to author a book for kids about spices. Writing poems and collating learning exercises for the weekly newsletters of her portal, she is already on the move creating new experiences for children through a mother’s lens. 

Akruti call outs to the wonderful women out there for International Women’s month, “Come what may, always follow your passion. Regain your confidence and find your girl gang, who is always there to give an hi-five, to support, advise and even criticize. You just have to step out and you will realize that there is a whole community of women out there who are always ready to support each other.”

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.

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

Vision in Focus: 40 Years of Seva Foundation

Photographs that speak of compassion and love, and each photograph conveys more than a thousand words. An amazing showcase of breathtaking photography as the Seva Foundation commemorates its 40th anniversary by organizing a wonderful exhibition of photographs that capture the essence of this relentless fight against preventable blindness around the world. Started off on September 7th, the “Vision in Focus: 40 years of Restoring Sight, A Retrospective” exhibition is open to the public till September 30th at Warehouse 416, Oakland, California.

Photography has been one of the main tools of the organization in raising awareness of communities who struggle with sight. “It was one of the ideas of our staff members to curate a photography exhibition that collectively showcases our 40 years of journey and efforts to prevent blindness and restoring sight around the globe. We have been fortunate enough to have really talented photographers who have donated their work for our cause. They have understood the need and worked along with Seva in raising awareness on vision care and improving lives on a global scale,” said Julie Nestingen, Director of Development, Seva Foundation and also one of the photographers who is participating at the exhibition.

The retrospective gallery displays a beautiful collection of photographs that highlights stories of different communities, who have gained a new perspective on life through the works of Seva. The exhibition features photography from talented photographers like Ellen Crystal, Rebecca Gaal, Jon Kaplan, Julie Nestingen and Joe Raffanti.

“It’s a special kind of gratifying experience to be associated with such a wonderful cause and the Seva foundation. You get to see a different perspective of humanity and being able to capture their moments of happiness is really heartening. Photographs have a better way to convey emotions than words, they tell a story in itself. The before and after photographs of people from the communities who struggle with sight, rightfully defines the impact others can bring on the lives of needy people through their compassionate efforts,” stated Jon Kaplan, one of the photographers who traveled along with the Seva Foundation to different countries in Asia, Africa and South America to capture their admirable service to humanity.

Photography is also considered as an effective method of communication that brushes away the boundaries of language and culture. According to another participating photographer, Rebecca Gaal, “Photography is a way to connect with people especially with those who do not speak the same language. There is a story behind every photograph and it directly conveys and makes people understand the gravity of change one can bring to the lives of other people.” She was the one who curated the photography exhibition by selecting thirty photographs from the entire collection of 40 years of Seva.

“Seva is an incredible organization that works towards this never-ending struggle and I love to capture their amazing moments. Understanding the lives of people who are struggling with sight and photographing them is a different experience. I really hope that more people get a chance to interact with such communities, create experiences and work towards making a difference in the global world for a greater need,” she added.

Founded in 1978, the Seva Foundation has been working towards restoring sight and eradicating preventable blindness across the globe over the years. Supporting eye care initiatives in more than 20 countries, the Berkeley-based organization offers universal access to healthy vision care through affordable medical treatments and low-cost surgeries. It also partners with local hospitals by empowering them with efficient resources and mentoring them to improve the infrastructure and quality of eye-care services.

“Our aim is to eradicate treatable and preventable blindness across the world. Restoring sight not just helps an individual in leading a better life and achieving more from it, but also benefits the entire family, caretakers or community in having a new outlook towards life. According to the global aging population, the population of blind people is expected to triple in 2050 and we really need to work towards such an important cause,” opined Julie Nestingen.

“Photographs are so compelling and are a great way to tell a story. We expect people to understand the sentiments of different communities across the globe and the vital need through our exhibition as we continue to work towards our relentless fight against preventable blindness around the world,” added the Director.

With an aim of ‘Vision in Focus’, the exhibition not just conveys the remarkable journey of an organization but also gives insights into the lives of people, who are struggling to have at the least a clear image of the world around them. The exhibition is open to public for the whole month of September, showcasing 30 photographs in total from five great photographers.

Suchithra Pillai comes with nearly 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 United States. In her spare time, you can find her scribbling down some thoughts on paper, trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things, or expressing her love for dance on stage.

This article was curated by Culture and Media Editor, Geetika Pathania Jain.

Cover photo credit: Joe Raffanti

Documentary About Spelling Bee Champs Creates Buzz

A dynasty unnoticed yet really intriguing and amazing! It’s been 19 years in a row that Indian American kids have been emerging as winners at the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. 19 out of the last 23 winners of the spelling bee competition have been Indian Americans, creating an incredible trend since 1999. Capturing this astounding trend, well known director Sam Rega in his award-winning documentary ‘Breaking the Bee’ brings out the essence of the competition and reveals interesting facts about this amazing tradition of the Indian Americans succeeding at the contests.

“I was really amazed by the statistics on the spelling bee competitions. It was all happening right in front of us, aired on ESPN but hardly anyone reported or noticed such an intriguing trend. The idea was brought to me by Chris Weller, who did research and detailed analysis on this trend for several years and is also the producer of the movie,” said Sam Rega, Director, Editor and Co-Producer of the documentary.

“Sports has always fascinated me. I love competitions and people pushing themselves to their limits. It can be either physical or mental limits, or even both. This was the perfect film that had everything in it, right from sports, family, team efforts to meticulous planning,” added Rega.

The feature-length documentary has already gained international acclaim since its world premiere at the 2018 Cleveland International Film Festival and also got premiered at New York Indian Film Festival. Speaking about the tremendous response received so far, the director stated that people were incredibly engaged throughout, with tickets sold out in both film festivals. The gasps, groans and cheering during the entire screening of the movie was the best ever feedback received. 

Held at the US national level, the Scripps National spelling bee competition has a golden history of 90 years, helping students improve their spelling, vocabulary and correct English usage. This documentary explores and celebrates this new dynasty of Indian American winners by taking the audience through the journeys of four students: Akash, Ashrita, Shourav, and Tejas, aged between 7-14, as they vie for the title of spelling bee champion.

More than just a competition, it is the love for the language that has been depicted as the key point in the documentary. The film portrays a complete picture of the competition and the entire process behind it. We get a behind-the scenes look at family discussions on word formations and patterns, personal database of words, learning phases and even lucky charms. The film includes informative interviews with current competing spellers, their parents, former spelling bee champions and experts, drawing you into this world, even if you have never watched a single episode of spelling bee competition

Brushing aside the perception of Indian parents as tiger parents, Sam Rega stated, “For Indian American parents, the competition is more like a family sport. Parents are seen getting really involved in each step of the preparation and enjoy playing spelling bee with the kids. This is the reason why the competition sees more siblings joining as they see their brother or sister enjoy the process. Most of the Indian American parents are multilingual themselves and hence they train their kids also to learn different languages and understand the nuances of it. There was a universal support from the families when they heard about the making of this film. It was like everyone was living the trend but even they didn’t know why it was happening.”

Rega added: “I think it was the perfect storm of events that came together to build the trend. The 1965 Immigration Act laid the foundation for the wave of influx of highly educated immigrants from South Asia, especially India. These families have a strong focus on education and raised their kids to value education. In 1985, when they first saw a South Asian kid emerge as winner on screen, it was: ‘If he can do it, then we can do it too.’” It was a key moment, with front page newspaper headlines, and every kid wanted to participate and showcase their talent on a larger platform.”

On the dark side of fame, the director opined, “It’s unfortunate that a few of the winners had to face racist comments. They earned the prize with their hard work and you cannot bash the kids with nasty comments. It’s terrible as they are just kids and hence we have included those elements as well in the film to show on how it was a rollercoaster ride for these families. People should consider that even they are Americans and part of the same community. I hope the movie as a whole can change the perceptions of many and people would open their arms for a global community.”

With future plans to screen the movie at various other film festivals, the makers are also seeking options to distribute the movie to a wider audience by streaming on TV to reach a global audience..

Breaking the Bee (2018). Director and Editor: Sam Rega. Writers and Producers: Sam Rega and Chris Weller.

Suchithra Pillai comes with nearly 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 United States. In her spare time, you can find her scribbling down some thoughts on paper, trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things, or expressing her love for dance on stage.

This article was written by Suchithra Pillai and edited by Culture and Media Editor, Geetika Pathania Jain.

Fall: International Acclaim for Indian American Film

Proving their mettle and showcasing the vibrant talent across boundaries, Indian American filmmakers are now creating a space of their own, gaining acclaim and recognition from different international film festivals across the world. Fall (2018), a short film by Vigil Bose, is one such attempt. The film has received seventeen awards and fourteen nominations so far from various International film festivals held in India, Italy, and US, for best experimental film and superb performances.

Trying to deliver a unique perspective of psychological trauma faced by undercover operatives on their return from high-risk America’s anti-insurgent operations, Fall is an experimental short film that conveys a myriad of emotions through images and the power of silence. “It is a humble attempt to explore the lives of veterans, whom I admire a lot in my life,” says Vigil Bose, who is the writer, director and cinematographer for the film. “The story and characters are built around the traumatic occurrences, internal conflicts and stressful experiences that an undercover agent encounters in life. I have tried to experiment and convey the intensity of emotions through different shots rather than heavy exchange of dialogues” .  Produced by Three Eye Visuals, the cast of the short film includes Jiju Nair, Praveen Kumar, Sindhu Nair and Jon Feidl.

Describing the wonderful journey and hard work that went into the making of the film, the lead actor, Jiju Nair stated, “I was always on the lookout of a character that is really challenging and socially inclined and when Vigil approached me, I was more than happy to take up this project. The role not just required me to train physically but also to emotionally understand a character that is very complex and mysterious, and for which I had no model to study or look upon.” Jiju also added that the movie is an attempt to establish the presence of Indian American actors on the global stage.

Indian actors and filmmakers have been trying to create an imprint of their own in Hollywood for years. Still, the impact and representation is very small though changes are booming in the recent past. “Our movie-making is an attempt to change the representation and participation of Indian actors and filmmakers in the Hollywood industry. It is the main reason why I chose an Indian actor to portray a lead role in my film that focused on US undercover agents. The creative talent of Asians, especially Indians need to be explored and given more opportunities to flourish. Actors like Priyanka Chopra in Quantico are slowly paving the way for the change but more augmenting measures are required,” opined Vigil. He and Jiju Nair share a strong background in theatre, having acted together on numerous stages in Kochi, Kerala. Even though both of them are IT professionals, it is this same passion for art that brought them together to pursue their dream after so many years.

Their debut short film, Fall, has won awards at Oniros Film Awards, Italy for best cinematography, supporting actor, supporting actress; best experimental film and jury award at LakeView International Film Festival; gold award for best supporting actor, silver award for best actor, silver award for best editor, bronze award for best short film at Virgin Spring Cinefest; best short film-bronze award, best cinematography-silver award, best actor-bronze award, best actress-bronze award and best supporting actor-platinum award at Mindfield Film Festival, Albuquerque, NM, as well as several nominations and official selections at various prestigious film festivals across the globe.

The duo plan to take the short film to a next level of a motion picture in the future and are looking out for local investors. They are also working together to set out different business plans to host and distribute the movie, with a special focus on streaming media like Youtube Red and Amazon

“We have received tremendous feedback so far and hence would surely be working towards taking the movie to the next level,” added Vigil, who is currently also working on another forthcoming project, Chained, facing the camera as an actor after a long gap of 16 years. To relish the pure joy of creativity and attainment in life, both Vigil and Jiju now aim to continue and invest more time in exploring future opportunities in the movie industry.

Fall (2018). Director: Vigil Bose. Writers: Vigil Bose, Sujil Chandra Bose. Cast: Jiju Nair, Praveen Kumar, Sindhu Nair and Jon Feidl. Produced by: Three Eye Visuals.

Suchithra Pillai comes with nearly a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community for many leading publications in India and Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, you can find her scribbling down some thoughts in paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things, or expressing her love for dance on stage.