Tag Archives: #womenempowerment

A Filmmaker, A Trailblazer: Prarthana Joshi Takes On Hollywood

How often do you see a diminutive, Indian woman behind the camera in Hollywood?

Prarthana Joshi is doing just that.

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.

Filmmaker, Prarthana Joshi.

PJ has extensive hands-on and versatile production experience because she knew early on that filmmaking is about learning all the elements of creating cinema. In her most recent project, she produced, TV pilot, Vicarious, which won the best TV pilot at the Dances with Films 2019 festival, amongst several other awards and screenings. Her other notable works include The National Film Archives of India Documentary, Vihir, Vaatsaru, The Day He Learned to Fly, Handle with Care

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. 

Prarthana Joshi on set.

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.

Mooch Ado About Nothing

During the ongoing pandemic, several people have been ditching their usual shaving, threading, and waxing routines, donning their natural, back-to-basics avatar. With one barely stepping out of one’s homes, “lockdown looks” have become all the rage—and moustaches, beards, and other facial hair have become quite the norm among both young and old. It is interesting that during such a time, there is a new children’s book that simply explains this very timely and relevant concept of body positivity.

Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Anand and Nabi H. Ali is a delightful little new picture book about a young Indian American girl’s journey to accept her body hair and celebrate her heritage. Shelly Anand is an Atlanta-based human and civil rights attorney who fights for immigrants and workers from marginalized communities. Nabi K Ali is a Tamil-American digital illustrator who enjoys creating works about various cultures and people.

Young Laxmi is a young girl, whose peers in school, Zoe and Noah, get her to notice her facial hair one day while they are playing farm animals at recess. During the game, they ask her to personify a cat, as she has tiny hairs— like whiskers—on her upper lip. All of sudden, Laxmi becomes conscious and all too aware of her “mooch”. In no time, she begins to notice hair all over her body—her arms, knuckles, legs, and between her eyebrows. When she reaches home, she tells her mother about it.

It is then that her mother tells her about several powerful girls and women from history, all of whom sported moustaches—“from Mughal empresses and stately ranis to village girls and city girls.” She tells her about the benefits of having hair all over one’s body—as it protects and keeps us warm. Her parents even tell her about the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo who had hair between her eyebrows. 

The next day in school, Laxmi tells Zoe that she wants to play jungle animals. This time, she volunteers to impersonate a tiger (“with my long silky mooch!”). She also shows Zoe the tiny blond hairs on her lip and asks her to pretend to be a lion. They draw an artificial moustache for their friend Noah who doesn’t have one yet. And soon, the entire class is queuing up to get “world-class mooches” drawn for themselves! 

Thus, through an incident of teasing and body shaming, Laxmi actually manages to overcome her fears and inhibitions, turning it into a positive outcome for herself. Moreover, she teaches her classmates an important lesson to embrace one’s bodies and rejoice in its so-called imperfections. As a result of this “mooch revolution”, her classmates who had natural mooches begin to flaunt them proudly to everyone else.


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’.

Harris Makes History

“And one day, like a miracle, he’ll be gone.”

This was my favorite yard sign during the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. During the darkest days marked by mounting COVID-19 deaths, and dog whistles to white supremacists from the White House, it seemed that day would never come.

Votes were cast before or on November 3, and for one, then two, then three days after, an anxious nation awaited the results, dispensing with sleep and most forms of healthy nourishment. We are dealing with the shock that half the nation actually voted to keep Donald Trump in office.

Four years later, this is another wake-up call for Democrats. Who are these people? Who is being left so far behind that they believe Donald Trump is their savior? There have been some analyses, talk of a shrinking middle class, traditionally the Democratic base. Some speculate that perhaps a shift of the population to the edges, those with either very low or very high incomes, have enabled Trump, The voting demographics will be revealing.

A few hours into the morning of Saturday, November 7, after hours of vote-counting, the Associated Press called the state of Nevada and Pennsylvania for Joe Biden. The news flashed across the television networks and Twitter in seconds, and a tidal wave of jubilation took over. My immediate reaction was visceral: I was in tears at what has been achieved with Harris’s victory.

My favorite headline, “Biden wins, Harris makes history” said it all. First woman VP. (Really, America? How shameful that it has taken this long.) First Black person. First Asian American, specifically, the first person of Indian descent.

Shyamala Gopalan came to the US at the age of 19, as I did, to pursue an education. We know the story, of how she got involved soon after in the civil rights movement, where she met Donald Harris who became her husband. How later, as a single mother, with a strong moral compass, she raised her daughters as Black girls and taught them that they could be anything, do anything. On November 7, Kamala’s sister, Maya Harris, tweeted this: 

Kamala Harris’s ascent to the most powerful position any woman has ever held in America is a striking reminder of “possibilities” – the single word Joe Biden chose to describe America in his acceptance speech. With a full heart, I told my daughter, “You can be President! You are like Kamala. Born in America to an Indian mother.” Never mind that she replied, with teen wisdom combined with sarcasm, “Why would I want to be President?!” In 2016, my daughter, then 11, and I watched in horror as state after state was called in favor of Donald Trump. That night, I went to bed at 9 PM, knowing where things were headed, and unable to bear it. I woke up to the horror. I remember the shock on my daughter’s face when I told her the results. To express my anger, frustration, and despair, I wrote this soon after that. And in 2020, a year of unending horrors, the smile on her face as she came out of her room, sleepy-eyed, smiling broadly, having seen the news on social media, made it seem that things would be all right again. We shared a joyous hug. Some captivating art has been making the rounds, inspired by this trail-blazing, accomplished, beautiful, formidable, competent leader.
Artist Bria Goeller worked with T-shirt company Good Trubble to create this image.
This is the one I like the best, by San Francisco artist Bria Goeller. Here, Madam Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris walks purposefully, and her shadow is the silhouette of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges when she became the first Black student to integrate an all-white school in newly-desegregated New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960.
The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell
The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell
Here is the original painting by Norman Rockwell of her walking escorted by four deputy US marshals. Notice the slur on the wall, the hurled fruit smashed on the ground. And in the midst of it, the little girl with her notebook and ruler. In the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The relief many of us feel is palpable. Finally, there is hope. A burden has lifted.
 

And one day, like a miracle, he will be gone. Can’t wait.


Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area, and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published. 

Shakuntala Devi: A Curious Woman

Shakuntala Devi is a biopic dramedy produced by Sony Pictures Network India and Vìkram Malhotra’s Abhyudaya Entertainment.  Directed by Anu Menon, the film is a curious tale of a mathematical genius whose ability for mental mathematics is discovered when she is a toddler.

From then onwards she makes her mark performing for general and erudite audiences in India and abroad. Vidya Balan is remarkably tuned into the spontaneity, spunk, and sense of humor that the character requires; she is engaging as Shakuntala Devi in her beautiful sarees and long dangling earrings.

Over her lifetime Devi earns money and fame, pitting her wit against computers. She achieves accolades independently without the help of a man. It’s true that men are afraid of a girl who laughs wholeheartedly and follows her heart.

Subconsciously distraught by childhood trauma of an “apparently unloving father and a subservient mother” she struggles to settle down in a traditional home.” Later in life, Devi does have a daughter whose childhood is also equally unusual.

Vidya Balan with Anupama Banerji (Shakuntala’s daughter) on the set of Shakuntala Devi

Some of the questions this film raises are: Is Devi’s daughter a math genius or does she have her own innate ability? Does she want to follow in her mother’s in her enterprising footsteps? Does she want to stay home with her father and choose a life more grounded to the terra firma? Is Devi able to find the companionship of a lost sister in her daughter?

To get answers to these poignant questions about the emotions of a woman as an individual, a daughter, and a mother, I recommend Shakuntala Devi. Vidya Balan is a joy! If I had witnessed Shakuntala Devi in my childhood, the magic of numbers would have inspired me to comprehend equations better. But I stayed home to eat and read my stories and inscribe patterns of snowflakes on my books…

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

Power in a Woman’s Duty

In a world full of women leaders, celebrities and entrepreneurs, there are many women to look upto. But sometimes inspiration lies hidden not in the far fetched and larger that life lives of celebrities but in places we have never looked. The lives of ordinary women around us, in the midst of banality of everyday life provide surprising rays of insights and lessons.

My great aunt Sheila was married to my great uncle Nanik, who is my grandmother’s brother. If you know of a person who genuinely loves and cares for every person in his family that would be uncle Nanik. He is the one who remembers birthdays of everyone in the extended family through all the generations. In all my very intimate contact with my uncle, even in honest disagreements I have been left with a tender warmth, cradled in the safe arms of a no better well wisher in the world.

Last month, Sheila Aunty passed away in her sleep at age eighty four in Bombay. Having thought a lot of the impending possibility of losing my uncle one day and how that would affect the continuity of the binding thread that he provides to the family, I must admit I never thought of aunty’s going away. She had been such a constant in uncle’s life and thus in our lives that her death was a shock. Being here in America, I could not say goodbye in person, I could not give her a last kiss, nor attend any funeral rights. All I can do is think of her with utmost fondness, lay flowers at my altar and peel at the layers of her impact on my own life.

When I think of her the one word that comes to mind is dutiful. If there were another word that would be cheerful. And mind you, those two words are not mutually exclusive. At any given moment that I saw her, she was cheerfully dutiful, as a wife, a mother, friend, relative and grandmother. 

She was a young and beautiful air hostess when she met her future husband who was a pilot for Indian Airlines in the 1950s. She gave up her career to be a wife and a mother. She did not do that because it was the order of the day but because she saw it as a sense of duty. She raised three children, helped take care of her father- in- law until his death and maintained social relations as a wife of an esteemed Captain for 63 years of her marriage.

What I saw most closely was her role as a wife. For decades uncle Nanik’s favorite thing has been to host dinner and cocktail parties for family and friends. My close observation of her was during these times. She was always part of these get-togethers, day after day. I wondered as a child  about the times when she was just not in the mood. Like all of us, I was sure she was not immune to that. But with complete equipoise, she was always present. Over the last many years her health was not great, she appeared more detached but still a servile hostess. She did not have to participate, just her presence was soothing and inspiring. Even during their bickerings like any older couple, they were a whole together, a team. It was his constant reliance on her that ran the show and her choice to support that sustained their life together.

Thinking of her today, I realize how the modern world associates values like independence, courage, feminism to women. We believe these are traits of progress but we have completely lost the world duty from our lexicon. We now think if a woman does not fight for her rights, she is weak. We think of giving in is a negative and tolerance as mediocre. But will the women of today be remembered in this light? Have we also forgotten the intricate complexities of life as a woman? To love, to be faithful, to fulfill one’s duties even when one does not feel like them, to put family before one’s self, to be kind through that very selflessness, to take life’s inevitable challenges in one’s stride and come out a winner. These are virtues of a woman far superior than any revolution. This is an inner revolution to transform our spirits to recognize what is worth fighting for and what in the long run will create character by wisely looking at the larger good outside of ourselves.

What we forget is that there is much thought and inner work involved in the lives of such women. Life of a woman is not black and white, her embrace of the grey is what defines her. What might appear a  passive supportive role is actually a conscious effort at all times involving intelligent thinking.

They don’t make them like her today. She has left no eye dry with her death, because she is fondly remembered like a flower by everything she ever touched. Whether it was her commitment to her faith every day in the form of morning meditation or the goodwill of everyone or just the reaping of her kindness, she was thus blessed with the most peaceful death one can imagine. I cry for my uncle’s loss, his shattered heart, another colossal pain to crush him in the length of a long life but I also rejoice that he had her. For she surely was the spark behind the man he was, is and always will be; deeply loved.

Preeti Hay is a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in publications including The Times of India, Yoga International, Khabar Magazine, India Currents and anthologies of poetry and fiction.

Go Women Ninjas!

I stepped out for a walk with my elementary school son. He was telling me about a program that seems to be the craze among his friends: Lego, Ninjago.

Ninjaaaa—goooo!”, said the little fellow and spun around on the spot kicking his legs up in the air. “ I wonder why they need to say Ninjaaaa-gooo before doing spinjitzu, but they always do that.”

“Maybe it is a spell. Why do they spin so much anyway? Is it like ballet?”, I asked.

The horror of my ignorance made him open his eyes wide in disbelief. “Amma! It is not like ballet. It is spin-jit-zu.”

I often prance into these gaffes. It was clear that the Ninjago masters did not appreciate being called ballet dancers, even though their spinjitzu-s looked like ballerinas who had stubbed their toes.

Knowledge is the antidote to ignorance

He set about enlightening me after taking a deep breath. “They do spinjitzu to use their powers. Everyone has a power. Jai has?” he looked at me expectantly.

I knew the answer was somewhere. I had nodded along on several occasions when he explained the powers of Ninja masters. I took a sip of humility and came clean. “Oh! I can never remember these powers. Why don’t you tell me again, and I will do my best to remember them.”

Professors can rarely resist such a humble seeker of knowledge, and so my little Professor launched on his ‘Amazing Superpowers of the Ninjago Masters’ class.

A few minutes of Walk-Walk-Talk-Talk later, “Then, Lord Garmadon was bitten by the Evil sorcerer and Evil coursed through his veins.”

“Oh no! His parents must’ve been so sad!”, I said. “What did his mother do?”

The fellow stopped with a quizzical expression on his face. “Umm…he has no mother. I don’t know why, but he doesn’t.”

Women Ninja time?

It was as we continued toeing the Ninjago-Spinjitzu line that I asked him why there were no Women in the Ninjago world. His face crinkled with thought. “ Nya is there. Cole became a Ninja to save his sister Nya.”

I looked at his sincere face, and took a deep breath. I saw it was time for me to become a female Ninja.

I asked him what he thought of his sister. “Do you love her?”

A look of awe crept into his eyes. His older, taller, wiser sister?  She looks after him, plays with him, and tells him the most amazing Greek myths. “Of course I do!” he said, stung by such a blasphemous question.

“How about Amma? Do you like me?”

Affirmative.

I kicked it up a notch. I asked about his friends. There were a few girls in the list. I asked him about his teachers, grandmothers and aunts? Duh! He laughed and said that he liked them all.

“Now”, I said, “I want you to imagine how you will feel without any of these girls in your life! “

“What?! Why?”, he said.

“Because that is what those poor Ninjago master-fellows seem to be going through. Don’t you see? “

His face dawned, and then he gave a sheepish smile.

Gender Stereotypes

Research shows that our attitudes regarding genders are formed between the ages of 5 & 6. Maybe this is the time to look at all our entertainment choices with a critical eye. If Superman does everything by himself, why do we think our sons will discuss their problems with us? If in most shows Men save the world by going to War, how can we hope for future peace and diplomacy? Every evening, homes are flooded with soap operasthat glorify women who suffer at the hands of those who should be their intellectual partners and friends.

The effect spirals over time as well. If you look at the average amount of time spent in unpaid housework, women spend a significantly greater amount of time than men do. In some countries, they spend almost double the time doing unpaid housework as men.  

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes the extent of the problem and has dedicated $1Billion in 2018 towards empowering Women. They recognize that every aspect of life (lower poverty rates, increased health care & life expectancy), improves when women are empowered. In the introductory chapter of the book, Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates writes: Sometimes all it takes to lift women up, is to stop pulling them down.” 

International Women’s Month is here and we will be celebrating all the great achievements of Women in Science, Literature, and Leadership; ​​instead of stopping and acknowledging the Women in our lives. The ones who make life what it is with their friendship, camaraderie and companionship.

Biases sneak in sometimes without our knowledge, and setting it right may start with the simple step of recognizing its existence.

 “Wait!”, said the little fellow. “Nya also became a Ninja later in the series. She is a girl-Ninja now.”

“Good!” I said, and peace was restored in our world.

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in San Francisco Chronicle,  The Hindu and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.