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.
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.
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.