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'I don't want Indians to feel invisible in US'
By Shombit Chatterjee
Wednesday, 21 July , 2004, 13:35
Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July , 2004, 18:32

Nisha Ganatra, 28-year-old NRI filmmaker, hates to be labelled or slotted. Younger than the first generation of NRI filmmakers like Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadha, film-making wasn't however Ganatra's first love. She always wanted to be an actor. But career choice was dependent on her securing good grades in school.

At 16, when she bared her mind to her parents, they, she says "had the same reaction as if I had said I wanted to be a prostitute." The Ganatras weren't ready for it yet. Later, she persuaded her parents to consent. She went on to do a graduate degree in film direction at New York University.

The actor-director, who lives in New York, has won rave reviews for her films, 'Chutney Popcorn', which had its Indian premiere at the Mumbai International Film Festival last year, and 'Cosmopolitan'. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with

Why did you decide to get into film-making?

I decided to become a filmmaker because film is the most powerful medium of our society in my eyes, and I was tired of not seeing any images in film that were accurate to the people I knew and saw in my everyday life. I'm talking about the poor portrayals of women in films and the lack of characters that were of South Asian origin in any films, save for the stereotypical cab driver or convenience store clerk.

Representation is so necessary for cultural transformation. I was doing so much activist work, and things were taking so long to change. I was so impatient. I thought, 'Wow I could just make one film and this message would reach so many more people so much faster.'

It's so important to see images of yourself in film and television. It seems so basic, but you grow up feeling invisible in this country because there is a lack of images. I wanted to change that.

Have you studied and lived in India?

No I was born in Canada and lived most of my life in the United States. All of my family is in India though and I feel very connected to India.

Tell us a little about the films you have made, since a majority of the viewers in India did not get a chance to see them.

I think that, like many people in America, I inhabited several worlds. I tried to show that in 'Chutney Popcorn' with both Reena and her sister Sarita. They both have an identity that is always straddling two cultures. I really wanted to show that in the film without making an issue of it. I find that, regardless of your cultural background, the constant negotiation between several cultures is an experience common to most children of immigrants in the US. We are American enough to not feel at home in the country our parents came from, but ethnic enough to not fit in or be considered 'American'. It's a really specific but universal feeling, and it contributes to feeling invisible in American society. All these dynamics inform all the characters choices in 'Chutney', but I really tried hard to make it a part of the characters and not preach about it.

You have won numerous awards for your films, could you tell us something about them?

'Chutney' opened internationally this past year, from Los Angeles, to New York, London, Toronto, and Berlin, and has won appeal from many different audiences, mainstream and independent, first-generation and immigrant, American and international, men and women from all walks of life. The film has received several prestigious awards, including the 2000 Berlin Film Festival's Second Platz Audience Award and the 2000 Newport International Film festival's Best Feature Award. Filmmaker Magazine declared Nisha as one of their 25 New Faces to Watch and noted "Chutney Popcorn has the kind of energy and creativity that mark the best Indie features."

Have you tried to release your films commercially in India? Crossover films like 'Bend it like Beckham' did very well here.

'Chutney Popcorn' is available for distribution in India and is looking for the right company to release it. 'Cosmopolitan' starring Roshan Seth will be released there soon.

What are you currently working on?

A romantic comedy named "Cake" starring Heather Graham and Taye Diggs

All your films have something about India in them. Have you thought of any story without bringing in the diaspora in, the sort that M Night Shyamalan directs?

That is not true - I have made many films without India as a subject - it's just that the only ones anyone wants to write about or release in India are the ones with India in the subject!

Do you have any plans about coming to India and making films here?

I'm always open to making a film in India... I would love to direct a Hindi film or bring one of my stories to shoot in India - the history of the film community in India is so rich - I would love to work with the artists there. I just took my first tour to Mumbai and it was thrilling. But I also have a lot of respect for the regional films and especially the production facilities in Hyderabad.

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