[This is a post by SRILA NAYAK (@srilanayak on Twitter), a Master's student at Columbia Journalism School is a freelance journalist interested in books, politics and government.]
Shundell Prasad’s "Festival of Lights" opened on November 9, 2012, in New York. The movie portrays the Guyanese Indian community in New York, which emigrated from its politically turbulent homeland in the 1970s and 1980s.
Prasad’s maiden film, which she wrote and directed, tells the story of a family broken up by political violence: 3-year-old Reshma (Melinda Shankar) leaves Guyana for New York with her mother (Ritu Singh Pande). Her father, played by British-Indian actor, Jimi Mistry of "East is East" and "The Guru" fame, is denied a visa to the United States and Reshma and her mother are forced to leave Guyana without him.
The film telescopes the complexities of Indo-Caribbean-American identity through Reshma’s struggles as an angst-ridden teenager in 1980s Queens, NY and her journey to Guyana in search of her father and her lost cultural roots.
A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, Prasad has worked for HBO and CNN and she currently resides in Los Angeles. Prasad, who moved to New York with her family as a six-year-old, made her debut as a filmmaker with an autobiographical documentary, "Once More Removed" (2007), that chronicled her own journey from her home in New York, via Guyana, to India, a country her forefathers left a century earlier to work as indentured laborers in the plantations of the new world. The film showed Prasad tracing her mother’s lineage to Muzzafarpur district in Bihar through ship records in Guyana.
Shundell’s second documentary "Unholy Matrimony" explored the issue of forced marriage of minor girls in Pakistan.
She answered some questions from SAJAforum about the her career and her latest film.
What did you learn about Indo-Guyanese identity in the
course of filming "Once More Removed"?
To make an independent film about one’s own background is gratifying. I had a fascination with my Indian origins because it was such a mystery to me. In the process of making Once More Removed, I learned that the Guyanese people and other people who got shipped around the world to work in sugar plantations have an amazing lineage that we are a part of. Our families lived in India for thousands of years and the cultural heritage that is ingrained in us simply doesn’t fade away after being outside the country for more than 100 years. There was an amazing sense of completeness for me personally because I had grown up in the West, not having a tremendous amount of Indian influence.
Was "Festival of Lights" also informed by your personal experiences as an American with Indo-Guyanese roots?
The idea of "Festival Of Lights" was born out of a story I had heard. There was a wedding in Queens where a lot of Indo-Guyanese people live. At this wedding, the girl’s father was not present. The INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) actually came to the wedding looking for the girl’s father. The story was that her father was not allowed to be in the country and the officials were thinking he would actually show up at his daughter’s wedding and they were waiting for him. I just remember thinking what an awful story. There is something wrong with current laws that prohibit a parent from being at their child’s wedding.
I started to develop a story about how the Indo-Guyanese have had to leave loved ones and start life in a new country. Every Guyanese person in America has a story about who they left behind or who they haven’t seen again.
There are over 100,000 Guyanese-born people in New York
alone. Yet the Indo-Guyanese population remains largely invisible in America, and
the Indian diaspora is typically identified with the subcontinent.
Sadly, Indo-Caribs, Indo-Fijians and Indians from Africa might not be quite as visible as NRIs (Non-Resdient Indians). I am glad I have an opportunity to present the story of a smaller sub-category of Indian people. We are adding our own swatch to the quilt of Indian-American identity. In my mind, I don’t see a difference between an Indo-Guyanese and an Indian from India. At the end of the day, we are of Indian heritage and ancestry and that is something that should be celebrated.
Why did you make a transition to movies from documentaries?
Did your experience with documentaries help with the direction of the movie?
Narrative film-making was part of my undergraduate work at NYU. I gravitated towards documentary filmmaking because I graduated around september 11, and I was influenced by some powerful documentaries. It helped that it was much less expensive to make documentary films. But I primarily come from the school of narrative film-making.
My experiences with documentary films fostered a love for shooting new places and exposing them on film. When it came to shooting Guyana, I was sure we had to shoot in the country, as opposed to recreating it in New York. My love for dicumentary helped inform the visual landscape of my movie.
Can you tell us a little bit about the casting process? How
did you sign on Melinda Shankar, Jimi Mistry and Aidan Quinn for your film?
Melinda Shankar came on board very early on. I was researching Indian-American actresses. Somebody told me about Melinda—she is a star of the famous show, Degrassi High. I looked her up on a couple of episodes on You Tube and knew rightaway that she would be perfect as Reshma. She also happens to be a Canadian actress of Indo-Guyanese origin.
The second most important character in the movie is Meena, Reshma’s mother. I met with so many actresses in New York. No one seemed to fit the bill until the day Ritu Singh Pande walked in during one of the auditions. She just blew me away! With an independent film, you need recognizable names. Our casting director, Eve Pomerance came on board to help us cast Jimi Mistry and Aidan Quinn, both highly skilled and well known actors.
is your next project?
My next project will also be a narrative film. Making Festival Of Lights was a monumental undertaking. I needed some time to recover from that. But I am writing again and, hopefully, I will get behind the camera and start directing soon.
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