Now in its third year, the HBO Asian Pacific American Visionaries short film competition creates an international platform for emerging directors of Asian and/or Pacific Islander descent to showcase their work. The Aerogram recently interviewed Gayatri Bajpai and Nirav Bhakta, the filmmaking team behind the short film “Halwa”, one of the finalists for HBO’s APA Visionaries prize. Shorts from filmmakers Julie Zhan (“Zoetic”) and So Young Shelly Yo (“Moonwalk With Me”) are also finalists in this year’s competition.
“Halwa” follows the story of empty-nester Sujata Chopra, who on the eve of her wedding anniversary, “attempts to find some joy in her broken marriage, until she learns about the passing of her childhood companion’s spouse on Facebook. Having been disconnected from this woman for over 30 years over a misunderstanding, Sujata finds the courage to reach out to send her condolences. They reconnect, sparking friction when Sujata’s controlling husband, Dr. Chopra, finds out.”
Although we never meet Sujata’s friend, the bittersweet flirtations they share are made real for viewers through a voice-over dialogue between the two of them as girls, before Sujata’s marriage. These intimate, disembodied conversations play out as we see Sujata go about her mundane daily chores and then finally settle down to chat online with her long-lost friend. Distanced by time, space and personal choices, these two women remotely reconnect on social media, recalling ill-fated efforts to become closer to one another as girls. Witnessing Sujata in her present day desperation while hearing her coy, younger self speak in the background is an arresting experience for the audience. Bhajpai and Bhakta have done an incredible job rendering the story of an emotionally complex character in such a short timeframe.
In our interview, Bajpai and Bhakta shared about the filmmaking process and the importance of platforms for intimate, nuanced stories about South Asians.
Anjali Misra: What inspired you to tell this story?
Nirav Bhakta & Gayatri Bajpai: We talked to our lead actress Vee Kumari about the lack of authentic roles for Indian women over 50. If you thought the options narrowed for white women in middle age, can you imagine what it’s like for women of color? The Indian actress can usually count on playing someone arranging her child’s marriage, or pushing them to become a doctor/lawyer/engineer.
Even new South Asian storytellers, who are breaking barriers on other fronts, often create stereotypical parents and grandparents. They are reduced to foils or comedic relief. Their “backward” or “FOB” attitudes are contrasted with the more nuanced perspectives of young people.
“If you thought the options narrowed for white women in middle age, can you imagine what it’s like for women of color?”
Our creative mandate with Vee was to dig a bit deeper and bring to life a three-dimensional character.
The three of us, Nirav Bhakta, Gayatri Bajpai, and Vee Kumari, had many conversations about the character of Sujata. Vee opened up about some of her own personal experiences, which in part inspired this story.
We also shared our collective migrant experiences: observations of our own diaspora communities and attitudes towards those who have defied norms within them.
Out of all of this, the story of a woman rediscovering love online grew organically. We decided on rooting this love and self-discovery squarely in the digital age.
AM: What cultural considerations went into production (including script-writing, casting, and setting)?
NB & GB: Our main approach as co-directors was to listen to stories from our communities. When we began writing, we tried to stay as close as possible to the specifics of South Asian culture that we knew. It was important not water down or over-explain any traditions or rituals — such as Sujata’s wearing of the mangal sutra, for example — but instead to just let our character be who she is.
The casting process of supporting roles was eye-opening for us as directors. We had an all-South Asian cast, most over 40. Everyone was from a different area of India or Pakistan. There were so many talented actors auditioning who wanted to be a part of a more nuanced South Asian narrative. It drove home that there is plenty of talent, but not enough authentic stories. This is why a platform like the HBO Asian Pacific Visionaries competition is vital. It gets our voices heard.
“There is plenty of talent, but not enough authentic stories.”
Once we had our cast, they weighed in on the regional and generational backgrounds of the characters and the authenticity of the Hindi dialogue we’d written.
The entire film takes place within one location — the home of an Indian immigrant couple in America. We wanted to show the isolation our character experiences by sticking to the interior. The character is living an upper-middle class immigrant life in America, far away from her original home and separated from her past. But the actual location happens to be the home of a South Asian family in real life, so the walls, dishes, paintings, and artefacts bore Indian touches. Although we made most of our frames empty and stark to enhance the main character’s loneliness, we kept some of these details to evoke our protagonist’s desi background.
AM: What has been the overall response from those who’ve seen the film? Any surprising or eye-opening reactions?
NB & GB: So far, we’ve only had a few friends and family watch the film during the edit to better grasp the direction in which we were headed. However, nobody has seen the final product yet. We are curious as to how South Asian viewers will react.
For us co-directors — Gayatri and Nirav — our greatest reward would be that viewers see themselves reflected in the film, or at the very least empathize with an older Indian immigrant claiming her sense of self.
Our film will have its premiere hosted by HBO at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on May 3. Soon after the film will be available on HBO, HBO GO & HBO NOW in honor of Asian American heritage month.
Anjali Misra is a Chicago-based nonprofit professional and freelance writer of media reviews, cultural criticism and short fiction work. She earned her MA in Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spent nine years as a student and community organizer, focusing on inter-ethnic solidarity, interracial coalition building, and gender justice. She is an avid sci-fi media fan, and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan is her patronus.