When I decided to go and see “Because We Are Girls” at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was anxious.
I was anxious that this film was being showcased on such a large documentary filmmaking platform, with the potential to affect many audiences in different ways — some of whom would walk away triggered, and others who would leave inspired to advocate for change. I was anxious that this film bore such a huge responsibility — owing to its title and description — to represent the Punjabi community in Canada sensitively at the same time as speaking out firmly against the global issue of violence against women. I was anxious that this particular film was directed by a community member herself, and that its subject was a South Asian diasporic family. It is so rare to see one of our own fiercely telling our community’s stories, that too on such a mainstream platform, so when it happens it feels like a landmark event.
This anxiety was thus, for me, rooted in excitement that “Because We Are Girls” was being shown, but also in a profound nervousness as to how it would be executed and, most importantly, how it would be received by a mainstream audience. This film felt like a coming together of many important issues: it was a commentary on the importance of representation of South Asian diasporic stories, on the secrecy, the shame, and the deep trauma that so often accompanies sexual violence, and on the ethics of filmmaking. In other words, in subtle ways, it was a reflection of who gets to tell a particular story, who should tell that story, who is included/not included in the storytelling, and what that means for the production of a film as a whole.
As a social researcher, writer, educator, and equity & inclusion strategist who has spent years grappling with the ways that filmmakers create, audiences receive, and the media reports on violence against South Asian women in Canada, I also had a vested interest in watching this documentary. Like so many others, I am tired of hearing again and again about the horrors of sexual and ‘honour’ based violence that continues to plague many of our communities; and yet, these narratives remind me how important it is to keep doing the work. After all, it may only be through repetition that a change in attitudes and behaviour happens.
So, with all of these thoughts, assumptions, and expectations floating noisily around in my head, I curiously went to watch “Because We Are Girls” and, in all honesty, I’m still processing the experience. Because it strongly relies on the kitsch, the melodrama, and the romanticism of the Bollywood film genre to give life to characters beyond the film’s central topic, and because it centers on a family’s secret and on the evolving relationship between three sisters as a result of this secret, “Because We Are Girls” feels both microscopic and larger than life, it feels both heavy and light.
Indeed we, as the audience, are looking in on a personal family tragedy that has important implications for the ways in which we understand, acknowledge, and respond to issues of sexual violence within South Asian — and specifically Punjabi — communities in Canada and globally. The kitsch, melodrama, and romanticism serve to remind us that while it’s important to have a wider audience watching and engaging, at the end of the day this is our story, our context, our community; it’s time we watch, listen, and use our voices for change.
Thus, for me the most gripping parts of the film were the parts that asked me, the audience member, to think deeply or differently about gender norms and/or family narratives, as I have grown up experiencing them within my own South Asian/Punjabi diasporic culture. For instance, various popular scenes, stories, and songs pulled from old Bollywood movies aimed to shed light on subtle but destructive messaging about gender and about control; these scenes and stories were then juxtaposed with a long scene at the end of the film capturing a difficult family conversation, where many of these subtleties were exposed and enacted in real time – where destructive gender norms were no longer Bollywood fiction, but actual fact.
The entire film was, in effect, a beautiful yet tragic illustration of the ways in which the personal and the political are mapped onto the bodies of South Asian women.
In my own processing of “Because We Are Girls,” I spoke with Director Baljit Sangra to get a behind-the-scenes understanding of what motivated her to create it, why she felt that this family’s story was important to share with Canadians, and what she believes the film’s political objectives are. Throughout our conversation, Baljit mentioned that this film is, for her, a call to action “to take the shame and blame” out of sexual assault incidents, to unpack trauma associated with sexual violence, to incorporate more community members, more men in the conversation about abuse.
Furthermore, this film was, for her, an important opportunity to “express the views of the underrepresented” and to move beyond harmful stereotypes about South Asian, and particularly Punjabi, women. She explained that this film, among many others, was her personal attempt at “vying for space and truth in the age of fake news.” She said to me, matter-of-factly:
This is kind of like [my] seva in a way.
Over the past few months, “Because We Are Girls” has remained in the spotlight, as the sexual assault case that forms its main subject has been unfolding at the same time as the film has been traveling. After its showing at Hot Docs, the film went to the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, where every show was sold out and received multiple standing ovations. While there are plans for it to go to more festivals and community screenings in Canada and overseas, for now, it will receive a limited release at the Vancity Theatre from July 5-11, 2019.
I mentioned earlier that as a writer, researcher, and advocate, I am exhausted from continuously doing this snail-paced work, but at the same time I know how important it is to continue speaking out against sexual violence, to continue fighting for recognition, and to continue telling our stories.
This was never made more clear than a few weeks ago when, as I was preparing this review, I got the news that the convictions against the accused in the case upon which “Because We Are Girls” is based were tossed over by the Supreme Court of Canada because of court delays. As powerful, and as emotionally triggering as this documentary was, and as hopeful as I left the theatre regarding the case itself, this news brings me back to a grim reality.
I’m left questioning, what does this say about how far we have (or, rather, have not) come as a society when it comes to sexual violence against brown [and black] women? How many more films need to be made, and how many conversations need to be had for real change to take place?
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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September 19, 2023September 19, 2023 3min readBy Nida Hasan
There’s often an element of dysfunctionality that exists within South Asian families. Especially immigrant families, who are carrying with them the burden of intergenerational trauma, shame and guilt; holding onto the last straw of cultural traditions that they have forever known to be the convention, in order to avoid the obliteration of these said values to “Western” ideologies. But what the older generation tends to forget is that they, too, may have been the rebels of their time; misplaced, misfits for the standards of their predecessors. They, too, with their big, ‘American’ dreams (Canadian, in this case) quite possibly left their elders grappling with the loss of their legacy to the unknown. Fawzia Mirza’s “The Queen of My Dreams,” which premiered at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, probes into this disparity, drawing on the complexities of a strained mother-daughter relationship in what is an endearing and emotional tale of loss, love, and nostalgia.
Azra (Amrit Kaur) — a Muslim Canadian teenager — is met with the sudden news of her father’s untimely demise. Her father (Hamza Haq) was the only mediator and one of the two shared loves (the other being the ’60s iconic Bollywood song, “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani”) between Azra and her devout mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha), who rarely see eye-to-eye otherwise. A grieving Azra hops on a plane to Pakistan to attend her father’s funeral and from here on, through fragmented images, viewers are taken on a dramatic yet poignant journey across generations, cultures, and continents, all contrasting each other, but very much in tandem in the telling of the story.
For those who’ve seen Bucha’s talent unfold on Pakistani television can probably vouch for her versatility as an actor. She may have “not fit into the industry” that loves itself a damsel in distress, but seldom has she failed to prove her acting prowess. She is now living this title of a ‘Rising International Star’ to watch out for and deservingly so. She adds a welcome eccentricity and flamboyance to the role of an aspirational, immigrant wife trying to add to the household income by selling Tupperware to white folks. And, at the same time, lends this relatable humanism, fragility, and desperation to her character of an immigrant mother reconnecting with her faith at the sight of losing control over her life and her daughter’s. She allows viewers to recognize what her character cannot see in herself.
Bucha is matched, if not completely outshone, by Kaur, who seamlessly switches between the roles of an adventurous and ambitious young Mariam and a grieving Azra. The latter is frustrated with the cultural and religious norms set out to restrict women around her; she’s also a queer Muslim teen struggling to gain her mother’s acceptance after she abandoned their once-thriving bond at the time of her coming-of-age awakening. Kaur portrays the many layers of her character with sheer nuance, depth, and sincerity. Her dexterity as an actor is evident in how tightly she grips onto the idiosyncracies of each character as if it’s not the same, but two different individuals enacting them.
It is delightful to see Gul-e-Rana play something other than a loud, overbearing, or vengeful matriarch, while still very much being in the same category. The particular scene where Rana whispers to her daughter Mariam on her wedding stage, commending her for truly being the great actor she hopes to become by hiding her groom’s plans of migration all the while, almost makes you sympathize with her character. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do for the talented Haq who plays the father and the husband, but he sure exudes the perfect charm of a romantic Bollywood hero if he ever chooses to pursue that path.
Mirza weaves and explores a multitude of challenging social issues such as immigration, identity, and sexuality around the intricacies of an intense mother-daughter relationship, without leaving any loose threads. What you are left with is the possibility of Mariam and Azra showing each other some grace, having dived into their past that boils down to the fact that even though they stand at odds with each other — estranged and unforgiving — they have more in common than they’d admit. Queer or not, “The Queen of My Dreams” will offer some relatability to every immigrant mother and her multi-hyphenated daughter. It is like gazing at a self-portrait that persuades you to reflect on the past and its impact on your present, and to rethink the trajectory of your future. It also reminds you that all battles — be they of epic proportions or marked by petty grievances — should and must come to an end because life is just too short.