Telling Stories That Cross Cultural Boundaries

Anjali Bhimani
Source: Image provided by Anjali Bhimani

by Anjali Bhimani

Anjali Bhimani is our Brown Girl of the Month from Feb 2013. She is a singer-actress with more than two decades of experience under her belt. Spurred by the controversies over the new adaptation of “The Jungle Book” that opened this summer in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage. Bhimani shares her opinion regarding the issue. This article was originally published at HowlRound titled “What Makes an Artist Qualified to Tell a Story?”

Anjali Bhimani
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When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with mythology. Greek, Roman, Indian, Norse, you name it…I loved them all, more so than your standard fairy tales. I loved the epic nature of the stories that were so magical but also so obviously written (or orally shared through time) to speak to universal truths about the human condition. They were remarkably similar from culture to culture, and transcended the boundaries of time. In the seventh grade, we were assigned the task of writing a myth, and I wrote one with the Norse gods, explaining how Norway got its jagged coast. I have it to this day, with the red A+ prominently displayed at the top, not as a reminder of my twelve-year-old genius (note heavy sarcasm), but a reminder that no matter where you’re from, you can tell a story about another person if you focus on the universality of the tale and their experience, and not the specificity of their race. I believe my teacher assigned this task to teach us just that…no matter the color, gender, or year that a character belongs to, their humanity makes their story equally worthy of being told.

In the theater, we are also in the business of storytelling. However, our increasing multicultural awareness creates an intriguing conflict: we all want to have more representation of our own personal experience, but some also feel that the stories should only be told by those who have some kind of authority on the subject, an authority based on their experience as part of that culture or some connection to it. And such conflict creates walls where we should be tearing them down.

Plays are stories—fairy tales and fictions, historical and magical. They are not documentaries or history lessons. To think they are such would be myopic, especially considering even history books have some subjective views within them (if they didn’t you’d have to eliminate every adjective from them, making history unbearably boring to learn). And while artists choose to tell a story with varying degrees of authenticity, to hold them unremittingly responsible for never offending with their portrayals of other cultures is an unrealistic, although understandable, desire. We want to see what we know of ourselves put on stage, just as a person from the South wants Tennessee Williams to really “get them.” We fear that people unfamiliar with our traditions, our language, our lives will learn faulty things about us from a piece of art. There is a desire for heightened veracity—for ourselves as we see ourselves, or better, to be depicted on that stage. And when a playwright or actor or director “fails” us in that department, it’s easy to cry offended. But isn’t it as much our responsibility as storytellers first to remember that these are just that? Stories? And by their very nature, subjective?

I’ve been working with a playwright for some time on an epic romance/adventure tale about an Indian woman set during the time of the Raj. Interestingly, several people, when seeing the playwright’s first name (which is an initial), have commented on how impressed they are that a man could write such a well-developed female character. Others have remarked on things they found unrealistic and clearly written from a male perspective on a female’s experience. What they fail to realize is that the playwright is a woman. I find it interesting that by virtue of deciding she was a man, they wrote off some of her choices, saying that “he” couldn’t know about a woman’s experience.

You see where I’m headed with this. To say that someone, anyone, is categorically unable to understand something about the human condition because it isn’t part of their own experience or heredity is ludicrous. It would be the end of art as we know it. And it is as unreasonable to say someone from middle America couldn’t possibly understand the experience of someone from India as it is to say that I, as a contemporary Indian-American raised in the states, couldn’t possibly understand and therefore have no right to play the role of Lady Macbeth. While some artists may achieve portrayals with more historical or cultural accuracy than others, we cannot write off any artist completely as unable to tell a story merely based on their actual connection to another race, culture, country, sex, or time. To do so is a kind of bias and racism in itself.

This presents another curious question: Why do we react as we do? Is it the Internet, which has given us all the power to promote our own identities, to control the way we want to be seen, that has outsized our sensitivities to another person’s perspective? Or is it resentment that our own cultural groups are not given enough opportunity to tell our own stories so we jump on the person who does? Should Brits castigate Kazuo Ishiguro (a British subject of Japanese origin) for writing one of the most beautiful portraits of nineteenth-century British society, Remains of the Day? By their very nature, true artists are suited to their roles (playwright, director, actor) because of the special sensitivities they have to human behavior.

By wanting to be included in the zeitgeist but also desiring to control how we are portrayed, some of us are in danger of closing ourselves off from the creative process, because in an environment so fraught with cultural grievance, who wouldn’t be afraid to write about another group? What white male wouldn’t be afraid to write a story about an Indian lesbian in Mumbai, even if he intuitively understands her struggles and victories merely by virtue of the fact that he has an extraordinary talent for understanding the human condition? And by contrast, couldn’t an artist who fits the very same description as his or her protagonist be constrained by their own identity in such a way that interferes with telling a rich, evocative tale, one that originates from a seed planted in the imagination and cultivated through distance and perspective?

I think there is only one true requirement (beyond some measure of talent) for someone to be qualified to tell a story about another on the stage: respect for the humanity of the character and their experience—a desire to be inspired by it and speak not only from personal experience but from something greater than oneself. To look to the greatest source of humanity and ask, as Homer began in The Odyssey, “Sing in me muse…and through me tell the story”…and with that invocation, take the audience on a journey into the human spirit, wherever that spirit may come from or journey to.

Images provided by Anjali Bhimani. 

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History — A Review of Sundance’s ‘Polite Society’

Polite Society

For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage. 

[Read Related: Poorna Jagannathan and Richa Moorjani of Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ on Womanhood, Racism, and Issues Generations of Desi Women Still Struggle With]

Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress. 

Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other. 

This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily. 

“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood. 

Polite Society
Director Nida Manzoor, cinematographer Ashley Connor and actor Priya Kansara on the set of their film “Polite Society.”

Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.

[Read Related: Ms. Marvel’s Iman Vellani and Mohan Kapur Talk Cultural Pride, Hollywood and Brown Representation]

It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions. 

“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April. 

Photo Credits: Focus Features LLC

By Nimarta Narang

Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Nimarta grew up devouring Hindi movies, coming-of-age novels and one too many psychology textbooks. … Read more ›

Abhishek Bachchan, Saiyami Kher, and Angad Bedi on ‘Ghoomer’

“Ghoomer,” R. Balki’s latest directorial venture, had its world premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne 2023 (IFFM), earlier this month, and the moment was nothing short of memorable. Lead actors Abhishek Bachchan, Saiyami Kher, and Angad Bedi, were present to unveil their labor of love to the world, and all three were left speechless at the reaction of the global audience; the film received a standing ovation on opening night, leaving the team extremely emotional — a feeling that Bachchan tells Brown Girl is one he cannot put into words.

“Ghoomer,” tells the story of Anina (played by Kher), an exceptional cricket player who loses her right hand in an accident. Downtrodden and with no will to live, Anina finds a mentor and coach in Padam Singh Sodhi (played by Bachchan), an insensitive and brash failed cricketer who helps her turn her life and career around; Anina also has the unwavering support of her husband, Jeet (played by Bedi). Sodhi teaches Anina unorthodox techniques to make her mark on the cricket ground once again. Enter, ghoomer, a new style of bowling.

[Read Related: 5 Tidbits About Bollywood Royalty Abhishek Bachchan For His 41st Birthday!]

Balki checks all the boxes with this feature — his protagonist is a female athlete, the film is his way of giving back to cricket (a new form of delivery), and he highlights the idea that nothing is impossible for paraplegic athletes. The heart of Balki’s film is in the right place — Kher mentions that the film is meant to be more of an inspirational movie and less of a sports-based movie. One can only imagine the impact that a film like this would have on an audience that’s hungry for meaningful cinema.

And, to chat more about “Ghoomer,” Brown Girl Magazine sat down with the stars of the show. Bachchan, Bedi, and Kher came together to talk about their inspiring characters, the filming journey, and how their film aspires to change the landscape of cricket and paraplegic athletes in the country. It was all that, with a side of samosas.

Take a look!

The featured image is courtesy of Sterling Global. 

By Sandeep Panesar

Sandeep Panesar is an editor, and freelance writer, based out of Toronto. She enjoys everything from the holiday season to … Read more ›

‘The Romantics’: Revisiting the Legacy and Grandeur of Yash Chopra With Filmmaker Smriti Mundhra

The Romantics

If you are a South Asian, born in the ’80s or the early ’90s, chances are your ideas of love and romance are heavily influenced by Hindi films — that first gaze, the secret love notes, that accidental meeting somewhere in Europe, over-the-top gestures and dancing around trees. While reality may have been far from what was promised on reel, you still can’t stop pining over a hopeless romantic, with chocolate boy looks, chasing you across the earth and many universes; in the life here and the ones after. Somewhere deep down, you still dream of that possibility despite your husband sitting and sipping his morning coffee right next to you. And much of the credit for weaving this dreamland, that we can’t resist happily sliding into, goes to the legendary Yash Chopra. Award-winning filmmaker Smriti Mundhra’s docu-series, “The Romantics,” that released on Netflix on February 14, chronicles Chopra’s prolific career; offering an illuminating look into the highs and lows of his journey, his unblemished vision for Hindi cinema and sheer love for filmmaking. 

I wanted to look at Indian cinema through the lens of it being a major contributor to the global cinema canon and Yash Chopra seemed like the perfect lens to explore that because of the longevity of his career and the fact that he had worked across so many different genres. His films, for so many of us, defined what Hindi cinema is.

— Smriti Mundhra

As “The Romantics” unveils, in a mere episode — a challenging feat in itself — Chopra did experiment with multiple genres as a budding filmmaker, initially under the shadows of his elder brother B.R. Chopra. From the religiously sensitive “Dharamputra” and the trendsetting “Waqt” to the action-packed and iconic “Deewaar.” It wasn’t until later on in his career that he set a precedent for a Hindi film having a wholly romantic narrative; though “Waqt” did offer the perfect glimpse into what would go on to become Chopra’s cinematic imprint. And then came “Chandni” which ushered in a new era for Hindi cinema; defying the formulaic approach to box office success and making love stories the golden goose.

In the words of more than 30 famous faces, a host of archival videos and interviews, and personal anecdotes, audiences get an extensive insight into the life and career of Yash Chopra and the evolution of his vision through the business acumen and genius of his polar opposite son and a famous recluse, Aditya Chopra. “The Romantics” is not a fancy portrait of a legendary filmmaker but an exploration of what goes into making a successful film family and a path-breaking production house. As viewers, we not only get a peek into the making of a fantasy creator but also learn of the many failures, hurdles and uncertainties that the business of filmmaking comes packaged in, the impact of socio-political shifts on the kind of content being produced and demanded, and just how much control we have as an audience over the fate of the film and the filmmaker.

For both the uninitiated and fanatics, there are some interesting revelations like Shah Rukh Khan’s lifelong desire to become an action hero as opposed to a romantic one and the creative conflict between Aditya Chopra and his father Yash Chopra on the sets of “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge” — a project that, surprisingly, did not seem too promising to the latter. Mundhra penetrates deep into the family’s history and industry relationships evoking some really candid conversations; almost as if these celebs were eagerly waiting for their moment to speak. With one appraising interview after the other, it’s a panegyric that does border on being a tad tedious but there is enough depth and fodder in there to keep one hooked. Kudos to Mundhra for managing to achieve cohesion despite there being more than enough material to chew on. In the process of bringing this project to life, Mundhra also ends up achieving a number of milestones: one that the series features the last of actor Rishi Kapoor’s interviews and two, it brings Aditya Chopra, who, it appears, can talk a blue streak contrary to popular belief, to the front of the camera after almost two decades. The moment when he puts the nepotism debate to rest by referring to his brother’s catastrophic attempt at acting is quite the show-stealer.


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A post shared by Smriti Mundhra (@smritimundhra)

At some point during the four-episode series, you might question if it’s fair to credit the Yash Raj family for being the only real changemakers of the Hindi film industry and for picking up the baton to get Hindi cinema the global recognition that it has. But then there is no denying the Chopra clan’s body of work, their ability to understand what pleases the crowd and their commitment towards growth and progress amidst changing times and technology — Yash Raj Studios is in fact the only privately held and one of the biggest, state-of-the-art film studios in India. Chopra’s career and legacy are in no way under-lit that Mundhra can claim to throw new light on with “The Romantics.” But what she really has on offer here are sheer nostalgia, some fascinating discoveries and an ode to a cinephile and his art with a bit of fan service.

In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Mundhra discusses why it was so important for Chopra to be the subject of her docu-series, her own learnings during the series’ research and creative process and her accomplishment of getting Aditya Chopra to talk, and that too, at length.

By Nida Hasan

Managing Editor at Brown Girl Magazine, Nida has worked and written for several publications in a journalism career spanning almost … Read more ›