As a newly aspiring filmmaker, I attended the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) this past year in hopes to find a film that makes an impact and deconstructs South Asian societal tribulations. “Forbidden,” the short film by Vibha Gulati, did just that.
This short film follows the story of Jasleen, a young Sikh woman, played by Salony Luthra, and her Muslim lover, Fahwaz, played by Gopal Divan. The two decided to flee from her non-accepting family in hopes to start a life together, but they become the subjects of horrific violence at the hands of her father, played by Gulshan Grover, and brother, played by Dhanish Karthik.
As “Forbidden” traveled the globe receiving several accolades, I was keen to understand the implications and journey of a female director, producing such a controversial yet relevant film. We sat down with Vibha Gulati to get a better understanding of her process.
What made you pursue filmmaking? Tell us your story.
I have always been an artist, so the transition to filmmaking was only natural. I began training in Indian classical and folk dance forms such as Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Bhangra, and Giddha at the tender age of five. As I entered my teen years, I began choreography and went on to form my own professional dance troupe in NJ. As a dancer and choreographer, I learned a great deal about abhinaya (expression) and acting as I took on various roles from Radha to Sita to Krishna in dance dramas. Thus, I developed an interest in acting and performed in improv troupes and theater productions.
I soon developed an interest in writing/directing and wanted a taste of working on a film set. So I applied for an internship in filmmaking and I landed myself an opportunity to work as an assistant director on Rajkumar Hirani’s “Laage Raho Munna Bhai.” As soon as I began work on this film, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to pursue professionally and so the journey began. Soon after, I enrolled at the NY Film Academy and received an MFA in film direction. I went on to pursue further degrees in screenwriting and script supervision at NYU and UCLA respectively.
Since then, I have worked on multiple Bollywood and International feature films and am now towards building my career as a writer and director in both Bollywood and Hollywood.
How was “Forbidden” conceptualized? It’s based on a true story, but what about the story in this specific time period compelled you to create a film?
“Forbidden” is inspired by the true story of my friend who was brutally murdered for falling in love with someone her family did not approve of. This work is my tribute to this amazing woman who had the courage and the conviction to follow her heart and stand up to her family.
I was compelled to make this film at this time as women’s rights violations are on the rise and given the explosion of the me too movement it has given me and many other women the courage to speak up and tell our truths. Forbidden is a story about an interracial couple who strive to be together and a family who just won’t accept this union. It is both relatable and relevant in today’s times. Honour killings are a tragic reality now more than ever and people around the world must acknowledge and accept it as 20,000 women are killed every year for rejecting the patriarchal system.
What roadblocks did you face when you were starting out?
I faced quite a few roadblocks when I decided to embark on this project. Initially, funding the film was very difficult as investors were reluctant to fund a first-time female filmmaker of color. It took me nearly a year to gather the funds required to make my dream possible.
Soon after, I faced a lot of opposition from a group of fundamentalists when word got out about the film. At first, it was just hate mail, but soon I received threatening calls and even death threats. I was unable to go into production as planned but I refused to give up. I knew when I took up this subject I was bound to face obstacles. Challenges are what strengthens one’s resolve, one’s character, and one’s spirit!
As a female director, what are the specific tribulations you face and how do they differ between the American industry and the Indian?
As a female director, I have faced a multitude of prejudices in both industries. In the American film industry, I have faced both racial and gender prejudices. Production companies tend to hire male film professionals over females. Moreover, they are reluctant to back a female director of color. When I was fundraising for my maiden venture, “Forbidden,” I was rejected by investors for this very reason.
My transition from the American film industry to the Indian film industry was a tough one. In the beginning, many of my Indian colleagues resented me for entering “their territory.” I was referred to as the firang, or the outsider, of the unit. They would crack jokes, talk behind my back, and rarely take direction from me when I was in charge.
In addition, as a woman in a male-dominated profession, my seniors were reluctant to give me responsibilities. They would say “Ladki hai, nahi sambhal payegi” (She’s a girl, she won’t be able to handle it). That was enough fire to fuel my soul and prove to these parochial minded people that hard work, determination, and the hunger to learn and grow was all I needed to prove them wrong! I would take on tasks others were reluctant to take on due to their sense of entitlement and macho egos. The same seniors who undermined and doubted my abilities began noticing my work. They began promoting me over my male colleagues. Soon, I made the transition from assistant director to script supervisor and took on work from the biggest production companies in Mumbai.
Why do think there are so few women in film making?
Unfortunately, men still dominate this domain, like they do others. Major studios and the existing pool of investors that thrive in the film industry are mainly composed of men. Thus, backing a female director and female centric stories is risky business for them (even though more than half of their consumers are female). I believe over time this will change, but women need to be encouraged and given fair opportunity to succeed like their male counterparts.
What is the best thing about your role? What do you love about directing?
I love everything about being a writer-director! I enjoy writing my own stories and creating a world given birth by my creativity. As a director I am meticulous and I pen down every detail that goes into every element of the film, whether that be set design, costumes, action, or music to create a sense of authenticity. I also immensely enjoy collaborating with actors and exploring the depths of their characters. Extracting memorable performances is my primary goal as a director, and it is truly fulfilling.
Who is your dream artist you would like to collaborate with?
A brilliant actor, producer, director, and a man of infinite talents — Aamir Khan. It would be an absolute dream to work with this stalwart, as his work ethic, cinematic sensibilities, and ability to create offbeat films that have both universal appeal and commercial viability is inspirational, admirable, and in line with my own aspirations as a filmmaker.
What kind of films do you plan on writing/directing in the future?
I plan on writing and directing a variety of different kinds of films in the future. I would like to make mainstream Indian films as well as independent international films that have a global appeal. In terms of genre, I am interested in rom-coms, thrillers, dramas, and coming of age stories. I am also interested in exploring the female gaze, so my films will mostly revolve around a potent female protagonist or the female point of view.
“Forbidden” continues to challenge communities near and far to push beyond what society deems “appropriate.” Similar to her main character, Jasleen, Vibha Gulati continues on as a fiercely passionate and driven filmmaker, making a difference across all cultures.
“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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Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.
It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?
Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.
The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!
And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals
I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.
For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?
Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.
What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.
From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.
Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.
Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.
The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.
We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:
I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.
It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.
I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.
So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!