Ishita Srivastava: The Documentary Film Maker

Posted: August 11, 2010

Meet Ishita Srivastava, the documentary film maker who deals with the experiences of New York’s South Asian queer women in Desigirls.

By Aparna V. Singh

Ishita Srivastava grew up in New Delhi and very early on, was inspired by the power of the arts to effect social change. After completing her MA degree in Cinema Studies and Culture and Media at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in May ‘09, Ishita left academia to become a documentary film maker. She is interested in harnessing the power of non-fiction storytelling and exciting, new media forms to raise awareness about political, cultural and human rights issues. She currently lives in New York and works on the media team of a non-profit organization called Breakthrough that uses media tools to create awareness of human rights issues.

Desigirls is a documentary made by Ishita, on the experiences of queer women of South Asian origins/backgrounds, living in New York.

Aparna V. Singh (AVS): How did Desigirls come about? 

Ishita Srivastava (IS): I have been interested in gender theory and sexual identity since my undergraduate degree in London. After moving to New York in 2007, I became interested in the South Asian diaspora, and the ways in which Indians here relate to their dual cultures, as Indians and Americans, and their conceptualization of “Indianness.” Add to this my personal experience as a new “New Yorker”; the self-consciousness one often feels as a “foreigner,” the pride one simultaneously feels at assuming the title of a “New Yorker,” and the smidgeon of guilt one constantly feels at being a “deserter” (leaving India to come and make documentaries about someone else’s country), and I can’t help but be immersed in questions of identity.

In the first year of my MA, I came across a group of queer South Asian women, some of whom had been born in the U.S., and some in India. Their diverse experiences and attitudes to their complex identities inspired me to make Desigirls.

(Above, a quick 3-min peek at the Desigirls documentary film; the entire 20-min film is found here in two parts – 1,2)

AVS: In the documentary you have Priyanka and Ashu, comfortable on camera, and ‘A’, who is still in the closet. Was there a common thread in people’s responses? 

IS: People were remarkably open with me- both men and women, in and out of the closet. It helped that I was Indian and familiar with issues associated with South Asian culture. The obvious problem arose when it came to talking on camera. The irony was – those willing to talk on camera were those who either had happy stories, or whose erstwhile issues (with their families, their own struggles with their identities, etc) had been resolved. While those stories were important, the voices I really wanted to represent were the hardest to show on camera.

I was lucky that with ‘A,’ she understood that her story was crucial in the context of the “cause,” and knew that it would reach out to other people like her, and especially to parents of people like her, that might be dealing with similar issues. While she is not out to her parents even now, I feel like her decision to tell her story on camera was a step in her coming out process.

I was lucky that with ‘A,’ she understood that her story was crucial in the context of the “cause,” and knew that it would reach out to other people like her, and especially to parents of people like her, that might be dealing with similar issues.

AVS: At one point in the documentary, Priyanka mentions that her friends from India have been more tolerant of her sexual preferences than those raised in the US of A. Is that too broad a generalization perhaps? 

IS: Well, it is reflective of her personal experience rather than a general comment. My decision to include that statement (as a line of thought) within the film was based on the fact that I heard a number of people make similar remarks. I find it fascinating to look at the ways in which the diasporic experience impacts different communities in different ways.

By no means do I think that all Indians from India are more accepting of alternative sexualities. It is important to note that the “Indian born-Indians” here belong to a specific cultural-educational background. Currently, the majority of Indian society is not accepting of alternate sexualities and relationships. In a strongly collectivist culture such as ours (a view that Priyanka mentions, and I agree with), there is a lot of resistance to those that are “different.” One can only hope that with greater representations of LGBT people in mainstream media, art and culture, as well as the visibility of queer individuals in society, people will come to respect it.

AVS: ‘A’ talks about the pressure on girls to conform to certain notions of ‘Indianness.’ Do you think Indians who’ve migrated abroad sometimes suffer from this fixed idea of India? And that in a sense is what makes it even more ‘awful’ for a woman of Indian origin to be queer?  

IS: I think there are two issues at play here. I do think that emigrant Indians who are bringing their children up amongst different cultures, feel a more pressing need to conform to a notion of ‘Indianness.’ However, I think that Indians in India too are driven by a strong desire to conform to norms set by society (as are many cultures), and it is only the notion of ‘Indianness’ that might differ across continents, while the basic need stays the same.

The same double-standards that educate men over women, that dictate what women wear, that favour sons over daughters and generally make it harder to be a woman than a man in many South Asian cultures, also translate when it comes to gay men and gay women.

In this respect I feel that what makes it ostensibly ‘worse’ for an Indian woman to be gay than a man is a very deep-rooted double standard that exists between men and women in Indian society and culture. The same double-standards that educate men over women, that dictate what women wear, that favour sons over daughters and generally make it harder to be a woman than a man in many South Asian cultures, also translate when it comes to gay men and gay women. As my character ‘A’ told me, it was she who had dress up and go to the temple with her mother while her brother was given the choice about whether to go or not.

AVS: One issue I had with the film is that it’s really too short! You started out exploring issues like queer women who’ve had to face some really violent reactions from family, but it doesn’t get explored in detail. 

IS: I am glad that the film gave you enough to bite on and I’m sorry that it wasn’t longer. I would have loved to make it into a longer piece but since it was my MA thesis film, it was constrained by budget and time. With reference to ‘S,’ the character who suffered abuse from her family when she told them about her sexuality, well, it was her story that inspired me to make the film, but after initially agreeing to do it, she felt that it would be too difficult for her to open up on camera. After watching me film the support group meeting she felt that the stories that I was filming were only representative of the “happy” stories, and that those like hers needed to be heard, so she walked in mid-shoot and decided to tell her story as long as I kept her anonymous.

I definitely intend to make a similar short film in India, with Indian/South Asian queer women who live in India, so let’s hope that happens soon!

AVS: For those interested, what other such films would you suggest? 

IS: Since my film is a documentary, I will talk about some of the few Indian films dealing with queer content that have impacted me the most. There is a general dearth of representations of ‘queerness’ in South Asian popular culture; while male homosexuality is somewhat alluded to (albeit in limited and caricatured ways such as in Dostana and Kal Ho Na Ho), there is little if any reference to female homosexuality in popular Indian media and culture. It is for this reason that I wanted to focus purely on South Asian women in my film.

Even 14 years later, Deepa Mehta’s 1996 Fire remains one of the only fiction films to show a sexual relationship between women. Some years ago I watched a beautiful Malayalam fiction film called Sancharam or The Journey directed by Ligy Pullapally, a woman filmmaker. Within the realm of documentaries, one of my favorite queer filmmakers is Sonali Gulati, who is also from Delhi, like myself. I recently watched her first feature documentary entitled I Am, which looks at the way that the parents of Indian queer men and women have dealt with their children’s sexuality, and the ways in which their relationships have been impacted. The openness and honesty with which she deals with her own life is reflected in the movie, and brings a lot of depth to the individual stories. Watching Sonali’s film inspired me to try and make deeply honest work that speaks to the people and places that mean the most to me.

while male homosexuality is somewhat alluded to (albeit in limited and caricatured ways such as in Dostana and Kal Ho Na Ho), there is little if any reference to female homosexuality in popular Indian media and culture. It is for this reason that I wanted to focus purely on South Asian women in my film.

AVS: Finally, what plans for the future? As a documentary film-maker, what other subjects interest you?  

IS: To me, the point is about telling stories that need to be told, with a purpose to inspire, motivate, and raise awareness. This could be about a community that is facing persecution, an individual that has lived an interesting life or a forest that is being taken over by a corporation. For me, documentaries are about making people think about things that they might not have thought about before; about taking everyday experiences and interactions and bringing out what is unique in them.

Ideally, I want to travel and make documentaries about cultures and issues in different countries, motivated by stories with a socio-cultural, as well as a human rights angle. New York city, where I live at the moment, is a place that gives me inspiration, energy, optimism and experience, all at once. Just by walking the streets of this extremely diverse city, the cultural observer and documentary filmmaker in me gets sharpened and inspired on a daily basis.

Not that one is ever done learning, but at a later point in my career, I would definitely like to make films in India. Being my home, it is definitely where I feel most connected to the issues. Although my decision to make documentaries developed during my undergraduate and graduate studies in London and New York, my motivation for this career choice has everything to do with my childhood, my own people, my culture, and my country. Often I think I might be asking for too much by wanting to be everywhere all at once, so let’s see where life takes me!

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Comments

5 Comments


  1. I hope I can find this documentary in the local library and watch it – it sounds interesting. I just have one question. Why do you keep referring to the girls/women as “queer” instead of gay/lesbian? I strongly dislike the label “queer” and think that at least a documentary that is aimed at generating awareness over this issue should not be using this word. Any specific reasons for using it?

  2. Thanks Cee. It is actually available on youtube as well. Regarding your point on “queer”, I am a little unsure on this point – I thought it was a more ‘blanket’/’wider’ term used to cover people with alternate sexualities and certainly never meant as pejorative – see this – http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=queer

    • I think you might be right Aparna. I am sorry. I didn’t know that it is the preferred term these days (I have a LOT to say about these changing preferences too, regarding what is PC and what is not) and my reaction was solely based upon how I feel towards this word. To me it appears more judgmental and label-like than gay/lesbian.

  3. No worries – I’m not entirely sure on this too – plus there is the thing that what is PC or used in some parts of the world may not be in others.It’s just that having heard of “queer azaadi march” and so on, I felt it was acceptable in India.

  4. Great Post … With insights into the heart of the subject.
    Enjoyed reading it 🙂

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