It is not an easy thing to be a filmmaker when you uproot yourself from your home and shift to a foreign country. Prarthana Mohan, granddaughter of famous composer MS Vishwanathan has made her name in the US as a filmmaker with her second movie ‘Christmas is Cancelled’ that released on Amazon Prime Video last December. The movie has Janel Parrish, Dermot Mulroney and Hayley Orrantia in lead roles. Prarthana’s debut movie MisEducation of Bindu has been critically appraised for the subject it portrayed and the US-based director is all set to realise her dream to be a full-time director. Prarthana shares her experience as an Indian filmmaker in the US, the struggles she faced and her journey with indianexpress.com.
Can you tell us about your Indian roots and your early influences in filmmaking?
I come from a film family, from the south of India, Chennai. My grandfather is MS Vishwanathan. I had a lot of film influences during my childhood. I obviously watched movies from my childhood days and it’s a very transformative experience. Going to movies in India is a different experience, which you can’t see anywhere else in the world. I went to the recordings of my grandfather who is a big figure in the south Indian film industry. So, it was fascinating to see how people reacted to him and how they spoke about his music influencing their lives on different levels. His songs were used as lullabies, songs of first love, marriage, death… I understood how transformative cinema is and I really wanted to be a part of that. During my childhood, I used to watch movies and come and act out the whole movie for others (laughs). When I look back, I think more than acting and singing, I was excited about the narration part and how people reacted while I told the story. I was in India at a time when it was hard to watch foreign movies; we had to go to the vcd stores and literally beg them to track down foreign movies that we loved.
What were your initial hurdles as a filmmaker in the US?
I came to the US by the early 2000’s and this is where I became a filmmaker. Obviously, the hurdles I faced were a handful. I didn’t have family or friends when I first came here. I came here as a grad student. Things could have been different if I stayed in India for longer. It would have been easier to make movies there because of my grandfather’s fame. But I really wanted a formal education in filmmaking, which at that time was hard to find in India. The process (filmmaking) is a lot different in India, it is organic in many ways. Lots of people do different things and the roles are not clearly defined, again this was early 2000’s I’m talking about. I’m sure it’s different now. So, I found the longest film program I could do in Chapman University, California. The challenges for me were to make it into the field of cinema in a foreign country where I don’t know anyone, having to support myself and survive all by myself. The reason why my first film took longer time to materialise was because I had to find a job to put a roof over my head first. Those were my challenges, I’m blessed that I’ve a very supportive family back home in India and my own family here.
— Amazon Prime Video UK (@primevideouk) December 23, 2021
How did ‘Christmas is Cancelled’ happen?’
I was hired to direct that movie. I was given the script of the movie in March 2021. We got three weeks for preparations and we shot that movie in 16 days. That’s how it’s done here. I never thought I would make a Christmas movie, but this one is an unusual Christmas movie. It is funny and the comedy is more physical. I read the script and I wanted to do this.
Do you have friends working in Indian cinema? Do you follow the developments happening in Indian cinema?
My cinematographer Dani Sanchez- Lopez is Spanish who has worked in the acclaimed Indian movie Mahanati and a couple of other Indian movies. He came for my wedding in India in 2010. We went to college together, he was the DoP of my first film, and helmed cameras for all my college short films. It was really interesting to know his experience in the Indian film industry as a foreigner. I also have friends who are costume designers in Indian cinema, and we talk sometimes. But, our worlds are so different and it is good to know the developments in the film industry back home, like they have this certification for intimacy coordinators now, which are positive steps.
Does your identity as an Indian filmmaker in the US influence your movies, considering the protagonist of your first movie ‘MisEducation of Bindu’ is an Indian immigrant in America?
When I came here, I was not looking to tell stories about Indians, because I came from India where my identity was definitely represented. When I came here, it was shocking because though it is a very multi-cultural country, the roles were not diverse. I came here at a time when that kind of change, the need for more diverse representation was coming to the forefront. Also, for the first time in life, I was in the minority and I was the ‘other’. And it opened my eyes to see what it feels to be ‘other-ised’ . I never came here with that feeling of an outsider to influence my thought process, but it has become a place where my stories are rooted now. Now, more than ever I want to tell the stories about South Asian experience, not only in India, but also to tell Indian experiences in foreign land to Indians back home. ‘Miseducation of Bindu’, which tells the story of an immigrant Indian woman in the US, was not a surprise after living in the US for 10-11 years as a south Indian.
What do you try to represent through your films as a director?
It really depends on what the story is. I want to do stories with interesting female leads. I don’t mean perfect women but the diverse kind of women who represent various minorities. As a director I want my films to be entertaining, fun and thought provoking and more over something that sparks discussions.
What would have been the difference if you were a filmmaker in India, especially as a woman? Would the challenges be any different?
As a woman filmmaker, I think the struggle is the same everywhere. It takes a lot more effort to make people take you seriously. You need to prove yourself a heck of a lot more to get yourself a chance. For me it was a hard journey as I’ve to find my own way in the industry. As a woman you not only need to be assertive about your ideas, but also you need to be likeable to be listened to by others. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to foster a creative environment where people listen to your ideas, collaborate creatively, thus helping my work grow.
Do you plan to make movies based on stories in India?
Yes, a couple of my next projects are based in India.
What is the level you aspire to become as a filmmaker?
I want to be a full-time director. Right now, I’ve a regular job to meet my financial needs and I direct movies outside of that regular job. That would be the first level I aspire to become. Then of course I want to make movies that are more widely seen, projects with bigger budget, work with interesting crew and actors