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Conquering Bollywood - Interview With Amanda Sodhi

Conquering Bollywood - Interview With Amanda Sodhi

November 09, 2010

Lyricist and film maker Amanda Sodhi on being an NRI.

Amanda Sodhi is something of a whirlwind--when she’s not penning lyrics for some pretty impressive Bollywood names, writing and shooting a film, she’s busy working the marketing department at Camilla David Textiles. She’s also impressively in tune with the Indian experience in the US, writing for several Indian publications, including a Planet Bollywood and Saathee magazine. Earlier this month, I sat down to chat with Amanda about her film, “Life! Camera Action,” being Indian in everyday life, and more.

Tell me a bit about your family, and your Indian experience in the US.

I was actually born and raised in Washington, DC. My parents moved from Delhi, India to Washington, DC 24 years ago.

...Being an NRI one can draw a lot from one’s own experience being an Indian-American. And, of course, when one interacts with other NRIs, you learn more about other peoples “Indian experience” abroad also.

Why are you attracted to writing about the Indian experience? How do you think working within the Bollywood scene has affected you, being an NRI?

I’ve always enjoyed writing, [ever] since I was a kid. I used to go through load[s] and loads of journals just thoughts, and later I started writing stories and poetry. I always watched Bollywood films as a child, and I somehow knew all the songs by heart, but I couldn’t speak Hindi until later on in life. Actually, I didn’t learn how to speak Hindi until I was in second grade, and even then it was just a few words. Slowly, with practice I became fluent in the language and even learned to read and write in Hindi as well as Punjabi, also, as I am from a Punjabi, Sikh family.

So, back to your question, I can’t really pin-point a specific reason as to what attracted me to writing—it’s just something I have always enjoyed doing. Most of what I write actually is about Indians within India. “Life! Camera Action” and a romcom titled “Dhun Savaar” I am working on are the only two scripts I have written which [deal] with NRIs. I don’t really sit down and think, “Oh, let me write about the NRI experience” (laughs). Sometimes an idea just pops into your mind, and then you write about it.

What’s it like, writing lyrics for such big names?

I am still what you would call a “struggling lyricist.”  I have written lyrics for Madhushree for a song titled “Gum Si Manzil,” and I have written a Sufi song titled “Aisa Kya Hai Maula” for Krishna, but due to artists being really busy with multiple projects, sometimes it takes years for a song to reach completion and see the light of day, so I’m not sure when audiences will have a chance to hear these songs. I’ve written a song for “Life! Camera Action…” titled “Hai Yeh Kaisa Safar” which is sung by Manohar Shetty. And, I wrote two songs for composer Gaurav Dayal, which I’m really excited about. I’m in talks with a few more composers and singers, and will be collaborating with Pankaj Awasthi and Kavita Seth. I consider myself to be fortunate to have been able to work with all of these artists, despite being far away from Bombay. Like I mentioned earlier, Hindi isn’t even my first language, so it feels really nice to have mastered the language enough to be writing lyrics!

How do you feel about the way Indians are portrayed in the media? What’s your take on stereotypes, as in NBC’s sitcom, “Outsourced”?

Let’s face it--the media portrays all ethnic groups with stereotypes. For example, when I was in school a lot of students thought all Indians spoke like Apu from “The Simpsons.” And, a lot of people in school thought there were snake charmers in every nook and cranny of India, and thought bindis were a third eye. Thankfully, at least now people are bit more aware of modern India, due to the world being more of a melting pot and it being the era of fusion in fashion and films and music.

I actually have not had a chance to follow the NBC sitcom “Outsourced” yet. I did see the film, though, and actually enjoyed it. Films are a work of fiction and each and everything is not meant to be taken literally. India is a vast country—there are more than 13 languages spoken there…India is a subcontinent and full of so much diversity and each individual and family in India is different from the other—for example, a family from a small village in Himachal Pardesh is going to be different from a family in Bombay, and then there are so many communities—Punjabis, Gujratis, Bengalis, Telugus, Tamils, Sindhis, etc.—and each has its own culture.

Actually, I think Bollywood is even bigger prey to reinstating stereotypes…if you look at the portrayal of Americans, Africans, Sikhs, South Indians in Bollywood films, you’ll realize it’s very one-dimensional for the most part.

You speak a lot of Indian languages. How’d you come by so many? Do you think it's important to connect with an Indian language?

English is my first language—my parents wanted to be sure I had no difficulties in school so we only spoke English at home until I was in second grade. I did watch Hindi films, nonetheless, and would somehow memorize the lines to songs. After one particular visit to Delhi, I really felt the need to learn Hindi so it would be easier to communicate with my maternal grandmother who did not know English and from second grade onwards my parents began teaching me Hindi and I started watching more and more Hindi films. I began practicing speaking in Hindi with others, and initially I did come across a few people who laughed at my broken Hindi, but now I am fluent in the language (smiles).

As I mentioned, I belong to a Punjabi family so I picked up on Punjabi pretty easily after learning Hindi. And I also began listening to Punjabi music and watching Punjabi films. And, I learned Urdu through watching Pakistani soap operas, and in High School I had a lot of Pakistani friends so that helped. For me, it is important to connect with an Indian language because it makes it easier to communicate with others. For example, once I started speaking Hindi it made it easier to communicate with my aunts and uncles and grandparents. [And] learning a different language gives you an opportunity to express yourself in a different way. I have realized that there are some things which are easier for me to express in Hindi, and there are some things which are easier to express in English. Also, a lot of things get lost in translation—translations do not always do justice to a language, so if you are familiar with the language it makes it much more satisfying when watching a film or reading a poem.

Tell me about your upcoming film at the MIACC festival - “Life! Camera Action”.

”Life! Camera Action” actually started off as a short film project, and later expanded into a feature-length film. The film has won the Award of Merit at The Indie Fest (California) and has also won 4 Accolade Film Awards: the Award of Excellence—Feature Film, Award of Merit—Cinematography, Award of Merit—Dramatic Impact, and Award of Merit—Direction. Directed by Rohit Gupta, “Life! Camera Action…” tells the inspiring story of Reina, a young Indian-American woman sets off to pursue a career in filmmaking against the wishes of her parents. She struggles to complete her annual film project, working with her classmates and with encouragement from unexpected quarters. As she tries to make ends meet, her double shifts at an Indian restaurant and a DVD store become a part of her film. Reina eventually begins to see the need to reach out to her estranged parents as she begins to know herself and become her own person.

I co-wrote the film along with Rohit, and what makes our film especially unique is that that it was shot in simply a week and a half in NYC/NJ on a Panasonic DVX 100 with a crew of merely two people and a shoe-string budget. The film is shot in three different languages—English, Hindi and Punjabi. The film features songs by KK and Manohar Shetty, and stars Dipti Mehta (“Red Corvette”, “It’s All Been Arranged”, “Victory”), Shaheed K Woods, Noor Naghmi (“The Sentinel”, “Khushboo”), John Crann (“The Nothing Man”, “Men’s Affair”) and is supported by Subodh Batra and Prabha Batra among others.

“Life! Camera Action…” is premiering in New York on Sunday, November 14 at the oldest and most prestigious South Asian film festival in United States—the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival 2010 (MIAAC), which has screened many critically acclaimed films by renowned directors including Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire.”

How important is being Indian to you in everyday life?

I am an Indian-American—so being Indian is just as important to me as is being American, because both are part of my identity. It can sometimes be a balancing act, though. Being born and raised in the US, sometimes when you interact with resident Indians you realize there are a lot of differences in perspective. Likewise, when you are an Indian-American and are dealing with non-Indians, you realize there are certain times when the Indian within you rises to the surface (laughs). But, it’s nice to be exposed to various cultures, and it also lends itself into material for writing (smiles).

If there were only three things you could tell someone about yourself--and you never had the chance to speak to said person again--what would they be?

Oh gosh, only three things? (laughs). Yikes. Well, it depends on who the person is! But I guess I’d probably tell the person writing is what fulfills me the most—I write lyrics, screenplays and also work as a journalist and PR/marketing practitioner. I’d also tell that person I love traveling and observing my surroundings—the writer’s mind is always at work, you see. And, although I’m sure that person would probably pick up on this right away, but if not, I’d tell them I am a total chatterbox (laughs).

Learn more about Amanda at her website, fan "Life! Camera Action" on Facebook, or head over to the MIACC website for screening info and more.

1 Comment

  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    10.11.10 12:06 AM
    She sounds like a very intelligent, self-aware and grounded woman. Hope to see more from her as the decade progresses.

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