Sometimes you stumble upon really small obscure films that leave such an impact that you just want as many people to see it as possible. Desigirls by Ishita Srivastava is one such film. Filmed as a graduate thesis project at New York University, this 20-minute documentary explores a refreshingly new topic – the South Asian lesbian community in New York City. I had the opportunity to watch the film and speak to the director afterwards. Even though Desigirls is a student film, Srivastava approaches the topic with maturity and a sincerity that makes it a truly engaging film.
The film follows two women – Priyanka and ‘A’ – as they discuss their sexual identities and their role within the South Asian queer community in New York, represented by two key institutions – the ‘Desilicious’ parties and the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) meetings. Priyanka is an openly “pansexual” woman who embraces her sexual identity and is an active member of the community. ‘A’, on the contrary, is living a double life, afraid to come out to her parents and secretly exploring her sexual identity. Srivastava explores the lives of the two women with sensitivity, never intruding too much on their space. While Priyanka willingly offers herself to the camera and interacts freely with it, ‘A’ turns out to be the more interesting character to follow since her anonymity allows her to be emotionally vulnerable in front of the camera. The segment where she discusses her relationship with her brother is particularly moving. Srivastava does a commendable job of letting the characters be, without forcing much upon them or from them.
At times the film becomes ambitious in its scope, trying to accomplish too much in its very short runtime. Srivastava attempts to develop the two main characters and also explore the various events centered on the community. There’s enough in there to be expanded to a longer documentary. Of the two main events, the film focuses more on the SALGA meetings even if that wasn’t the original intention. Srivastava has the ability to make the viewer feel comfortable with what’s going on in front of the camera. The presence in the SALGA support meetings doesn’t seem intrusive, and shadowing Priyanka and ‘A’s lives keep the viewer hooked.
The most fascinating elements in the film emerge from the observations and statements made by the various characters. At one point Priyanka decisively states that her friends from India are far more tolerant of her sexuality than the Indians she knows who have been raised in the U.S. Meanwhile ‘A’ exhibits certain resentment in the dichotomy of never being able to come out to her conservative parents yet witnessing her brother having much more freedom in lifestyle choices than her. Thus the film effectively presents the fractures present within this very small community. All in all, Desigirls is a low budget student film for sure, but the story it tells is very powerful nonetheless, and one that desperately needed to be told.
After the screening at New York University, I spoke with Srivastava about the film:
Pulkit Datta: Besides being a class project, what inspired you to make this film?
Ishita Srivastava: I identify as queer and have always been interested in representations of gender and sexuality. I also noticed that gay culture has been much more dominant in the media and there very few representations of Indian lesbians. So I decided to explore this very specific community in New York.
PD: Had you planned to tell the story this way or did it evolve as you were making it?
IS: It was a bit of both, actually. I always planned on focusing on the South Asian lesbian community in the city. But as I talked to these people, their experiences of migration and family issues began to emerge and blended with their stories of coming out and their explorations of their sexualities. That I hadn’t planned. Family life became a very central element in Priyanka and ‘A’s lives.
PD: So the cultural/ethnic identities became a significant part of their sexual identities?
IS: Yes, through this process I realized that queer culture is very culturally and racially specific in NYC. The [Desilicious] parties highlight the specificities of the queer community, where South Asians come to exclusively seek other South Asians.
PD: The absence of gay men is conspicuous in the film. Is that deliberate?
IS: Absolutely. There is a difference being a gay Indian man versus a gay Indian woman. And there isn’t much out there that gives a voice to gay Indian women. So, the film is focused exclusively on women.
PD: Where else have you screened this film?
IS: It was first shown at the NYU Culture and Media documentary showcase in May 2009, which was the culmination of the graduate program for which I made the film. I then took it to a queer women’s film series as part of the NYC Pride month in July 2009. In April this year, it screened at the Davis Feminist Film Festival at UC Davis, California, and most recently Desigirls had its Indian premiere at the Indian Habitat Center in Delhi.
PD: What did the film do for you? What did you learn from it?
IS: Through this film I met the liberal desi crowd in NYC and realized I do miss the cultural connection. A part of me realized my diaspora identity and that was a big thing for me.
Desigirls is scheduled to be screened as part of the Queerin’ Queens film festival at the Queens Museum of Art in New York City on June 20. Click here for details on that screening.