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oday’s Hollywood landscape is littered with female South Asian filmmakers. Directors such as Gurinder Chadha and Mira Nair are enjoying an unprecedented amount of celebrated success, bringing Bollywood glitz and South Asian themes to the silver screen. But Meena Nanji shies away from all of that. Instead, this documentary filmmaker’s work includes films such as View from a Grain of Sand, a documentary detailing the lives of three Afghani women whose lives were violently affected by war, and Living in Colour, a glimpse into the lives of young second-generation Indian Americans. Her work has been described as concerning “the global diaspora of post-colonial peoples and the disruption and replacement of cultural values, traditions and ideologies that result from these migrations.” It’s clear that Nanji, who is driven by her passion for social justice, filters her view of the world through the lens of her camera.

It was obvious to me at a very young age that basically all people are the same, and that racism is just a very negative and irrational fear of difference that is very destructive for the people it’s directed at, whether on an institutional or personal level.

Living in Colour

In her documentary Living in Colour, Meena Nanji steps back from her usual topics of social justice and the effects of colonialism and war and moves into the world of the supposed “American Born Confused Desi.” But the diverse group of Indian youth interviewed for the film is far from confused. Articulate and engaging, these young men and women detail their dreams and ambitions, describe their personal lives and the challenges they’ve faced, illustrate the difficulties of straddling two cultures, and finally, demonstrate the ways in which they’ve embraced their heritage. The film offers an entertaining glimpse into a life many second-generation South Asians know well.

So it’s hardly surprising that Nanji denies any desire to become part of the Hollywood scene. “In my early 20s I worked at a record company and then as a production assistant at a small film company for a while, I and couldn’t believe the sexism! I couldn’t buy a record or go to see movies for a long time after that,” she says. A later stab at commercial film finally convinced her that the hedonistic lifestyle was not for her. “I worked on music videos and commercials for about a minute but was so appalled by the amount of waste involved—all the set building, the props, costumes—for every single ad and video. All of it is trashed after being used for two days! Whole villages in India could use the stuff that is trashed after one commercial and thrive on it for quite a while. So that was really appalling to me and I realized that I couldn’t be a part of it.”

The rise of a filmmaker

A Kenyan of Indian origin by way of London and Los Angeles, Nanji’s cosmopolitan upbringing gives her an edge in making complex films from different points of view. “I think I’ve been really lucky to have spent significant amounts of time in each of these places. I try hard to use all these different experiences and take the best from different cultures, leave out the worst, and synthesize them somehow. I think living in different cultures really broadens and enriches one’s perspective.”

But her international experiences also carried a negative price tag. “I’ve lived in places where we [Indians] have been both the victims and perpetrators of racism. At school in England—I was there during the 1970s—there was a lot of racism. So [from] when I was about 9 until we left when I was 17, I was basically encountering racism in some form or the other every day—[from] being beaten up at school to not being served in shops … When I came to LA, the racism was more benign. [Anglo] Americans tend to think Indians are ‘exotic’ and ‘spiritual.’ Unless they thought I was Latino—then it would turn more hostile,” she says. Instead of becoming bitter or jaded, Nanji channeled those experiences into developing her own social awareness. “It was obvious to me at a very young age that basically all people are the same, and that racism is just a very negative and irrational fear of difference that is very destructive for the people it’s directed at, whether on an institutional or personal level.”

Documentaries are a way to raise awareness of certain situations that exist in the world—very often life is stranger, deeper, more profound than fiction, sometimes because it is isn’t fiction. Situations can seem so surreal or absurd, and yet they exist—I like the idea of being able to document that.

Nanji takes deep pride in the role her heritage has played in her career. “[It] has informed my interest in social issues and wanting to be involved in making things more equitable for people of all races and creeds. It’s given me a tremendous visual and verbal vocabulary from which to draw from in making work. Also, in terms of music, food, film—it’s always so wonderful and refreshing to be immersed in cultures that think very differently from what you are used to. It forces you to re-evaluate norms that you took for granted in different and surprising ways.”

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Nanji’s political passion led her to the University of California at Los Angeles, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. After graduating, she wanted to advance her social consciousness beyond the academic, but wasn’t quite sure how. And while she’d never considered film-making as a career, she did have an abiding interest in music and the arts. Her love for politics and her attraction to the arts came together seamlessly in film, but it wasn’t until graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts, where she earned her MFA, that she came to that realization. That’s where she stumbled upon the perfect medium in which to artfully advocate for social justice. “Documentaries are a way to raise awareness of certain situations that exist in the world—very often life is stranger, deeper, more profound than fiction, sometimes because it is isn’t fiction. Situations can seem so surreal or absurd, and yet they exist—I like the idea of being able to document that.”

To see torn limbs or bodies from up close—I don’t know how people can see that and not be affected

Moving pictures

But more than just making a record for history, Nanji also wants to excite her audience’s imagination and intellect: “I’d like audiences to be emotionally affected and intellectually provoked. I want them to think about what they see—not accept it, but just be more aware and start asking questions.” There have been times when even the director herself was caught up in the emotional whirlwind stirred by the scenes her camera captured. “The one thing that was very hard was when I went to a hospital in Peshawar, soon after the US started bombing Afghanistan in 2001. I saw some people there who had had their legs torn off by the bombs, and my first reaction was to start sobbing—completely involuntarily. I realized then I couldn’t be a war correspondent. To see torn limbs or bodies from up close—I don’t know how people can see that and not be affected,” she explains.

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True to her global roots, Nanji draws her inspiration from an international who’s-who of filmmakers. “[I’m inspired by] a group of filmmakers who were around during the 1980s in Britain called the Black Audio Film Collective—they made these really poetic, lyrical, subjective documentaries about race and cultural representation in Britain at the time. Also, everything from African filmmakers such as Ousmene Sembene to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky to Jean Luc Godard to Ozu to experimental video-makers from the 1990s on. I love Kiorastami and Makhmalbaf—both Iranian filmmakers who have done some amazing work using fictional stories, but that look like documentaries and with a very wry sense of humor. I also like some of the Dogma films and some of the new films coming out of Mexico.” Nanji even seeks insight from writers such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Trinh T. Minh-ha and bell hooks.

It certainly is a very exciting time to see so many South Asians, and women at that, to be making films and involved in all media, cultural production. It can only get better and stronger.

Despite her focus on political and documentary filmmaking, Nanji is thrilled about the recent rise in South Asian women in the film industry. “It certainly is a very exciting time to see so many South Asians, and women at that, to be making films and involved in all media, cultural production. It can only get better and stronger. I hope that it all adds up to breaking stereotypes and expanding opportunities for people in general, and that from this a new paradigm of social equity can emerge. There are so many really strong women in India and Pakistan doing amazing work and some are already making an impact on the general public—Arundhati Roy is a great example, but there are tons more, who just need distribution and publicity,” she says.

In the meantime, Nanji hopes to finish working on View from a Grain of Sand and then start some projects in India. As she looks back on her career, she sees some opportunities she’s missed and some mistakes she’s made. But she’s still proud that she has directed the course of her own life. “All in all, I’ve discovered and done things on my own terms and that’s really important to me. Living under the shadow of Hollywood—it’s so easy to get so seduced by it all; the celebrity, the money. But that stuff makes me feel unwell after a while. So I’m glad I’ve been able to do things my way. I’ve been incredibly lucky and blessed.”

Published on October 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of Meena Nanji

More Information

View From a Grain of Sand

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  1. May 25, 2007, 7:18 am Shiva

    This is one of the most moving and powerful films I have seen in a very long time. We are hoping to screen it in DC for the APA Film Festival. The film documents with an unerring eye the desolation and devastation that is now Afghanistan; and the seemingly endless ability of the human spirit to survive and to triumph. Thank you for your work.