M

y parents didn’t raise me watching Hindi films and what not. So I implore you, please do something more than Bollywood.”

That’s what Niharika Desai told MTV World producers during her audition for the coveted role as a VJ on MTV Desi. Her honesty worked—Desai was singled out from hundreds of others, eventually landing the plum job.

Not that Desai doesn’t love Bollywood—she does—along with her 4 Ms: Morrissey, McCartney, Marley and Method Man.

Not that she doesn’t love Bollywood—she does—along with her 4 Ms: Morrissey, McCartney, Marley and Method Man. Desai was just hoping that MTV Desi would highlight all aspects of pop culture that interest South Asian Americans, not just the traditional desi staples. Her vision aligned with that of Nusrat Durrani, founder of MTV Desi and general manager and senior vice president of MTV World. And so Desai found a home.

Niharika Desai
Niharika Desai, MTV Desi VJ.

Eloquent and enthusiastic, Desai revealed to us the details of her journey from behind the camera to in front of it. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Desai came to New York to pursue photography and quickly realized that she wanted to be a film editor instead. The fact that she had never studied film did not dampen her determination: “I was determined to learn. When I find something that I want to do that I love, I become crazy with it.”

When all of us kids got together, we weren’t in the basement with the latest Bollywood flicks. We grew up watching Police Academy. It was the 80s.

Crazy is one word for it; ambitious is probably a better one. Desai snagged herself a film editing internship, began studying in her spare time and took on unpaid editing gigs to get the necessary experience—all while holding down a job as a lawyer’s assistant. Within six months, she had landed a job as an associate editor at Oxygen TV, working on The Isaac Mizrahi Show and Post Punk Kitchen, a punk rock vegan cooking show that she even co-directed a few times.

Today, Desai delicately balances the whirlwind excitement of being an MTV Desi VJ with editing powerful and inspiring film projects. In between hosting countdowns from mendhi salons and interviewing desi superstars like Raghav and Karsh Kale, Desai retreats to the dark corners of the editing room to work on documentaries such as the new Showtime feature about Mukhtaran Mai, a newly-appointed human rights icon. Nirali caught up with the video vixen to chat about her experiences as an MTV Desi VJ and her commitment to her first love: film editing.

What is MTV Desi?

While there are a few television channels that cater to the desi immigrant experience, there are none that are specifically aimed at those immigrants’ bi-cultural children. MTV Desi wants to change all that.

Launched in July 2005, MTV Desi is a music-based channel dedicated to serving young South Asian Americans and those interested in desi pop culture. The channel highlights the particular experiences of second generation Americans from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The music videos played on the channel reflect that diverse demographic. During one hour of MTV Desi, you might see the latest Bollywood music video; pop bhangra king Juggy D; Indian-fronted indie band Goldspot; and Pakistani rock band Junoon. Put them alongside American pop standards like Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, and you’ve got a multi-ethnic, multi-genre playlist that befits the modern South Asian American.

While music is the primary focus of the programming, it’s not the sole driving force of the channel. MTV News provides desi-specific news segments for the channel, covering everything from South Asian American reactions to the immigration debate to the latest from desi stars like Kal Penn, M.I.A. and Jay Sean. The channel also features original shows, such as Live From… which follows desi youth culture everywhere from Puerto Rico to California to London.

While there’s much buzz around MTV Desi, you’re hard-pressed to find someone who has actually seen the network. Despite backing from one of the largest brands in the world, MTV Desi faces many of the same distribution issues as other fledgling channels. It has only been picked up by DIRECTV and Verizon FiOS TV, which is available in only a handful of cities nationwide. In order to make the channel more accessible, MTV Desi has recently launched Overdrive, a broadband video channel, on its web site.

Tell us about that infamous Bollywood quote from your MTV Desi audition.
I grew up in Wappingers Falls, Poughkeepsie, in a big, tight-knit Indian community. I used to watch my parent’s generation of Bollywood movies, like Sholay, which is one of my favorite movies. But when all us kids got together, we weren’t in the basement watching the latest Bollywood flicks. We grew up watching Police Academy. It was the 80s.

I always thought I had an idea of what “desi” was—like someone really into Bollywood movies, and I didn’t fit that role. I realize now that if you are part of the South Asian community and respect your culture, then you’re a desi. MTV Desi represents all desis.

Did you always feel secure in your bi-cultural identity?
Absolutely. I loved growing up in upstate New York and having Indian friends and non-Indian friends. There was never a time when I didn’t feel comfortable being Indian. I have really amazing childhood memories of visiting my grandparents in Bombay. I went to the beach everyday, and I loved the food and the life.

Did working at Oxygen prepare you in any way for MTV Desi?
Watching Isaac Mizrahi’s candid and open manner during interviews really helped me when I started hosting and interviewing people on MTV Desi. I think Isaac is a genius—a real Renaissance man.

She's so adorable!
Niharika is a girl with many talents.

What made you audition for MTV Desi?
A friend pushed me to get an audition. I’m outgoing and have a huge interest in pop culture, plus I was intrigued by MTV Desi. The audition was fun, unpredictable and crazy. I had no experience in front of the camera, but I wanted to meet “the man” and see what his plan was. There were tons of beautiful and talented people in the waiting room who were way more qualified than me. But I was 100 percent myself. I had nothing to lose, so I just gave it my all.

Tell us about a memorable VJ moment.
My very first show was shot live from Basement Bhangra, which is one of New York’s biggest and craziest parties. It was baptism by fire because it was just a wild, crowded scene. I’m sure I had some deer in headlights moments, but at the same time it was super fun. I thought, this is too good to be true, that I can work and have a great time at this party!

Who are your favorite MTV Desi artists?
Picking favorites would be like choosing between my children! I am impressed with so many MTV Desi artists because desi or not desi, they are hugely talented and gifted. Someone like Veronica–she sings in three different languages, Hindi, Punjabi and English. I did go to school with Karmacy. Let me tell you, the girls went wild even back then. Girls loved them and guys wanted to be them.

How is MTV Desi different from “regular” MTV?
For the first time, MTV Desi is providing programming that specifically caters to the desi experience. That said, MTV Desi is not just for South Asians. My non-desi friends love it too. Yes, desi culture is hot right now because of Madonna and Gwen Stefani. But our culture and history is so rich, it provides really interesting content.

Station Identifier for MTV Desi.
Station identifier for MTV Desi.

MTV Desi also breaks stereotypes. It provides a great stage for desi artists. You can see a really talented rapper, a rock musician or an eccentric nut like me! On the Top Ten Desi Countdown that I host, you’ll see a Raghav video right next to a Christina Aguilera video. I hope I can one day look at some famous desi artist who has broken into the mainstream and say, “We were a part of the team where the kids heard it first.” I wouldn’t be a part of this if I didn’t feel like it was really revolutionary. I love to hear of people calling their cable company and saying, “I want my MTV Desi!”

I love to hear about people calling their cable company and saying, “I want my MTV Desi!”

Tell us about your current work for the Showtime documentary.
It is about Mukhtaran Mai, the human rights icon. Mai was sentenced to a punishment of gang rape for an alleged crime committed by her 12-year-old brother in Pakistan. Many people within her community expected her to commit suicide after “losing her honor.” Defying the notion that women should remain silent, Mai spoke out to the authorities and took her attackers to court and won. She was voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people and one of Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2005. The director of the documentary has been following her since the week after the attack. The film really shows the endurance of the human spirit.

Wow. How do you manage to balance your time between being a film editor and VJ?
When you are doing two things that are really close to your heart, it becomes very natural. I’m a film editor. Editing is my love and my craft. I am also so entrenched in MTV Desi, and I stand behind the channel 100 percent, so it doesn’t feel like work anymore. I feel very lucky.

What advice can you offer people aspiring toward a career in media?
If you work hard and make sure you never compromise yourself or your values, then the sky’s the limit. n

Satchi Dev has been writing stories since she was 5 years old. She loves MTV. She lives in New York.
Published on September 1, 2006.
Photography: Courtesy of MTV Desi.

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  1. April 1, 2008, 6:16 am sany khan durrani

    Allah bless my friend always
    O Allah,
    show them a new revelation
    of Your love and power. Holy Spirit, I ask You to
    minister to their spirit at this very moment.

    Where there is pain, give them Your peace & mercy.
    Where there is self-doubting, release a renewed
    confidence in Your ability to work through them.

    Where there is tiredness, or exhaustion, I ask
    You to give them understanding, patience, & strength
    as they learn submission to Your leading.

    Love is the only thing that can be
    divided without being diminished

    …………………………………………………

    all good wishes r for u……
    I wish that you have:
    ?..?