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Student Film 'Anita' Explores How The Places We Live Stay With Us

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The places we live forever live within us. A new student film called "Anita" explores that notion in India.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANITA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in non-English language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anita is a career-driven young wife who's immigrated to the U.S. from Valsad and has returned for her sister's wedding. Over the course of her stay, we witness cultural rifts form between Anita and her family. Columbia University's Sushma Khadepaun is the writer and director of the film, and she joins us now as part of NPR's showcasing of excellent student films. Hello.

SUSHMA KHADEPAUN: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to start by asking you about the inspiration for this film. Does it pull from your own experience?

KHADEPAUN: Yes. The desire to escape to a foreign land has been a preoccupation of mine for many years. And I certainly drew from my personal experience of moving to the U.S. after an arranged marriage but also drew from people that I know around me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I'd like to note that your film is mostly in Gujarati, which is, of course, the name of the language and the people of the state of Gujarat in western India. Talk to me about cinema there because I think most people in the U.S. think Bollywood when they think about the Indian movie industry.

KHADEPAUN: Gujarati, you know, it is a rather young industry, and most of us grew up on Hindi cinema, which is Bollywood. I had never watched a Gujarati film in my life until about five or six years ago. As a filmmaker, it struck me that I didn't really have films to look up to, you know, to pull from. I didn't know how my people spoke on the screen. Imagine never having seen a film in English as an English-speaking audience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you then imagine that?

KHADEPAUN: I think mostly just staying grounded and sticking to reality and going with how I've seen people talk in real life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's clear from the start of the film there's a really big divide separating Anita from her family. They want her to be a full-time wife and mother. Anita values having a career. She wants to work in real estate. But there's something also deeper that drives her. What is it?

KHADEPAUN: Upward mobility and independence, a life that is different from the women that she has grown up with. That manifests through this internship, which she hopes will turn into a job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk about Anita's relationship with her husband, too, because that's complicated. He is young, like Anita. At times, he supports her ambition. At other times, he suppresses it. What kind of character were you looking to create here?

KHADEPAUN: Vikram is definitely someone who thinks that he is liberal and open-minded, and that's very much associated with having lived in America. But when he is pushed to a corner and you have this Greek chorus of the family and going back home, he changes his mind. And I think that's the discovery that Anita makes, and so do we.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your film is in Gujarati, as we've said.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANITA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking Gujarati).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But English does poke through at key moments - for example, when Anita is counting Gujarati dance steps.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANITA")

ADITI VASUDEV: (As Anita) ...Seven, eight, one, two, three, four, five, six...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking Gujarati).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or when she's begging her husband to express his support for her professional goals to the family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANITA")

VASUDEV: (As Anita) You just tell them you want me to work, OK?

MITRA GADHAVI: (As Vikram) Stop messing with my head (speaking Gujarati). What are you doing?

VASUDEV: (As Anita) They just need to know that you are really OK with it.

KHADEPAUN: English comes from firstly the fact that Anita and Vikram live in the U.S. But also, some of it comes from our colonial past, the social status and hierarchy that comes from being an English-speaking person versus nonspeaking, and it's part of the kind of social status that she's seeking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The film culminates during a scene of intimacy between Anita and Vikram. At first, it's consensual, but then it starts to feel like something else. What are we really witnessing there?

KHADEPAUN: The scene is very much something that speaks to the complexity of consent, of abuse. You know, marital rape is not a crime in India, and what really happens in the film is that that's the moment of clipping her wings for the fear that she may fly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did I hear you say that you had been in an arranged marriage?

KHADEPAUN: That's right. You know, I grew up in a small town, actually not too far from where we shot "Anita." And it was a big family with a lot of love and all kinds of celebration and great food, but there was also the patriarchy and very defined gender roles. You know, men were providers. Women were nurturers. Boys played cricket outside, and girls stayed indoors. My life today as a filmmaker in New York City is further from anything I've known growing up.

A friend once told me, you know, you're the one who got out. But the question is, what does getting out mean? Do you leave the patriarchy behind when you leave a space physically? And, you know, also, when you leave home, along with the unwanted parts, you also leave behind everything that's familiar and comforting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How has that journey that you have taken sort of manifested itself in your life? I mean, how does your family feel about your filmmaking now and your personal situation?

KHADEPAUN: My family is, in part, proud of my achievements or what I'm doing but still very concerned of the life that I lead. And I have lived alone here for a long time. That is always a matter of concern.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the end of your film, we see Anita dancing in her sister's wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANITA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She is fully enmeshed in the culture, the traditions, the place she sought so desperately to escape. To what extent has she accepted that her hometown and its traditions will always be a part of her wherever she goes?

KHADEPAUN: I think at the end of this film is the beginning of that understanding. I think she's far away from accepting that. At the beginning of the film, she comes back home thinking she's the one who's gotten out. She has a better marriage, you know, a better life than those in her hometown. And as the film progresses, she begins to doubt this and question it. But in the end, she is disillusioned. And I think the very last shot, where we see that slight transformation in her expression - that is something which is open to audience interpretation. I think, what will happen going further? What will she do? I think the audience gets to participate in this imagination.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where have you landed with that? You know, do you still feel that that is a part of you that you've taken with you?

KHADEPAUN: I don't have answers. I'm still asking questions. And I think that's why I'm still writing and making stories that are questioning, what is home? You know, what does it mean to leave home? You know, what happens to patriarchy when you leave it? Or do you take it with you? And what do you do with it if you do?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's been the response to the film, especially being in Gujarati?

KHADEPAUN: I have seen the film with an audience a couple of times now. It's really interesting because at the beginning, there are chuckles in the audience when Anita pushes her husband and, you know, asks him, do you think I'm going to end up making more money than you? To me, that speaks to, you know, when a woman stands up for herself, we often have this attitude of like, oh, come on, don't make a big deal of this, you know? And then as the film progresses and we get to the scene in the bedroom, you can sense the tension rising in the room and perhaps shock at the end of it. To me, that is really what's at stake for a woman to stand up for herself and be independent sometimes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sushma Khadepaun is the writer and director of the student film "Anita." You can watch the full film at npr.org. Thank you very much.

KHADEPAUN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.