Filmmaker Geeta Malik on Representation: ‘Being Seen Can Be a Double-Edged Sword’ (Guest Column)

·4-min read

In “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Francie Nolan sat on her fire escape, ate peppermint wafers, spied on her neighbors, and read books. In Aurora, I sat on my roof, ate pretzels, spied on my neighbors, and read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I felt seen by Francie Nolan and it surprised me when people were surprised by the fact that I related to her. At a certain point, I understood that people assumed I’d have more in common with the slum kids in “City of Joy” than Francie. No matter what came out of my mouth, my skin had already spoken for me.

I grew up with films, books, art and music from all over the world and felt kinship with so many people who didn’t necessarily share my heritage. But I became a filmmaker because I wanted to be a part of the movement I saw starting with films like “American Desi,” “Better Luck Tomorrow” and “Girlfight.” Those movies were revelatory for a diasporic kid like me, because I finally felt like culture that I recognized was integral, stitched into these universal stories, not ignored or exploited in order to appeal to the widest audience. And I’ve always felt seen by the brown women filmmakers that form my personal holy trinity: Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadha.

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But being seen can be a double-edged sword. I feel like I’m always walking that tightrope between celebrating my culture and resisting people who try to make it the most interesting thing about me. When I was first trying to make movies, people pushed back on the idea of an Indian American lead. Now, they encourage my specific voice, but often because they value what I can bring to the table culturally first, artistically second. Being seen can feel patronizing, condescending, a marketing tool that’s happy to put me on the cover and leave me out of the pages. I feel seen every time I try to talk about craft and am steered instead toward representation. I feel seen every time I tell someone I’m a filmmaker and they ask me about Satyajit Ray (for the record, genius, of course).

Even if we want to forget about this idea of representation, this pressure of speaking for your entire culture, it’s in every loaded question at an after-screening Q&A, in every meeting where someone asks me where I’m from. The real question they’re asking is, how can I categorize you in my head? Minority, check. Woman, check. Other, check. I can’t forget about it — not only do I not have that luxury, again, I actually became a filmmaker for exactly that reason. I want to tell our stories. I grew up in the era of Gwen Stefani wearing bindis and Madonna wearing mehndi and, for a long time, it felt like all we had. Was being appropriated better than being ignored? Was some visibility, even if it was only in proximity to the white world, better than outright rejection and hostility?

How lucky we are, how lucky my kids are, to see more of our faces on-screen, with more of us behind the camera and behind the scenes, telling our own stories, using whatever power we have and doing our best to get it right.

I hope we’re seeing the real, honest start of a movement that won’t let years and years go by before we get the chance for another game-changing AAPI film. It’s not “Highlander.” There can and should always be more than one — different stories, different voices, diversity even within our communities. People are always talking about the specific being the universal. So, if a little brown girl from modern-day Colorado can relate to a little white girl in early 20th-century Brooklyn, what’s to stop audiences from relating to my stories about Indian Americans? Or to any of our AAPI stories?

What’s to stop you?

Geeta Malik is the writer-director of “India Sweets and Spices,” which was released by Bleecker Street in 2021, and several shorts.

Throughout the month of May, Variety will publish essays and stories from prominent AAPI artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of AAPI entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.

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