By Ahmed Sharma
In the recent years, there has been a push for more representative voices in the media, especially in films. This is due to historically obscured voices finally breaking their silence and demanding to be listened to. Halwa, the first South Asian short film ever to receive one of HBO’s most competitive Spotlight awards in 2019, has most definitely made its presence known.
On the surface, Halwa, is a film about an elder Indian woman named Sujata (played by Vee Kumari) rekindling a relationship with an old flame through Facebook messages. That is, until her abusive husband ultimately takes notice. Watching the film however, viewers will notice the subtle, albeit necessary, risks the film takes. Resulting in a profound experience for both the filmmakers and the audience.
Primarily, the film gives audiences a glimpse into how certain abusive relationships can remain obscured to the point where the victim become complacent. Secondly, by revealing that Sujata’s old flame is another woman, takes the concept of “forbidden love” to another level.
Even the title of the film, Halwa, is eponymous with the highly popular, South Asian dessert made with semolina. Yet, the film expresses the dessert as two ways: one as the dish she hopes to make for her husband on the eve of their wedding anniversary while simultaneously being reminiscent of her previous, albeit shrouded, relationship. Moreover, with its fifteen minute runtime, Halwa leaves the audience with cliffhangers that maintain viewer’s interests and does so.
AsAmNews sat down with both directors of Halwa, Nirav Bhakta and Gayatri Bajpai, to discuss the film and its success. “Nirav Bhakta and Vijaya (Vee) Kumari and I had worked together on my first short film in LA that I cast them in a few years ago,” Bajpai said. She continued, “Nirav and Vee had kept in touch since, and she’d told him about how she was always auditioning for one-note South Asian mom roles. They wanted to do something fresh and Nirav brought me into the conversation.” Bhakta explained, “Kumari wanted to do more than that, because she was capable of doing more than that. I mean she’s really trained as an actor. So I said, let’s make something small and gritty and run with it.”
As fate would have it, they would come across the HBO Spotlight competition. “I came across the HBO prompt maybe end of July or early August … and I told Kumari, that maybe we could structure what we’re trying to make on this…and so we started developing that,” said Bhakta. The story though was partially inspired by Kumari’s own life experience through her second marriage. So we started scripting in September 2018 and began filming in October the same year; a month before the competition’s submission deadline.
For the competition, Bhakta said that they had to tell a gripping story with respect to certain conditions the competition held. “The prompt focused on the modern Asian pacific experience through digital technology and so we kind of adjusted our initial idea to this,” he explained. Bajpai added, “The seed of the idea [for the film] came from Kumari’s own strength in dealing with this relationship she told us about.” She continued, “We thought about what catalyzes the return of [the main character’s] sense of self after years of abuse and discussed real life stories of desi high school sweethearts reconnecting over Facebook decades later. The image of two schoolgirls in love came out of that.”
With an already arduous task at hand, Bhakta paused for a moment before telling the unexpected tragedy that almost had him dropping out of the project. “My brother and sister in law were expecting their first baby (of the entire family),” Bhakta said, “[in other words,] I was going to be an uncle for the first time.” In that time frame, he explained how he would commute back and forth between Texas to visit his family and California, to work on production. “Long story short,” he concluded, “we lost the baby before the due date.”
Distressed, Bhakta phoned his directing partner, “I was telling Gayatri [Bajpai], maybe you guys should do this without me. Like, I know we were doing this film together but you should go ahead, cause I don’t think I can do this.” However, Bhakta continued, Bajpai assured him that the project would be completed together. “She took all the weight of production on her shoulders, and we lost two DP’s because of all the chaos,” he said. Even in mourning, Bhakta stayed strong and efforted the project. “We filmed for three days while we were also handling the cemetery stuff for my nephew… We had maybe a week and a half left [before the deadline] to edit.” Much like the film’s essence of communicating through social media, so did both directors as the days came towards the film’s completion. Bhakta explained, “[Bajpai] and I were communicating the entire edits through Facebook…we were correlating how to upload it and it was 11:58 P.M. and the website had a glitch. And I was like, we finally edited it down and had it ready to go to HBO and this was happening.” Bhakta went on to say he was practically ready for their work to be over but were worried when they did not get a confirmation email of the film’s submission. “So at that point, I was like ‘fuck it, we did we could,'” Bhakta said. “And then maybe like ten minutes after the deadline, for some fucking reason, [the film] went through and were like, ‘oh shit. it went through. we made it!'”
Bhakta revealed they had over 40 minutes of footage but could only use 15 minutes, per the competition’s requirements. Despite their hard work and pressure the final moments before the submission deadline, Bhakta admitted he did not expect Halwa, to take them as far as it did. “I told Gayatri [Bajpai] I’m pretty sure we’re not gonna move forward,” he said, “They’ll probably give us honorable mention or some feedback on how to do better in the future.”
In January the following year, Bhakta said he spoke to an HBO rep who gave him wonderful, although unexpected, news. “You’re a finalist, she said. And I said, ‘what are we talking? Top 100?’ and she said, ‘no, you’re actually in the top three.’ and I was silent for a moment.” Hearing this, Bhakta admitted, was so taken aback that he scoffed at the results. “I thought maybe they made a mistake.” However, there was no mistake. “Gayatri [Bajpai] and I were talking and we were like, ‘okay, you know what? Maybe we’re third place. Best case scenario.'” When the day of the award ceremony came, both Bhakta and Bajpai were shook to hear Halwa not be called for third or second place. Bhakta was speechless. “I just said, ‘okay.’ In my mind, I went blank. I told myself, don’t make a face. Give the other winners their moment. I looked at [Bajpai] and said, ‘this is crazy! I can’t believe this is happening right now’ and we ended up winning the whole program.”
Certainly, the film powerfully expresses how serious both Bajpai and Bhakta were when it came to representation. And viewers and critics alike were quick to show their gratitude to the two talented directors. Bhakta said, “Immediately after the screening, people came to us and surprised us with how they could relate to the story.” Bajpai mirrored his sentiment, “Several people—South Asian, non-South Asian—have said they recognized the narrative from their own lives, especially people who’ve experienced or witnessed loved ones in abusive relationships. Some friends I went to school with in India thought the love story was sweet.”
Simultaneously, Bhakta and Bajpai found it important to use subtlety in having the main character as a lesbian. Something extremely taboo in the South Asian community. Bhakta explained, “society tends to turn it back around you, as though there’s something wrong with who you are as though you’re not a normal human being when you couldn’t be more normal.” Perhaps equally as taboo, was the subject of domestic abuse, which Bajpai argues is highly unspoken in the South Asian community. “I’m not qualified to talk about domestic abuse in the South Asian community as a wider issue,” she said, “but Vijaya [Kumari’s] personal story drove home how such abuse can happen behind closed doors even to older women, or powerful women with careers… We (as a community) don’t talk about it (abuse of even powerful or older women) much.”
Bhakta went on to explain how he wanted to give agency to Kumari’s character by representing more than just a wife and mother and make them three dimensional. “What’s really great is a lot of young Indian Americans are making strides in Hollywood and it’s awesome,” he said. “But, a lot of these times when they’re creating these shows is their parents are still painted as two-dimensional characters…It’s the same corny jokes about their parents. But they don’t recognize or see that their parents have lived a longer life than they have, they’ve gone through a lot more than you have. And there’s weight there if you actually uncover that, you’ll recognize there’s an actual human being there.”
Though the end results came as a welcomed surprise, both Bhakta and Bajpai admitted they were not making the film or entering the program to achieve a sense of notoriety. Bajpai explained, “I didn’t have a goal besides telling a story that grabbed me. Vijaya [Kumari’s] experience spoke to me. I wanted to tell it in a minimalistic, personal way. Nirav [Bhakta] and I shared this approach and our interest in the survivor’s perspective.”
Bhakta concluded, “My thing is, there are so many diversity and exclusion programs in Hollywood. Why do we do that? We do them so we get in front of people and share with them what our lives are really like.” He continued, “for example, there’s such a diversity within the south Asian cultures, within India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. So for me, as an actor, I’m sharing my authentic voice. If I don’t win, that’s okay, but they’re learning. So I applied that same approach with HBO. That someone will watch this film and learn, what it’s like to be a 60 year old Indian mother.” However, not only did Halwa serve its educational purpose, much like its eponymous dessert, it holds the sweet taste of victory.
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