HBO has selected Indian American filmmaker Nirav Bhakta as a finalist for the third annual Asian Pacific American Visionaries, a short film competition which showcases cinematic storytellers of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
Bhakta was chosen for his film, “Halwa,” which tells the story of an Indian woman, played by Indian American actress Vijaya (Vee) Kumari, who rekindles her relationship with a childhood sweetheart through Facebook messages, but her abusive husband takes notice. The film was co-directed by Indo-Canadian Gayatri Bajpai.
The filmmakers’ intent was to “give an authentic voice to the voiceless and draw audiences into the quiet psychology of these characters and share what makes them human” rather than succumb to stereotypes.”
“It’s an incredible honor that we don’t take lightly,” said Bhakta, whose first short, “Honor,” spotlighted honor killings. “For us, it’s not about the awards; rather, it’s about being heard. I’ve grown up as an undocumented immigrant in this country with a fear of remaining unseen or not having a voice. It’s now empowering to give a platform through storytelling to the quiet and complex lives of immigrants. “
Bhakta began his journey as an actor, but because of the lack of authentic roles for Asian Americans, decided to create narratives focusing on the immigrant experience. The young filmmaker, with an educational background in architecture, added that there are thousands more such stories waiting to be told.
Bajpai, the director of short films such as “Muck” and “Housewarming,” is a two-time UCLA Directors’ Spotlight winner. She said she is interested in telling stories about people who find themselves caught between cultures.
“When you’ve moved a lot growing up, your identity can start to feel fragmented. One of the joys the digital age affords us is keeping alive the connections that sustain our histories and identities. I wanted to explore, an intimate way, how reconnecting with someone from her past helps this immigrant woman over 50 rekindle a sense of self,” said Bajpai, who holds an MFA in directing from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Bajpai and Bhakta are next creating a documentary about the experiences of a Mexican trans woman who was trafficked by a drug cartel into sex slavery.
Kumari, who has appeared on shows like “Glow,” “Anger Management” and “Criminal Minds,” also serves as an executive producer on “Halwa.” She said she was inspired to take up this project in order “to push the boundary of characterization of Indian mothers in movies and TV beyond that of women arranging marriages for their children.”
Kumari stepped into the world of showbiz in 2012 after spending over three decades as a neuroanatomy professor, neuroscience researcher, and, for ten of those years, an associate dean for medical education at the University of California Davis Medical Center.
Bhakta and the other finalists, filmmakers Julie Zhan (“Zoetic”) and So Young Shelly Yo (“Moonwalk With Me”), will premiere their films at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May.
Each film, said HBO, exemplifies this year’s theme of the modern Asian Pacific American experience. The three winning films touched on the subject of developing relationships and its complexities through the modern Asian American lens, it said.
The finalists were selected from hundreds of submissions and were judged by a distinguished panel of HBO executives, industry leaders and fellow APA filmmakers.
In 2016, HBO established the APA Visionaries competition to provide a platform for Asian Pacific American stories. The competition aims to further the dialogue about representation in Hollywood and the importance of diversity in entertainment.
“HBO Visionaries continues to provide a platform for the community to not only tell authentic stories, but shine a spotlight on all these amazing creatives,” said Indian American Sujata Day, APA Visionaries 2019 Ambassador. “It’s exciting to see HBO’s investment in the community by giving emerging directors a chance to be in the limelight.”
In addition to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, HBO will debut the films on its on-demand and digital platforms during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May.
“HBO is committed to uplifting the next generation of APA storytellers, talent and entertainment community at large,” said Jackie Gagne, vice president of multicultural marketing at HBO. “The recent surge in Asian American visibility is only the beginning and we hope this competition serves to continue this incredible momentum in Hollywood.”