Mameet Nayak describes the task of navigating the world outside his front door as walking a tight-rope. “As a South Asian, you put up with some bullshit in this country, especially after those towers fell,” he says. Mameet cannot go to his neighborhood basketball court without being harassed and called a “sand nigger.” Once, he got chased down by a plainclothes policeman who, for no apparent reason, wanted to see his I.D.
Mameet could be a real boy in Queens or Brooklyn, but he is, in fact, a creation of writers Tanuj Chopra and Hart Eddy in the film Punching at the Sun, one of a handful of films made since 9/11 that confront the changing reality for South Asians living in the United States.
Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, discrimination against those who appear to be South Asian, Arab or Muslim has been particularly high, says Faiza Ali, civil rights coordinator at the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in New York.
Five years after the attack, she still receives thousands of complaints a year from Muslim New Yorkers, often of Arab or South Asian descent, whose experiences with discrimination range from being held up at the Department of Motor Vehicles because they have a Muslim name like “Mohammed” or “Ahmed” to being detained for questioning at the airport for several hours.
Richard Peña, an associate professor of film at Columbia University has noticed that as filmmakers have become more aware of or have experienced racial profiling, the subject has turned up more in their work. For filmmakers, says Peña, the topic is an obvious choice: “It has the possibility for good dramatic situations.”
So far, most of the films that have been made about discrimination against the South Asian community are short films. “It’s a real good thermostat for what’s on the mind of young South Asian filmmakers, because a lot of us can’t get our works out into the feature format,” says Chopra. “Every year since 9/11, there are one or two good shorts that are dealing with perceptions, dealing with racism.”
Three relatively recent shorts, America Rocks!, American Made, and Necessary Illusions written and directed by South Asians explore what it means to be a South Asian male in post-9/11 America.
In the animation short America Rocks!, screened on the Independent Film Channel this year, a pair of South Asian parents cover their son with American flag stickers from head to toe after President Bush increases the terrorist threat level. They instruct him to say “America rocks!” if he is racially profiled.
American Made, a short film directed by Sharat Raju in 2004, follows the South Asian Singh family on a cross-country road trip. Their vacation sours when their car breaks down and nobody will stop for the turbaned Mr. Singh, who is bewildered by the lack of good will on the highway. But his son, Jagdesh, thinks he knows why no one is helping. “Dad, no one is going to stop because you look like a terrorist,” he says.
Addressing discrimination against South Asians in film stretches beyond U.S. borders. Canadian filmmaker Fayeque Rahman’s Necessary Illusions follows an Iranian man who is detained at an unnamed American airport for questioning on suspicion of having terrorist connections. “I have been in that situation, and it is a humiliating one,” he says. Rahman, whose parents are from the Indian province of Bengal, has traveled across the Canadian border into the U.S. every four months. He says he has noticed a difference in his treatment at the border after 9/11; on almost every trip, he is “randomly” selected by airport security for a more thorough examination of his bags.
Punching at the Sun may be one of the first feature-length films that tackles discrimination against South Asians. Filmed in the heavily South Asian Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, Queens, Punching at the Sun is primarily a story about grief.
Sanjay, Mameet’s older brother and a local basketball legend, has just been gunned down in their parents’ convenience store. The film follows him through four days one month after his brother’s death and watches as he copes with his grief and anger at his loss.
But it is hard not to notice the backdrop for the story: a world where adolescent pranks like throwing a stone at a train land Mameet and his friends in the police station, where officers call them Iraqis and hint that they might be terrorists.
Raised in the Silicon Valley by Indian parents, Chopra drew on personal experiences with discrimination, as well as those of his friends, to create the film. “I experienced a fresh wave of insults, threats, profiling and paranoia after the towers fell,” says Chopra.
“Much of the energy it took to write the first draft was fueled by my anger at the backlash towards brown men in America.” One of his first experiences with post-9/11 discrimination came from a professor in a directing class at Columbia University where Chopra attended film school. One day, in the middle of a class, his professor told him, “If I saw someone like you on an airplane, I would turn around and walk off."
Although anger about experiences with discrimination set the tone for the film, Chopra says the purpose of the film was not to explore discrimination against South Asian men after 9/11.
“It wasn’t like we went out to make a political statement when we made the film,” he says. “We wanted to make a movie that actually helped people deal with grief and loss and provided a sense of hope.”
Although he did not set out with a political agenda, Chopra now says that he ended up making a “very political, very outspoken” film. Evidence of a post-9/11 world permeates the film, from the voices of TV talking heads delivering news about the war in Iraq to Mameet waking up to a radio alarm clock announcement of the terrorist threat level, along with the weather.
In writing the film, Chopra struggled to find the appropriate way to make a statement about post-9/11 bias and wrestled with his own anger about the issue. “It’s a balance between trying to find a way to bash someone over the head with your raw emotions and also try to find a way to artfully weave it in,” says Chopra.
Although many of the films that explore the South Asian experience in the U.S. have been shown on the film festival circuit, few have made it to the theatres. Funding and distribution for feature-length films that are shown in theatres is hard to come by.
Punching at the Sun was filmed over the course of just 17 days, and much of the labor and space was donated by the local community. The actors in the film were local teenagers that Chopra had worked with in an Elmhurst-based youth program, South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!). “The film is a result of their energy and their stories,” Chopra states. “The youth in my film were all hungry to get their story out and represent their community.”
Punching at the Sun premiered at Sundance and has been shown at a few other film festivals while Chopra looks for a distributor for the film. So far, audience reactions at screenings have been overwhelmingly positive. “A lot of brown males, a lot of South Asian males, have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for making this film,’” Chopra reports. He says films like his fill the need of South Asians to see their experience acknowledged in ways that are generally not addressed by artists working in other mediums. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, that’s so 2004, we’re onto different things now’,” says Chopra. “I think a lot of artists are also very quick to not look at [bias against South Asians] and kind of stay with the same old bhangra, the same old song and dance.”
For Chopra, making the film was also a personal healing experience. “It’s like a catharsis,” he says. “I think making this work and getting some recognition for this film has put me in a better place spiritually and emotionally, and I feel as I go forward with my work, I’m dealing with new things now.”
Rebekah Kebede is freelance writer and photographer living in New York City.