It’s not easy being a filmmaker when you uproot your home and move abroad. Prarthana Mohan, granddaughter of the famous composer MS Vishwanathan, has made a name for herself in the US as a filmmaker with her second film ‘Christmas is Cancelled’ which was released on Amazon Prime Video last December. The film stars Janel Parrish, Dermot Mulroney and Hayley Orrantia. Prarthana’s debut film MisEducation of Bindu has been critically reviewed for the subject matter portrayed in it and the US-based director is all set to fulfill her dream of becoming a full-time director. Prarthana shares her experience as an Indian filmmaker in the US, the struggles she faced and her journey with indianexpress.com.
Can you tell us about your Indian roots and your early influences in filmmaking?
I come from a film family, from southern India, Chennai. My grandfather is MS Vishwanathan. In my youth I had many film influences. I’ve obviously watched movies from my childhood and it’s a very transformative experience. Going to the cinema in India is a different experience, not seen anywhere else in the world. I went to see my grandfather who is a big figure in the South Indian film industry. So it was fascinating to see how people reacted to him and how they talked about his music affecting their lives on different levels. His songs were used as lullabies, songs about first love, marriage, death… I understood how transformative cinema is and I really wanted to be a part of that. During my childhood I watched movies and came to re-enact the whole movie for others (laughs). Looking back, I think more than acting and singing, I was excited about the narration part and how people reacted as I told the story. I was in India at a time when it was difficult to watch foreign films; we had to go to the vcd stores and literally beg them to track down foreign movies we loved.
What were your first hurdles as a filmmaker in the US?
I came to the US in the early 2000s and it was here that I became a filmmaker. Obviously the hurdles I encountered were a handful. I had no family or friends when I first came here. I came here as a graduate student. It could have been different if I had stayed longer in India. It would have been easier to make movies there because of my grandfather’s fame. But I really wanted a formal education in filmmaking, which was hard to find in India at the time. The process (filmmaking) is very different in India, it is organic in many ways. Lots of people do different things and the roles are not clearly defined, again this was the early 2000s I’m talking about. I’m sure it’s different now. So I found the longest film program I could do at Chapman University, California. The challenge for me was to enter the movie world in a foreign country where I don’t know anyone, support myself and survive all alone. The reason it took longer for my first film to come out was because I had to find a job to get a roof over my head first. Those were my challenges. I am blessed to have a very supportive family back home in India and my own family here.
— Amazon Prime Video UK (@primevideouk) December 23, 2021
How did ‘Christmas Cancelled’ come about?’
I was hired to direct that movie. I got the script for the movie in March 2021. We were given three weeks to prepare and we shot that movie in 16 days. That’s how it’s done here. I never thought I would make a Christmas movie, but this is an unusual Christmas movie. It’s funny and the comedy is more physical. I read the script and I wanted to do this.
Do you have friends who work in Indian cinema? Do you follow the developments in Indian cinema?
My cinematographer Dani Sanchez-Lopez is a Spaniard who has worked on the critically acclaimed Indian film Mahanati and a few other Indian films. He came for my wedding in India in 2010. We went to college together, he was the DoP of my first film and cameras for all my short films in college. It was really interesting to know his experience as a foreigner in the Indian film industry. I also have friends who are costume designers in Indian cinema, and we talk sometimes. But our worlds are so different and it’s good to know the developments in the film industry at home, as if they now have this certification for intimacy coordinators, which is a positive step.
Does your identity as an Indian filmmaker in the US influence your films, as the main character of your first film ‘MisEducation of Bindu’ is an Indian immigrant to America?
When I came here I didn’t want to tell stories about Indians because I came from India where my identity was clearly represented. When I came here it was shocking because although it is a very multicultural country, the roles were not diverse. I came here at a time when that kind of change, the need for more diverse representation was coming to the fore. Also, for the first time in my life, I was outnumbered and the ‘other’. And it opened my eyes to see what it feels like to be ‘different’. I never came here with that feeling of an outsider to influence my thought process, but it has become a place where my stories now take root. Now more than ever I want to tell the stories of South Asian experiences not only in India but also to tell Indian experiences abroad to Indians back home. ‘Miseducation of Bindu’, which tells the story of an immigrant Indian woman in the US, was no surprise after living in the US for 10-11 years as a South Indian.
What do you, as a director, try to portray with your films?
It really depends on what the story is. I want to do stories with interesting female protagonists. I don’t mean perfect women, but the various types of women who represent different minorities. As a director, I want my films to be entertaining, fun, thought-provoking and more than anything that sparks discussion.
What would have been the difference if you were a filmmaker in India, especially as a woman? Would the challenges be different?
As a female filmmaker, I think the struggle is the same everywhere. It takes a lot more effort to get people to take you seriously. You have to prove yourself a lot more to get a chance. It has been a tough journey for me as I have to find my own way in the industry. As a woman, you should not only be assertive about your ideas, but also be nice to be heard by others. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to create a creative environment where people listen to your ideas, collaborate creatively, helping my work grow.
Are you planning to make movies based on stories in India?
Yes, some of my next projects are based in India.
What is the level you want to achieve as a filmmaker?
I want to become a full-time director. At the moment I have a regular job to meet my financial needs and direct movies outside of that regular job. That would be the first level I’m aiming for. Then of course I want to make films that are seen more widely, projects with a larger budget, work with interesting crew and actors