Turning Opposition into Strength – Queer Indian Filmmaker Sonali Gulati Embraces the Struggle
Born in New Delhi, India, Sonali Gulati faced struggles few American LGBTQ folks have faced. But these challenges have only inspired the independent filmmaker.
A self-described feminist and grassroots activist, Gulati earned an MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and a BA in Critical Social Thought from Mount Holyoke College.
She’s made several short films which have screened at over three hundred film festivals worldwide and at many notable venues, including the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Her most recent documentary,I Am, chronicles the journey of an Indian lesbian filmmaker as she returns years later to India, where being gay is a criminal and punishable offense. It has already won 14 awards and continues to be shown at over a hundred venues and film festivals. Currently Gulati teaches film making at VCU, and continues to create work about the intersectionality of identities and giving a voice to those unheard.
As an activist, Gulati says she is acutely aware of not only the need for change, but also the need for action to bring about change. She is compelled to create and to change the way people think about the world. “It is my hope,” Gulati says, “that my films speak of the power in self-representation, about relationships, about grief and loss, about belonging and the power of community.” Specifically, she seeks to promote understanding and depict an honest portrayal of women, people of color, and the queer community.
Gulati has realistic expectations about how her work is received, but she has found a lot of support for her work as well. “I don’t expect some big Hollywood studio to suddenly decide to invest in documentary films about queer people,” she says, “However, I have been fortunate to receive support from foundations such as the Creative Capital Foundation, the Robert Giard Memorial Fellowship, and the Guggenheim Foundation.” Several years ago she was awarded a VMFA Fellowship to support her filmmaking practice, and VCUarts allows for her to create films freely without censorship.
Of course, opposition comes with the territory. “There is a lot of homophobia out there. I’ve received hate mail for the work that I do in making films about queer people,” says Gulati. Upon seeing I Am, one of her cousins even told Gulati that what she was doing was horrible. But challenges are never setbacks for Gulati; she says opposition strengthens her belief that her work is necessary and important.
Gulati has taken steps to bring the challenges LGBTQ people face in her home country here to Richmond as well. In December last year, she held a protest on VCU campus to show support with her countrymen after the Indian Supreme Court outlawed gay sex. Known internationally as the “Day of Rage,” Gulati told GayRVA the local display was even more important because “when people in the South, like the state of Virginia with so many homophobic laws [protest], there is something very significant about having this kind of solidarity taking place.”
A specific intended audience is not a primary concern for Gulati, but she does consider the criticism of “preaching to the choir.” She is often asked about the effectiveness of her message when she is showing her work at queer film festivals. Gulati believes that the choir, too, has needs. “When I was growing up in New Delhi, India,” she says, “I didn’t know a single out lesbian. And these kinds of experiences make a big difference.” Sometimes even allies and other activists need the comfort of a reminder that they are not alone.
Because Gulati was unaware of any other out lesbians during her formative years in India, she was hesitant in coming out for much longer. “It’s made me realize the importance if seeing reflections of ourselves around us,” Gulati says, “Imagine growing up without the reassurance if seeing ones self in the mirror. That’s what it was like,” So Gulati draws from these experiences, and, among many other reasons, she creates films about representation. “It’s about people being able to see themselves in my films,” she says.
Gulati spent six years making I Am. She thought the hardest task would be to find parents of queer people who would agree to be in her film, but that proved to be the easy part. It was asking the queer people themselves, she says, that proved to be the most difficult. “It was very important for me because LGBTQ people are often talked about and I wanted them to speak for themselves,” Gulati says. She wanted the audiences to hear directly from them as opposed to hearing about them.
Art has proved to be like therapy for Gulati. It has been her way to cope with problems and survive, and she believes art can be that for others, too. “I understand all too well that not everyone can be out,” says Gulati, “And while I wish that closets were just for clothes, I also know that there are times when circumstances demand inhabiting the closet, whether it’s to protect oneself physically or emotionally.” Gulati was told growing up that she should choose another career path because she would simply become a “starving artist.” But she has managed to prove them wrong, and most importantly she is happy.
Her advice for aspiring LGBTQ artists: “It is possible to do what you want, and you can find a way to do it. My advice is to follow your dreams and do what makes you happy. If you’re really passionate about something, just go for it.”
Top photo via VCU Arts
I’m Lindsay Hawk. I am currently studying Sculpture + Extended Media at VCU, along with Biology and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. I enjoy making art about social issues, nudity, and sexuality. If I’m not in the studio, I’m probably exploring the outdoors, visiting art openings, talking to strangers, or chowing down on some local RVA cuisine. Find more of my work at www.lindsayhawk.com
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