Using the power of film to create safe spaces to confront taboo subjects

Using the power of film to create safe spaces to confront taboo subjects

Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Dr Pushpinder Chowdhry MBE for her regular series for ‘iGlobal’ to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.

Dr Chowdhry is a trained Psychotherapist. She was brought up in Glasgow and her early work includes time spent with young offenders and South Asian youths as a community worker. Working closely with Harrow Council, she was a instrumental in establishing “Yakeen”, now known as DAWN – a free counselling service for South Asian women in Harrow, London. Now, she is CEO and Festival Director of Tongues on Fire not for profit organisation, which hosts the annual UK Asian Film Festival (UKAFF) and have year round screenings and arts events.

Q

You founded Tongues on Fire almost 30 years ago to promote South Asian arts and culture. What was your inspiration to set up this pioneering organisation?

A

Tongues on Fire is a not for profit company established in 1999. We organised the first South Asian woman’s film festival screening films, made by women and stories where the protagonist were women.

The films we screened were directed by and portrayed South Asian women from diverse social cultural and religious backgrounds celebrating their powerful message of positive role models for the young as well as their peer groups.

These women have been driven by the need to prove themselves, manage to push the boundaries, shattering many a stereotype by penetrating though the “glass ceiling” which was more like breaking a concrete roof.

As we usually showcase South Asian independent or Art House cinema, opposed to more popular or mainstream Bollywood films, the festival’s struggle for sponsorship continues. Our first hurdle was to take these special films to be screened at the British institutions like the BFI, BAFTA & ICA as well as community friendly venues to attract diverse audiences. As we always lacked funding from the statutory sources and not attracting enough cash sponsorship for this project created additional difficulties

We had to be both innovative &and creative to make “out of the box” contra deals with the many of social and print media to promote our festival. We were successful in negotiating with certain venues on the box office split.

The festival's philosophy is to recognise that entertainment is intertwined with important political and social messages and to promote films that tackle challenging issues of society. Over the years festival attracted many special guests Mira Nair, Grinder Chadha, Aparna Sen, Shabana Azmi and all the Bachchan family.

We also had Bollywood legend Helen and Bhanu Athaiya, first woman to receive the Academy Award.

In 2021, our hybrid festival had screened amazing films celebrating birth centenary of Satyajit Ray with the festival theme – Ray of Hope.

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Q

Do you think that over the last three decades, some of the considered taboo conversations and topics within the South Asian community are less so and now easier to have?

A

Working with the South Asian community over the years I found that taboo issues have to addressed with in the community conversations. That is the reason our festival always tries to have films with strong stories to spark conversations and start a dialogue on difficult subjects.

Each film is an event with producer/director conducting Q&A sessions to interact with the audiences. This gives an opportunity to talk about the issues the community finds difficult to open up.

Talking about characters in the films makes it a safe space for people to discuss these more controversial issues. Films can’t bring the change, they can only ignite the discussion on these important subjects.

We are still a long way off to having any substantial practical statutory or community support in place to deal with them.

Q

What film has most profoundly impacted you over the years and why?

A

There have been many films which influenced my thinking, giving me a deeper understanding of many of the issues we faced as South Asian women. This impacted the decisions we made on the kind of films we select for the festival. We curated films like Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’, ‘Earth’ and ‘Water’ to ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ by Alankrita Shrivastava. Reflecting British Indian stories, there were films like ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ and ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ by Gurinder Chadha.

All these films had many strong stories to tease out different difficult issues, like domestic violence alcohol abuse, mental health, sexuality and so much more.

The screenings followed by Q&As with the filmmakers or panel discussions with academics and professionals provided a safe space to explore these subjects.

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Q

How would you best describe your relationship with the UK and India?

A

Born in India and bred up in Scotland, I spent most of my life trying to fit in with the two different worlds. Most of my teenage years were spent trying to strike a balance between an Indian home environment and the wider British culture.

I feel being a British Indian woman grown up and educated in the UK has given me an insight and experience to many important issues to actively contribute to the British social and political system.

With India, I have an emotional and cultural connect which goes much deeper to my psyche.

Q

What has been the lesson you have learned during the Covid-19 lockdown?

A

It has been very strange and surreal times, which has been really challenging and difficult for everyone.

The shock of the sudden lockdown taught us to be more sensitive and resilient and respond in a positive way to a given circumstances. We felt best way to remain connected with our audiences and the film industry was to move our screenings online followed by panel discussions on Zoom.

We created a UKAFF Film Wallahs Club, free for all film buffs to join. This proved to be an instant success with lots of people joining in to our regular screenings, establishing a continuous contacts with our filmmakers and the film enthusiasts.

In these unprecedented times, it’s fair to say that this coronavirus pandemic hasn’t just impacted our physical health but mental too. UKAFF was very much aware of the impact on artists, where many work on a freelance basis and recognised there was no specific counselling service set up for South Asian artists based in the UK. Throughout the pandemic times we offered free counselling service, events and activities to create mental health awareness.

All the data, statistics, personal stories and honest testimonials have been collected from the participants from last ten months and curated in the form of a report. The publication aims to guide the importance of mental health of the individual in the difficult times.

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Reena Ranger is the Chair and Co-Founder of Women Empowered. In this exclusive “In Conversation” series for iGlobal, the dynamic entrepreneur-philanthropist catches up with high-achieving Global Indians across different fields to spotlight some insightful life lessons.

*The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.

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