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Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Cary Rajinder Sawhney MBE as part of her regular series for 'iGlobal' to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.
Cary is the Director of the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) and a renowned film expert who has curated the Indian and South Asian segments of the British Film Institute (BFI) London Film Festival over years. Here, he talks to Reena about his love for the magical world of cinema, straddling different cultures and finding one's true identity.
When did your love affair with film start and how did LIFF begin?
I guess my mother unusually named me after the actor Cary Grant and I had a famous actor uncle in India but mostly my Indian family were predictably doctors, lawyers and businessmen. My English family also weren't into film.
I guess as a child living in London my interest in cinema was both my dad's old Hindi records, which he had brought from India, and my mum's family collection of Hollywood musicals and watching old Hollywood on the TV avidly as a kid. The first consistent Indian films I saw on TV on Channel Four's Movie Mahal I remember, and like Hollywood, being the shy boy soon to be gay boy that I was, I escaped into another more magical world.
After a number of years programming South Asian films for the BFI London Film Festival, I conceived and led the largest-ever South Asian film festival in Europe - the BFI's ImagineAsia Festival across 67 venues around the UK. This mega event was both rewarding and exhausting but set the benchmark and when the pain of organising such a monster had dimmed a few years later, I thought of setting up a dedicated festival in London as so many indie Indian films were missing the UK.
I put some money down and enlisted the support of some of my former ImagineAsia team and other passionate individuals and together we relatively quickly launched the London Indian Film Festival (LIFF). The risk and hard work paid off and after 10 years it is excitingly one of the largest and most prestigious South Asian film festivals in the world.
How would you best describe your relationship with the UK and India?
I don't ascribe to cardboard cut-out notions of nationality. For me, it's an odd coalition in my mind as I am mixed race, so will never be wholly Indian or British. But I have come to find my own strong feet as a mixed person in my own right, not needing validation from one or the other as many mixed-race people try and find.
We left Kolkata when I was three years old and for some reason that early period of my life seemed to fix how I felt about where I belonged and what my sensibilities were. I never seemed to fit growing up in an all-white British schooling system in north London, and I was clearly reminded that having an Indian dad somehow meant I wasn't good enough to be British, such was the more overt racism of those days.
I also think that some of my wealthy family flying in on the way to New York, with aunties smelling lovely and wearing silk saris gave me a somehow cock-eyed view that India was a wondrous place, which to a degree it is.
On finishing my BA in Photography and Film, I raised the money myself and set off across India solo for nearly five months to discover that part of who I was. It was very different from what I thought, but that journey changed my life and tested me in unimaginable ways.
I have always been proud of being a Londoner and what a great city it is and how tolerant it is of difference now. Diversity is its success and as a gay man having LGBTQ+ friends from all over the globe in this city has greatly enriched my life and experiences.
Being forced to question one's identity and nationality rather than getting it off-the-shelf can offer deeper understandings of one's self and how the world connects and fits together.
If you could go back and give your teenage self one bit of advice, what would it be?
That's a difficult one.My teenage life was quite difficult as a soon-to-be Queer adult, as there was all sorts of fears, homophobia and bullying that I had to deal with and hide myself away. I came out of my teens locked in myself, hidden and feeling like I had barely survived.
What I didn't realise then, as there were no real role models in the media or in my family, was that I would later overcome these things and have a pretty remarkable life as a gay man. In fact, to be honest, I'm glad I wasn't born to be straight, I'm sure it would have been a whole lot easier, but finding my true identity really stretched and brought my full personality to life.
It's taken years to build my self-esteem from those days and I guess if I had been a Queer teenager with high self-esteem then my early life would have been different, perhaps happier. But I think my early challenges made me a more resilient person and also more empathetic to the challenges of others, which has greatly helped and informed my work both in my films, film festivals and annual mental wellbeing festival as well.
I also, looking back, realise that being a quiet kid and an introvert isn't necessarily bad. It's just different, and it probably saved me from some things and kept me grounded. I became a mild extrovert over time and that's been good too.
Which one person has had the greatest influence in your life, and why? ?
I think in terms of consistent influence it has to be my mother - she gave birth to me at 22 years so we aren't a huge age difference apart. I got to see her as a young woman excited by life, a wonderful dancer, the fastest girl in her school who could have been a top athlete.
She in those days took a real risk and married a handsome Indian man for love and then at 19 travelled almost half-way around the world to try a life in Kolkata. [I think if my Indian grandfather hadn't have passed after Partition my dad probably would have had an arranged marriage, but was instead free to marry the golden girl of his dreams].
That's a pretty cool take-a-risk legend to grow up with. in spite of life's challenges my parents were steadfast for over 40 years, that consistency kept me grounded and probably also led me to stick to my course. Unlike the popular fantasy, the film industry is about 10 per cent talent, 20 per cent luck and the rest is hard work and endurance.
My parents, and especially mum, were keen on my sister following the Indian family tradition of being a successful barrister, but she always encouraged me, the black sheep, to follow what was also her passion - the movies.
*The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.