- An “accidental filmmaker,” Chawla is truly a renaissance woman set on changing mindsets through her provocatively realistic movies.
It seems a bit inconceivable at first glance, that a long-standing academician would write, direct, and produce four feature films, three of which are on major streaming platforms, and the fourth one is in post-production. Dr. Nishi Chawla, who started teaching English literature at the young age of 22 at Delhi University, where she became a tenured professor of English soon after, told me that she could never imagine that she would become a filmmaker so late in life.
Her husband’s World Bank posting in the late 1990s brought her to Washington, D.C., where she finished her Ph.D., from George Washington University, her post-doctorate from Johns Hopkins, and where she also taught at various universities for another two decades or more. Her intense teaching career of four decades and the transplantation process obviously took away a lot of her time from her creative life, even though she quietly wrote seven collections of poetry, nine plays, and two novels. The artistic world of cinema is indeed, a formidable place where Dr. Chawla ventured into filmmaking at a later stage in her life. She brings to her art-house movies, fresh ways of expressing her diasporic voice on issues of societal and cultural biases. The wisdom that comes with experience and life, is apparent both in her films as well as in her books.
Chawla’s latest feature film, “TechNous” has just been released on Amazon Prime. The film is about the widened economic gulf and the huge concentration of wealth that technology has created globally. The film is also about the power of tech money to change the nature of sibling rivalry between two brothers, wherein a struggling liberal arts professor undergoes a moral transformation as he sees his brother make it big in Silicon Valley. Chawla had to edit the movie by nearly half to get it accepted by Amazon Prime. As a result, editing was impacted. Nonetheless, I agree with her friend, Dr. Reena Aggarwal of Georgetown University comment: “The movie addresses important societal issues and the ongoing discussion about the importance of humanities for society. It must have been a lot of hard work as was clear from watching the movie.”
As an independent filmmaker who writes and directs movies on social issues that intrinsically frame our existence, Chawla’s second film, “The Strange Case of Normalcy” is a subtle examination of how each of us lives on the edge of normalcy while we construct an illusion of “the normal” by which we define ourselves. All of us strive to appear to be “normal” and pretend to be “average” and “normal” even as the boundaries blur. Five ethnically diverse friends who graduate from an Ivy League institution, consider themselves smart. They are aware though, of the fragile boundaries of the human mind that vacillate like a pendulum given conflicting conditions that confront us.
The story unfolds and describes how each of them experiences serious issues of isolation and suicidal thoughts, and how they live on the edge of time. The movie has won several film awards and has been released by a U.S. distributor who also introduced Keanu Reeves. Addressing the issue of how society labels and how of all of normal folks carry our own burden of mental issues, Dr. Chawla shows her refined grasp of human nature and the realities of our precarious existence.
The challenges confronting a low-budget indie filmmaker are endless. From the daunting task of writing the screenplay, casting the actors, choosing all the locations and costumes for the actors, zoom and in-person reading with the actors for months, creating, structuring, and confirming a film shoot schedule, and tying up all loose ends is dauntless. And when a filmmaker like Dr. Chawla takes it upon herself to single-handedly complete the varied tasks to save herself money for the production costs as well, it is highly laudable!
While Chawla has been offered a few small grants, it is mostly her own hard-earned money that she has poured into her movies. She believes it is unlikely she will ever recover anything from her own investment in her movies, as independent filmmakers are often at the mercy of distributors and streaming platforms. Yet, the fulfillment of realizing her creative dreams to reflect on our times in her movies and books, to draw attention to vital issues of our exceedingly contradictory and complex world, has brought Chawla immense joy and satisfaction.
Chawla’s first movie, “Mixed Up” posed all the above-mentioned challenges even as her learning curve was immense. “Mixed up,” was one such movie where she both enjoyed the learning experience of a first-time filmmaker as well as battled some unexpected difficulties. “Mixed Up” is set in the 1970s and is about interracial love. The movie is a slow and poetic meditation on love and race issues that reveals the deep-seated hostility of a white American professor’s wife to their two daughters’ boyfriends, one a Hindu medical doctor and the other, a Muslim businessman.
Her story also exposes the consequences of a changed landscape of modern romantic entanglements. It is a composite of American, Indian, and Iranian cultures for which Dr. Chawla got some music commissioned and secured legal permission from some singers to use their works in her movie. A well-known Iranian couple, Eendo, also gave her permission to use their jazz music. It’s commendable that all this was accomplished via emails and Zoom chats from inside her home office in the U.S. and the singers situated in Iran. The movie has been streaming on Prime for three years now.
Chawla’s fourth feature film, “The Peace Activists,” places Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., within the crucible of a dramatic plot that brings out their remarkable similarities in the cause of peace and non-violence and in their pursuit and engagement with civil disobedience as a methodology and a tool to secure freedom and justice. Along with the white philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who inspired both leaders, the black MLK and the brown MKG, Chawla’s movie offers a philosophical rumination on the contemporary world situation as it relates to Gandhi’s and MLK’s broader vision.
Chawla likes to call herself an “accidental filmmaker” though her friends chide her that the term – accidental – can be perceived as somewhat pejorative. As a multifaceted creative personality, Chawla is a vibrant combination that few can imagine accomplishing. She is truly a Renaissance woman set on changing mindsets through her provocatively realistic movies. Her art house movies resonate with the different directions and a new journey she visualizes and has crafted for herself in her sixties. And these movies are, of course, reflective pieces, and not meant for sheer entertainment alone. She is most passionate of course, about her latest, “The Peace Activists” with its strong message of peace and non-violence handled in a unique manner.
In her other avatar as a writer, readers will find a deep, sensual, word weaver taking them through inventive and visionary scenarios of intimate human relationships. One gets a glimpse into her poetic sensibility that softens the heart, yet also quickly reminds us that women are at the center of their own choices and decisions. Meandering through her poetry, one finds oneself deliberating on the myriad layered meanings that can be deduced. She is prolific in her writings with ten plays, seven volumes of poetry, and two novels to her credit. She has also co-edited with well-known writer K. Sachidanandan, two global anthologies of poetry for Penguin Random House: “Singing in the Dark” and “Greening the Earth.”
Anita Nahal is a Pushcart Prize-nominated Indian American author-academic. She has four poetry collections, one of flash fiction, four for children, and five edited anthologies published. Her first novel “Drenched Thoughts” comes out in 2023. She teaches at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.