New York-based Indian filmmaker’s coming-of-age drama catches international spotlight

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A still from the film ‘Devi: Goddess’ directed by New York City-based director Karishma Dev Dube (Photo courtesy Karishma Dev Dube)

The short film “Devi: Goddess” made by New York-based Karishma Dev Dube, is garnering international attention because of its skillful handling of an Indian teen’s struggle with her sexuality. Latest among Dube’s achievements was “Devi” being chosen as one of five short films worldwide, for the “#FiveFilms4Freedom 2018” initiative in the U.K.

#FiveFilms4Freedom is the world’s first global, digital LGBT short-film program, created in collaboration between the British Council and the British Film Institute- Flare. ‘Flare’ is the LGBTQ + Film Festival in London where “Devi” was featured, and it was watched for the first time in several countries including India. It was available in 21 languages online until April 1, the release synchronized with the date of the Flare Festival that took place from March 21 to April 1.

New York City-based filmmaker Karishma Dev Dube on the sets of Devi:Goddess, the short film which is garnering international attention. (Photo courtesy Karishma Dev Dube)

“I got a lot of feedback from people who saw the film in countries like India and Pakistan,” Dev Dube told Desi Talk in a phone interview on her return from London. “It was widely watched in places and countries they (the organizers) did not expect,” she added. “The British Council publicized the free availability especially in countries where they thought it might make an impact,” she said.

Billed as a coming-of-age drama it deals with lesbianism in an environment that is both traditional, yet unusual – an upper-crust household headed by a single-parent (mother) played by Tanvi Azmi (of Bajirao Mastani, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani – fame).

Currently a thesis student and Dean’s fellow in the Master of Fine Arts program at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Dev Dube has spun a 12-minute intense story that captures a critical moment in time in the life of a rambunctious teen, Tara, played by  Aditi Vasudev (Talaash, Suleman Keeda, Do Dooni Chaar) who realizes her sexual attraction to her lifelong household help, Devi, played superbly by Priyanka Bose (Lion, Gangor, and the Nirbhaya stage production at Edinburgh Fringe Festival).

When Tara is caught pursuing her attraction, she must suddenly define who she really is in an environment that is not just homophobic but also classist. She must also decide where she fits in. Without giving away the ending, the film possesses a self-assurance in pronouncing on reality that becomes almost painfully evident to the teen and the world at large.

“I wanted to show the reality, but also pique the interest of viewers into what would happen next. To imagine the rest,” Dev Dube said. “I am working on a feature version of this film,” she added.

Finished last year, the film has made the festival circuit around the world, shown at several venues, including its latest screening March 23 and 24, at the Flare Film Festival in London. “We’ve played in 35 festivals around the world,” Dev Dube said.

“Devi” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Indian Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2017;  At the Outfest Los Angeles Film Festival in July 2017, Dube walked away with the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short. It was also a nominee for the Short Film Award at the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival last year. The film has also been screened in Japan at the Short Shorts film festival and at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

“The grad film program at NYU has been my foundation in film,” Dev Dube told Desi Talk.  Being away from home, in this case New Delhi, she said, made it possible for her to dwell on events and relationships in India. “You get a vantage point once away, because in India  there’s so much proximity with people all the time. Here, I was alone and it made me think more deeply about my relationships. So I wanted to create ‘character’ and ‘conflict’ around the women, around class and sexuality, in a household similar to what I had been brought up in,” Dev Dube said. “It’s fiction. But it’s based in a reality,” that she has observed over the years in India.

Though the film was made in 2017, “It was not released as such, but got traction from showings at Indian-American film festivals,” Dev Dube said. The exposure by British Council and British Film Institute brought it to audiences worldwide for the first time, she noted.

Written and directed by Dev Dube, the film is produced by her jointly with other Tisch students Jovan James and Shreya Dev Dube, (Karishma Dev Dube’s sister). The superb cinematography was the work of fellow student Zamarin Wahdat. It featured music by Brooklyn-based Pakistani artist Arooj Aftab, and India-based band Sulk Station.