“I started at childhood—painting, writing, photography. And I still paint and write and work with those disciplines. In my early twenties, though, I discovered world cinema, and I always wanted a mode to express myself [artistically] in the most truthful way possible: this was it,” said Das, 28, now based in New York City, in a phone interview with News India Times.
The beauty of the nomadic tribespeople and landscapes along the Indo-China border, just north of Ladakh, emboldened her to continue engaging with the visual medium.
“It comes so naturally to me,” Das said.
Das graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts this year from Ohio University, and now creates alternative art films. She finds great perspective in the cultural and social layers that make up her identity.
Das is most well-known for her dramatic short film Return (2016), a 15-minute piece that follows woman’s grief-ridden arrival home for her mother’s funeral as she dwells on her responsibilities as a daughter. Das also wrote Fragmented-Connected, which explores contradictions. Return was positively reviewed by The Times of India in the year of its release.
“There are so many other words and adjectives that one could use to describe me, based on other aspects of how I identify. But given my particular social location, I see the world very differently from men and non-women, and I like to think that my feminine voice filters everything from the camera angle I choose in a given scene to the very exploration of my characters and subjects through the entire movie,” she said.
The Indian and feminine elements of her being cannot be separated—in combination, they form who she is.
Das also acknowledges the responsibilities and struggles that come with being an immigrant in the United States – a set of difficulties that act as her inspiration.
Das is very aware of the societal and linguistic barriers that create literal “distance” between immigrant populations and native groups, who often cannot interact with one another because of communicative separation, rather than mere ethnic or religious distinctions.
“In this field, I try to bridge the gap and find ways of explaining [this phenomenon], and I talk and think about the transnational diasporic experience,” she said.
Das emphasized that a primary obstacle to overcome in her profession was the ability to make herself heard in rooms that often contain solely white, male filmmakers and actors. However, she noted that having to voice her opinions was ultimately beneficial.
“I had to learn to be a tough cookie, constantly vocal, and state how I wanted things done explicitly… those struggles have only made me a stronger self-advocate,” she said.
Das discussed whom she looks up to in the film industry in a written statement.
“I am highly inspired by Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. I grew up watching them and admired their sensitivity to the medium intensely. In contemporary Indian filmmakers, I really liked this Bengali film called Faring (2013) by Indranil Roychowdhury, and Papilio Buddha (2013) by Indian-born American Jayan Cherian. I think in their own way they are trying to break convention, and how we perceive Indian-based content in cinema,” she said.
Das has high hopes for the role of film in changing social norms.
“Movies can often let us reclaim how we view images and think about groupings of ‘us’ and ‘them,’” she explained.
She argues that historical connections can be established between the outgrowth of more open, feminist cinema and the civil rights and women’s liberation movements.
“How we as artists develop composition and shot is always informed by [these theories and worldviews]. We are starting to break away from [traditional] understandings of what a movie can be,” she said.
In reference to stereotypes in media, Das sees her art form as a way to begin breaking them down. What people see affects how they behave, and film, “through its incorporation of many types of media,” can make strides in eliminating those racial and ethnic misconceptions in daily life.
Das’ works have received international acclaim, appearing for theatrical release in over 20 film festivals, including Cannes, Beijing, and the Euro.
She would like to continue making small alternative films, she indicated. Das is currently writing a screenplay for her next feature. The young filmmaker is eagerly awaiting her upcoming feature film debut—Under the Jazz. Circulation. Formulation (2018), which describes her thoughts on the idea of ‘difference’ and what it means to assimilate to new social milieu and national environments in our time. It is in pre-production right now, and she intends to shoot it mostly in India.
In addition, Das will be working on several video art installations, focused on shattering heteronormative constraints and building upon “feminine voice”.