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Kavita Bali: Creating a Fresh Path in Film

Written by Rupal Shah, Staff Reporter. Published by India West magazine, (March 29, 2002 issue).

Filmmaker and director Kavita Bali
(Photo by: Christian Knoblauch)

SAN FRANCISCO - A group of local artists, writers, and activists gathered here March 9 for International Women's Day and "Women of the World - Different Paths to Freedom," a film screening and conversation with acclaimed Bay Area women filmmakers.

For centuries, women have fought to participate in society on an equal footing with men. Designated annually on March 8, International Women's Day is observed by women's groups all over the world and is also commemorated at the United Nations. Its purpose is to celebrate the lives of ordinary women who have made, and continue to make, history as they fight for equality, justice, peace and development.

In the small reception room at the World Affairs Council in downtown where the screening took place, India-West spoke with director Kavita Bali about her film, "Birth of a Butterfly," a four-minute short featured at the event. In a discussion about her art, growing up Indian in the U.S., and her journey as a filmmaker, one thing became abundantly clear: Bali is the kind of artist whose passion for artistic integrity and the creative process is unbounded and infectious.

"Birth of a Butterfly" is not the typical "Indian" film. It is shot in black and white, has no words, and lasts for four and a half minutes. But what Bali conveys in the film are universal subjects for anyone brought up in two cultures. Themes of alienation and identity are explored as Bali visually shares the world of Sangeeta, a corporate Indian American woman on the rise in her career who "finds strength in her heritage once she stops running," said Bali.

Bali 's other films include "Distant Souls," "To Serve One's Country," and "Namaste Papaji." The latter film is a "lyrical, poetic journey of friendship across generations" in which the character Monica's lonliness magically becomes infused by her grandfather's tales. The film was shot in color and lasts 15 minutes.

Bali 's journey to become a filmmaker has been a tough one for her, but she believes it was a necessary one.

"Whenever I'm on the periphery, I sink into my art even more - it's a survival mechanism for me," Bali told India-West.

Bali grew up in upstate New York after moving to the U.S. from India at the age of six. She says she's been an artist ever since she can remember and began painting and drawing at a very early age.

But for her, drawing wasn't enough; she wanted to see her images move, she said, recalling her early encounters with film.

"I remember watching Amitabh Bachchan on film and being completely fascinated with film," said Bali.

As a child growing up in the U.S., she said that the only India she ever got to see was the India on film. " I knew where I came from, but somehow, I couldn't reach it."

When Bali graduated from high school, she was ready to study thermonuclear engineering. At the last minute, she decided she couldn't do it and , instead, she enrolled in the graphic design program at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

While in school, she experimented with different mediums, including montage, and soon found that she "felt restricted by the two-dimensional image." She knew she wanted to make her images move.

Later in film school, those montages became Bali 's storyboards, which were the perfect springboards for film.

After working in graphic design for two years, she again became frustrated, but didn't have enough money to go to film school. She decided to take a few classes at UCLA Extension to ramp up on her creative writing skills, a necessary skill for script writing, and directing skills. As a fulltime employee and part-time student, she spent many days sitting for hours at her favorite local Indian restaurant, absorbing everything she could about Indian films by reading the entertainment sections of local Indian papers.

"After six years, I finally felt confident enough to apply to film school," said Bali, who settled on one of the best: New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

In December of 1992, just after she finished her application, she and her mother took a trip to India. Bali hadn't been back in more than 15 years and was eager to see the real country rather than the Bollywood version. The day after her arrival in Allahabad, her mother's hometown, the whole country broke out into the worst communal violence it had seen in decades.

"I was watching every city I wanted to visit on T.V., and they were all burning," said Bali.

Armed with a Hi-8 camera, Bali shot everything she could during that time of curfews and restricted travel. From that footage, she made three of her short films.

"I wanted to show India from the perspective of a woman who was born in India, but raised in the U.S., who went back to see India for the first time," Bali told India-West.

Bali said she never felt the kind of cultural schizophrenia that many children of immigrants feel. But she did feel different from other South Asian kids.

"Being an artist affected my relationship with everyone," she explained.

Although her parents were supportive of her decision to go to art school, she said that she felt disconnected from other Indians her age.

"All my Indian friends were going to become doctors or engineers and I went to art school," Bali added. Yet she couldn't give up her creative side, her need to create "visual poetry."

Nowadays, Bali works independently as a design and user interface consultant and continues to work on films, art, and photography. Her website, www.urbanpeacock.com, is a combination venue for her to display her own work and give new filmmakers a showcase.

"I want to be part of a larger community, but I don't mind creating my own path," said Bali.


Published by India West magazine, (March 29, 2002 issue).







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