Q&A: sonali gulati

By Jess T. Dugan   |   February 7, 2019


Sonali Gulati is a queer filmmaker, a feminist, grass-roots activist, and an educator. She teaches film at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts in the department of Photography & Film. She has an MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and a BA in Critical Social Thought from Mount Holyoke College. Gulati grew up in New Delhi and has made several short films and a feature-length documentary that have screened at over four hundred film festivals worldwide. Gulati has won awards, grants, and fellowships from the John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Creative Capital Foundation, the Third Wave Foundation, World Studio Foundation, the Robert Giard Memorial Fellowship, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowship.

Sonali headshot.jpeg

Jess T. Dugan: Hello Sonali! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s start at the beginning- how did you discover your interest in filmmaking, and what was your path to getting to where you are today?

Sonali Gulati: My interest in filmmaking began through Visual Anthropology when I was an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College. I saw films made predominantly by white men who had the resources to travel to various parts of the world representing “the other.” I began to ask myself  questions such as: what would happen if people who were being represented had these tools to tell their own stories? How different would these stories be? Ultimately, what it boiled down to was this question of: who has the power to represent whom? It was only after I made my first film Sum Total, that I truly began to see the power of self-representation.

JTD: You have written that you are “keenly interested in the politics of ‘representation’ in mass media.” I imagine you didn’t see a lot of representations of lesbian or queer Indian women when you were growing up and/or coming of age. Could you expand on this idea, and talk about how this lack of representation influenced your work?

SG: Yes, you’re absolutely right in that I did not see, hear, or know of a single out lesbian while growing up in India. This is not to say that these people didn’t exist or these relationships did not exist. One of my closest friends was in the closet and in a closeted relationship with another friend. I know several people from my middle school and high school who are out now, but back then we all grew up thinking we were the only ones. We grew up hearing homophobic jokes and even my lesbian friends proclaimed things like, “I’m no lesbo!” My friend Ashwini Sukhthankar makes this analogy in the introduction of her groundbreaking anthology Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India, that growing up lesbian in India (in the 70s and 80s) was much like growing up without the reassuring reflection of seeing one’s self in the mirror. Her words ring so true to my own experience of lacking that reassurance, of feeling isolated and not even being able to conceive the possibility of coming out. It was when I started reading about several lesbian suicides in India in the mid-90s that I felt like we really needed to know that others like ourselves exist. It was then that I made my first film, using just my first name, as I was still very much in the closet (or at least I thought I was).

Still from  Sum Total

Still from Sum Total

JTD: In your 2011 film I am, you return to Delhi, India, where you grew up, both to empty the contents of your childhood home after your mother’s death and also to create a film about being queer in India. The film beautifully overlays your personal narrative within a larger social and cultural narrative. What was your original motivation for making this film? What was the process like? Did unexpected ideas or trajectories emerge along the way?

SG: I feel like the “coming out to parents story” is a rite of passage in the lives of queer people (and I use the word queer as an all-encompassing word for LGBTQIA+). For me, I did not have that opportunity to come out to my mother before she died very suddenly when I was 25. I always wondered how my mother would have reacted had I come out to her. So I began to have conversations with parents of other queer people in India, conversations that I didn’t have with my own mother. It was a very interesting process and I discovered that parents were far more willing and forthcoming to be on camera, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense in India. Ironically, it was harder to get queer people (who had been out for many years) to speak about themselves on camera. I did not want to make a film where queer people were simply talked about. I wanted to make a film where queer people spoke for themselves in the film.

JTD: While you were making I am, you focused on 21 families, but not all of them appear in the film. I can imagine that participating in the film was a meaningful and emotional experience for the subjects – as well as for you – and that it must have been difficult to edit everything down to a concise documentary. What was your process like for deciding which families to include and/or which stories to foreground? Did you struggle with the editing process?

SG: Yes, for sure. I realized that I was much too close to all these people to be able to edit the film. So I decided to work with a very talented editor Anupama Chandra, who I had met at a party. I was so taken by the passionate way in which she spoke about another film that she was working on. I just had an instinctual feel that I wanted to work with someone like her. I could see her being just as invested in my project. We collaborated well, but ultimately credit goes to her for knowing when to use the guillotine. I wanted every single story to be in the film, but it would have been impossible to do that in an hour-long film. Ultimately we went with stories that were vastly different from one another, stories that showed the diversity of reactions of parents. In the end, the film had parents who disowned their children, to parents who accepted their children in very complicated ways, to parents who fully embraced and quite publicly celebrated their queer child. It took over a year to edit and from the time I started researching till the time the film premiered at a film festival, it was almost 7 years. The lives of people in the film began to look vastly different from where they were while the film was being made and where they were by the time the film was completed. The film in that way is almost a time capsule.

JTD: In your words, your work “fuses art and politics from a place of passion for activism and determination towards social change.” How did you arrive on pursuing activism through a creative practice? What affect do you hope your work has on those who engage with it?

SG: When I was an undergraduate, someone showed me a video of Mumia Abu Jamal, and it convinced me that he was innocent and wrongly framed. That video propelled me to get involved with the Free Mumia campaign. This was the mid 90s, without the convenience of online video-streaming or smartphones. So convincing others to sign the petition to free Mumia involved carrying around a VHS tape. But I began to see first-hand how video could be used to affect social change. As a woman of color living in the United States, I felt passionately about social justice and activism. As a daughter of an artist/ teacher, I also felt equally drawn to the arts and education. So working in film/video became a wonderful way to fuel both those interests. My hope is to inspire others to engage with my work in a way that makes them want to tell their own stories.

Still from  I Am

Still from I Am

JTD: Your work is highly personal but also engages with larger issues of identity. I think often of the Diane Arbus quote, “the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be,” a sentiment she learned from her mentor Lisette Model. Because your work comes from such a personal place, I’m curious about your process for making it. What does your creative practice look like? How does it overlap with your personal life?

SG: I often start my projects by asking myself: “why am I making this film?” In other words, what unique contribution do I (specifically) bring to this piece? I also ask myself: “why does this film need to exist in the world?” Answering these questions helps me make more distinctive and compelling work. I do work towards finding that leap between personal and universal. In my film, “where is there room?”, I want the mother in the film to appear as “the mother” and not have my audience think, “Oh she looks like a Daniela that I know” and so I framed her in a way where one doesn’t see her face. Or for instance in my film “I Am,” in one of the initial cuts, I had mentioned that my mother was murdered. I then decided to withhold that piece of information altogether. I felt that the circumstances around my mother’s death led to more questions like: who did it? and what happened to them? It was not the focus of my film. I just wanted to communicate the personal and yet universal experience of loss, this feeling that ‘I thought I had more time to come out to her but I did not.” So while I embrace the idea that “personal is political,” I also think about this idea of: is there something that is ‘too personal’ within personal work and what happens when we share that with others? Is there potential to create intimacy? Or does it make it harder to relate to the work? In the opening of my film “I Am,” I confess that I didn’t want my mother to come for my college graduation, but then that photograph of us at my graduation also serves as the last photograph of my mother and I together. It becomes such a significant moment of my life, more than the average graduation photo. However that personal sharing of my feelings around that moment shows the complexity and adds so much more weight to that image. On another level, it also lets viewers know early on that this is going to be a very intimate journey.

Still from  Big Time

Still from Big Time

JTD: The mission of the Strange Fire Collective is to promote work by women, people of color, and LGBTQ artists, all of whom have been underrepresented in creative fields (and other fields, of course). As a lesbian, South Asian woman, in what ways have you experienced discrimination throughout your career? Do you feel that you have struggled because of your identity, or do you feel that it has been an asset? Or some combination of both?

SG: Growing up as a girl in India, I didn’t consciously think much about sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy. I knew it existed and it was very much a part of the fabric of my daily living, in the way that I entered a crowded bus, learning to elbow the men who would try to press their bodies against me, or the way I ignored a man whistling while walking the streets. These kind of survival skills became intrinsic to who I was. The same goes for being brown-skinned and a lesbian living in the United States. I know when I am being treated differently than my straight white male neighbor on the same flight as me, or the same profession as me. And I have learned to navigate my life in ways knowing that I have to work harder to earn the same level of success as others. I know firsthand how even calling attention to discrimination is dismissed as “imagined” and “perceived” discrimination. However, the evidence is out there. It’s in the form of statistical data that shows what men versus women in the academe earn. So when it becomes a part of one’s daily existence, every day is a form of resistance, though I don’t consciously think about it. It’s like entering that bus and knowing intrinsically what one has to do to protect one’s self.

Still from  Between

Still from Between

JTD: In addition to your work as a filmmaker, you are also a Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's in the Department of Photography & Film. What advice would you give to younger artists or those just embarking on a creative path?

SG: I often ask my students to answer the same questions I ask of myself when I start a film project: Why am I making this film? Why does this film need to be made? I encourage younger artists to think critically about the kind of stories we see/hear in mass media, to tell their own personal stories, to question the choices they make when they create fictional characters, and last but not least, to find a supportive community of like-minded people who will help them find fulfilment in what they do. I share lessons I have learned from my own life experience and invite other young artists (alums) who have been down that same path before, to help guide and shed light.

JTD: What are you currently working on? What’s on the horizon for you as an artist?

SG: I am currently working on a project that started out as a documentary film project, and transitioned into a feature-length narrative fiction screenplay, and is now growing into a web-series. It’s a new area for me and so there is a lot of learning, exploring, and experimenting. I’m really excited about it. It’s just as thrilling as starting out a new semester of teaching and learning.

Still from  Between

Still from Between