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Q: What gave you the idea to make Miss India Georgia?

DF: A couple of years ago, I saw an ad in the Dayton Daily News, announcing the "Miss Hindu Dayton" contest. I come from a family of Russian Jews who settled in Columbus Ohio in the 1880's and I've always been kind of obsessed with the immigrant experience. I could never hear enough about the lives that my parents and grandparents had lived as part of this tiny enclave of Jews in the Midwest. And I knew that the Indian community in Dayton was very, very small and very much surrounded by white Protestant midwesterners. I also thought the possibilities for cultural critique were rich: an Indian beauty pageant in Dayton, Ohio, sounded like it might incorporate some of the tawdriest elements of American popular culture, and I thought the contrast between ancient, dignified Indian customs and vulgar, tasteless elements of American pop culture might be ironic and disturbing.

SG: My family was also part of a tiny Jewish enclave in what was, to them, a very foreign part of the world. My great-grandparents were Baghdadi Jews who emigrated to Singapore 100 years ago. And it was as traders with the Chinese and Malay that they lived in what was then a British colony. My great-grandmother had an arranged marriage at 14, gave birth to 12 children and died by the time she was 28. She spoke Arabic to her husband and children. Over the course of my grandmother and father's lives so much has separated me culturally from my greatgrandmother. It's that process of cultural assimilation, those choices that we make about our cultural identity that fascinated me. Shortly after Dan saw the article about the "Miss Hindu Dayton" contest, I moved to Atlanta to work for CNN. Dan and I were researching another project that had me calling the Indian cultural organization to ask a question about Hindi. The guy who answered the phone was rushed, "I'm sorry we can't help you today" he said, "but we're ever so busy rehearsing for the 'Miss India Georgia' pageant." Dan and I raced over there at once. We ended up watching several different rehearsals and going to the actual event at the Gwinnett Civic Center. It was a wonderful evening. The hall was packed, all the women were dressed up in their finest saris and, there in Georgia, at the very heart of the beauty pageant world, they gathered to watch their daughters do a mix of Indian performances and numbers from "Jesus Christ, Superstar". The highlight of the evening was when Iccha Singh, did her baton-twirling routine to the tune of "Hava Nagilah". She brought the house down and went on to win the pageant. Dan and I just looked at each other and we knew that somehow we were going to raise the money and come back and make a film.

Pay attention
Q: What connections do you see between the experiences of Indian Americans and those of earlier immigrants?
DF: I don't think we have any illusions about the universality of the immigrant experience, but I do see some elements in common. I hope it isn't too sentimental if I say that I really see—in these girls—so much of the lives that my grandmother and my mother lived in the tiny Jewish immigrant community in Columbus such a long time ago. When I was growing up, there were just about the same number of Jews in Columbus as there are South Asians in Atlanta today. So, when Anu talks about feeling like an outsider at Ashley Hall because her classmates' grand-parents all fought together in the Civil War, it makes me think of my Mom telling me about the several lonely years she spent in the late thirties as the only Jewish girl at the Columbus School for Girls. And when she tells about being told at school she was headed for Hell, it reminds me of my own years at The Columbus Academy, where the Jewish boys had to sing the Doxology at Chapel twice a week, but, didn't have to sing the words "Son and Holy Ghost". And the struggles these girls are going through about dating and marriage remind me of Rabbi Folkman's infamous confirmation class lecture in which he warned that, if you ever married a Gentile, the day would come—maybe sooner, maybe later, but it would come—when she would call you a "dirty Jew" and you'd be sorry you married a shiksa. I've read a lot in the academic literature on ethnicity for this film and I just read that, the year I graduated from high school, fewer than 10% of Jews married Gentiles. Today, it's at or above 50%. One reason I wanted to make this film is that I can't quite figure out what I think about a lot of this stuff. I can't quite figure out why it bothers me that Jews are inter-marrying at such a high rate, just as I can't quite figure out why it bothers me that Misty has found community and acceptance with born-again Christians rather than with other Indians. But something about it does bother me. So, one way to look at the film is that it is a shout back across time from the fourth generation to the first generation, saying "Pay attention to what's happening to you". I like what the critic for the Atlanta alternative paper said: "Miss India Georgia shows why the struggle to remain Indian is really an all-American story".
SG: Recently the firm my father works for in Singapore published an in house history commemorating its 100th anniversary. My father's entry reads, "... although a Jewish Singaporean, he was 'even more British than the British.'" Or course, he wasn't. Part of my interest in Miss India Georgia is the story it tells of being an outsider. When my father was growing up, Singapore was a British colony. He was sent to boarding school in England by a wealthy relative and he very much wanted to be part of British society. When he returned to Singapore after graduating from university, he returned to a colony where Singaporeans were not even allowed to join the British social clubs. The late 20th century US is a very different place from Singapore in the fifties. But there still is a sense that the young women in our film want to belong to something that maybe they can never really be part of.

Q: What sorts of things did you do to involve the Indian community in your project?

SG: The very first step was just getting to know young women from the community. Before Dan moved to Atlanta for the summer, I called up the previous years contestants and just spent time getting to know them. We talked about what it had been like to grow up in Atlanta, why they wanted to be in the pageant and what they would want to include in the film if they were making it. We went to dinner, to their parties and even to one of their weddings. Dan and I also met with Indian and Pakistani community leaders in Atlanta to ask their advice. Once we started filming we recruited a couple of young South Asians who were interested in filmmaking and to help us view the tapes and understand what were the most important sequences. We also invited Indian-American and Pakistani-American college students to watch some early cuts of the film. I really think that helped a lot. They had the confidence and self-assurance to be really straight with us about the way we were approaching the film. The other thing we did to stay close to the contestants' own view of things was to make sure, in our interviews, that we asked them to talk about all of the verite-style scenes we had shot. That gives the audience at least some access to the contestants' own reflections on the events that the film shows from their everyday lives.


Q: What did you learn about ethnic identity in making this film?
DF: More and more, I think both Sharon and I have been struck with the "post ethnic" turn things are taking. There are signs that we're coming into a period in which ethnicity will be seen as a much more fluid, less rigidly-defined thing, and more subject to personal invention and choice. I like to think about the fact that Sharon and I made a film about first-generation Indian kids in the South, while one of Mira Nair's most interesting flms was The Perez Family, about a Cuban immigrant family in Miami. And--just to keep the chain going--one of my favorite films is Ruby in Paradise, a quiet, compassionate film by Victor Nunez about a girl from the Tennessee hills who tries to make a new life for herself in Northern Florida: a film by a middle-aged Cuban-American man about a young Appalachian woman's life on the "Redneck Riviera"!
SG: Or take Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. He does a terrific job of recreating the lives of Nixon-era Connecticut suburbanites. He does it with such insight and understanding, although their world isn't a world he ever inhabited. Just yesterday, Dan told me he had read about a young black woman who is a Yiddish Studies major at Ohio State. "What a mecheieh!", he said when he told me. Of course that's an expression Dan picked up from a book, not something he heard growing up in a highly assimilated third generation household in Ohio. This is totally post-ethnic stuff.
25 million people
Q: Have you shown the film to first-generation teenagers from other ethnic communities besides the South Asian community?
DF: Yes. We were really eager to do that, because we don't think of Miss India Georgiaas being mainly about the Indian-American experience. We think of the film more as four case studies that explore differences between kids in how they handle the conflicts they face as children of immigrant parents. There are 25 million people in the US who were born elsewhere and many of them are going through experiences like those shown in the film, either as parents or as children. Because our theme is the construction of ethnic identity and not just the experiences of Indian-Americans, we showed cuts of the film to first-generation Americans from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds and we were really gratified at what they said about how much they saw their own experiences reflected in the stories of these four Indian-American teenagers. So far, this has included high school and college students whose parents come from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. We were really pleased at how seeing the film got them talking about their own lives in a way that was animated and heart-felt. And we've gotten a similar response from parents.
Q: What difference do you think it made to the film that the two of you come from outside the Indian community?
DF: All kinds of difference. It was humbling to make this film and to come to realize the social diversity within the South Asian community in the US. Something that we became conscious of only when it was too late was the fact that organizing the film around a pageant meant that we were very unlikely to tell the stories of young women who come from the most recent—and less affluent—wave of Indian immigrants—if for no other reason than that pageant costumes cost a lot of money. So, while one of our contestants came from a family that faced some tough times in the US, they had been wealthy and well-educated back in India. And, while another contestant's family came from rural poverty in Trinidad, by the time she was in high school, her parents had begun to do well in the US. So, a missing dimension in our film is the experiences of those immigrant families who are poor and struggling. I think that there are many nuances that went right by us and that, had we been South Asian, could have helped us create a more subtle and layered depiction of second generation teenagers and their lives.
SG: I think that we were both always very aware of the tremendous responsibility it was to try to represent a community other than our own. It was incredibly daunting. And we always worried that we might miss some of the finer nuances or that we might not seem respectful to our subjects. At the same time, being an outsider may have had some pluses. When we first showed the finished film to some of the pageant organizers, several of them commented that not being South Asian probably helped us in certain ways. They were surprised at how honest and open some of our subjects had been. And they thought that in part the young women we followed were able to reveal more to us than they might have done to South Asian filmmakers just because we stood outside the complex South Asian social, political, religious and cultural hierarchies. We didn't speak Urdu, but at the same time we didn't speak Hindi, Gujarati, or Tamil. We weren't Hindu but then again we weren't Muslim either. But, of course, it cuts both ways. I'm sure there were plenty of things people didn't tell us because they thought it might not makes sense or that it might make the Indian community look bad. And there may well have been things that we overlooked or underplayed because we didn't think they were important enough. That's the thing, insider films have their advantages and outsider films have their advantages. Isn't that the message of post-modernism: that only through presenting multiple perspectives, created by people from a variety of different social and cultural backgrounds, can we hope to converge on a richer understanding of the world?
Insider films





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