Watch out for Vibha Gulati. Many films she has worked on as a script supervisor have been critically acclaimed, receiving Oscar, Sundance, and Cannes awards. And now she has taken on a new mantle.
Gulati began by working with legendary Indian film director Raj Kumar Hirani on the celebrated “Laage Raho Munna Bhai.” She has since taken a stand for violence against women in her directorial debut “Forbidden,” a true story centered around honor killings. This is her story…
Where were you born, and what was it like growing up there?
I was born in a small little town called Laconia, New Hampshire. I lived there until the age of 10. Although Laconia is a beautiful lakeside town with friendly folks, racism was rampant due to a lack of diversity. I was starkly aware of the fact that I was different. My family then moved to Long Island, NY where I began assimilating with my surroundings and became more comfortable in my own skin. Once we moved to New Jersey, I felt I was finally in a place that I belonged. It was wonderful to see so much diversity. I was thrilled to interact with other South Asians my age; along with being exposed to people of a wide variety of ethnicities/backgrounds.
Tell us a bit about your family life and traditional values.
I grew up in a fairly conservative environment. My parents came from a traditional mindset and believed in instilling the same values, morals, and restrictions they grew up with. Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t allowed to sleep over at my friends houses, take overnight field trips, or wear shorts or skirts that were knee-length once I hit puberty. But all of these restrictions came from a place of love as my parents were concerned about the safety of myself and my siblings and just following the rules their parents passed on to them. My family also felt it was important that I learn an Indian art form, and I naturally gravitated towards dance. I took up rigorous training in Indian classical and folk forms such as Bharatanatyam, Bhangra, and Giddha. I was an active member of the South Asian American community, and regularly took part in cultural programs and eventually moved onto prestigious dance competitions.
Describe your first encounter with the Indian film industry, perhaps one that dazzled you and shaped your path as a filmmaker?
Films are an insight into the human imagination, and offer the chance to inhabit worlds that would otherwise never exist. Whilst much of the same is true of literature, the addition of a visual element only solidifies the immersive nature of storytelling. My love affair with films began at an early age thanks to my mother, who was an enormous Bollywood aficionado. She exposed me to many great films, including “Pathar Panchali,” “Devi,” “Charulata,” “Ankur,” “Bhumika,” and other classics by revered filmmakers Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Gulzar, Shyam Benegal, and Raj Kapoor. I remember viewing my first Indian film, “Mughal-e-Azam” (“Love Story of a Mughal Prince”), at the age of 6 at the Angelika Theater, a small art house cinema in the heart of New York City.
This visual masterpiece changed my life forever. I was instantly entranced by the larger than life sets, the beautiful choreographed dances, and melodious music. Moreover, I was fascinated by the film’s power to hold my attention, to move me to tears in one moment, and then bring me out of darkness in the next.
My passion for Indian cinema and dance motivated and inspired me to pursue filmmaking. As a viewer, I have always been enamored, not only by the stories but also by the language of cinema – how writing, performances, visuals, and sounds come together to project emotions.
I would watch movies over and over again, deconstructing the scenes. I was obsessed with trying to figure out the mystery behind it. Even after the credits rolled, it was never over for me. Unlike my peers who spent much of their time doing homework and engaging in extracurricular activities at school, I would write short stories and request my friends to act out the parts so I could shoot them using my father’s video camera. I knew from that point on that films were much more than a hobby for me.
Dance also played an important role in driving me to express myself creatively. As a dancer, I had the power to convey a story through the use of movement and expression. It allowed me to imbibe and interpret the qualities of different characters, present them to an audience, and elicit a response. Essentially, dance helped me understand and explore human emotions on another level. Thus, Indian cinema and dance gave me the incentive to dig deep and reflect upon my personal experiences and narrate stories through the use of moving images.
Growing up, who were your role models or mentors?
I think my role models growing up were my father and Bollywood actor/director/producer Aamir Khan. My father’s life journey has been a significant source of inspiration for me. Like him, I yearned to become independent and successful in a foreign land and did what many feared to do. I left my family, friends, and a well-paying job in NYC to pursue my passion for filmmaking. My dream has always been to become a female director to reckon with, and I continue to work hard to make it a reality.
Aamir Khan has also been a role model for me. The amount of hard work and dedication he puts into every film he works on is simply inspiring. He believes in quality over quantity and that is something that strikes a chord with me. One of my professional goals is to work with him on a project, either as a producer or an actor. I believe I can learn a great deal from him.
Several of your films have been critically acclaimed, winning prestigious awards. Could you dwell on that?
“Forbidden” has been bestowed a number of awards between 2018 and 2020. Traveling with this film has been a humbling experience and I cannot be more thankful of the festival directors, audiences, and the jurors who have given this film so much love, respect, and acceptance. (Please refer to www.forbiddenthefilm.com for the awards. Our latest awards in 2020 include Best Family Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor at the FFTG Awards in NYC).
I have also had the honor of working on a number of award winning films, including “Laage Raho Munna Bhai,” “Chittagong,” “Umrika,” “Tigers,” and “Sir.”
One remarkable feat of yours was assisting director Raj Kumar Hirani in “Laage Raho Munna Bhai”. What was it like working on that film?
It was an amazing experience! It was my first brush with filmmaking and that too with a masterful filmmaker whose approach to cinema is both revolutionary and poignant. My first day on set was extraordinary. The lights, crowd, and all of the hustle bustle of preparing for the first shot of the day was overwhelming. I felt like a deer caught in headlights. But Hirani put me at ease and asked me to observe the process of filmmaking by sitting beside him. As the days turned into weeks I began working as an AD and began falling in love with the magic of filmmaking. Watching Hirani direct his cast and crew was an enriching learning experience, and one that I will cherish forever.
Your defining moment was in your directorial debut, “Forbidden.” This is based on a true story and one very close to your heart, as it pertains to a close friend who was killed in the name of honor. Could you tell us why you decided to write and direct “Forbidden”?
When a friend or family member is murdered in an honor killing, the question of how to stand up to honor violence is not one to be taken lightly. While many may want to speak out, taking action often comes with tremendous risk. For me, the choice was clear: speak out through film, in spite of the dangers doing so posed.
“Forbidden” is my tribute to an amazing woman who had the courage and the conviction to follow her heart and stand up to her family. Earlier, I was under the misconception that only women who belonged to lower socioeconomic backgrounds in developing countries were the victims of honor violence. However, after some extensive research, I learned I was wrong. Women from first world countries also face this societal evil, which is growing at an alarming rate. Moreover, sadly, one can belong to any religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, and/or education level, and still be a victim of this atrocity at the hands of their own family members.
The mission of this film is to end violence against women living outside of their native countries. In addition, it is to ignite a social change that will compel the legal system to take action against criminals who commit heinous crimes against women in the name of family honor.
How do you think society can create more awareness regarding the crucial issue of gender-based violence?
We need to mobilize ourselves and support women through advocacy, education, and providing them with tools of empowerment. This will give them more confidence and awareness about their rights and educate them about the laws for their protection, as well as possible solutions and plans of action. Other things that should be considered are creating mental health facilities, help centers, and hot lines, such as the one recently launched by the AHA Foundation, for young women facing danger from their own families. And lastly police sensitivity, training, and education should be implemented in order to handle such delicate cases.
What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated profession?
My first brush with filmmaking can be aptly described as a “fish out of water” experience. I’m not going to lie. My transition from New York to Mumbai was a tough one. In the beginning, many of my Indian colleagues resented me for entering “their territory.” I was referred to as the “firang” or the Westerner of the unit. They would crack jokes, talk behind my back, and rarely take direction from me when I was in charge. As a woman in a male-dominated profession, my seniors were reluctant to give me responsibilities. They would say “Ladki hai, nahi sambhal payegi” (She’s a girl, she won’t be able to handle it).
I was bullied, conned, humiliated, and pushed to my limits. While on set, I was advised not to enter certain areas since it wasn’t “safe for women,” but I entered anyway. If the men were allowed, then so was I. I learned how to deal with the people, culture, and the infrastructure. I began working as an assistant director. The same seniors who undermined and doubted my abilities began noticing my work. They began promoting me over my male colleagues. I made the transition from assistant director to script supervisor. Seniors began recommending my name to reputed film-makers and production companies. The same people who made fun of me and called me “an outsider” began hiring me for their projects. I successfully created a place for myself amongst the chaos and fierce competition.
What is a typical day in the life of Vibha Gulati?
Typically, you will find me working night and day as a script supervisor on the sets of a Bollywood film. When I am not working on a project, I am writing my own scripts.
How do you spend your leisurely time and who are your biggest supporters?
I enjoy my free time by watching foreign films, trying out new cuisines, spending time with my closest friends, reading books on filmmaking, and my guilty pleasure, romantic novels. My biggest supporters are my father, twin sister, best friend, and my colleagues from the Indian film industry.
To read about more filmmaking pioneers on SEEMA, check out At the Edge of the Absurd