Lens of relevance

Interview with Sofian Khan, director of the poignant film 'Do We Belong?'
Last Updated 11 September 2018, 06:55 IST

Last February, happy hours at a pub in Kansas, US, unfolded a scene of hate crime. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer, became the target of verbal racial abuse first, followed by fatal bullets. The shooter (Adam Putington), a native, had prodded Srinivas and his friend Alok Madasani about the legality of their stay in America.

A while later, and not far away from the pub, Sunayana Dumala, Srinivas’s wife, learned of the evening that took away her Srinu and severed their shared dreams of future in the US. She then brought up a basic question: Do We Belong? It’s this question that finds voice in the film ‘Do We Belong?’, by Sofian Khan, a filmmaker who is “half-Pakistani, half-British, and 100% all-American born and raised – just as American as some of these increasingly intolerant characters who have been stealing the spotlight here as of late.”

In an interview, Sofian Khan discusses the film and the role of storytelling in the times of hate crimes and political unrest...

Why did you direct your lens toward Sunayana’s side of the story that is ‘Do We Belong?’?

I heard the tragic story of Srinivas’s murder when it happened in February 2017, and was reading about Sunayana in the aftermath. It was a story that grabbed me immediately, because my own father had also come to the US as a young computer engineer to pursue his dream. His specific field was different from Srinivas, but they shared many other things in common. However, it was the interviews with Sunayana that I was reading, and the words she wrote herself when she was on her way back to India to bury her husband, that made it clear that this story needed to be told in her words.

A still from the film 'Do We Belong?'
A still from the film 'Do We Belong?'

Given that the subject is sensitive & heartbreaking, how did you approach it?

I can confidently say that the interview with Sunayana for this film is the hardest interview I’ve done to date… I was just as interested in the connection between them and their past history, as I was in going into the brutal details of how that connection was broken.

But what really struck me was how present he was for her. That connection is still strong. The house that they built together, where she still lives, became a visual metaphor for this.

The love that she still feels for him is palpable. Which is why it was so heart-wrenching to then arrive at the part of the story where Sunayana had to reach back into the emotions of that terrible day, when she found out that Srinivas had been taken from her. I knew it was important to take her there, to build up the events brick by brick, but it’s not an easy thing to ask someone to do that. And I am grateful that she was willing to dig so deeply and share so much.

Where do you think hate comes from?

We’re living in a time right now here in the states where the politics of hatred has become mainstream. I am certain that those feelings were already there simmering beneath the surface. But now, people who feel that way have been granted permission to let it loose. And that’s something I’ve never really experienced in my lifetime.

Your role as a filmmaker...

For me, the question is, what can I do? And I do believe that stories play a role. Especially stories that create a personal connection instead of just fuelling a partisan viewpoint. So, these are the stories I am trying to focus on. The struggle isn’t finding them, or getting these films made necessarily. The real challenge is finding the way to an audience whose minds can be changed. Even if just a little. Because the problem we have now is that audiences are retreating into bubbles of their own creation that reflect their political sensibilities to a large extent, and that lead them to only watch content that fits that mould. I worry that people and the algorithms that serve them are making it increasingly difficult for them to be challenged in any way.

As a filmmaker, what kind of stories command your attention?

I’ve focused a lot on immigration issues, mainly from a personal lens, and have been looking into stories in conflict zones as well. My recently completed feature, The Interpreters, combines elements of both: following the stories of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who worked with the US military, and who were promised visas to come to America in order to escape threats against them and their families because of the work they did.

And, do you feel you belong in the US?

This is home for me. If I don’t belong here, then where?

(Published 08 September 2018, 19:30 IST)

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