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Interview English Punjabi

This film pushes boundaries and some don't like it, says Agam Darshi of her directorial debut Donkeyhead

In an exclusive conversation, the actress-writer-director talks about the coming-of-age film with a difference, set in a Sikh Punjabi family in Canada.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Actress, writer and director Agam Darshi’s Donkeyhead is a coming-of-age story of sorts. The story of Mona, a woman who is almost 40 years old and caring for her ailing father, the film is a family drama that examines the role of a caregiver and the expectations that weigh us down. When Mona’s father’s health takes a turn for the worse, her three siblings come home to work things out. In the process, relationships unravel and things come to a head.

The award-winning actress, whose acting credits include Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy (2020) and Ava DuVernay’s upcoming series DMZ, spoke to Cinestaan.com of her experience of making her directorial debut film, in which she also plays the lead character, Mona.

“This was a story that I started writing a long time ago, off and on, over the years," she said. "I love indie Hollywood films, but they don’t usually revolve around anyone who looks remotely like us, so I wanted to write a family dramedy in the vein of those types of films and have it about a South Asian family. I wanted to write a story about a South Asian family that feels just as Canadian as they do Indian, sometimes more, and where they tackle themes that feel relevant to where I was growing up.”

The film takes an incisive look at relationships with an intensity that captures the muddle and vortex of emotions that family evokes. The germ of the film lay in a personal experience that gradually grew into a bigger story,

It really felt like we have to get this story out, says producer Anand Ramayya about Donkeyhead

“[With the story] over time, real life seeped in," she said. "I looked after my father while he was going through chemotherapy... It [cancer] is such an ugly disease and watching my mother day after day care for him and how the disease was taking over his body and how he had to deal with it and, fortunately, he is okay now, [but] that was a hard time and it definitely was a huge part as an anchor in the film. What happens to the children when they no longer have the parents to hold them together? That is something I wanted to explore.”

An actress for over 16 years, this directorial debut was not something Agam Darshi had planned. “It’s something I have always wanted to do," she said. "I also have a degree in visual arts and photography, so I have always been fascinated with the process of telling stories in a visual way. Then I kind of fell into acting and have been doing that for a long time. I have always loved writing as well. So it all just came together.

"I had not planned on directing Donkeyhead," she continued. "I was looking for a director, but I wanted to play Mona. Over time it became apparent that it was such a personal story and it was so hard to hand over to a director, and then I was encouraged to direct it myself and so I did. I’m really happy that I did it. It was very fulfilling.”

A still from Donkeyhead

Asked about the challenges in making her first film, the director responded, “It was challenging, but I never felt desperate. I never felt like I cannot do this. Perhaps at the beginning, because there were so many unknowns, I did have questions, but once I got into the process and we started building a team, one by one, finding people who are so talented and so collaborative, that’s a huge part of the piece. It felt like it was going to be a success.

“[As an artiste] I knew Mona inside out. In terms of the directing side of it, it was a new language for me in some ways. As a director, now I know what to bring to the table and to give to others. So, a lot of it was intuitive, but I think the most challenging part was the technical part. It took some time for me to understand that language and understand what this was going to look like and what we were going for.”

The fact that Donkeyhead was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic put another spin on things and, as the production unit found out, the weather in Saskatchewan, Canada, was not the most hospitable,

“We shot during COVID, so that was also scary, not knowing what that was going to look like," Darshi said. "We shot in Regina, Saskatchewan, which is right in the middle of Canada. When we were in prep, the temperature was about -15°C which wasn’t that cold, but once we were in shooting, some days the temperature was -40°C and we were outside trying to get the shots and one day our [camera] dolly froze and there is one bike scene [in the film] and the bike froze. We just had to figure it out and go along with it and be adaptable and change your ideas when you needed to.”

South Asian families have often been depicted in a certain way in films that usually focus on the clash of cultures between the East and the West. However, filmmakers are increasingly moving away from those concerns to depict a more relatable situation of second-generation immigrants who aren’t so weighed down by those issues. Asked whether there were themes she wanted to steer clear of while writing this story, Agam Darshi replied, “I wanted to steer clear of that story, I call these the East-West stories, the stories that we have seen a million times, which is the push and pull between traditional and Western culture forcing the child to have to choose one and in the end there’s a big wedding! I did not want a wedding in this film and I don’t know if I really steered clear of the traditional and Western thing because there is some of that and I think that is ultimately our experience, so there is always going to be a bit of that push and pull.

"I wanted to show this family to be just as Canadian as they were Indian. Some people hate how Mona is so uninhibited in some ways and they hate that, they hate that she is seen in bed with a white man. This film pushes boundaries, but it’s true to life in this country and it’s true to life for a lot of people in India. Maybe not with a white man, but people are smoking, they are having sex and all of that stuff. All I did was shine a light on this is what we are doing and it’s just that we don’t talk about it.”

About the reactions to the film, Darshi said, “When I put it [the film] out there, I was really expecting worse and it has been quite amazing. I have had so much incredible feedback. I have this beautiful message from someone who said they are doing their medical internship in Arkansas and they miss their family so much and they saw this film and it made them love their parents more. Those kind of things are so powerful.

"For the most part, it has been incredibly positive. That being said, there are definitely rumblings and people are shocked. I think sometimes the Sikh Punjabi community, there’s a few people there who feel very uncomfortable with certain elements, like Guru Nanak Devji’s photo shown right before she is in bed with her boyfriend is very triggering for some people and that wasn’t by accident, I did that on purpose. It [the film] pushes those boundaries and some people are not interested in being pushed.”

With digital platforms opening up and the growing need for content, opportunities abound for writers and filmmakers. Commenting on the scenario, she said, “People are listening and they are curious, they want to know more. If I had put this out five years ago, I don’t think it would have got a buyer, I don’t think it would have gotten on Netflix and been seen. It is a very specific kind of film and there was a belief that there was room for only one South Asian director, and now, it’s like no, we need to see more, so there is a lot of excitement around it.”

However, the opening up of fresh avenues has come with its own caveats. “Sometimes I find  that the barriers are within our own community," the actress-filmmaker said, "and by that I mean that 20 years ago, when you were acting, the roles were so limited, we were so pigeonholed, and we fought as South Asians to try to be seen in different ways and slowly, slowly, that has opened up.

"What I’m finding is happening now is that, for better or for worse, the thing that we have fought for is now being shut down in some ways by our own people. For example, there is so much emphasis on you can’t play this role because you are not Punjabi, you are Hindu; or you are not the specific kind of Hindu... you have to be so careful and so specific and, in some ways, that’s a fantastic thing because the filmmaker is the author and has to try their best to make it as authentic as possible. As an actor, though, we are more than our ethnicity on screen, we are more than just playing the Sikh Punjabi on screen.

"I cast Stephen Lobo to play my brother Parm and he is South Asian, but he is not Sikh Punjabi, yet he did such an incredible job because he may not be a Sikh Punjabi wearing a turban, he may not be gay, but he has so much humanity and he understands. All these nuances are just as relevant as whatever culture and label we have on ourselves and we are living in a time when these labels are so important to people, and they are important, but that’s not all that we are.

"Art is not a democracy, it’s not about well, that’s fair, so we’ll check that off. It’s about telling a story with humanity. If you did not have the perfect actor with the most humanity for that role, it would lie flat.”

Donkeyhead has been released on Netflix in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and has been selected for the upcoming MAMI Mumbai Film Festival as well as the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival in March. It will make its theatrical debut in Canada in Toronto, Vancouver and Saskatchewan first, followed by the rest of Canada.

“It’s really exciting that it gets to go home now," Agam Darshi said. "It’s a bit of a love letter to Canada in a lot of ways, so it’s nice that it’s going to be seen by people there.”

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Netflix MAMI Mumbai Film Festival