Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri started out in front of the camera as a young teen model, but now she’s behind it as an award-winning filmmaker. Growing up in Bengal, India, Indrani was always fascinated by the photography and filmmaking. Her experience as a successful, working model became a window of cultural perspective as her career took her all over the world. Perhaps it was this broad exposure to different cities and countries that played into her point of view as a filmmaker. Perhaps it also contributed to her acute social awareness that led to her creation of Shatki Empowerment Education, a school in India that educates children and their mothers. One thing that stands is that it was Indrani’s extraordinary talent and vision that made it all happen.
Her life sounds like something out of a dream. When Indrani was a student at Princeton, her photography was discovered by David Bowie and Iman, which eventually led to her first celebrity shoots, and then a directorial debut of Bowie’s music video “Valentine’s Day.” Along with collaborating with big-named artists, Indrani’s filmmaking scope also embraces social causes close to her own heart. Her award-winning film “Digital Death” raises awareness for AIDS in India and Africa, and also raised over a million dollars for the cause in under a week. She also directed “Girl Rising India” and “Girl Epidemic,” both critically acclaimed and advocating women’s rights in India. Wielding her visionary work like a weapon, Indrani is using her art and resources for social justice and change.
Tell me how you started Shakti Empowerment Education.
I returned to India at age 18, and the paradise I recalled from my childhood was a far cry from the harsh realities of life for millions, especially women. I put all my savings toward creating a school for 300 children, with literacy and vocational training for their mothers. We had no idea how difficult it would be to sustain such a school, with people tearing down its walls when we refused to pay bribes. But it has also been the most rewarding experience seeing generations of students graduate and go on to help others.
When did you first pick up a camera and realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
As a young immigrant, I discovered the value of photos and storytelling when they became my only means of holding on to family and friends that I’d left behind. At 14, I sought an internship at a local studio. They laughed at the skinny girl eager to carry heavy equipment, and suggested I learn from the other side of the camera. Wild extremes of perspectives influenced my views as a filmmaker. As did my love of mythology, magical realism, multicultural and feminist perspectives, and complex tales with deep emotional resonance. Also, harnessing the power of film as a force for social good as well as entertainment.
Have you come across any challenges as a woman filmmaker in a male-dominated field?
It is a great challenge to be a female filmmaker, and an even greater challenge for a woman of color. 94% of films by major studios are directed by men, though 51% of the viewing audience are women. And while the over 60% of the global audience is Asian, Asian filmmakers’ voices are rarely heard in Hollywood. From a business perspective, the model of “niche” straight white male perspectives dominating the global film industry misses huge opportunities and is unsustainable. From a societal perspective, such a narrow group creating the popular mythologies of our times, contributes to the xenophobia, misogyny, and violence with which our culture is afflicted.
With challenges come opportunities for us to overcome. Most importantly I believe that as filmmakers, we have a great responsibility to inspire audiences to create the changes needed in our world. We can no longer count on politicians, nor on corporate interests, with climate change threatening humanity’s very future. We need powerful diverse “outsider” perspectives to inspire the next generations of heroes.
TEXT ZEE CHANG
PHOTOGRAPHY GK REID