Themes of identity, representation and varied perspectives in a global environment extend to nearly all of independent filmmaker Anuradha Rana’s works, from her completed films counter//balance, Preserves, For the Records, and Ring Laila, to Waiting for Winter (working title), which is currently in post-production and follows four female mushers from ages 12 to 62 and their sled dogs as they train for the annual Copperdog 80/150 Race and explores what it takes to be a musher in this age- and gender-inclusive sport, to Language of Opportunity, her current — and most expansive — project, which stretches from her first home in India, to her current home in the United States, and focuses on the role that the English language plays in an interconnected and globalized, yet increasingly nationalistic, world.
“My work focuses on women, whether they are outsiders or those who are trying on the mantle of where they don’t usually fit,” Rana said. “I like telling stories of people who are in certain situations or about situations themselves that don’t quite feel rooted in tradition.”
Language of Opportunity is set against the backdrop of rising nationalism, both in India and the United States, and follows two families — a middle-class Indian immigrant family in the United States and a working class migrant family in Bengaluru, India — and the impacts and influences of English in their families and communities. But the film is so much more: it explores imperialism, immigration, and assimilation, and attempts to renew the conversation about cultural loss and how language diversity plays a role in forming a more tolerant society, all of which feel particularly urgent at this unnerving moment in human history.
In 2019, Rana, who is also an associate professor of cinema production, directing, and screenwriting in the cinematic arts department and chair of the documentary program at DePaul University, not only received a grant from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) Documentary Fund, but was also a 2019 CAAM Fellow.The generous grant funded six weeks of production work in India, and the year-long fellowship provided Rana with an Asian American mentor — Mridu Chandra, an independent documentary and feature film producer .Both furthered her work on Language of Opportunity in profound ways.
Because Rana and Chandra shared a cultural background, the pair were able to engage deeply — and quickly — on issues of technique and craft. “Conversations with [Mridu] meant that I wasn’t explaining things,” Rana said. “We had a shared understanding of the situations in the film.” And the grant allowed Rana to travel to India to immediately implement the storytelling and technical approaches excavated in their discussions.
Language of Opportunity draws some inspiration from Rana’s personal life experience: Rana was born in New Delhi, India, taught English in India, and immigrated to the United States as a young adult, and she weaves multiple narrative and thematic yarns in the film, from the need to use or learn a particular language in order to be economically prosperous — English, for these two families — to loss of language in three generations because of migration.
“The film explores how language can distance us or bring us closer to our families: both families featured in the film have to learn the ‘local’ language in order to find prosperity,” Rana said. This “is not that big of a deal” for the family who has migrated to the U.S., because like Rana, English, not their mother tongue, is their first language — as it is for most middle-class Indians as India was a British colony. “But in India, the family still feels the need to learn English living in Bangalore, because that’s still what’s going to get them ahead,” she added. “It looks at how language influences economic opportunities, and how nationalism influences and affects that.” In addition, an illuminating throughline that extends from the U.S. to India and back, is how multilingualism and linguistic diversity are crucial for a democracy to survive.
Language of Opportunity will likely take another year of work to complete; Rana had plans to return to India in April for additional production work, but those are currently on hold, due to COVID-19. In the meantime, she devotes herself to her students; teaching has, and continues to, informs her approach to her creative work. “As a teacher, I’m particularly sensitive to issues of representation and the ethics of representation,” she said. “While I’ve always felt the need for authentic stories and strive to make films with that thought in mind, as a teacher it becomes even more important to stress the relevance and imperative to tell stories that are rooted in our experiences and about our cultures and communities.”
To that end, she not only credits CAAM, but also A-doc, a national networking organization, for increasing visibility and support of Asian Americans in the documentary field. “The larger conversation in society right now is about people telling their own stories,” Rana said. “It was so important for me to meet filmmakers who were all taking that ownership. I think it just goes to show how community organizations that provide people with these opportunities are so important.”
Pooja Makhijani is a New Jersey-based writer and editor.
CAAM continues our 40-year tradition of supporting Asian American media makers, even as many of us shelter in place. We may be sheltering in place, but that won’t stop our community from coming together. Our annual Filmmaker Summit will be taking place online. Join us May 14-15 for the CAAM Filmmaker Summit: Work From Home edition.