South Asian women at UC Berkeley bridge creativity, culture, careers

Mindy Kaling/Courtesy

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Update 2/3/2022: This article has been updated due to concerns for an individual’s safety

From Riz Ahmed to Hasan Minhaj to Tan France from “Queer Eye,” South Asians in the still overwhelmingly white landscape of American art and entertainment are having a bit of a moment.

A number of recent releases in film and television, from Minhaj’s stand-up special “Homecoming King” to Kumail Nanjiani’s autobiographical rom-com “The Big Sick” highlight South Asian traditions, cultures and community issues, vastly altering existing narratives of South Asian representation on screen. While these projects are all commendable, there’s one cultural caveat that’s increasingly evident: This representation is predominantly told from the male perspective. Sure, stars such as Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra have paved the path for female South Asian representation on screen, but their work has largely bypassed stories of ethnic or cultural identity.

So in a space that already includes very little South Asian representation, how can South Asian female artists make their mark — especially while fighting existing cultural obstacles to pursue creative work in the often demanding, challenging and oftentimes STEM-centric atmosphere of UC Berkeley?

“When I first started thinking of going into film, everyone was sort of hesitant,” said Anjana Iyer, a sophomore intended psychology major and aspiring film director at UC Berkeley. Iyer noted that her decision to transition her career path from medicine to film was challenging, and that her decision was validated only after she demonstrated a clear commitment to filmmaking by finding career training programs outside of academics.

“My closer friends and my family are pretty supportive of it, which is rare to find as an Indian, especially,” Iyer said.

Salwa Meghjee, a junior English major who is active in the campus theater community, noted that the struggle to find accurate and diverse Muslim representation in art while growing up made it difficult for her to find inspiration for her writing.

“There was a lot of fear because Muslims can be represented so poorly in media. There was the fear of ‘no representation (being) better than poor representation,’ ” she said. Meghjee described feeling as if it wasn’t worth being under the intense pressure that she would experience if she decided to tackle representation through her art.

Meghjee also noted the additional pressures she faced in pursuing a creative career as a child of immigrants: “My parents are immigrants — they sacrificed a lot to come to the U.S.,” Meghjee said. “Their parenting is very much focused on survival and thriving. Not so much on doing what you dare to do so much as doing what’s going to keep you alive.”

Then there are the additional challenges that international students face when pursuing creative careers: “I actually studied in a small town in South India (until) my 10th grade, and I didn’t have theater or drama as a course or as an extracurricular opportunity,” said campus junior Veda Baldota. As an international student and aspiring actor studying theater, dance and performance studies, or TDPS, she noted, “If I had been exposed to (theater) earlier, I would have had that experience and opportunity to develop and grow as an actor (sooner).”

Given the existing barriers and stigmas involved with pursuing creative careers or long-term creative projects as a South Asian woman, how can aspiring artists find resources and support systems on campus to help them further their interests?

According to Iyer, student groups provide a partial solution — even if they are far from perfect.

“Initially it was pretty hard to get involved (in filmmaking) because I wasn’t really aware of the resources Berkeley had for film,” Iyer said. “I think this year, it’s been a lot better because I joined more entertainment clubs such as (Business Careers in Entertainment Club) and Cinebears, and the people are really supportive.”

“I think one thing that I would want to see is more Indians in those clubs,” she added.

Baldota, on the other hand, believes she’s found a supportive community through her major. “I would say the TDPS program at Berkeley has definitely helped me with my creative career aspirations,” Baldota said. “Because acting is such a close-knit program, you end up getting to know most of your fellow classmates and teachers really well.”

Meghjee, who founded the campus’s all-female theater company Golden Women, noted that she had frequently run into barriers with the university while running a student organization — and when that organization is dedicated to telling marginalized stories, navigating several logistical technicalities through the university is an impediment to these stories having a large, visible platform.

Nevertheless, Meghjee believes it’s essential for aspiring artists to pursue their passions.

“What we’ve been told about the arts as being an unrealistic career is a lie. The industry is huge. There is so much you can do,” Meghjee said. “To even pursue a creative career is a viable choice and a good choice, and one that opens up a lot of opportunity.”

Baldota feels the same way: “This is the motto I live by — restricting options is like restricting opportunities,” she said. “Just be open-minded and love your art.”

And Iyer’s advice is similar: “Just grab a camera, pick up a sketchbook, sit down at the piano. Whatever type of career in entertainment you want to pursue, because no matter which field you want to go into, you just got to get started,” Iyer said. “It’s so easy to fall in love with the idea of working in that field without actually having tried it.”

While the few South Asian female artists at UC Berkeley may face a number of challenges in pursuing their careers and interests, these individuals have remained committed to their crafts.

“I personally have a belief that everyone has an inner artist — everyone has creativity in them,” Pola said. “Just don’t let it go. This place is so demanding and fairly toxic, and art is one of those things that I truly believe can really ground you.”

Anagha Komaragiri covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.