When Newsweek deigned to gaze at the nearly two million South Asians living in the U.S. in 2004, writers Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie were showcased. Alongside Sabeer Bhatia, co-founder of Hotmail, and Joseph Patel of MTV News, the magazine couldn’t stop gushing.
“They are novelists, painters, scientists, athletes, inventors, chefs. They are our friends, our neighbors, our bosses, our doctors. Multilingual, able to move easily between the old and new worlds, they bring together the best of the East and the best of the West,” one article crowed.
Filmmakers Madhuri Mohindar and Vaishali Sinha, both originally from Bombay and both recent arrivals to the U.S., don’t necessarily disagree with Newsweek’s assessment, although they would broaden it to include those who are neither prodigies nor professionals. After all, the median household income for Bangladeshis in New York City, according to a Gotham Gazette report published in May 2006, is just $31,000. Sri Lankans are the highest earners, with a median household income of $67,000; Indians and Pakistanis are in the middle, with medians of $62,000 and $49,000, respectively. Clearly, not everyone is a supervisor, physician or award-winning author.
But where are their voices?
For Mohindar and Sinha, they’re in a Jackson Heights beauty parlor, where a broad cross-section of South Asian women—a doctor-turned-housewife; an IT professional; a hair stylist; students; and several stay-at-home moms—gather to discuss arranged versus love marriages, gender roles, out-of-home work, immigration, religion, child rearing and male privilege. Agreement is rare and the women—teenagers to the middle aged, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani—have opinions about everything.
Mohindar and Sinha capture their free-wheeling conversations in a 17-minute documentary, Red Roses, which grew from Mohindar’s thesis for a Media Studies Master’s Degree program at the New School. To make the film she contacted Sinha, with whom she’d previously worked, and together the pair explored the ways class and caste impact South Asian assimilation and family dynamics in the United States.
Mohindar and Sinha took hours of film, visiting the Queens salon twice a week for two months. “It surprised us that many of the women were so candid,” Sinha says. “We thought they’d be meek, shy, not willing to talk about the issues. Quite a few of the women we approached said, ‘No,’ they couldn’t talk because their husbands were waiting, and a few were fearful of going on camera but allowed us to record their voices. Others were happy to speak and were very open.”
All but two of the interviewees are recent immigrants and most worry about losing their South Asian heritage. At the same time, some fantasize about living in both the U.S. and their native countries—six months in each. Others poo-poo the idea. “It’s better here,” says one. “I have much more freedom than someone in India.”
“We followed our dreams to come to America,” another adds. “There are opportunities here. This is the beauty of it. No one asked us to come. We came because we wanted to do something.”
“In India I couldn’t even work in a tea stall. A woman can’t even sell one cup of tea,” a third agrees.
Not so, say others. “There is only work here and nothing else. After being in the U.S. I realize that India is better. When we grow older, there will be nothing for us here.”
While none of the women in the film are named—a significant flaw—Red Roses effectively captures their divergent views about marriage and courtship. Still, there are common denominators: Lesbianism remains unthinkable and all believe that women need men in their domestic lives. What’s more, each assumes that she will get—and stay—married.
“It happened in 10 days,” a 20-something newlywed says of her recently arranged marriage. “It was God’s wish. I had a job at Wal-Mart but it was quite an issue for my husband. My dad was comfortable with it, but my husband was not. If I’d married from my own choice, these things would have been discussed.” In time, she says, she’ll re-introduce the possibility of working, but for now she prefers to sit tight, letting the relationship develop.
“I prefer arranged marriages,” a 17-year-old Bangladeshi woman in a burqa declares. “If it does not work out, you can blame your parents.”
“My sister got married at 18—arranged—and she’s had a hard time. She is going through a lot of stuff,” says another. “I learned from the experience. I believe in education first. Then I’ll find the perfect guy. Maybe I’ll fight for my rights,” she mumbles.
Divorce is a particularly harsh reality for many of these women. “A lot of Indians start with the idea of marriage as sacred,” filmmaker Sinha says. “If they get divorced, the ground shakes. It’s a huge block to get over, that a marriage might not work.”
An unabashed feminist, Sinha is, at 27, both single and childless. But this did not distance her from the interviewees, she says. Although she admits that “I’m so different, more westernized, than these women,” both she and Mohindar push such contrasts aside.
Indeed, by letting the women speak about their concerns, script-free, Red Roses sidesteps the overtly political. Nonetheless, one woman eloquently describes U.S. arrogance toward the rest of the world: “Last year when we visited my father in India, he said something profound,” she begins. “Americans are very intelligent but they don’t know how to have relationships. They think there’s nothing beyond American borders. They think they don’t need to find out about other people. America is self-centered. This is it. But there is a world beyond America.”
Heads nod in agreement before the subject shifts—this time to the ways boys and girls are raised. Dress codes, curfews, and the freedom of association come to the fore. “It’s a double standard,” one burqa-clad teen exclaims. “A guy can bring whomever he wants into the house and they can eat everything in the refrigerator and it’s okay.”
The disparity rankles, and the women express their disgust and outrage. This pleases Sinha. “I’m proud of the fact that Red Roses offers viewers a peek into the South Asian diaspora,” she says. “These are not just sweet women. They are capable, equipped, and smart.”
Sinha hopes this message will resound for those unfamiliar with South Asian immigrants and will introduce American viewers to an often-ignored group within this community. In addition, she adds, “Madhuri and I really want to show the film in India, to use it as a tool for people who are thinking of coming here.”
Shot for under $100 with equipment borrowed from the New School, the film has been shown in Germany and at film festivals in California, Georgia and Missouri. It will also be screened at the South Asian International Film Festival in NYC in early October: http://www.saiff.org/2006/index.php
ContributorEleanor J. Bader