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Desi Making Waves

By Rohina Phadnis

Shashwati Talukdar: Championing Social Justice through Film

At just under five feet tall, Shashwati Talukdar is a talented, up-and-coming Indian filmmaker who is bursting with creativity. Exploring everything from cultural identity to the dark side of Bollywood, Talukdar’s films have been screened all over the world, including at the Whitney Museum in New York. Talukdar’s latest film explores a tragic and frequently ignored chapter in Indian history—the oppression of India’s tribal people—and a theatre group, The Budhan Theatre, that is fighting back .

Born in Dehradun in the Indian state Uttaranchal, Talukdar has been interested in theatre and performance since her childhood, directing her first play at the age of 8. “Make believe and acting was always there,” she says. Talukdar’s parents also encouraged her interests. “My parents are very easy-going compared to most people,” she says, “I’ve always had people encourage me.” As she grew up, Talukdar continued to work with theater and also became interested in sculpture. “It seemed like a natural next step from theater to film,” she says. “It seemed like film was the one the place where everything came together.”

Shashwati Talukdar

Talukdar’s drive and creative force led her to pursue a Masters degree in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India and a Masters of Fine Arts in film and media arts at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After completing her MFA degree in 1999, Talukdar worked with Michael Moore, on the BBC show Michael Moore Live. She describes the experience as “larger than life.” Additionally, Talukdar’s films have made her a lauded figure in filmmaking circles.

With the idea that “you don’t have to be five feet [tall] to make a film,” Talukdar named her production company “Four Nine and a Half Pictures” and began making films exploring different genres and subjects. Talukdar’s early films are short and experimental pieces, including My Life as a Poster and Any Number You Want. “I never sort of go out looking for a subject,” Talukdar says, “It has to be a process that’s much more organic…the subject comes to you.”

Talukdar’s more recent films have included forays into the documentary tradition and exemplify her creativity. In Talukdar’s documentary Mahasweta Devi: Witness, Advocate, Writer, Devi, a writer and activist, explains her role as an activist on behalf of India’s tribal people and reads some of her short stories. Henry Schwarz, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, began working with Talukdar when he was an Executive Producer on Mahasweta Devi. Schwarz credits Talukdar’s success to her “crazy imagination…and unbridled artistic spirit.”

The Budhan Theatre was created in 1998 and is named for Budhan Sabar of the Kheria Sabar tribe in West Bengal. In 1998, Sabar was accompanying his wife to a relative’s house, when he was accosted by the police and arrested under suspicion of committing a crime. Sabar was beaten and tortured by the police. Subsequently, Sabar died in police custody. The police maintained that Sabar had committed suicide by hanging himself in his jail cell. Mahasweta Devi was instrumental in arranging an autopsy, which cast doubt on the police's version of the events. A court case ensued and in a landmark judgment, Justice Ruma Pal of the Calcutta High Court declared the police responsible for Sabar's death.

For more information on the Budhan Theatre, visit

The Chharas are just one of the many tribes that were labeled as “criminals” by the British under India’s Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Formerly nomadic forest dwellers, members of individual tribes were forced into settlements, where they were “rehabilitated” with forced labor. When India gained independence in 1947, the rights accorded to the Indian people did not extend to members of these tribes. Finally, in 1952, members of criminal tribes were “denotified.” Nonetheless, members of denotified tribes are still harassed by the police and carry the stigma of their formerly “criminal” designation. Says Talukdar, “It’s a remarkable thing that people are so stigmatized by history.”

Schwarz and Talukdar are currently working together once more, along with director and producer P. Kerim Friedman. Because each project is a creative evolution for Talukdar, her current project naturally evolved from her work on Mahasweta Devi. “The things that you’re thinking about sort of change over time,” she says. While filming her first documentary, Talukdar became familiar with the Budhan Theatre. The founders and actors of the Budhan Theatre are members of one of India's “denotified” tribes, the Chharas. Since 1998, the Budhan Theatre has been performing street plays to draw attention to the oppressed plight of the tribes, who are often viewed as outlaws and suffer police brutality. According to Friedman, “I think [the work of the Budhan Theatre] shows how politically aware they are.” This month, Talukdar and her team will travel to Gujarat, India to film Hooch and Hamlet in Chharanagar, Talukdar’s first full-length documentary. “It just evolved from [her short film Acting Like a Thief],” she says “The project kind of built itself and that’s how most of my projects happen.”

In Gujarat, the team will tour Chharanagar, the Chharas' colony in Ahmedabad and document the work of Dakxin Bajrange and Roxy Gagdekar, founders of the Budhan Theatre. Dakxin and Roxy do not believe that the Chharas are "born criminals" as they are generally known. Instead, they believe that the Chharas are "born actors" and are inherently talented. The Budhan Theatre has been quite visible since its inception and has resulted in Dakxin's arrest for a crime he did not commit. By making Hooch and Hamlet in Chharanagar, Talukdar, Friedman and Schwarz hope to raise awareness about the plight of India's denotified tribes and the groups that are working to end the oppression of the estimated 60 million Indians who are members of these tribes.

Recently, Talukdar has begun exercising her creativity in the Blogosphere as well. “Blogs just allow me to express things. It created a community,” she says about the forum which allows her to keep in touch with fans, as well as other bloggers. “It’s really been a nice addition and I don’t really see it differently from film work,” she says. It’s all part of the same thing.” Blogs have also been instrumental for spreading word about Hooch and Hamlet and raising awareness about the situation in India for denotified tribes.

For the future, Talukdar hopes to turn a screenplay she just finished into a film. Double Vision is a sci-fi thriller with a South Asian American female as the main character. “I’d love to make it,” she says, “You never really see South Asian American women in action films.” Talukdar has tired of the standard arranged-marriage plots. “There’s more to explore,” she says. “People seem to have bigger lives than we see… I never want to make a film with a food item in the name,” she jokes, alluding to the preponderance of films with masala or chai in their titles. “The breadth of what [Talukdar is] capable of is so much bigger than that,” explains Friedman.

For future filmmakers, Talukdar has a few suggestions. Taking classes or making short pieces is a good start, she advises. She adds that pursuing a career in film may not be so easy for South Asian Americans whose parents in American may balk at the idea of their children becoming filmmakers. Talukdar also notes that the path is not always an easy one. When working on film projects, she occasionally encounters difficulty finding funding. She cites “persistence and a ‘somehow it’ll get done’ attitude” as key factors for her success.

“I’ve been very lucky actually,” she says. “Enough people have believed in it. You don’t do this alone. You can [find] an entire community who believes in you.”

Rohina Phadnis is a fourth-year journalism major at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland-College Park.

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