Working through grief and regret as an immigrant filmmaker

“But in all of the sadness, when you’re feeling that your heart is empty, and lacking, you’ve got to remember that grief isn’t the absence of love. Grief is the proof that love is still there.

Tessa Shaffer, Heaven Has No Regrets

In September 2017, I lost my grandfather, my nana, to cancer. 

I was living and working in Canada at the time. His last months were afflicted with agony.

I had a plane ticket to travel to India, but I was stranded in Vancouver due to immigration delays on my work visa. Without my passport in hand, I was forbidden to leave the country. 

On the day that I couldn’t board my flight, he passed away. I felt defeated and just lay in my bed aimlessly after the call came from my mother with the news. I still remember the sorrow and pain in her voice. I was speechless for a few minutes and then I cried the loudest I ever had.

I scrolled back to my WhatsApp chat with Nana, reading his words and conjuring up his voice in my head. My uncle told me that some of Nana’s last words were about me before they rushed him to the hospital. 

Photo: Production still from Nana

So far away from home and my family, I needed an outlet for my grief and regret. I made an appointment for a tattoo which would read, “Okay beta, B Happy.” These were his last words to me on WhatsApp. 

My next obvious step on the path to healing was film — as a producer and content creator, storytelling is so essential to how I process the world around me and how I stay connected with my culture. 

Like a vision board or scrapbook, films help me archive my memories or manifest a life that I envision for myself. I wrote a one-page story concept a couple months later in November and sent it to my producer and best friend, Gowri Shenoy, who owns and runs a boutique content strategy agency, Mumbai. 

Photo: Production still from Nana

A year passed by, during which I produced multiple short films for filmmaker friends in Vancouver, but I was missing a personal connection to these projects. 

In November 2018, I mustered the courage to write a script in Hindi and share it with producers Gowri Shenoy and Anupama Sirsalewala. By then, I had a plan to travel to Mumbai in February 2019 for a family wedding, and I decided to take a few days to capture this story on camera. 

And so, the team in India embarked on a journey to location hunt, cast actors, find crew equipment and catering while I consulted and worked on bettering the script after my day job in Vancouver. 

In Mumbai, we had several hiccups, like for any creative project. Crew members quit, our lead actor had a personal family emergency two days before the shoot, the local police almost confiscated our camera during guerrilla shot on the street, and so on. 

But today, after all of that, we have a film that’s ready to share. 

As an artist, filmmaker, and storyteller, I strongly encourage my fellow creators to not underestimate the power of their personal loss. I’ve come closer to stories of my culture in the process of working through my grief and regret. 

As immigrants we try hard to assimilate which sometimes may lead to losing the essence of your heritage and what really makes you. I’ve started to identify that my authenticity lies in the culture I was raised in and as I continue to adopt a new nation and a new people, my stories will evolve and become a mix of the past and present.

Nana will make its world premiere at the 10th anniversary of the Chicago South Asian Film Festival 2019.

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