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Indian Americans are succeeding in film, media and journalism

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NEW DELHI: Doing something off the beat was the primary theme of the second annual intercollegiate South Asian Arts Festival (SAAF) in Washington with renowned actor Omi Vaidya and Indira Somani.

The meet over the weekend presented an informative, inspiring, invigorating discussion on what it means to tread off the beaten path for many Indian-Americans and pursue careers in film, media and journalism.  

Both Vaidya who catapulted to fame for his performance as Chatur Ramalingam in the 2009 Bollywood blockbuster ‘3 Idiots’; and Somani, an award-winning independent producer and director of documentaries, were refreshingly candid and struck a chord with the audience comprising mainly of undergraduate students at Howard University. 

Vaidya, who graduated with honors from New York University Film School admitted, “I am doing something that is a risk, is different, is not a traditional field and that takes a lot of courage, not only for me, but for everybody that supports me as well!”

Fortunately for him, his family has always been “very supportive”, he said. “I don’t think that I would have been able to achieve what I have so far without their help.”  Vaidya’s mother aspired to be a Bollywood actress but could not pursue a career in acting due to family pressure. She has realized her dreams through her son who dotes on her. Vaidya’s father and brother are both doctors, a profession well favoured by Indian-Americans. “Family support was really critical,” the actor underscored. “I’m doing it on my own now and it’s not easy,” he said.

Encouragement from his family also meant he never had to deal with social pressure from the Indian community for choosing a career in acting. “That was there,” he recalled. “But, I was oblivious to it. I thought, my family is fine with it. I was proud of what I was doing, and I still am. I have so many more relations now than before,” he quipped.  

For Somani, family support came much later, when she was in her mid 20s and working as a television news producer for CNBC and WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington, DC. “In the initial years, I did feel that I have to prove myself,” she told the audience. “My mom tells me that my dad wasn’t speaking to me for a long time when I pursued my Masters in Journalism. I don’t remember much about our non-speaking days. But, I do know that I had to apply on my own, get financial aid on my own. I had absolutely no assistance from my parents.”  

Somani grew up in a small town in Springfield, Illinois. She always had a penchant for writing and began her career by covering the Indian diaspora. “My first job in this industry was for $17,000 a year and I had student loans to repay,” she recalled. “It was the reality of what they had told us in Journalism School - to start out in a small market, make your mistakes in a small market and work your way up. By the time you get to a place like DC or New York, you don’t want to be making mistakes in a market with size.”  

It is noteworthy that the driving forces behind the festival were all undergraduate students at American University - Madhavi Reddi, Anuj Gupta, Brad Korten and Palak Bhatnagar. It goes to their credit that they managed to juxtapose two interesting fields - film and journalism - in a heady discussion which kept the audience engrossed. 

Vaidya recounted, “When I was in film school, they didn’t teach us that you’re not going to get jobs or have to work free forever. That was really disturbing, a shock. A lot of my friends left film and became lawyers and doctors. They couldn’t deal with it and maybe didn’t have the support. I did have the support and I was versatile in my skills. You know me as an actor. But, I am a very seasoned editor,” he told the audience.  

In the initial stages of his career, Vaidya used his Indian connections to act in crossover films. “You will never see any of those films. They were terrible,” he said, with a refreshing candor. “But, I kept saying yes. I was open to anything. I just wanted to be there and do it. In some ways, I still am. I am always willing. If there is something to explore that I haven’t seen, let’s give it a try. I think a lot of it is attitude. It’s very easy to get discouraged. Sometimes, a break will come when you least expect it. Keep pushing, keep trying. You never know when opportunity knocks. It may not be the door you want to get in, but it could lead to that other door.”  

During the course of the event, short clips were shown from Somani’s documentary, ‘Crossing Lines’, and Vaidya’s roles in ‘3 Idiots’ and a documentary, ‘Big in Bollywood’, made by his friends which chronicles his fairy-tale success following the release of ‘3 Idiots’

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