When Vandana Dake moved to North Carolina 15 years ago, she encountered a lot of misconceptions about her native India. Some people didn’t even know where the country was. These were the pre-“Slumdog Millionaire” days, she says, referring to the popular 2008 film about a Mumbai street kid, and misunderstandings abounded.
“In North Carolina at that point, nobody really knew what Indians were,” Dake says. “Most of the time they thought we were native Indians.”
This has improved a lot over the past 10 years, she says. Indian-Americans are now in medicine, IT, politics and architecture – Dake herself is an award-winning architect with Alliance Architecture in Durham – and this heightened profile has helped eliminate a lot of ignorance.
“People understand Indians more, but we are still not quite there,” Dake says.
So when the opportunity arose to work with filmmaker Steven Channing on “Remarkable Journey,” a documentary about the roots, lives and contributions of Asian Indians in North Carolina, she felt it was an important project and became involved as a co-executive producer. TThe film’s Cary premiere is at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at the Cary Theater, and there are screenings Saturday and April 6. All screenings are free.
One of the points made in “Remarkable Journey” is that there are many Indias: it’s one country that is home to many religions and about 100 languages, with diet, fashion and complexion varying across the subcontinent. Channing wanted to represent this broad variety in his film.
“We interviewed probably, oh golly, at least 70 people,” he says. “It sounds insane, but it’s such a diverse culture and community. To the average American, one Indian is another Indian, but actually they come from one of the most diverse countries on earth.”
“Remarkable Journey” took five years to complete, and even now Channing is working in additional voices. After the March 11 premiere screening in Durham, he realized Muslim Indians could have more representation in the film, so an interview with a Cary Imam is being worked into the documentary in time for the Cary screenings.
Dake has lived the variety that Channing wants portrayed in the film.
“I was born in Delhi, but then my dad got a job in Calcutta, which is on the east side – very, very different,” she says. “They speak Bengali there. They eat a lot of fish and rice, because it’s on the coast and it’s on the banks of the Ganges.”
I was really lucky that I had all these opportunities, because I can speak five to seven Indian languages. It makes us really strong Indians.
This was the state of West Bengal, the people were darker-skinned and Dake remembers the local music and culture. She went to middle school there, and then her dad got work on the west coast, about three hours away from Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. Again, she says, it was a completely different region with different clothing, food and language.
“I was really lucky that I had all these opportunities, because I can speak five to seven Indian languages,” Dake says. “It makes us really strong Indians. Though we have traveled and we have lived in different states, we are still Indians.”
One thing Channing discovered in making “Remarkable Journey,” which covers Indian history and culture, but also the history of Indian immigration specifically in North Carolina, is that when Asian Indians from all over the subcontinent meet each other in the United States they learn about parts of India they likely wouldn’t have known anything about otherwise. One Indian-American contacted Channing to say, “Thank you. I didn’t know what Sikhism was.”
The filmmaker’s own interest in the broader subject of immigration came from his childhood in Brooklyn. Many of his friends were second-generation Jewish and Italian immigrants, and early on he developed a love of different foods and cultures. He’s intrigued by how people make a life for themselves in a new country.
“What are the challenges?” he says, listing off the questions that drive his curiosity. “What are the challenges? What are the language issues? Where do you pray? Where do you buy your groceries?”
A time of violence
If the film was motivated by this kind of curiosity when it was first conceptualized five years ago, it sees release in a different climate, Channing notes.
Since the start of 2017, a number of people of Indian descent have been attacked and even killed in racially motivated violence across the U.S. Two Indian men were shot – one fatally – in an Olathe, Kan., bar in February, which the FBI is investigating as a hate crime; a Sikh man was shot in the arm and told “go back to your own country” as he stood in his own suburban Seattle driveway in early March; also in early March in Port St. Lucie, Fla., a man who wanted to “run the Arabs out of our country” pushed a dumpster against the door of an Indian-owned convenience store and set the contents of the dumpster on fire.
“Indian people are being mistaken for Arabs and shot?” Channing wonders. “The people in the Indian community are very aware of a changed atmosphere among some Americans. A lot of them never thought of themselves as brown-skinned people. Now they very much know that they’re brown-skinned people.”
“I think the violence is because of ignorance and I think it is because of insecurity that people feel,” says Dake. “I think this movie is going to hopefully help change that.”
Indeed, “Remarkable Journey” has already made an impact, according to the feedback Channing has received. Several non-Indian Americans have emailed to say thank you, or to say that they have Indian coworkers who they are going to talk to about what they learned. One child of Indian descent, who had been resistant to taking Hindi lessons, saw the film and then told her mom that she finally understood the importance of learning the language. The film, after all, celebrates both Indian culture from many corners of the subcontinent, but also explores how Asian Indians have made lives for themselves in the U.S.
“This all sounds like fourth-grade social studies, but they are living it,” says Channing. “It’s very real.”
Dake breaks it down to even simpler terms.
“We are Americans, actually,” she says, “living in the U.S.”