Becoming a filmmaker is not an easy task when you eradicate yourself from your home and move abroad. Prathana Mohan, granddaughter of renowned composer MS Vishwanathan, made her US debut in the US with her second film ‘Christmas is Canceled’, which was released on Amazon Prime Video last December. The film stars Janel Parish, Dermot Mulroney and Haley Orantia in the lead roles. Prayer’s debut film Miss Education of Bindu was critically acclaimed for the content it portrayed and the US-based director is ready to make her dream of becoming a full – time director come true. Prayer shared her experience as an Indian filmmaker in the US, the hardships she faced and her journey with indianexpress.com.
Can you tell us about your Indian origins and your early influences in filmmaking?
I come from a cine family from Chennai in South India. Our grandfather was MS Vishwanathan. The influence of movies was very high in my childhood. I have clearly watched movies since my childhood days and it was a very transformative experience. Going to the movies in India is a different experience not seen anywhere else in the world. I went to recordings of our grandfather who was a big name in the South Indian film industry. So, it was fascinating to see how people reacted to him and how they talked about his music that affected their lives on different levels. His songs were used as lullabies, songs like first love, marriage, death … I understand how transformative the movie is and I really want to be a part of it. In my childhood I used to watch movies and act for others throughout the movie (laughs). When I look back, I think more than acting and singing, I was excited about when I told the story and how people reacted. I was in India at a time when it was hard to watch foreign movies; We had to go to vcd stores and literally beg them to track our favorite foreign movies.
What were your initial obstacles as a filmmaker in the US?
I came to the US in the early 2000s and this is where I became a filmmaker. Obviously, there were some obstacles I encountered. I had no family or friends when I got here. I came here as a graduate student. Conditions would have been different if I had stayed in India longer. It was easy to make movies there because of my grandfather’s name. But I really wanted a formal education in film making, which was hard to find in India at that time. The process (filmmaking) in India is very different, it is organic in many ways. A lot of people do different things and the characters are not clearly defined, again this is what I’m talking about in the early 2000s. I’m sure it’s different now. So, I discovered the longest film program I could do at Chapman University in California. Entering the film industry in a foreign country unknown to me, my main challenges are to support myself and live on my own. The first thing that took so long for my first film to materialize was that I was looking for a job to put a roof over my head first. Those are my challenges, I am a very supportive family in India and I am blessed to have my own family here.
– Amazon Prime Video UK (primevideouk) December 23, 2021
‘How is’ Christmas is Canceled ‘?’
They took me to direct that movie. I was given a movie script in March 2021. We were given three weeks to prepare and shoot the film in 16 days. Here’s how it is done. I never thought I would make a Christmas movie, but it was an extraordinary Christmas movie. It’s funny and the comedy is more physical. I read the script and I wanted to do it.
Do you have friends who work in Indian cinema? Are you following the developments in Indian cinema?
My cinematographer is Danny Sanchez- Lopez Spanish, he has worked on the acclaimed Indian film Mahanadi and some other Indian films. He came to my wedding in India in 2010. The two of us went to college together, he was the DOP for my first film and helmed cameras for all my college short films. It is really interesting to know his experience in the Indian film industry as a foreigner. I also have friends who are costume designers in Indian cinema, we talk occasionally. But, our worlds are so different and it is good to know the developments taking place in the film industry at home, they now have this certification for intimacy coordinators, which are positive steps.
Assuming that the protagonist of your first film ‘Miseduction of Bindu’ is an Indian immigrant to America, will your recognition as an Indian filmmaker in the US influence your films?
When I came here, I did not see stories being told about Indians because I came from India where my identity is definitely represented. When I came here, it was amazing because even though it is a very multicultural country, the characters are not diverse. I came here at a time when that kind of change, the need for more diverse representation was coming to the fore. Also for the first time in my life I fell into the minority, myself ‘another’. And it opened my eyes to think it was ‘something else’. I never came here with that feeling of an outsider to influence my thought process, but it has now become a place rooted in my stories. Now, more than ever, I want to tell stories about South Asian experiences, not just in India, but also to Native Indians with Indian experiences abroad. ‘Mis Education of Bindu’, which tells the story of an Indian woman who immigrated to the US, came as no surprise after living in the US as a South Indian for 10-11 years.
What are you trying to represent through your films as a director?
It really depends on what the story is. I like to do stories with interesting female lead characters. I do not mean perfect women, but different women representing different minorities. As a director I want my films to be entertaining, entertaining, thought-provoking and provocative.
What is the difference if you are a filmmaker, especially a woman in India? Are the challenges any different?
As a female filmmaker, I think the struggle is the same everywhere. It takes a lot of effort to get people to take you seriously. You have to prove yourself too much to get a chance at yourself. It was a very difficult journey for me to find my own way in the industry. As a woman you must not only be assertive about your thoughts, but also be willing to listen to what others have to say. Fortunately, I’m lucky to be able to develop a creative environment where people listen to your ideas, to collaborate creatively, so that my work can thrive.
Are you planning to make films based on stories in India?
Yes, my next two projects are in India.
What level do you want to rise to as a filmmaker?
I want to be a full-fledged director. Right now, I am doing a regular job to meet my financial needs and directing movies instead of that regular job. That would be the first level I want to be. Then I want to work with widely watched movies, high budget projects, interesting staff and actors