So, where in Africa are you from?

If I wasn’t already incredibly frustrated with the American media industry before coming to India, then I am now. I’m going to make a slight generalization here: Indians do not believe that black people live in America— although, black people (slaves) built America.

Let me break this down: people who do not live in America, mostly learn about America from mainstream American media*. I am, and I am not talking about people who are fortunate enough to travel to America.

Clear and simple, the lack of black and brown faces in American media— especially black faces in this case, claims that America is ‘white’ in ignoring people who are just as American as any white person, in that their ancestors played a huge role in building America, and their families had been living on American soil for hundreds of years.

Where does this come from? Hyphenated Americanism, the notion that black people act a certain way, the lack of color-blind casting in the television and film industries, the notion that films/TV shows with more than two black lead actors are only for black people, AND the very, very incorrect assumption that we live in a post-racial society.

Back to India— so, if people around the world are watching American television programs and films, and only white people are being shown on the screen (i.e., Friends), being portrayed as Americans… will people think that black people live in America?

A woman wrote Africa on my receipt, then proceeded to ask me: “Where in Africa are you from?” This jewelry boutique owner lived in Jersey for four years, but probably not in an area where a lot of black people live.

“Are you from South Africa or the West Indies? South Africa.” I wasn’t too offended by this cashier, but I also was because… why do I only have two options of origin— the W.I and Africa? I AM of West Indian descent and I love my culture, but I am American born. I don’t claim being American very much, if at all, but I do claim being a New Yorker.

“Are you from Nigeria?” I was expecting resistance or awe at the fact that I responded “No, I’m from New York,” but this rickshaw driver was well-travelled.

Earlier this year, Shonda Rhimes, the show-runner of two of my favorite television series, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, won a diversity award from the Director’s Guild of America. This is what she said about it: “When I heard I was getting a Diversity Award, I was really, truly, profoundly honored. I began to get calls from VarietyThe Hollywood Reporter, etc., and I was asked to comment on the award. Asked how good I felt about the award. Asked if it made me feel like I was doing the right thing. Asked if it had been a struggle making diversity happen on my cast and crews. While I’m still really and truly profoundly honored to receive this award, but I was also a little pissed off.”

This speaks to the lack of, but growing amount of diversity in mainstream American media. There really shouldn’t have to be an award for diversity, and diversity shouldn’t have to be conscious, because well… we live in a diverse country but not every writer/filmmaker feels the need to portray that in a positive light if at all…

Fascinations with Whiteness

Coming to India, I knew the whole deal about colorism. What is colorism? Colorism is a phenomenon that causes people to preference and give privilege to, lighter/whiter-skinned people. Colorism is rooted in the idea that light or white skin is more beautiful than darker skin tones, and that attributes of kindness go hand in hand with that lighter or whiter skin.

So, there’s this whole thing about skin-bleaching that’s very popular in India and one or two West Indian countries, namely Jamaica. People want to be lighter because they think it’ll make their lives better— open doors for them, make them more attractive, etc. Then there’s skin-lightening in photography, the progression of Rihanna from #teambrownskin** to high yellow, Beyonce from #teambrownskin to #teamredbone.

For God’s sake, I was an entire shade lighter for the Bollywood music video shoot. Whitney, must’ve been three shades lighter— that night she was playing for #teamlightskin.

When we go to major stand-still areas (i.e. Juhu Beach, the Gate of India), some of my classmates always get asked to take a picture. Only once have I been asked to take a picture with someone. Based on the nature of what I am speaking about, it should go without saying that these classmates meet the stereotypical standards of beauty.

There is a fascination with whiteness in this country.

I am not in anyway speaking negatively of India or it’s people. Colorism exists in most places on this earth. There’s extreme colorism in the Caribbean, Brazil, America; any place where there are people of color. It’s something that isn’t really out there. It’s subtle, it has to be observe or noticed and it is a repercussion of colonialism.

In Morocco, I got marriage proposals and I was followed all of the time, because of my dark skin. In Europe, Italian men would always, somehow find me and compliment me on my skin. Skin color plays a different role everywhere in the world that you go, and colorism takes on different forms from country to country.

As I was writing this piece, I started to do some research and discovered that in India there is a lot of racism against Africans in this country. More specifically, Nigerians in particular, are heavily discriminated against by Indians, although millions of Indians live in Nigerian and less than 50,000 Nigerians live in India. I won’t really go into this much.

*When I use the term “media” I am referring to television programs and films.
** #teambrownskin, #teamdarksin, #teamlightskin, #teamredbone, and many other skin-color related hashtags are embodiments of colorism seen in the black community that have been given life via social media (mostly in America).

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about colorism, watch D. Chansin Berry’s documentary Dark Girls

LTOMD (Living the Life of My Dreams)

“Just remember what Christen said— How would you feel if someone came to your house and cried?”*

75% of my volunteer work has something to do with children and education. About 50% of that work is specifically focused on educating girls around the world.

In 2012, after about a year of work, I helped to bring an organization called She’s the First back to Syracuse University’s campus. My closest friend, Makaela Newsome and I worked to do two things with this organization: 1) educate our peers about the importance of girl’s education and, 2) raise money to send our sponsor Mbithe Pius to school in Kenya. Although I am not as involved with She’s the First as I have been in the past, I do work to promote the organization’s events and sometimes volunteer at She’s the First HQ in New York City.

Mumbai, India— In one of my previous blogposts I spoke a little bit about my desire to work with an NGO that focuses on girls’ education specifically. Mark, sadly broke all of my hopes and dreams by informing me that there was an organization like that, but we wouldn’t be working with them. However, Mark then introduced me to Abhyudaya, the NGO that I am now working to produce a documentary about.

In high school, one of my dreams was to become a documentary filmmaker that works work NGOs. This was dually the product of my work in Model UN and my desire to change the world through media. Working on this project is literally me living one of my many dreams.

Every documentary film that I’ve completed, to-date, has been an explorative film— with the exception of one. In this, I mean that I never want to leave my audience thinking one way. I simply open the doors to a topic for them, explore as many sides of the topic as possible, and leave the audience with their own conclusions. Since I have been doing documentary work since 10th grade, I do believe that I’ve grown in trying to achieve this effect. This film on Abhyudaya will be different.

The angle that we are taking in our film, focuses on the girl child. In many developing nations, girls come second because their parents prefer to educate the boy child first. Having a 50%+ participation of girl children as Sitaras, is a goal of Abhyudaya, as was described to us in the first meeting that we had with the NGO. Towards the end of the film we will tie in how the program empowers these girls to become greater than the traditional notion that girl children should not go to school.

Our project first started with a meeting with the students, their mentors, and faculty on Tuesday morning. On Wednesday we divided up into two groups. On Thursday we filmed most of our interviews and some b-roll. Sadly, on Friday I was feeling very unwell and was not able to make it to the school with my team.

I’ll be very honest when I say that this project has been difficult. There are too many modes of communication going on at once. In this, there have been communications problems and there has been a disconnect between us filmmakers and the NGO about the vision and purpose of our film. However, we are working through it and are confident that our film will be great.

On Saturday, Karoline and Erika will go to Abhyudaya’s graduation and get some more b-roll. In the afternoon we will wrap shooting with a visit to the slum areas where our two girl subjects live.


*Advice from my best friend on our visit to the slums on Saturday.

Wait– that was the punch line!

On Saturday night we attended a Comedy Show at Blue Frog, in “Town” presented by Comedy Central and the Comedy Store.

I wouldn’t really say that I am very familiar with comedy, because I’m not. However, I do know that one of the best ways to get insight into a culture, is to attend a comedy show. Comedians say everything that people don’t want to say. They expose truths, take risky jabs at serious topics and entertain, all at the same damn time.

In sum, the comedy show that we attended at Blue Frog was very funny. However, we missed a lot of the punch lines because they were in Hindi… I, personally, just kind of wasn’t sure what was going on because the comedians were speaking Hinglish, and since they speak English so quickly, I wasn’t sure if some things were being spoken in Hindi or English. Even so, we still seemed to find most things to be pretty funny— whether or not they were in Hindi, English or Hinglish. I think that part of this is due to the fact that at the time of attending the show, we’d already been in Mumbai for an entire week.

I used to think that I needed just 24 hours to be able to understand a city on a basic level, but I see that I was indeed very wrong. The comedy show definitely enhanced my understanding of Mumbai.

On Sunday, we went to Juhu Beach in Bandra. I didn’t get in the water because it was a dark brown color. I thought that Charlotte Beach in Rochester, NY was bad… but Juhu beach topped my personal Worst Beaches in the World list. The water was a really dirty brown and there was garbage everywhere. My snobby West Indian attitude wouldn’t even allow me to get close to the water– I say this because the water in the Caribbean is crystal clear. However, Juhu beach wasn’t THAT bad. The little eating places were really cute and nice, but I was frightened about getting sick from the food— which I did end up getting slightly sick from. So, maybe it kind of was…

We also did a little bit of shopping at Fab India, which was incredibly amazing, although I wasn’t able to find any kind of prints that I liked. Then, we got lunch at a very cool multi-floor, restaurant called Candie’s that served a more Western take on Indian food. I didn’t really like it but a lot of my peers did… to each his own!

In the late evening, I strengthened my haggling technique tenfold at Hill Road Market. I bought lots of bangles, and two beautiful pairs of shoes for myself and a family member (either my mother or my sister— I haven’t decided yet). Overall, this past weekend was pretty chill and exciting!

“Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself” Pt. 2

The shooting day (night) went a little like this: “This top is too small.” “These sequins are digging into my skin.” “Why do bracelets only come in one size?” “Why does my make up make me look a shade lighter?” “So, pretty much there aren’t any dark skin actors in India? Kay.” “I wasn’t here for the changes in choreo…” “It’s only 10 PM? But I’m SO tired!” “Can we take a nap? Just five minutes.” “About this water in the ground… is it okay to put my feet in?” “Where did I put my sunglasses?” “Electrolytes or water?” “Yup, I’m an Indian video vixen.” “Can we retake that shot? I didn’t move my right hand fast enough in that last verse?” “We’re done?! Okay, can I see the footage and reevaluate myself?”

I wanted SO badly to be on the other side of the camera yet I wasn’t. I kept messing up my dance steps, and everything was SUPER exhausting– from getting my makeup redone to having to get my outfit fixed… I was over all of it 30 minutes in.

The shoot was fun though! It was exciting to see how Indian filmmaking works in terms of how the shots are taken in comparison to my experiences being on professional sets throughout high school and college. Also, the language that was used by Sanjvit, Som and the other leads on this project in trying into instruct us, was a lesson in of itself. It was kind of like “we’re speaking English to you but not your kind of English, our kind of English.”

All in all, I learned one thing: dancing is fun but I do NOT want to be in front of the camera. I constantly wanted to be apart of the creative decisions that were happening but it broke my heart to not be able to do that. This was a very good lesson in standing back, and experiencing production from the other side of the camera, which is just as valuable or even more valuable than if we would’ve filmed the project ourselves.

Now, back to Dance and I… We’ve bonded and our relationship has been pure love since our reunification. But, are Dance and I still frenemies? Only time will tell.

“Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself…

My name is dance! OH, D-to-the-A-to-the-NCE”

On Wednesday, I was reintroduced to a long lost frenemy; her name is dance. In high school I took two dance classes: a general dance class and a class that featured jazz, pop and caribbean dances. Since then, I haven’t really taken any dance classes, with the exception of Zumba which is but isn’t dance.

Dance and I are frenemies. Dance has always been the friendliest to me, or maybe I should say that I haven’t been the friendliest to dance. When I took those dance classes in high school and middle school, I simply did it to get out of gym. This was the first problem.
I didn’t have any motivation or desire to learn. I also wasn’t committed to the craft. I basically used dance to fulfill a requirement in order to graduate high school.

The second problem is that dance wasn’t easy— it was barely even fun. Essentially, the first problem created the second problem. My lack of dedication disallowed me to give 110%, which is the real fun in dancing. Friends in these classes would always mock me because it wasn’t easy for me to get into the dances (aka I was stiff when I had no reason to be). So, dance and I have had a love-hate relationship. More of a love relationship in college when dancing and partying became one, but that’s a story for another day.

Dance and I met again when we (#subollywood2014) began rehearsing for our first project– the Bollywood item number.*

In only 3 hours of practice…we learned roughly 3 minutes of dance choreo (which I personally believe is impressive for 12 film students) we dripped in sweat, we hurt, we begun to smell, we worked and worked and worked and we loved and accomplished.

I fell in love.

Bollywood dance is both beautiful and amazing. It’s fun, energetic and lively. It’s unlike any kind of dance that I’ve ever experienced and I am eternally grateful that I’ll pack today’s dance moves into my bag of amazing life experiences.

For the first time, I am excited to learn more about dance. There’s a desire inside of me burning so passionately that I am compelled to spend hours watching and studying Bollywood dance choreography. To say the least, I’ve already downloaded the mp3 file of the song that we’re performing to in the item number, onto my iPod.

TODAY (Thursday) we continued to practice for the big presentation on Friday. However, today was different. It wasn’t only us 12 film students… we were joined by four amazing Indian Bollywood dancer, which, if you haven’t already guessed, is intimidating.

Now that dance and I have returned to the loving part of our relationship, I was very confident. The one challenge that I am facing is the teaching style of the dance instructor. Don’t get me wrong, Sanjvi, is AMAZING— he’s been incredibly patient (we’re film students) and fully dedicated to us. BUT I’m used to learning dance steps, step-by-step, always using counts. This isn’t the way that we’ve learned the choreo, which, in turn, has slightly hindered my body’s comprehension of the dance moves. Regardless— I’m up for the challenge! In fact, I’m SOOO up for the challenge that I decided to volunteer for the hardcore dance sections.**

Right now it’s a little after 11:30 PM on Wednesday night, and in this moment my confidence and motivation are at a high. I guess they have to be because tomorrow is the BIG DAY. At 2:30 PM we’ll start rehearsing for about an hour. A few hours ago I bought new shoes (to most likely ruin while dancing), some spandex shorts (to wear under my costume) and some other for-the-sheer-pleasure-of-shopping items.

Biggest concern: being able to remain highly energetic from 6 PM tomorrow until 6 AM on Saturday morning. Will we survive? Will we ever be able to show our faces in Bollywood again? Only time will tell…stay tuned!

*Item number: Bollywood or Hindi Cinema term for music video.
**Full commitment and participation in the hardcore dance sections, while the camera is rolling, is pending.


A Prayer to the Traffic Gods

There’s something about every place that I’ve travelled to that never makes sense to me.

In Rome, it was the cobblestone, because it’s 2014! In London, it was pasta sauce, because my American senses contradict with food that isn’t chemically processed, aka food that only lasts 3 days (b/c it’s supposed to). In Mumbai it’s traffic, because I’m practically allergic to it.

You’ve never seen anything until you’ve seen traffic in Mumbai. Traffic laws/rules are practically inexistent. I’m not sure that if I chose to be adventurous enough to try to drive in Mumbai, that I could even make it 10 feet in a car. Not to mention, they drive on the other side of the road, which in my mind, is a problem in of itself.

Every time we travel these thoughts bounce back and forth in my mind: “Why are the cars practically touching each other?” “If you’re allowing me to walk in front of your car, why are you still driving? Take your foot off the gas!” “Do pedestrians have any rights here?” “So, is this gonna be a car accident or na?” (but it never is!) “Pretty sure that children here grow up riding motorcycles, nbd.” “I think I’m going to die. I’ll just go to sleep before I worry myself to death– that is, if the traffic doesn’t kill me first.”

In Mumbai (I’m not sure if these vehicles also exist in other parts of India) there’s a taxi-like vehicle called a “rickshaw.” In my mind, it’s an engine-powered, adult-version of the round-topped yellow and red cars that we’d ride around in as children. It’s described on Wikipedia as a “two or three-wheeled passenger cart.”  Nothing about less-than-four-wheels sounds safe to me, but it is what it is.

Today is going to be the last day that we’ll take a bus from Sai Palace Hotel to Whistling Woods. We’re supposed to learn the route from Sai Palace to WW, so that we don’t get ripped off when we take the rickshaw, from tomorrow onward. I’m probably the least bit excited about it– not because I don’t trust my sense of direction, which is actually really great, but because I’m scared of the traffic. Riding the rickshaw is inevitable and I wish that it wasn’t.

Welp, here’s to traveling mercies and building traffic tolerances!


In the Height of Culture Shock

I can’t believe that today is the third day that I’ve woken up in Mumbai. It’s been difficult. It’s very hot and the heat makes me very tired, and grumpy. Jet lag has yet to wear off, which means that I keep waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning, unable to go back to sleep. Otherwise, things have been great!

I’ve been Incredibly surprised by the seamless living areas. In all of the cities and countries that I’ve visited, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds have lived in distinctly different areas, i.e. Upper West Side of NYC = rich people, Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn = poor people. However, in Mumbai people live in the streets or in shacks, very close to homes where people who are much more wealthy live.

I’ve constantly been thinking about one of the causes that I am very passionate about— girls’ education. A lot of the students that I’ve seen since I’ve been here have been male, which is in opposition of American school systems which are dominated by girls or have a balance in student gender. Back to the issue of girls’ education— in a documentary that I watched, Girl Rising, one of the most heartbreaking stories was about a girl named Ruksana who goes lives on the streets of Kolkata, India. Also, the non-profit that I volunteer with, She’s the First, sponsors young girls to go to school in India. Needless to say, during my short time here, this has been at the forefront of my mind, and I hope that the NGO that I get to work with aligns with my interest in girls’ education.

Anyhow, slowly, but surely, I am adjusting and, am excited to meet the person that I will become after our three weeks here.

DAY 1: Welcome to Mumbai!

On Sunday, we visited Whistling Woods International, our host school for these next three weeks. We were lucky enough to arrive in the midst of Celebrating Cinema, a two-day event that Whistling Woods was hosting on campus, featuring multiple workshops and film screenings. It was a nice mini-immersion into Bollywood/Indian cinema.

We participated in three of the events: the Song picturization workshop, the screening of Disney/YouTV’s documentary 100 Years of Indian Cinema and a Bollywood dance workshop.

The 100 Years of Indian Cinema documentary, though it wasn’t the greatest information-wise, stuck out to me. I learned a lot from the reels of Bollywood movies about how Indian cinema is structured: very similar story lines in many of the movies and a prevalence of song and dance.

The prevalence of song and dance in Indian movies, and how Bollywood songs are the music industry in India, reminded me of Caribbean music— specifically Barbados’ music industry. Soca and calypso, two of the main Caribbean genres of music, are developed surrounding carnival, paralleling the development of music in India being rooted in Indian films.

DAY 2: Shopping!

It was great to be able to get out of the hotel and do some shopping in Lokhawndwala Markey. This was our first day IN Mumbai. We  were able to leave the hotel and explore beyond the immediate areas that we will mostly be in (Whistling Woods in Film City and near our hotel, Sai Palace Hotel) for the next three weeks.

On our mini-field trip, I learned 1 VERY important lesson: stay hydrated! I’d only brought one bottle of water for the day, which was a major mistake because I began to feel like I was becoming dehydrated.

We completed my favorite task that I like to complete when traveling— looking at the McDonald’s menu! I really believe that the food options on McDonald’s menus from country to country reflect the respective country’s food culture and traditions. I really think that contrasting and comparing food items from one country to another gives one a perspective that can’t be incorporated into either a lecture or a text-book.

We also met, Hindi film director Anurag Kashyap and line-producer Harish Amin. We briefly met with Anurag but Harish gave us a short, but very inspiration speech about going out into the world and pursuing our dreams in filmmaking.

After briefly meeting these individuals, we visited a small souvenir shop called Tribal Route. I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t feel like anything screamed “India!” to me, and that it surely wouldn’t scream “India!” to my friends and family. This really opened my eyes to my personal, westernized perception of India and the East. All of the things that were in that shop were very “India!”, but I couldn’t bring myself to accept that.

DAY 3: First Day of Class!

My favorite part about studying abroad is that you are constantly and consciously learning, inside and outside of class. Before we even made it to class, we were given a short lesson in Hindi, tried and learned about new foods and memorized the route from our hotel to school (in prep for my first ride in a rickshaw— one that I am very nervous about).

Once we arrived at Whistling Woods, the day started with a beautiful yoga class. It made me feel refreshed and on top of the world. I am definitely looking forward to doing yoga every for the rest of the time that I am here.

For the rest of the day, we had three lectures from Somnath Sen (director/professor), Anjun Rajabali (screenwriter/instructor) and Salim Arif (production designer), all industry professionals in Bollywood. The three lectures covered song and dance in Bollywood movies, Indian narratology, Indian history, the theories and work of Aristotle, Freud, Plato, screenwriting and storytelling. A lot of the stuff that we learned about, I’d already been introduced to. However, it’s always great to expand and expound upon knowledge that one already has.

These past three days have been exciting, and quite frankly the time is going by way too quickly!