Interview with Vibha Gulati, Director of Forbidden
In your director’s statement, I learned that Forbidden was inspired by the true story of your friend who was born and raised in the US and was brutally murdered for falling in love with someone her family did not approve of. With such a sensitive topic, how did you go about getting permission from your friend’s family to tell and honor her story?
I reached out to my friend’s sister and conveyed my interest in honoring her sister’s memory by creating a film based on her life with the mission to raise awareness about honor violence and honor killings in first world nations like the US. At first she was a bit hesitant as she did not want to relive this tragedy and speak in public about her ordeal, which is completely understandable. I assured her nothing of the sort would ever happen and I would not reveal her or her sister’s true name or identity under any circumstance by signing a confidentiality agreement. Furthermore, I fictionalized the characters and the story so it did not disturb her in anyway. I shared every draft of the script with her and only went into production once she gave her final approval.
Films like Forbidden are great tools to ignite social change in order to help women who are dealing with mistreatment caused by the belief that they have ruined their family’s honor. So far, what are some social and/or cultural reactions that you have noticed as a response to the film?
On the whole, I have received positive social and mixed cultural reactions to the film. Caucasian audiences on the whole were shocked and deeply disturbed by the fact that honor violence and honor killings happen so prevalently in the US, UK, and Canada. Some of them even asked what they could do to help eradicate this practice by volunteering their time, signing petitions, and spreading the word in any which way they could. They were compassionate and determined to make a difference in some way. This was truly heartwarming to see. On the other hand, there were some people from the South Asian community who became very defensive. Some people believed I portrayed their community in negative light by highlighting this issue. Others went as far as to claim honor killings do not exist in their communities when in fact 20,000 women are killed in the name of family honor every year from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures . I honestly did not foresee this response. So there was a difference in opinion and I explained my research and this story to them. While some were appeased, others were not. I also had some audience members (regardless of their ethnic/religious background) that believed this practice only exists in the “Islamic world,” which again is false, and I had to explain religion and ethnicity has nothing to do with honor killings. According to reports submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, honor killings have occurred amongst several ethnicities, religions, and diasporas in at least twenty-six countries including the US, Canada, UK, Brazil, Ecuador, Albania, Denmark, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Uganda, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Sweden, and Morocco. In fact, patriarchy and this need for power and control is the root cause of this epidemic and continues to be passed down from generation to generation around the world.
Women who find the strength to challenge sexism are powerful activists, even if at times family members label their actions as dishonoring their families. Looking at Jasleen’s character, how do you capture this heroic resistance?
Jasleen’s character is in a tough position as are most women who stand up to their families. She has been born and raised in a patriarchal environment where the men make the decisions for the women and the children of the household. Although Jasleen has been obedient on all accounts, her heart failed to comply when she met her lover Fahwaz. And so when faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage, she makes the bold decision to elope with her lover rather than succumb to familial pressure, as her life will no longer be hers if she gives in to her father’s wishes. This decision on its own is the mark of heroic resistance. Her unwillingness to leave Fahwaz and to continue on her journey to freedom is the very essence of heroic resistance. If I were to highlight one scene in the film in which this concept is captured in full glory is when Jasleen boldly and bravely chooses her lover over her family’s honor when asked point blank by her father over the phone to choose.
As the director, when trying to capture sociocultural challenges on screen, I am sure you consider how the cast plays a role in delivering the overall significance of the film. How did you help the actors truly understand their characters and do their best work?
There was a lot of preparation on my end to extract the best performances from my actors. I did a lot of research on honor violence and honor killings in the West that I presented to them along with key films, documentaries, and articles that could give them insight on how prevalent this horrific practice actually is and the psychology behind it. In addition, I provided them with extensive backstories for their characters and circumstances in the story so they could get into the skin of their characters. Moreover, I made time to get to know them individually so I could reference situations from their own lives and make the emotions as relatable as possible when approaching a given scene. Furthermore, I held many rehearsals on both a one-on-one and a group basis so I could extract honest and organic performances out of each member of the cast. Honesty and authenticity in every member’s performance was crucial in prepping for Forbidden.
In what ways do you build relationships with your cast and crew members as a director? Do these relationships turn into long-term ones?
I like to get to know my cast and crew on a personal basis and so I spend time with them either one-on-one or in groups. I take interest in learning about their lives, what moves and motivates them, and create a positive environment conducive for work and play. Even after the film is over, I maintain contact and preserve relationships. Most of my work relationships turn into long term ones.
What have been some challenges in directing Forbidden? And, alongside those challenges, what have been the most rewarding moments?
I faced quite a few roadblocks when I decided to embark on this project. Initially, funding the film was very difficult, as investors were reluctant to fund a first-time female filmmaker of color. It took me nearly a year to gather the funds required to make my dream possible. Soon after, I faced a lot of opposition from a group of fundamentalists when word got out about the film. At first it was just hate mail, but soon I received threatening phone calls and even death threats. In the beginning I tried to reason with these individuals. But as time went on, things got worse and worse and I became increasingly worried about my family’s safety. And so I decided to mislead the troublemakers by announcing that I will no longer be making the film… and it worked! Shortly after this news broke out, the hysteria finally began to die down and I was able to go into production secretly and move ahead. I knew when I took up this subject I was bound to face obstacles. Challenges are what strengthens one’s resolve, one’s character, and one’s spirit!
Rewarding moments: Taking the film from script to screen was pure magic. As I reviewed each take meticulously over the monitor and gave notes to my actors, I watched them transform into these complex characters and live each moment with such authenticity. It was just amazing. It was especially gratifying to work with Bollywood stalwart Gulshan Grover. He was sheer brilliance in every scene I crafted for him, and his performance evoked such a strong reaction from my audience that I knew I cast the perfect actor for the part of Papaji (Father). Other rewarding moments for me were the hugs, tears, praises, and the long Q&A sessions with my audiences, where we talked about honor killings at length after watching the film. I learned dark secrets from my audience members. There was great relief on their faces when they were able to share their stories with me and the world. And finally winning three awards for “Best of Fest” at the Festival of Globe (CA, USA), “Best Short Drama” at the Indian Film Festival of Cincinnati (Ohio, USA), and “Best International Film” at the Mizoram International Short Film (India) was like a dream come true.
What is the most important thing you’d like an audience member to take away from watching Forbidden?
Honor killings are not limited to any one religion, ethnicity, culture, socio-economic background, or country. It transcends all of these preconceived notions of what causes honor violence, where it happens, and what communities it happens in. It is a real problem that is prevalent everywhere and must be prevented to save precious lives.
In the Indian motion picture industry, what have your experiences been like as a woman director? How much control do you have over the production space? How do you take control when it’s not given but is still needed?
As a female director, I have faced a multitude of prejudices in both industries. In the American film industry, I have faced both racial and gender prejudices. Production companies tend to hire male film professionals over females. Moreover, they are reluctant to back a female director of color. When I was fundraising for Forbidden, I was rejected by investors for this very reason.
My transition from the American film industry to the Indian film industry was a tough one. In the beginning, many of my Indian colleagues resented me for entering “their territory.” I was referred to as the firang, or the outsider, of the unit. They would crack jokes, talk behind my back, and rarely take direction from me when I was in charge.
In addition, as a woman in a male-dominated profession, my seniors were reluctant to give me responsibilities. They would say, “Ladki hai, nahi sambhal payegi” (She’s a girl, she won’t be able to handle it). That was enough fire to fuel my soul and prove to these parochial-minded people that hard work, determination, and the hunger to learn and grow was all I needed to prove them wrong! I would take on tasks others were reluctant to take on due to their sense of entitlement and macho egos. The same seniors who undermined and doubted my abilities began noticing my work. They began promoting me over my male colleagues. Soon, I made the transition from assistant director to script supervisor and took on work from the biggest production companies in Mumbai.
Could you tell us a little bit about your future projects?
I plan on writing and directing a variety of different kinds of films in the future. I would like to make mainstream Indian films as well as independent international films that have a global appeal. In terms of genre, I am interested in rom-coms, thrillers, dramas, and coming of age stories. I am also interested in exploring the female gaze, so my films will mostly revolve around a potent female protagonist or the female point of view in hopes of changing how women are perceived. At the end of the day, activist filmmaking is what can make a significant change in the world and in people’s minds forever.