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Rough Cut: India: Calcutta Calling
Behind the Lens: Interview with Sasha Khokha

The filmmaker talks about her own family's adoption experience and growing up as an Indian American.

Describe how you found this story and why you decided to pursue it for your thesis at U.C. Berkeley.

I knew I wanted to make a film about the Indian American experience. I grew up never seeing my own experience reflected on film, and I wanted to add to the small but growing body of work produced by young Indian American filmmakers.

Before I was born, my parents struggled for several years to conceive a child. My father, who immigrated to the United States from New Delhi, and my mother, an Irish American who spent two years in the Peace Corps in Mangalore, decided to adopt from India. In 1972, my father visited Mother Theresa's orphanage to inquire about adopting a baby girl. When he returned to his parents' house in Delhi, my mother was on the phone, telling him to come back to California. She had just discovered I was on the way.

Although they never adopted a daughter from India, my parents continued to support Indian orphanages that sheltered and educated abandoned girls. I wondered how some of these girls would have adjusted if adopted into families like mine or even families with no connection to Indian culture.

Meanwhile, I became fascinated with the growing trend of white families bringing their adopted children to visit their birth countries. The Ties Program, based in Wisconsin, runs dozens of these package tours.

One of the strong points of the film is the intimate access viewers have to the girls' homes in America and on their trip. How did you go about finding these particular girls and what hurdles did you have to cross, if any, to get them to agree to your following them?

I worked with the Ties Program to identify families who were planning on going to India on the December 2003 tour. I decided to focus on Minnesota because four families there had signed up for the trip. And with its open, snowy prairies and a mostly white Protestant population, what could be more opposite to India than the American heartland?

The girls were very open to having me come and meet them. I think they were excited to meet someone of Indian background. I think it was perhaps surprising or confusing when they met me, a much lighter-skinned and blue-eyed person of Indian heritage. But they were really open to talking with me, as were their families for the most part.

The hard part came once we got to India -- everyone was exhausted and emotional at various points during the two-week-long trip. The families decided not to let us film any sessions with the social workers chaperoning the trip and asked us to avoid filming the girls during particularly emotional moments, like visiting the orphanage. That was frustrating for me as a filmmaker, but in the end, I don't think we really needed to see the girls crying. The dusty rooms and abandoned photos on the ground were just as powerful. And so were the sessions we arranged in the hotel room to hear the girls share their reflections -- even though we had to squeeze these interviews in between visits to temples and snake charmers.

Do you know how many Indian girls are adopted in America every year? Are boys ever adopted?

These girls are among a growing number of international adoptees -- particularly girls - brought to the United States from countries such as India and China over the last two decades. In America, there are more than 1.5 million children who are international adoptees. Many of these children have been adopted by a multiracial family. During the 1980s and 1990s, airplanes with malnourished Indian baby girls -- two to a wicker basket - landed regularly at the Minneapolis airport. It is much more common for girls to be adopted than boys, largely because of long-standing traditional practices, like dowry, that make girls an economic liability for poor families.

Since the time when the girls in Calcutta Calling were adopted, India has changed its laws to restrict foreign adoptions unless the adoptive parents are of Indian heritage.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when the girls get their noses pierced in solidarity as a symbol of their newfound Indian pride. And they have it done - appropriately for Americans -- in a mall. What other ways not shown in the film did you see the girls connect as Indian Americans?

The girls met and bonded in India -- and I think more of their connection was forged around being Americans in India. When they returned to Minnesota, they were able to sort through the trip together. I think that in large part, their sharing was based on the friendship they developed. They stayed in touch and saw each other fairly regularly. Anisha's and Kaylan's parents drove into Minneapolis for Indian food with Lizzie's parents. And Anisha and Kaylan decided to attend college together in South Dakota the following year.

How did your background as an Indian American help you recognize these moments?

When I first contacted the girls about the project, they were enthusiastic about meeting me -- a young Indian American woman. But our differences were quick to surface. I am light-skinned on the outside, but have grown up feeling Indian on the inside. These girls have felt isolated by their skin color, but feel like Swedish Lutherans on the inside.

I had been to India many times, always visiting family, so I knew a part of India they would never see on a trip largely geared toward tourism and sightseeing. But I had also been to most of the places on the tour and so was able to maintain a certain distance. Instead of focusing on the sites as a first-time visitor, I could focus more on the girls and their reactions to what they were seeing.

I could identify with the girls' sense of awe and wonder at coming to India -- and their disgust and disappointment at the poverty and other aspects of Indian culture they could not understand. India has been exotified in the American imagination and popular culture -- yoga, curry, Hari Krishnas. But it's a very different thing to see it firsthand and try to figure out how it's a part of you -- especially when you want so badly to connect to it.

Brent McDonald, who was the lead camera operator in India, was actually able to connect with the girls and their families at a level I couldn't access. He was young and handsome, which helped the girls open up to him. And he was raised in rural Illinois, so he had an understanding of their experience. He was also one of very few men on the trip and so was able to connect with the fathers and gain their trust.

When and how did you bond with your Indian heritage? Did you ever have a life-changing trip to India like these girls that helped you understand your identity as an Indian American?

I have been traveling to India since I was a baby, and my aunts and uncles were an important presence in my life -- especially once they migrated to Los Angeles. When I was a small child, my grandfather used to write me stories from the Ramayana in letters sent from Delhi, like installments of an exciting serial. I always knew that I had Indian heritage - and that my father was from India. But my mother's Irish American heritage was equally strong in my life. We celebrated both Christmas and Diwali, the festival of lights. But I didn't grow up speaking Punjabi or Hindi, which shut me out from many conversations at family gatherings.

When I was 14 years old, I traveled with my father and brother to India. In my journal, I made a list of "weird things" I couldn't understand about India. Poverty was No. 1 on the list. Every time we passed a beggar, my father and grandfather would shoo them away and urge us to pass quickly. One afternoon, a young teenage woman -- not much older than I was - approached with a young baby in her arms. She gripped my arm and looked me in the eye, asking firmly for money. I felt confused and guilty -- and aware of the stark differences between us. I was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, and her feet were bare under her torn sari. When I returned to California, I wrote an article for my school newspaper about the encounter. A parent of a classmate was a television news producer. He read the article and encouraged me to pursue a career in journalism.

You work in radio now, but studied documentary film at U.C. Berkeley. Why the switch? Do you think this story could have been done as a radio piece?

Radio and documentary film are both powerful tools for telling stories. Both forms use real voices and elements recorded on-scene. My experience with each medium strengthens my work. I bring a special attention to sound in my work as a filmmaker. And I try to bring strong visual writing to my radio pieces. This piece could have been a radio documentary, but it would have told a different tale -- and it would have missed the strong visual contrast between India and Minnesota. Visuals are a strong part of this story - sometimes the expressions on the girls' faces tell us more than what they say in words.

Do you have any plans for another video documentary?

Not at the moment -- I'm pretty focused on my work in radio. But I do a have a long-term plan to make a film about my family's experience during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. My father was a little boy when they had to flee Lahore for New Delhi during one of the largest migrations in human history. Hindus and Muslims who were once neighbors suddenly became enemies, and they packed themselves into trains to escape the brutal violence. When I was 14 years old, we got to return to Pakistan to see the village where my grandfather was born. A Hindu, he was terrified to return to the largely Muslim village. But the villagers all poured out of their shops and homes to greet us, and the schoolchildren banged on instruments and led a spontaneous parade through the town. I have some powerful footage of my grandfather embracing a long-lost childhood friend after nearly 50 years.

What was the hardest part about making this documentary?

We shot about 45 hours of tape for a 26 minute verite film, making three trips to Minnesota and following the families on their two-week-long India tour. It was harrowing at times to follow three teenagers through the dust and chaos of urban India -- especially on a rigid schedule set by a package tour. Having traveled and lived in India with my middle-class relatives, I was also aware that the tour provided but a superficial glimpse of a complex country. The girls were rarely able to get past the elephant rides, monuments and crowds of urban beggars that most tourists see. This experience both confirmed and challenged the girls' conceptions of India as a place from which they were "rescued."

In the end, I had to reconcile the fact that my film may underscore Western notions of India as a place of desperate poverty. But as a documentarian, I had to remain true to the girls' experience. I hope the film captures not only India as seen through Western eyes, but also the poignancy and humor of three families struggling to make sense of themselves.

Where has the film screened? Have other Indian Americans or international adoptees been able to see this?

The film has played at several film festivals -- some for general audiences and some targeted at Asian Americans. The highlight was the Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco, where many Korean and Vietnamese adoptees approached me after the film to tell me how much it resonated with their experience. There are a number of emerging Indian American film festivals that are also screening the film. And the Center for Asian American Media is distributing it as part of its series on adoption films, so it will get out to universities and schools as well.