Two years ago author Rahul Mehta wrote a personal New York Times Magazine essay called "The Cold Call," in which he shares the nascent stages of exploring his sexuality alongside examining his culture as a closeted gay Indian-American college freshman. "No one will do for you what another Indian will do," Mehta recalls his father advising him. "We'd do anything for each other. If the other were hungry, we'd give up our last cup of rice." But desperate to have his first same-sex sexual encounter, Mehta, a self-described scrawny, 115-pound, acne-faced teenager who had dyed his hair bright orange, would receive an anonymous phone call that would cause him to further ruminate on what it means for him to be not only gay but a gay South Asian man, something he needed more than he thought he wanted it.
New York-based filmmaker Sohnia van der Puye read Mehta's story when it was first published. Inspired, she reached out to Mehta, who was also the author of Quarantine, a collection of short stories about openly gay Indian-American men, and received his blessing to write a script based on his New York Times Magazine essay. Now van der Puye, an immigrant herself, seeks to bring this coming-of-age story to the masses, having partnered with the national LGBT organization Campus Pride and garnered the support of MTV Voices and The South Asian Lesbian & Gay Association of New York City. She hopes that The Cold Call will enlighten mainstream and LGBT media on the unique challenges facing queer people of color, specifically the gay South Asian community. She says that despite recent victories for LGBT equality in the U.S., immigrant families are still playing catch-up when it comes to understanding LGBT issues.
I sat down with van der Puye and chatted about the film, her hopes for the impact of this story and her thoughts on being LGBT and a person of color.
JR Tungol: Walk us through a brief summary of the film, Sohnia.
Sohnia van der Puye: Well, Naveen, the main character, is a young Indian American in college who's gay and in the closet. He's struggling with coming out, and one day he receives a phone call from a stranger with sexual innuendos and asks him to meet him for a rendezvous. That's it.
Tungol: I'm assuming there's more, but we don't want to spoil the whole plot for our audience!
van der Puye: Yes. I don't want to spoil anything.
Tungol: Tell me about the main character, though -- his internal struggle. What's his story? What's he going through?
van der Puye: Naveen is very smart, comes from a loving home. Like with most immigrant parents, I would say he has, in the back of his mind, the need to please his parents and not disappoint them. Naveen's struggle with his sexuality and the pressure of being either a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer -- I think LGBT youth of color, Naveen's story will resonate with them. Naveen's inability to talk to anyone, to express himself, to express who he is and his sexuality to his friends or his parents, is something people will understand and get. That's why when he gets the phone call from a complete stranger who is offering him his first sexual encounter with another man, it was an opportunity, a window for him. It was a window that led to something beautiful.
Tungol: Which was?
van der Puye: It's really a story about finding oneself and finding a kindred spirit and finding someone who you can unburden yourself to, and that's what this stranger becomes -- not what Naveen thought he needed, which was a sexual encounter. He needed someone he could actually talk to and open up to and reveal the fact that he's gay. It's about finding someone who holds your hand and says, "You know, you're not the only one. Let's travel along this path together."
Tungol: Tell me about your inspiration for this film and pursuing this project.
van der Puye: I was reading The New York Times. I came across this essay and started reading it and immediately, as a filmmaker, it connected with me. I connected to it as a human, but I think primarily, I would say, the point that resonated with me the most was the immigrant story, the challenges and adversities of immigrants growing up in Western societies and their challenges that they have to face.
Tungol: Can you share more about that?
van der Puye: I also was the child of immigrants. I was born in Ghana and raised in South Africa. My parents tried to instill in me our main roots, which was a little bit of a clash between Western societies, and South Africa is very Western compared with Ghana. I saw that in what the character was going through, and I also saw his struggle, the struggle of trying to reveal who he really was. I'm not a member of the LGBT community, but I don't think you have to be to see or to understand what the character is going through. His story resonated with me so much, and I just felt it and I saw it, and that was my inspiration, and I wanted to adapt that into a film.
Tungol: So you think anyone, gay or straight, could relate to this story?
van der Puye: Naveen's journey is a journey that I think a lot of people, gay or straight, go through. We all want to explore our sexuality. We're all looking for kindred spirits, people we can connect with. When you take the LGBT issue out, Naveen is just like any other person out there.
Tungol: When did you begin writing the script?
van der Puye: Two years ago, soon after reading and contacting Rahul. I think that with writing scripts, they're like wine -- they get better with age -- and at the time, I understood where I wanted the film to go, but I think I definitely understand the importance of it now more than I did back then. With the recent victories in the legal system with LGBT issues, I think this film resonates more with me than it did even then, because, yes, there's all these victories, but there's these people of color who are still growing up in this country that is progressive, but they still have to suppress who they are because of the cultural implications.
Tungol: That's a great point. Do you think that people of color and immigrant communities are still lagging behind when it comes to understanding LGBT issues?
van der Puye: Yes, I do, because I think that culture is bigger than the legal system. When it comes to people of color and certain cultural families, I think that tradition weights heavily on children of immigrants. I think even just outside the LGBT community, immigrants try to pass down the traditions that they bring along to their children, and it doesn't change if their child is gay or straight. Your culture is more important than your sexuality; I mean, you feel that way.
Tungol: Speaking of which, what do you think about mainstream and LGBT media's coverage and awareness of racial minorities within the LGBT community? Do you think there's enough or not enough coverage?
van der Puye: There's not enough. I think there's a huge disconnect. I don't want to only see LGBT racial minority articles where someone's been tortured and stoned. They should be addressed on a daily basis. I think especially for the youth, they need these role models who they can look to and relate to who come from a similar background. This film is targeting them, but on a wider scale everyone can relate to it. I think LGBT kids of color go through more challenging adversities than LGBT youth from Western backgrounds. There are the religious implications and cultural implications. In places like Africa, where I come from, there's the fear of death. It's not just about being ostracized or being cast out of the family. There are more issues of depth.
Tungol: What is your ultimate hope with this project?
van der Puye: Even if one South Asian or person of color who is LGBT sees this film and comes out and says to someone, "I saw that film, and it inspired me to come out to my friends and my family; it made me confident in who I am and living and being who I was created to be," that would be the biggest pay-off of all. My film will have served its purpose.
Tungol: Anything else to add?
van der Puye: I just thank Rahul Mehta for giving me the honor of telling his story.