Sometimes you stumble upon really small, obscure films that leave such an impact that you just want as many people to see it as possible. Desigirls by Ishita Srivastava is one such film. Filmed as a graduate thesis project at New York University, this twenty-minute documentary explores a refreshingly new topic—the South Asian lesbian community in New York City. I had the opportunity to watch the film and speak to the director afterward. Even though Desigirls is a student film, Srivastava approaches the topic with maturity and a sincerity that makes it a truly engaging film.
The film follows two women—Priyanka and ‘A’—as they discuss their sexual identities and their role within the South Asian queer community in New York, represented by two key institutions – the Desilicious parties and the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) meetings. Priyanka is an openly pansexual woman who embraces her sexual identity and is an active member of the community. ‘A’, on the contrary, is living a double life, afraid to come out to her parents and secretly exploring her sexual identity.
Srivastava explores the lives of the two women with sensitivity, never intruding too much on their space. While Priyanka willingly offers herself to the camera and interacts freely with it, ‘A’ turns out to be the more interesting character to follow since her anonymity allows her to be emotionally vulnerable in front of the camera. The segment where she discusses her relationship with her brother is particularly moving. Srivastava does a commendable job of letting the characters be, without forcing much upon them or from them.
At times the film becomes ambitious in its scope, trying to accomplish too much in its very short runtime. Srivastava attempts to develop the two main characters and also explore the various events centered on the community. There’s enough in there to be expanded to a longer documentary. Of the two main events, the film focuses more on the SALGA meetings even if that wasn’t the original intention. Srivastava has the ability to make the viewer feel comfortable with what’s going on in front of the camera. The presence in the SALGA support meetings doesn’t seem intrusive, and shadowing Priyanka's and A’s lives keep the viewer hooked.
The most fascinating elements in the film emerge from the observations and statements made by the various characters. At one point Priyanka decisively states that her friends from India are far more tolerant of her sexuality than the Indians she knows who have been raised in the U.S. Meanwhile ‘A’ exhibits certain resentment in the dichotomy of never being able to come out to her conservative parents yet witnessing her brother having much more freedom in lifestyle choices than her. Thus the film effectively presents the fractures present within this very small community. All in all, Desigirls is a low budget student film for sure, but the story it tells is very powerful nonetheless, and one that desperately needed to be told.