“We all encounter pivotal moments in our lives. For me, leaving India and my parents in 1990, coming to America in 1995, losing my father, and the birth of my daughter in2000, are some of them. 2020 was a crucial year for the world and for me. A pandemic that brought the U.S. to its knees. The savagery of the Trump years was ending in a crescendo of pain and dissent. Bodies were piling up from Covid deaths. Police were driving cars into Black Lives Matter protestors. There was blood, broken glass, and broken dreams. I had an excruciating kidney stone surgery and was admitted to the Brooklyn Hospital Center which was one of the epicentres for Covid. In the Emergency room, dazed by painkillers, I saw a young man with his head burst open like a pomegranate. It seemed the country I love was coming apart at the seams. Then, in July, my mother died in India and I had to watch her funeral on WhatsApp. The only way I could transform all this loss and trauma was through art.” And that’s exactly what Nusrat Durrani has done via his poignant and powerful documentary, An Amercian Prayer.
Inspired by his own reality, the feature length documentary reiterates the experiences of the American Dream and what it entails. Each of the six stories leaves a lasting and haunting impression, making one realise that no matter what, the label of being “The Other” is still being grappled with now, even when the world is evolving in other spheres. I recently connected with the filmmaker, whom I had last met in 2013 in India, to know when, how, why and what made him make the documentary, and as a cultural entrepreneur, what does he wish to communicate and contribute.
What’s been your biggest learning from the last decade?
Time is short, I need to focus my energies on what’s most important: the people I love, things I want to change, the stories I want to tell that are hopefully artful and transformative, and bring beauty and equity into the world.
For An American Prayer, how did you research and curate the stories you wanted to tell?
There wasn’t much pre-production or research involved. I already knew most of the protagonists in the film personally. I put together a team quickly and started shooting their stories as America crashed and burned around us. The hardest part, in the end, was who to exclude. There are many Americas. And millions of incredible American stories you never see.
The whole documentary was filmed in the midst of the pandemic, how challenging was that?
It was very tough, and the team who made this film is amazing. My producer Ekaterina Ignatenko is Russian, based in Moscow, and she is resourceful and fierce. She made this film come together remotely, guerilla-style, with a global team and a modest budget, when no one else I know was shooting in NYC or elsewhere. Our cinematographer, Irakli Kurdiani, is Georgian. He plunged into the project like a superman. The main editor, Kostia Larionov, is also Russian and kind of a post production athlete; he cut the film with me entirely on Zoom, working through many lonely nights.
The film also has contributions from people in Estonia, Germany, the U.K., Kazakhstan and Mexico. We never met in person Ezra Hampikian and the other great musicians, who contributed to the theme song. My co-writer, the incredibly passionate Paula Gilovich, lives in North Carolina and was dealing with multiple other challenges while working on the ever-changing script. Saif Siraj, our archive producer, is in Virginia and had never made a film before, but sourced some deep and amazing footage. Actors in Moscow braved freezing conditions, Covid, and lock-downs, to enact fantasy scenes. And the entire cast was fantastic — they gave us their stories and trust at a very vulnerable time.
Finally, we finished the post-production in Tbilisi and Tallinn. The collaborative nature of this project was truly gratifying and I’m indebted to the incredible team that made it happen. The American Dream is not just for Americans. This film proves that people around the world have a vision for the U.S.A. and we still inspire people and have tremendous goodwill. We cannot screw this up. We have to lead and inspire. We need to reflect and be more thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic and open. America was built by immigrants. And my producer, Kate, keeps reminding me that An American Prayer could also be made as “A Russian Prayer” or “A Chinese Prayer”. There is the popular vision projected by a country, and there is the unseen reality of it.
If you are not White you are “The Other”. Why do you feel there is this incessant ignorance that still looms in the minds of people?
“Othering” people who are not like us is easy, arrogant, lazy, insidious, and creates tragic consequences. It’s obviously a deadly strategy being used around the world for millennia by despots and bigots who want to divide us. Weneed to be vigilant and fight this. I revel in my otherness and in diversity. It’s what makes us unique and brings depth, beauty, and dimensionality into the world.
You came to America to work at MTV. Cut to today, you are more invested in giving the voiceless a voice — when did this shift take place in your mindand heart?
Every major project I have undertaken at MTV had to do with correcting some form of inequity, while still connecting with young audiences, pushing artistic boundaries, and being profitable. For as long as I can remember, I was “different” in my various identities in India and abroad. So, inevitably, I have been discriminated against, rebuked, punished, laughed at. I had to find my own voice, create my own space while fighting this. Now, I have come to proudly wear the scars and developed empathy for people on the margins, the invisible, outcasts, rebels, underdogs, isolated, and the oppressed. My parents had a lot to do with this as well. My mother was a champion for the poor. My father taught me about inequity, about respect for the natural world — plants, animals, the environment.
You spent time in the Syrian refugee camps. Can you tell us a little about your experience and interactions there?
It was the most transformative, humbling, inspiring experience of my life. The eighty-two million displaced people of the world carry entire civilizations, mythologies of pain,loss, and transcendence within them. Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Venezuela, Myanmar, so many others. The refugees of the world that I have met, overcame incredible trauma but still, most of them were optimistic, joyous, grateful to be saved. The lost children of the Syrian war I spent time with shine with an inner glow; it’s the closest I have to come to Godliness. Their stories haunt and inspire me. And the volunteer community putting their lives at risk for these dispossessed people contain the true heroes of our time. Everyone should surrender to the service of others as frequently as possible. It makes us human.
We have faced and are still facing a crisis — what kind of change have you encountered personally and professionally?
We have brought the world to the brink of ecological disasters. Our greed, hubris, and stupidity have created an existential crisis. I am not as angry or sad as I am sober and in mercenary mode — trying to stay emotionally, physi- cally, and mentally agile to survive, and save whatever and whomever I can. I’m trying to enjoy the life I have, while it is still possible. Listen to the music of birds. Watch the sunrise one more time. Follow the muse and get lost in her mysteries and magic.
As a cultural entrepreneur, what do you wish to communicate and contribute from here on?
Tell wild stories that haven’t been told. Lend a hand to the fallen. Shine a light on unseen beauty. Defy convention. Be punk. Make a film about the heroic lady dwarf who came to me in a dream in Warsaw. Make a mythological film set in 2050 in India with Rekha in a pivotal role.
Lastly, on a deeply personal note, you left home and your family to make another country your home. Do you ever regret changing base and/or if you had to do it all over again, would you change anything?
I don’t regret anything I have ever done except if I have caused pain or sorrow for anyone. If anything, we should make bold, irrational moves, change direction, take risks and reimagine ourselves over and over and over again.
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Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra