As most things in Indian culture are, Emergence: Out of the Shadows is a family affair. It is a story of healing, and finding community and belonging in all its different, vibrant forms. Producer and cast member Alex Sangha and director Vinay Giridhar join me for a chat on what went into making their film.
The queer experience is far from universal, and Emergence: Out of the Shadows captures this expertly. The film tells three stories that are quite different – Kayden’s, Amar’s (Alex), and Jag’s – and weaves them together in a heartwarming, hopeful climax. “We were actually pretty lucky to have such a vibrant group already here in Sher Vancouver,” Vinay admits. The Sher Vancouver LGBTQ Friends Society is a registered charity for LGBTQ+ South Asians and their friends and families in Metro Vancouver, B.C. This is their second documentary film after My Name Was January (2019).
“We also had Kayden’s story, which really hit home for us, and the reason we made this film initially was to share Kayden’s story,” Alex, who founded Sher Vancouver in 2008, adds. “That was the impetus of the film. Because we did not want other kids of Indian origin coming to this country and being disowned. Jag’s story and my story kind of fleshed out the storyline and the plot, so it was more interesting in the film to have three stories instead of one.”
Doing justice to the intricacies involved in such stories is often tricky. The biggest advantage of a documentary is that it allows the cast, especially if they are from marginalised groups, to take charge of their narrative and reclaim their story. Giridhar has utilised this advantage to the fullest. “For me it was important to just have those questions out there and then have them answer it how they would answer it. That way, their narrative will come out, slowly but surely.”
“I personally didn’t know all the stories about Alex, even though I knew him for quite a few years. And I didn’t know any stories about Kayden or Jag. I just designed questions for them so that I can somehow merge all these stories together and have it in a narrative form, so that they all flow well together. When they were telling the stories, it was quite emotional for them. And that was powerful for us to watch and then capture on screen,” he adds.
“Almost everyone in the film is queer or gay or they have some strong connection to the queer community,” Alex mentions. “As a social worker, it’s so important to empower your subjects to have their own voice, you empower your subjects to share their lived experience. And that’s so important when you’re making a documentary because it lends authenticity and integrity to the story.”
The film does a good job of bringing to light the intersection between the multiple identities that exist within each person – such as brown, Sikh, Canadian – and how they deeply affect the experience of being queer.
But by far, Emergence’s biggest strength lies in the decision to include the protagonists’ parents and have them share their own journey of acceptance. Alex wants the film to be a message for parents of queer people as well. “I don’t know if there’s many feature films about gay / lesbian Punjabi Sikh families. When you have the parents in there, this is also education for them. Because they also struggle. They have to come to a self acceptance about their children. You finally get to see on camera how much they’re struggling, and they also came to a positive resolution at the end. So this gives hope not only to the children watching, it gives hope to the parents, that yes, you can have a family, you can be grandparents, you can love your children, and you can live a happy life.”
“It was important for me to have the stories of the parents as well. Given that our (Indian) families are so close knit and everybody is into each other’s lives, it’s important for how it affects their life as well. I think it became a complete package that way,” Vinay adds.
It is through the parents that religion becomes an important part of the film, and insightful conversations surrounding tradition and spirituality are had. “India is a mosaic of diverse faiths, religions, languages, and cultures,” Alex says. “So it’s natural that all of these ideas have entered the minds of people from the subcontinent. That’s why you notice in the film that the parents talk a lot more about religion and spirituality than the younger generation. I think this is one thing that is good and bad. In a way, it’s bad because it makes it harder for the younger generation to come out and be accepted. On the other hand, it’s good because people can turn to their faith and religion to accept their children. So in a way, it’s a love-hate relationship with religion.”
Vinay says, “Even though the cast are of Sikh faith, I didn’t want to necessarily say that this (the film) is just about Sikh people. I wanted it to open up more. The culture applies to a lot of Eastern religions, be it Buddhism, Hinduism, or Jainism. When you think about religion and homosexuality, you always think about how they don’t mix together. But it was very interesting to see that the parents actually relied on religion to find their children. To accept them how they are.”
The film tackles difficult questions about queer identity, Indian familial structures, and complex relationships, all while firmly holding onto the belief that the light at the end of the tunnel is very much within reach for queer people, even if it comes to everyone in different ways. Emergence: Out of the Shadows is an honest and sincere take on queer Indian diaspora.
Emergence: Out of the Shadows has been accepted to 8 festivals around the world.