From a new generation of South Asian filmmakers, culturally nuanced stories with universal appeal


During a moment of comedic reprieve in Agam Darshi’s family drama Donkeyhead, protagonist Mona — the black sheep of a Canadian Sikh-Punjabi family — is taking her relatives to task. Her siblings have just parachuted back to Regina, where Mona has been the sole caretaker of their father for seven years since a cancer diagnosis. 

Mona’s religious aunt insists that the family hold a paath (the Sikh recitation of holy scriptures) for their father, who has recently suffered a stroke: “My brother needs God and prayer.”

All of the siblings are on board, but Mona stubbornly yells, “Our father needs peace and quiet.

Darshi, who directed and stars as Mona, told CBC News that she initially envisioned the film without an emphasis on the characters’ ethnic and regional background.

“I wanted to showcase a family that felt more North American than they did South Asian. They just happen to be South Asian,” Darshi said. “Then the more I started working on it and the deeper I got into this world and these people, it’s impossible to divorce where they come from.

“By the time we started shooting, it was very apparent that the cultural aspects were a huge part of this film.”

WATCH | Canadian filmmaker Agam Darshi discusses the making of her new film, Donkeyhead:

‘I love coming of age stories about late bloomers’

Agam Darshi, director and star of Netflix drama Donkeyhead, tells CBC News about her affinity for coming of age stories and depicting South Asian characters on screen. 2:01

North American filmmakers like Darshi are centring the experiences of South Asians in their work, tackling universal themes with a cultural specificity that demonstrates the diaspora’s diverse nature.

Darshi’s Sikh-Punjabi characters differ from the Bengali Hindu family in Sujata Day’s Definition Please — each recently released on Netflix Canada — but both films centre on underachieving women tasked with taking care of an ill parent.

“I believe that specificity creates universality,” Darshi said.

Her film’s title is a common term of endearment used by Punjabi parents in reference to their children. 

“Like, we just see ourselves in other cultures.… If they’re honest, then it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’ I think that’s kind of the beauty of storytelling.”

WATCH | The trailer for Agam Darshi’s witty family drama Donkeyhead:

The mainstream success of directors Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair and Srinivas Krishna from the 1980s and 2000s paved the way for the current generation of North America South Asian filmmakers like Darshi and Day, according to Arshad Khan, a filmmaker and the festival director for the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival (MISAFF).

MISAFF, which runs out of Mississauga, Ont., hosted the world premiere of Donkeyhead and the Canadian premiere of Definition, Please.

Khan told CBC News that one of the festival’s aims is to exhibit South Asian and Middle Eastern cinema outside  Canada’s major metropolitan areas.

“We felt like nothing was being showcased in the suburbs, you know, where most of the South Asian population is living.” 

LISTEN | Agam Darshi appears on Q with Tom Power:

Q21:19Agam Darshi on her directorial debut Donkeyhead

Growing up, Agam Darshi didn’t see people who looked like her onscreen. The actor has been working to improve South Asian representation in film and TV for years, but she’s just now released her first feature film, Donkeyhead, about a Sikh-Punjabi Canadian family that looks very much like her own. It follows four siblings who are trying to navigate life around their ailing father. Darshi joined Tom Power to tell us more about the film. 21:19

Donkeyhead, which is set in the suburbs of Regina, “very clearly lays out the Canadian South Asian experience in the Prairies or in the smaller cities and towns of Canada,” Khan added.

According to the 2016 census, 44 per cent of the population in Brampton, an Ontario suburb in the Greater Toronto Area where visible minorities make up the majority, identified as South Asian.

“I think there’s something really powerful about people from a region or from a particular ethnicity, background history, telling stories from their perspective and their point of view that’s rooted in community,” said A.T. Nayani, a Tamil-Canadian writer and film director.

Nayani, whose parents are Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, said it was important to distinguish between different South Asian identities and experiences in film and television — particularly due to the conflation of “South Asian” with “Indian.”

“I think people see … that there might be a handful of Indian directors historically in Canada and the U.S. who have done well. And while I relate in some ways to the narratives that they’re telling, that’s not my experience,” Nayani said, noting that the history of conflict between communities from different subregions is not always reflected onscreen.

“It’s not enough for me to just say I’m a brown, South Asian woman from Toronto behind the screen. What decisions am I making, what choices am I making?… I have to reflect on that because it’s still a responsibility.”

WATCH | The trailer for Geeta Malik’s romantic comedy Indian Sweets and Spices:

Many of these recent films share a common theme: the contemplation of generational differences between younger Canadians and Americans born to South Asian immigrant parents. 

In Geeta Malik’s 2021 romantic comedy Indian Sweets and Spices, UCLA undergrad Alia returns to her New Jersey suburb for the summer, clashing with her Indian-American parents over their high expectations.

In the 2021 film Quickening, which premiered at TIFF and is directed by Haya Waseem, a Pakistani Canadian teen struggles between her identity at home and her independence at school.

Day’s Definition Please follows a former spelling bee champion who reconciles with her brother as they care for their sick mom.

While Donkeyhead‘s drama is mostly contained to its challenging family dynamic, it still demonstrates the bigotry that Canadian South Asians can encounter in everyday life.

The siblings of Darshi’s Donkeyhead sing a rousing rendition of O Canada in a bar in Regina, where they have reunited to take care of their ailing father. (Levelfilm)

A standout scene occurs in a neighbourhood bar, where Mona has roused her siblings and other patrons into a rendition of O Canada, one of her father’s “favourite ditties.” It’s a jovial moment as the bargoers unite in drunken song, but it is then undercut by the sudden shout of a slur, an off-screen voice telling the Sikh-Punjabi family to go back to where they came from.

“I have numerous experiences growing up in Canada where people have thrown racial slurs my way,” Darshi said. “It’s a complicated country. It’s one that really values their immigration process and their people, perhaps on the surface, but the reality is something different.”

“And I think as a person of colour in the country, we can see that it’s not fair. Things are weighted in a much different way.”

For Nayani, South Asian and other BIPOC filmmakers are moving away from the idea of contributing to a North American film canon, one which she said is a predominantly white and male space.

“It’s not to say that there [haven’t] been incredible women and women from BIPOC communities who have been part of filmmaking for a long time,” Nayani said.

“I don’t know if we’re really trying to be part of the canon so much as trying to expand ideas of what a canon can be, and create our own canons, and kind of expand the idea of what people think of when they think of Canadian or North American filmmaking.”

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