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Indian American Identity is at Heart of Professor’s Film

Indira Somani and Leena Jayaswal wanted to tell a story of straddling two worlds. It’s the story they both share as second generation Indian women who grew up in America.

As it happens, Somani’s story is the focus of the documentary Crossing Lines, which traces her first journey back to India after the death of her immigrant father.

But Jayaswal’s experience also underlies the film, which she codirected and coproduced. It will be showing on Sunday at the Second Indian Visions Film Festival at Union Station in Washington, D.C., where Jayaswal will also be part of a panel discussion.

The film began with a faculty research grant. It has been shown at festivals around the country and broadcast on dozens of public television stations over the past several months. But it began quietly, more than four years ago, with conversations among three women who were colleagues at the School of Communication.

Jayaswal teaches photography at SOC. Somani was a temporary faculty member. And another woman, Seema Goyal, an Indian producer-director, was teaching at SOC for a year. They would get together and talk at length about what they shared and where they differed: Jayaswal as a person who felt “more plugged in to the American side,” Somani as someone who grew up in America in a household that was intensely Indian in culture, and Goyal as a woman born and raised in India.

They initially planned to do a film about their variety of experiences. But as they talked, another kind of story emerged. Somani’s father had been her bond to India, where she’d spent time on childhood trips. “A theme emerged about her relationship with him and how she connects to being Indian and his side of the family after he passed away,” Jayaswal says.

Since his death, she hadn’t returned to India, but felt drawn there and wondered how she’d experience the visit. The women decided to film Somani’s journey back to India. By this time, Goyal was back in India, and became the India producer.

Cultural identity has been a theme of Jayaswal’s work as a photographer. It’s also a theme strongly woven into much of the rich literature and film of the Indian diaspora, such as the novel and recent film “The Namesake.” But a documentary would be different.

“This is real life. When you’re constructing a documentary, you still have to look for a story that comes out of it, because if it’s not a story, who’s going to watch it? But it has to come out of the reality. So we did a lot of talking – a lot of talking,” Jayaswal says.

“I think another interesting aspect is Indira [Somani] is also a co-producer and co-director. A lot of times, in documentaries, the subjects are not in control of the piece. But this is someone telling the story in her own voice.”

They were fortunate to have archival footage of family trips to India when Somani was growing up, which were blended into the final film. It has now been shown more than 40 times on public television stations in the last few months.

Jayaswal will be part of a panel of film directors at noon on Sunday, Nov. 16 at Phoenix Adlabs Theaters Union Station 9.