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Non-Binary Teen’s Struggles Drive a Universal Tale

Urvashi Pathania’s short “Beasts” explores gender and sexuality to combat decades of cinematic misrepresentation of South Asians

Hailing from India by way of Brooklyn, filmmaker Urvashi Pathania had to learn to get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations — starting at home. 

As a child immigrant, Pathania had to adapt to a new culture and new ways of existing that didn’t quite mesh with her parents’ upbringing. 

“I was always bringing these American ideas home and having to talk to them about how I was experiencing life versus how they grew up,” she says. 

By the time her short film project “Beasts” was selected for Indeed’s Rising Voices program, the producer-director was already well-versed in tackling challenging subjects in a way that brings people together. 

“I think I found a way to tell tough stories, but in a way that doesn’t alienate people,” says Pathania. 

While Pathania had to navigate various personal and cultural minefields over the course of her life, her career path has always been clear and direct. She entered her first film festival when she was just seven years old; once she discovered the power of film to inspire and educate, she pursued this path with a fierce intentionality. 

“One of the reasons I love being a filmmaker is because I get to dive really deep into whatever project I’m working on and immerse myself in different communities and see how different people live in the world,” says Pathania. “I like to tell stories about gender, sexuality and decolonization.” 

“Beasts” was inspired by the South Asian drag queens and kings and the way they use performance as a way to explore gender. Through the eyes of a nonbinary South Asian person, it examines the universal struggle faced by young people trying to find their place in the world.  

“It shows you a day in the life of a teenager and all of the voices they hear trying to tell them this is what they should do and how overwhelming it can be,” says Pathania. “I hope it communicates what life is like for someone who is nonbinary, questioning what their gender might be.” 

Courtesy of Indeed

To prepare for the film’s dance sequence, which takes up nearly half of its running time, Pathania watched classic films, including the acclaimed Indian film “Music Room.” 

“I tried to try to see how brilliant directors have done it before and put my own spin on it,” she says. “I also grew up dancing, so I know what excites me as a dancer — I was hoping that I could bring that excitement on screen as well.” 

Award-winning Iranian-American writer-director Rayka Zehtabchi (“Period. End of Sentence.”) served as Pathania’s mentor on “Beasts.” “You don’t realize how much having a mentor early in your career really does instill confidence in you, not just at this point, but throughout your career,” says Zehtabchi. 

Pathania was particularly grateful for the opportunity to learn about all facets of filmmaking from a professional. 

“It’s been really exciting to get to work with Rayka and see how she makes short films,” says Pathania. “I’ve learned so much from watching someone who’s very good at their craft.” 

“Beasts” is Pathania’s fourth short film, but the first project where she didn’t have to ask favors from the actors and crew to complete production. 

“It was nice to be able to pay people for their work on this project,” she says. “The best thing you can do to bring diversity into this industry is actually hiring diverse people and giving us the means to create more job opportunities for our communities.” 

That was made possible by the $100,000 budget provided to each filmmaker in the Rising Voices program, which also enabled Pathania to shoot on multiple locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, craft intricate dance sequences, and incorporate VFX and prosthetic makeup, which was used to transform actor Aparna Shankar into Kali Maa, the blue, four-armed Hindu goddess of time, creation and destruction. 

More importantly, the budget gave Pathania the opportunity to fully explore concepts of cultural and gender identity, and to refine her voice as a filmmaker. 

BIPOC representation in film is particularly imbalanced,” says LaFawn Davis, Indeed’s senior VP of environmental, social and governance. “With the societal focus on racial justice right now, [the Rising Voices program] is something that Indeed can do to create opportunities for voices from these communities to be heard, and to showcase stories around one of the most important aspects of a person’s life — the work that they do.” 

For her part, Pathania believes filmmakers have an obligation to use their work as a window that allows to people to view life from perspectives that might differ from what they see in their own lives. 

“I think if you’re a minority, you know firsthand how much harm misrepresentation can cause,” she says. “I often feel like as a filmmaker, I’m trying to undo the harm of decades of misrepresentation of South Asians — that’s why representation matters to me. Now that we have a chance to create something authentic, we have to work even harder to fix years of pain. Filmmaking is my way of trying to tell people my truth.”

Courtesy of Indeed