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Photo courtesy of Christopher Pike

Spotlight – Nandini Kochar

Nandini Kochar, Class of 2021, talks to The Gazelle about her film that was recently recognized at the HER International Film Festival, and engages with the themes of belonging and identity.

Nov 1, 2020

On Oct. 20, the HER International Film Festival announced the winners of their 2020 festival which took place from Oct. 8 to 14. The festival, Ireland’s largest for young women in the film and TV industry, received 721 applications from filmmakers all over the world. Film and New Media and Social Research and Public Policy major Nandini Kochar, Class of 2021, was recognized for her film Mahala, which won third place in the Best Short Film category.
Kochar came up with the idea for the film when she was studying away in Prague in her sophomore year as part of the Tisch Special Program for Visual Storytelling at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts.
“I’ve always been interested in documentaries and using film as a way of tackling social issues,” said Kochar. While she knew of the Romani people — a historically marginalized ethnic group in the Czech Republic — she got a chance to engage with them more closely through her internship at Romea, a non-profit organization that pushes for Romani rights. Intrigued and moved by the conversations she had with Romani students, Kochar decided to make a film that would capture the community’s lived experiences.
The film narrates the coming of age story of a Romani girl who wants to become a singer, against her grandmother's wishes. “I chose this because singing is a very key component of Romani culture and it's usually been what they're proud of,” shared Kochar, adding that over time, they have been reduced to stereotypes as singers and nothing more. “Many times young Romani youth have this pressure of not being singers and not embracing their heritage in order to integrate [into the Czech society].”
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Still from Mahala
Seeking to critique this dilemma that many young Romanis find themselves in, Kochar worked with three generations of women in a Romani family. While working with non-actors sometimes posed a challenge, especially since they were involved in documenting their own narrative, Kochar was adamant that her cast be Romani.
“This was a story about them and they felt that they were being well represented,” she said. “That was the only validation I needed.”
Apart from capturing the Romani experience, the film also tackled themes of womanhood and feminism. The focus on telling the stories of women led Kochar to applying for the HER International Film Festival. “Beyond just getting a prestigious film festival title, I wanted to apply for festivals that really resonated with the consciousness of the film,” she explained.
Having grown up in Botswana, Kochar felt a sense of belonging in the UAE, where a majority of the migrant population is South Asian. However, she felt uncomfortable with her positionality in relation to them as she found herself engaging with the migrant population through conversations with cab drivers, vendors and fishermen, among others.
“I found a dissonance between what I would see in mainstream media … versus the conversations and experiences I was having firsthand,” she shared, explaining that these interactions brought her closer to what she feels defines the city.
Inspired by Humans of New York, Kochar started Humans of Abu Dhabi, focusing on migrants and their experiences in the UAE. This led to her photo essay, The Fleeting Fishermen of Mina Zayed, where she captured the departure of migrant workers as the port closed down.
“It was very symbolic. You saw all these men, you saw the port, you saw these tall skyscrapers in the background. And for me, this is Abu Dhabi,” reflected Kochar. “It's the transience you see of men who come here, build their lives here, serve for generations, create these connections with other migrants and then leave. And the only thing that stands are these buildings, but the stories behind who are the people who actually built this country get lost.”
Presently, Kochar is working on her Capstone project, which, to her, is a culmination of everything she’s done so far. She is making an ethnographic documentary that challenges the flattened narrative of domestic workers as statistics by focusing on the multifaceted richness of their lived experiences.
Most of her work — be it her films or photo essays — takes a human-centric approach to storytelling. “I don't like telling stories of people, [but] rather with them,” she expressed. “I really want my work to emerge from a place of trust and intimacy … [I want to] have a conversation [with a subject], have their consent and allow them to represent themselves the way they want to be represented.”
Aayusha Shrestha is News Editor. Email her at
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