“Youthful” filmmaker strives to tell stories of the Indian immigrant experience

HOLLYWOOD—Stories of young Sikh boys questioning the cultural significance of growing out their hair and hiding their long manes underneath a turban are a dime a dozen. Sometimes these stories are told through the lens of rebellion or philosophical debate, but L.A.-based filmmaker Varun Chounal took a different approach to this otherwise tried storyline: his protagonist must overcome a case of cyberbullying to discover his identity.

The plot of Gabroo, a 15-minute short film, is simple: Monty, a young Sikh man living with his parents, grandmother and younger brother, questions his cultural and religious mores after an online video he is featured in results in viewers mocking him as being too hairy. Sikhs do not believe in cutting or shaving hair, hence it is common to see men who follow the religion with fully grown beards and long hair (which is covered by a turban). The cyberbullying incident is exacerbated at his workplace (a restaurant where he serves food), where a customer scoffs at an otherwise innocent mistake committed by Monty.

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Chounal uses the short time he has in Gabroo to show the effects of cyberbullying and passive aggressive racism on one’s psyche. Individual identity can be tenuous and sensitive, far too often subject to the whims of those around us. The development and maintenance of individual identity is even more fleeting for immigrants in a new country, where personal practices or cultural norms aren’t always accepted or acknowledged. Monty, in this construct, faces a challenge: cave in to the pressures of cyberbullying and assimilate into the world around him, or embrace his identity and heritage. Such a crossroads applies to immigrants of all types - not only Sikhs.

Gabroo, as it turns out, is actually part of Chounal’s larger vision to tell of the Indian immigrant experience in the United States through a series of short content or television-style programs. The stories would be told in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Struggles of racism, discrimination, bullying and other common immigrant experiences would be shoved in front of your face but instead dealt with through humor and subtle storytelling devices. Scenes in Gabroo, for example, sneak in issues such as cultural appropriation and public shaming - all without expressly telling the audience it’s happening.

Chounal himself was born and raised in India. He moved around the country by virtue of being an Army brat. The pursuit of theatre and the cinematic arts proved to be a hobby, at best, for Chounal. He even studied business in college. Chounal only decided to pursue a career in film and television when he met his best friend and creative partner. The connection would soon bring Chounal to Los Angeles, where he pursued his graduate studies in film and television at Loyola Marymount University.

Creating Gabroo was part of his graduate studies. To date only a few people affiliated with LMU’s graduate film program and members of the media have seen the film - general audiences will have their first crack at Gabroo, which is only 15 minutes in length, at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles runs from April 11 to April 14 at the Regal L.A. Live Cinemas in Downtown Los Angeles. Gabroo, which means Youthful, screens as part of the festival’s shorts program on April; 13 (12:30 p.m.).

Visit indianfilmfestival.org for more information about the screening and festival in general.