By Anum Syed (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What do Superman, Frodo Baggins, and Smith Bhatnagar have in common? They all come from humble beginnings and are in search for a sense of acceptance.
GROWING UP SMITH, directed by Frank Lotito, has been praised for its ability to transcend racial and class barriers in small town America. Anjul Nigam delivers a comical standout performance as head honcho Bhaaskar Bhatnagar, and his involvement in writing and producing the heart-warming film as told through the eyes of a young and optimistic immigrant has captivated audiences.
In honor of GROWING UP SMITH's screening at the Asian American Showcase on April 14th and at the Houston Asian American Film Showcase on April 29th, we had the opportunity to interview the talented Anjul Nigam:
I want to begin by congratulating you on Growing Up Smith’s success. With awards such as the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at CAAMFest, and the Audience Award Best Narrative Feature at the Woodstock Film Festival and Naples International Film Festival, why do you think Good Ol’ Boy has been so well received?
I believe there is a need for feel-good films that depict the human experience with humor and truth and are without explosions, profanity and violence. Our movie tells a story that is a tribute to first love, childhood heroes and growing up in Small Town, America... in simpler times. Our world today is filled with so much cynicism that Growing Up Smith offers a well-needed escape from this negativity.
A specific element which separates Growing Up Smith from other movies is its family-friendly approach. How important was it to you that the movie remain wholesome and why?
I have two kids, ages 12 and 6, and when we want to go see a film as a family, the only options we have are animated movies. While I enjoy a well-made cartoon movie, I believe there’s room for stories that can appeal to both kids and adults alike and still live in the real world.
Your portrayal of Bhaaskar Bhatnagar is incredibly witty and humorous. What inspired your character to be so outlandish yet relatable?
A lot of Bhaaskar is based on my own father. We immigrated to the U.S. (to Connecticut), when I was a kid, and I grew up with my parents wanting to preserve our Indian tradition while allowing us opportunities that would help us assimilate so that we would face as few obstacles as possible. Meanwhile, my father’s goal was never to be here permanently, but rather to become professionally established and then return to our homeland. Bhaaskar’s line, “We’ll go back and live the American Dream, in India” is borrowed directly from my father. I think it’s relatable because the immigrant experience is essentially universal in that it’s about finding home away from home.
All the characters in Growing Up Smith are multi-dimensional with their own personal struggles. Which character, aside from Bhaaskar Bhatnagar, do you feel is the most genuine and why?
I would say Smith, the Growing Up Smith himself. His adolescent experience is molded greatly by his parents. From the first moment we meet him, we see that his father is holding up a photograph of a girl Smith will marry when he turns twenty-two. And yet, he’s exposed to everything that America has to offer but his traditional Indian parents would never approve: Kentucky Fried Chicken (he’s from a vegetarian family), views of his hero Butch making out openly on the front lawn, and above all, Amy, his first love. The more Smith immerses himself in these opportunities thrown at him, the more we realize that they are a real part of growing up. And as he responds to them, we’re touched by his unabashed honesty. For instance, when he is so moved by Amy, he can’t help but share with his parents that “I love her!" Smith is an awkward boy, trying to fit in in his new home, and viewing the world with bewildered joy and expectation.
Is there a specific scene in Growing Up Smith that epitomizes your upbringing?
As one of the writers, I borrowed greatly from my own personal upbringing in an immigrant Indian family. There is scene where Smith is handed a traditional punishment known as utthak baithak and it is based on something my brothers and I grew up with. When we had done something wrong, my parents would reprimand us by having us hold our ears and squat up and down a designated number of times. It wasn’t a painful punishment; it was humiliating, and so the emotional impact was greater than being spanked.
Were you ever fearful that the portrayal of Indian immigrants in Growing Up Smith may come off as too stereotypical during the filming process?
Stereotypes are often based on truths and it can be difficult to avoid such a label when telling a story built on certain truths. Moreover, concerns about stereotypes are too often misplaced. The important questions to ask would be whether the characters we portray are three-dimensional and do they have a beginning, middle, and end? Do they fit in the story in an integral way? Roles that perpetuate a negative stereotype are those that are on the fringes of the story and not developed. As such, in Growing Up Smith, we made sure all the Indian immigrant characters are significant and substantial.
What are some movies that have inspired you to continue not only acting, but writing and producing as well?
I was inspired to become an actor by watching The Ten Commandments when I was eight. Charlton Heston in the role of Moses was my childhood hero. I was so moved by the performance, that after seeing the movie, I found a stick in my backyard and called it my staff. As my friends were playing cops and robbers, I was trying to open the Red Sea which was my lawn in Connecticut. From a writing/producing perspective, some of my favorite films are Stand By Me, Billy Elliot, Whale Rider and Big Night. They’re all intimate stories about the human experience, and they have inspirational themes.
While the number of Asian Americans in movies and arts has increased, there is still a considerable lack of diversity of roles given to Asian Americans. What are your thoughts on the lack of diversity?
The issue of diversity is quite complex. On the one-hand, we fight to have opportunities that are based on skill and colorblind to any ethnicity and race. On the other hand, when we see opportunities provided to a white majority in a similarly colorblind way, we tend to have an issue with that. Our world is based on classifications at all levels: male vs. female; white vs. brown vs. black, etc.; young vs. old; straight vs. gay. In implementing an affirmative action directive to a certain class, we’ll always have another form of class that hasn’t been addressed. Take for example, a character that is written as a police officer, and the character’s ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are not relevant to the storyline. Do we cast the role with a view to affirmative action in all classes? If not, how do we decide which minority class we need to give special consideration to? Or do we just cast the best actor for the role? Is there a balance to be made in accurately reflecting our diverse world and still holding onto colorblind values? I’m not sure what the answers are, but I do know they’re not simple.
What would you say to encourage Asian Americans to continue to participate in the film making process?
Consider your ethnicity a wardrobe. It may not be relevant to some, but to others, the color of your pants may matter. You may not be able to change everybody’s taste, but when you put on your favorite pair of jeans, you’ll always feel good about who you are, and others might see it too and want you part of their lives and work.
Is there anything you would like to tell your fans and to encourage others to watch Growing Up Smith?
Growing Up Smith had a long journey to the screen. It’s a work of passion that was a rollercoaster ride in getting made. And so, it’s fitting that it takes the viewer on a ride, too. One that leaves you feeling inspired by an awkward little Indian boy.
Anjul Nigam to appear in-person at both screenings!
CHICAGO | APRIL 14 | 8:15 PM
21st Annual Asian American Showcase
The Gene Siskel Film Center
164 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601
HOUSTON | APRIL 29 | 6:30 PM
Houston Asian American Film Showcase
800 Aurora St. Houston, TX 77009