Lauded for his intricate storytelling and careful production skills, Prashant Bhargava was a Chicago-based graffiti artist turned filmmaker with years of work experience in his field: music videos, title sequences, commercials, interstitials, and more. Perhaps he is best known for his directorial film efforts, including the short film Sangam, which was followed seven years later by his award-winning feature film, Patang, an homage to the kite festival in the city of Ahmedabad.
Prashant and I had been planning to do this interview for more than a year. Prashant was bouncing back and forth between NYC and Chicago, so it was tough to nail down some time to do this. Eventually, we had an hour-long phone call last fall which forms the basis of the following interview.
Recently, after my parents and brother (stand-up comedian, Hari Kondabolu) saw Prashant at a film festival in May, my mom mentioned to me how sweet he was. He gave my parents a copy of the collaborative project he did with Vijay Iyer—Radhe Radhe, which is a multimedia of intense visuals set to music during the festival of Holi.
On May 16, 2015, I got a mass e-mail from Prashant’s mother informing me that he had passed away from a heart attack earlier that day. The shock and grief that arrived with that announcement was followed days later by me wondering how to proceed with publishing the interview. Would it serve as a fitting portrait of Prashant as a working director having just finished another film, or would it seem incomplete after his passing?
The breadth of this interview and the focus on Prashant’s upbringing and formative years—which I initially thought might seem “boring” to readers—now feels poignant and important to me as a historical and public document of my Prashant’s life. He will be very missed by many, but he and his work will continue to endure and live on. Rest in peace, dear friend.
The New York Memorial for Bhargava will be held at the Great Hall at Cooper Union this Sunday, June 28, 2015, from 2 PM-5 PM, with a reception to follow. The Great Hall is located at 7 East 7th Street, between 3rd and 4th Avenues, in Manhattan.
Prashant Bhargava: Have you ever used a neti pot?
Ashok Kondabolu: To clear your shit out?
They sell it at Walgreens or CVS, in these soft plastic bottles that you fill with salt. Instead of having to use the pot, you just squeeze it and it blasts water through your nose. It feels pretty good. And I got this thing called a negative ion generator, it’s some weird shit I read about where you plug this machine in and it sends trillions of negative ions through the room. It’s supposed to recreate the feeling of being by a waterfall or outside after the rain, when the air feels really good and you can think clearly. It’s supposed to clear your mood since there are no negative ions indoors. I just got it like two hours ago in the mail.
You should get one of those Chinese waterfall paintings and put the shit behind that.
Exactly. The full experience, the full ion visual experience.
So you’re in Chicago right now right?
Where in Chicago?
Southside, and you grew up in Chicago?
Yeah, born and raised in the Southside.
What was it like growing up in terms of the racial mix in your neighborhood? Were there other Indian kids that you grew up with?
Well, we were about ten blocks up Hyde Park, which is like Prospect Heights, so it’s pretty diverse. On the average, in a class of 400 people there would be 3 or 4 Indians. But my parents were also connected to the large Indian community, so every month, I’d be hitting up the suburban parties with the uncles’ drink and scotch.
I know you did graffiti growing up, we talked about that before. How did you get into that? And about Southside Chicago, you hear a lot of crazy shit about the area involving gun violence, drugs, and gang activity. Was it also the same when you were growing up?
Yeah, it was prevalent. I mean, Chicago has a lot of gangs. I grew up in a nice 4×4 block neighborhood so I wasn’t immediately exposed, but after a couple of blocks, it gets rough. But Chicago was primarily filled with houses. This city created house music, so when I was growing up, that was the thing to do. But there was a very small group of us that rebelled against that over all. We picked up subway art. What was amazing was that we weren’t people that were just looking at it. We all wanted to participate and not just do graffiti, but also rhyme or DJ or breakdance, so there was a purity in terms of hip-hop. We always gravitated much more toward the careless vibe of things than anything else. It was around ‘84 when all of that began for me.
Musically, were there a lot of acts locally in Chicago that you would go see? Was it more of a house party/park kind of thing?
In 7th grade, my dad took me to the Herbie Hancock Rockit concert, and that was the extent of what was available to me.
So your dad was cool with whatever music and cultural stuff you were into?
Yeah, he was very supportive, but you know with typical Indian parents, you’re always living two lifestyles. I bought an Ice Cube album, A Bitch is a Bitch when it came out, and he caught me and that was crazy.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Cornell and I majored in computer science.
From that, where did you get into theatre? Was that from high school or more so in college?
I was much more inclined in the visual arts, so it was graffiti and then mixing that with graphics. It progressed and I was doing crazy stuff working with the first version of Photoshop and then I was working on programming, C++ and learning machine vision. So when I came out of college I started doing design work and quickly moved into motion graphics and doing work for HBO, and that had a lot of similarity in terms of colors and layering with the graffiti that I used to do. That eventually burned out after ten years.
So you were designing opening and closing credits?
Yeah, and also the promotions on HBO like title sequences. I saw the title sequence for 7 and that was what got me excited to do it. I got to shoot a lot of weird things and layer textures and create things and at one point 70% of HBO was just minding my shit and it was great, but not artistically fulfilling. The client process sucks it out of you.
When did you first really get behind the camera in any capacity? Was it something you messed with in high school, college or after you messed with the title sequences and stuff like that?
The year I came out of college, I took a film class at this community film workshop. [The teacher’s] name was J.T. Taylor, an old African American man who was very strict. We learned completely on film. That was my first exposure where I got to work on my first short. That was in 1995. Throughout, I would shoot and work on motion graphics, but it wasn’t till later in 1998 that I started working with actors at the Actors’ Studio in New York.
What was that like? Did you come here because there were more opportunities here?
At that point the Midwest was bland white folks; it was pretty rough there and in New York to get into the film industry. It was hard because there was no dark skin around or appreciation of a different aesthetic. New York had more opportunities than Chicago, and that’s why I left Chicago to pursue that.
So where did you first move to in New York when you came in 1996?
Thompson and Bleecker, you know, that frat boy-smelling area. Within a year I left and moved to Brooklyn. I was on 4th and St. Marks, right by, now, the Barclays Center.
That’s crazy, my girl used to live on St. Marks between 3rd and 4th. She lived on 20 St Marks Place. Was that neighborhood in South Brooklyn kind of rough at that time, or was it alright?
It was perfectly fine; it was just a little bit rough-edged in terms of how it looked and felt. I loved the diversity, that block was still majority Puerto Rican so it had a different kind of authenticity to it that I missed.
So you came to New York to the Actors’ Studio. What does that entail?
The theme of the place surrounds James Lipton, who used to do Inside the Actors’ Studio. Different people go to workshop and improve their craft. They also have an MFA program associated with it. I went for a year and dropped out. I was doing theatrical directing, so you can imagine at the age of 30 I was doing things with visuals and technology. When I went to the Actors’ Studio I hadn’t touched a computer in a year. So over the course of my career, I was making a lot of hard left turns and that was one of them.
How did Sangam come about? Was it something you’d thought about since you moved to New York?
There was this one night I was working really late by West 4th, and I felt quite frustrated, feeling numb about New York, people starting to do stuff that I wasn’t really into, so I felt like I was having this really lonely New York moment. I went into the subway and there was this Indian guy, very skinny, with really intense eyes. You see it all the time in India. He was just looking at me with piercing eyes, and I’m the type that doesn’t really flinch when that happens.
Indians love to stare.
We really do, and this guy had this really haunting look like something was wrong. The train came and I went to sit down. There was a lot of space in the train car, and I was sitting next to someone on the three-seater; there was space in the middle. He came and sat there. It was kind of abrupt, like why are you sitting next to me? But he just wouldn’t leave and started to talk to me. And there was this profound, eerie conversation that occurred about each of us wanting what the other took for granted, and at times finding this space where we really connected in feeling as though this was where we wanted to be in our lives, and it was a 20 minute conversation, and something happened. I’m not gonna give it away it so you could watch the film, but something happened where we weren’t able to sustain that. But the whole film came out of that one moment. And you know at that time there was a lot of my artistic development, doing something autobiographical and trying to sort out what my identity was as an Indian American, growing up here, wanting what the other has, and wondering what comes next.
What kind of stuff goes down at Sundance? I’ve been down once ‘cause we had an animated music video that became a short and there were all these showbiz people, and the show wasn’t a very good show and nobody gave a shit but what is the process when you go there? What’s the atmosphere like?
The cool thing is that you don’t know who’s who, whether it’s a short or a feature. I remember I was sitting next to the guy who did Supersize Me, and I was like what’s your film about, and he was like “You know I ate McDonald’s for a month” and I was like “Cool, dude” and I just got up and left. You don’t know who’s who and there’s just this electricity about it ‘cause it’s your first time. Sundance has something special about it because there’s so much of a particular interest in doing indie films. There’s consistently a number of indie films that get discovered there and blow up. There’s a lot of energy and we didn’t know what to do, what to expect but that’s pretty much it. You see all of the people rolling up in their UGG boots and plaid, and it’s nice ‘cause it’s not as glamorous as the Cannes festival or something like that. There’s something more homely about it.
What kind of work was involved in preparing, from watching and making potential shots? Was it that kind of thing or was it more practical?
When it began, I was very conscious of the fact that I grew up in the Southside of Chicago, and my goal was to create an anthem of Ahmedabad so that those who live there would feel proud of this film as if it was their own. In an odd way, that’s what I thought to do when I was doing graffiti. It was about getting down, and you really wanted that respect from the real, we wanted to keep it real. That was my goal with it. I had to let go of that perspective, and learn and observe. I wasn’t necessarily looking for what shocked. I was just talking to myself and immersing myself in every place I could possibly go. I would have a camera everywhere and I would initially lie and say I’m doing some doc or I’m part of a college and doing something, but it was during those three years that an immense amount changed in the way that I approached my filmmaking, and it formed the process of how I would eventually shoot the film. But it was shot in the old city of Ahmedabad, which is far from what Mumbai is like. It’s a place that was born to a lot of religious violence and natural disaster but it’s a place where your faith really returns a lot. The more you give, the more light you receive. People trust you first, until you screw up. So it was a lot of learning what the rituals were and the way people interact and things of that sort.
Where did you get the idea for Patang?
When I was growing up, I would go to India and see my uncle fly kites and it felt like hip-hop to me in the sense that when you fly a kite it doesn’t matter who you are, what class you are, what religion, or what gender. When you’re flying a kite, it’s a moment where thoughts and doubts are forgotten. It was fierce: you were trying to cut the other person’s kite. And it was joyous. It was a way of doing something spiritual without getting heavy-handed, preachy, or immediate. My prior film, Sangam, was about longing for fullness. This was about being full right away, and that’s what I set out to do. It started with the seed of the kite flying, and the story developed after that.
When you finished shooting and editing and putting the movie together, what steps did you take after that? What do filmmakers typically do when they have a finished movie?
When you step back to the editing, I spent nearly 2 years editing and I did that on my own and I worked with Joe Plots who worked on Precious and Junebug. We almost shot it like a documentary. No actors.
What was the first great reaction or press that you got?
I worked with Shivani Ahlowahlia, who was our music supervisor and who is a rapper now, and she had a friend whose mother came and the mother had Alzheimer’s and could not remember things very well. But when she saw this film, she was smiling and laughing the whole time. It affected her in a very profound way. She met me afterwards and shared some of that, and that was one of the most touching things that I recall. What also meant a lot to me was the time we showed it before, Berlin and Ahmedabad itself, we had a couple hundred people from the film and their friends come and see it, that was pretty amazing because there was one very close friend who has now passed away, who was a poet and a musician, he said: “you’re one of the few people who crafted a work of our living heritage.” So it was just certain people who came up and said these things [about what] touched them that really struck me the most.
So it was more about personal interaction or institutional reaction or what?
So it was a few months after we got our 4 star review or whatever from Ebert. My dad knew him, and I’d just given him the film with no expectations and he wrote a blog review of the film and also went to eat with my family and connected the legacy of my family with the film, and there was just so much love and he got it.
He got it, as in being not Indian and still able to understand it?
Yeah. And he’s like the world’s finest critic and such a good man, you know that always stays with me.
How did you meet him?
My dad took his class in Chicago where he would show a film every week and talk about it. My dad would go and he really can’t sit through a film so he would sleep, and he would sit next to my dad and my dad would give him a samosa. But you know, Ebert’s not the type of person to just like a film because he knows someone, and even though we did have an in, that wasn’t really connected with it.
Have you had any other dream projects that you want to do in the future? What are you gearing up to do or looking forward to doing?
I’ve done very naturalistic work in the past, you know, sensitive, lyrical, poetic stuff. I’m working toward trying to keep that naturalism but move into toward a more surreal, magical realism that’s been in India thus far. And embrace where I’ve come from. I’d been exploring the religious aspect, and I selected this character there who I’d been paralleling with stories that are more contemporary or more cultured. So it won’t be something that’s casted as all-Indian, but more so something from the future, or more urban. Just trying to get open and access a lot more of who I am, whether it be emotionally or in terms of my influences growing up.