Under the Influence: Mahesh Pailoor on Brahmin Bulls and Interpreter of Maladies

Under the Influence charts the often-mysterious ways that art begets art, calling upon moviemakers to write about one creative work that informed and inspired their own. In this edition, Mahesh Pailoor, director and co-writer of feature drama Brahmin Bulls, shares how Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Interpreter of Maladies guided his exploration of themes of Indian diaspora.

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It was towards the end of college at NYU when Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, first came my way. There was a subtle power to her writing that took me by surprise, and I felt a connection to the material that I hadn’t felt for anything I’d read before.

Each of the stories in the collection tell simple yet profound tales of South Asian characters living in America. Some are told from the perspective of older first-generation immigrants, straddling two continents, while others are from a younger, second-generation perspective, searching for a sense of belonging.  The stories reminded me of my own family and upbringing, and made me think of my parents own journey from India to America some 30 years prior.

Director and co-writer Mahesh Pailoor

Brahmin Bulls director and co-writer Mahesh Pailoor

I remember sitting on the floor at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, reading the last pages of the book. I looked up, thinking that, for the first time, someone had captured characters and a setting that I related to distinctly but could never express coherently. And she had done it in a way that touched a broad audience, proving the point that the more specific you get in your work, the more universal it can become.

When we set out to write Brahmin Bulls, Anu Pradhan (co-writer) and I often thought of Ms. Lahiri’s work as a jumping-off point. We wanted to make a film with South Asian lead characters that didn’t rely on stereotypes. We wanted to achieve with filmmaking what Ms. Lahiri so beautifully achieves with her writing — an evocative portrayal of the everyday that transcends the mundane.

Roshan Seth (left) as Ashok and Sendhil Ramamurthy (right) as Sid

Roshan Seth as Ashok (left) and Sendhil Ramamurthy as Sid (right)

In Brahmin Bulls, Ashok Sharma (Roshan Seth) travels to Los Angeles to visit his son Sid (Sendhil Ramamurthy) under the auspices of connecting after many years apart.  In reality, though, Ashok has come in search of an old flame (Mary Steenburgen). Although not autobiographical, Brahmin Bulls draws on the particular life experiences of first-generation Indian immigrants and their families, experiences that are our own.

Writing about Interpreter of Maladies as an inspiration for our film seems like an obvious choice, since Brahmin Bulls also deals with South Asian characters and the weight of loss. But the truth is, Ms. Lahiri’s work validated the exploration of characters and themes that I was also interested in at a time in my life when I was still defining my voice. She opened the door to expressing a particular South Asian experience in America.

Interpreter of Maladies and author Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies and author Jhumpa Lahiri

In a lot of ways, I see Brahmin Bulls as a continuation of the conversation that Interpreter of Maladies started many years ago. MM

Brahmin Bulls opened in theaters November 14, 2014, courtesy of Barking Cow Media Group.

Check out previous installments of Under the Influence here.

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