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Rehana Mirza Explores Bold South Asian Themes

Rehana Mirza is the rare, prolific screenwriter and director who fluidly moves between independent cinema and theatre. She has honed her skills at Columbia University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Writer-director Rehana Mirza fluidly moves between independent cinema  and theatre.

NEW YORK – Rehana Mirza has always been drawn to emotional stories about the fabric of South Asian life. It is this thread, which has been woven through the entirety of her diverse career, as director, screen writer and playwright. She explores bold themes in her movies that other directors prefer to sweep under the carpet.

Mirza studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and has a BFA in Dramatic Writing. In early 2007, as Mirza was finishing a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting at Columbia, she was given an opportunity to spend nearly a month in London to observe Tamasha, a British theater company.

“I like to throw myself at an imaginary wall. I am not sure what I will find on the other side but I keep pitching.”

“I like to throw myself at an imaginary wall. I am not sure what I will find on the other side but I keep pitching,” says Mirza, who tells South Asian stories.

Mirza’s father is a Pakistani, who was was born in Lucknow in India, and her mother is Filipino. Mirza’s creative spark very often means drawing on her half-Pakistani, half-Filipina heritage.

Making Films that Matter

I have yet to hear a bad word about Mirza’s first feature film Hiding Divya and you are not going to find one here. The film starring veteran actress Madhur Jaffrey, Pooja Kumar and Bombay Dreams star Deep Katdare was released in 2010 and is touring schools. It tackles the taboo subject of mental illness in the South Asian community with humour and emotional depth. Hiding Divya is a three generational story of mother, daughter and grandmother.

“Mentors, connections, and experience — you can get all three outside film school but it is a harder path. It will be a longer journey. Film school is a shortcut to those three things but it won’t be a guarantee for your success.”

“One of my sister's friends first talked to me about the problem of mental illness in the South Asian community. She pointed out that South Asians tend to deny its existence and rarely, if ever, seek treatment. Families sort of sweep it under the carpet and treat mental illness as a failure rather than a treatable disease,” said Mirza.

“I also got a big push to tell the story when another friend's father, who was suffering from depression, shot himself,” she added.

Mirza tackles the heavy content of Hiding Divya with dexterity and the film is far from gloomy. It has terrific acting and will appeal to anyone who has lived through the struggle of keeping a family together.

Hiding Divya was screened at the House of Lords while it was mulling a bill on mental illness.

Getting the Right Skills

Rehana is currently the co-director of the Ma-Yi Theater’s Writer’s Lab, a company of Asian-American playwrights in Manhattan, alongside her husband, playwright Michael Lew.

Rehana Mirza tackles the taboo subject of mental illness in the South Asian community.

“We are working with playwrights but most of them are writers who work in other mediums like television and film,” said Mirza who in the past has been a Leopold Schepp scholar, a 2G Resident Artist, and the recipient of an EST/Sloan Commission.

Mirza’s father is a Pakistani, who was born in Lucknow in India, and her mother is Filipino. Mirza’s creative spark very often means drawing on her half-Pakistani, half-Filipina heritage.

How important is it to go to film school? “It is an individual decision. You have to weigh the costs against the rewards,” reasons Mirza.

“Mentors, connections, and experience — you can get all three outside film school but it is a harder path. It will be a longer journey. Film school is a shortcut to those three things but it won’t be a guarantee for your success,” she added.

Mirza is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Desipina Productions which encourages cross-pollinations in theatre and film. Her acclaimed short film, Modern Day Arranged Marriage won the audience award at NBC's DiverseCity Short Cuts Festival. Her screenwriting credits include: Far From Home (Sundance Feature Film Lab Finalist), Tiger Meat (LightHouse Productions), and Quarter Life Crisis (with Lisa Ray, Maulik Pancholi, and Russell Peters.)

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