Leena Pendharkar is a filmmaker and writer known for films which focus upon family structures. In reflecting upon her artistic goals, Pendharkar states: “Coming from a first-generation Indian American family, I am constantly exploring that experience — what does it mean to be an Asian American immigrant? How do we fit into American culture, and what does it mean for families? These questions come up for me a lot and I continue to explore them in my filmmaking.”
Here, Picture This Post (PTP) talks to Leena Pendharkar (LP) about her goals as a filmmaker, her latest film Awaken and more.
(PTP) In many of your films, there is a strong focus on family structures. Why?
(LP): Family relationships have been a source of both stress and joy for me, and where many of my questions come from as an artist. I really enjoy exploring complex relationships and I do believe our relationships with our families say so much about us. There is pain and joy in the complicated nature of family dynamics.
Coming from a first-generation Indian American family, I am constantly exploring that experience — what does it mean to be an Asian American immigrant? How do we fit into American culture, and what does it mean for families? These questions come up for me a lot and I continue to explore them in my filmmaking.
Has becoming a mother altered your writing process as you explore these themes of family in your filmmaking?
For sure, yes. Being a parent definitely altered my understanding of family dynamics. I've always had a challenging relationship with my mom, and I think becoming a mom really helped me see her side and some of the challenges she faced as an immigrant to the US.
When and how did you originally get the idea for the mother-daughter dynamic you portray in your latest film, Awaken?
My husband's mom has Alzheimer's. It's such a hard disease, especially when a mother has it. You lose your support system and a large part of your own history and self. I think in many Asian communities there is shame in addressing mental health and the struggles around it.
My mother-in-law had this period in the illness where she would randomly bring up things from the far past, which fascinated me. The brain and our memories are just such a key part of who we are. I wanted to explore this in a film and the impact of having a moment where this woman, Rakhi, is having a hard time, and her mom provides her with a tiny moment of awakening. It was a dream to work with Parminder Nagra, she really brought so much reality to the character.
Can you please share with our readers how and when your passion for filmmaking began?
I always loved stories and storytelling from a young age. I was really into acting and dance as a kid and also a voracious reader. I started out doing freelance journalism, and then got into making/experimenting with video. I started making short films and playing them in festivals. Then I started getting more and more ambitious with my films, venturing into features. I really love doing it. It’s a tough business for women but it is my life's goal to tell complex, female-centered stories, particularly around women of color and immigrant women.