Imagine the awkwardness of high school. Now multiply that by a hundred as you imagine yourself as one of a few immigrants and people of color in the student body. Now add the fact that you were homeschooled all this time and that your beloved father had passed away. Your mother remarried a person you can’t relate to, and to make matters worse, you can hear both of them squealing with delight during fits of wild passion every night since their bedroom is next to yours.
The MisEducation of Bindu is a refreshing narrative that breathes new life into the coming-of-age genre. It had its world premiere in the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, California, on Oct. 9. The story is about Bindu Chaudry, an Indian immigrant who has been attending high school for a couple weeks and already hates it with every fiber of her being. Bill, her Caucasian Midwestern stepfather, had convinced her mother Kasturi to stop homeschooling her and to send her to high school to have an American experience. Although Bindu breezes through the classes, she finds the social scene more daunting and difficult to figure out. She misses her home in India and always wishes she could return.
After days of bullying, Bindu wants to escape the prison her parents put her in by testing out of school. All she needs to do to finish high school is pass a Spanish proficiency test, but her mother, convinced her daughter is giving up too easily, refuses to sign a slip that would allow her to take it. After a rough morning, Bindu resolutely forges her mother’s signature but discovers another hurdle when she arrives at the registrar’s office: a $57 fee. Not wanting to wait until March to take the next test, Bindu and her (only) friend Peter are on a mission to scrounge up the required money by 7th period. Desperate, Bindu becomes bold and reluctantly treads into unknown territory, experiencing new things she never dared to do.
Co-writers Prarthana Mohan and Kay Tuxford were tired of seeing experiences that did not resonate with their own coming-of-age experience and set out to correct this error by making a feature film focused on the female experience. “It was important to us that we didn’t tie it all up in a pretty bow where our protagonist gets to be prom queen or king or win the championship or end up with love that was always in front of them but just couldn’t see,” said Mohan, who is also the director, in an email interview. “In our experience, high school was about the quiet victories, making those first real friends and hopefully becoming comfortable in your own skin. We wanted to make a different kind of high school film.”
The foundation of the story was first penned by Tuxford. Both she and Mohan pursued their master’s of fine arts in Chapman University. Studying screenwriting and film production respectively, the two first started working together at school when Mohan chose a story Tuxford wrote to produce into a short film. Sharing similar visions with their storytelling, the two joined forces once again in 2009 when Tuxford presented what was to eventually become the story of Bindu.
“The first time I read it, I was so thrilled to have found someone with a unique voice who wrote these wonderfully flawed characters that resonated with me,” said Mohan. “We started collaborating on that project and haven’t stopped since.”
Although the film is about a homeschooled Indian teenager who is expected to navigate the beaten warpath known as high school life, the story did not start out that way and had the running title of Whore when it won as a semifinalist in 2011 for the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. The protagonist actually started off being Caucasian because the film would not have been marketable otherwise. The character stayed that way until their director of photography made a suggestion in 2014 that made them think about the story from an Indian immigrant’s perspective, and since the timing seemed right, they went for it.
Not only did the point of view change but the time period the movie was supposed to cover changed as well. Through the crowdfunding and video-on-demand platform Seed&Spark, the team raised over $62,000 and won the Hometown Heroes competition the platform had launched with the Duplass brothers, who are searching for the next generation of indie filmmakers. The winners will have Mark and Jay Duplass join the team as executive producers. The MisEducation of Bindu was one of two films chosen in 2018. Mark Duplass asked the team to minimize the script from a semester down to one day, putting the film through another round of changes.
“While it kept the heart of what we had been working on, it changed a lot of the format and gave way to more interesting scenes,” said Tuxford in an email interview. “No matter what changes we made, however, we always felt we knew where the core of Bindu’s story lay, so the rest was easy to adjust and fill in.”
To the team’s surprise, David Arquette expressed an interest in Bill’s role. “We didn’t ever think that we would land someone like him,” said Mohan. “When we were informed that David was interested in the part, we were ecstatic. He is the perfect Bill. He was so great to work with and was so kind and wonderful to collaborate with.”
In July of 2019, the crew shot the film in Indianapolis in a matter of 19 days. “Indie filmmaking is incredibly hard,” said Mohan. “There are so many twists and turns every single day that there are no guarantees the film is going to get off the ground. I think the next big mountain for us to climb is figuring out the best distribution plan for this film and ensuring that it gets seen by the most number of people possible.”
A wonderful and exuberant film to watch with teens, parents or friends, “The MisEducation of Bindu” is one of those films movie lovers should keep a close eye out for as the filmmakers have expressed interest in showing it in Seattle.
The IE was fortunate enough to get an interview with both Prarthana Mohan and Kay Tuxford to discuss parts of the film as well as its inspiration and backstory.
International Examiner: Bindu’s cousin says at the beginning of the film, “You’re so lucky to have an American dad; you’re legit now.” The irony of this statement touches on every adolescent’s struggle to belong, especially for people of color. Why did you decide to include this idea into the movie? Was this something you felt as you were living in the U.S.?
Prarthana Mohan: Absolutely! I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard friends and family share stories of how they did not feel like they belonged when they were younger. This line is borrowed directly from a conversation I had with my niece and nephew who are born here and didn’t feel like they were American for a very long time. That is a reality for a lot of POC kids until they come into their own and begin to appreciate and embrace all sides of their identity. Conversely, Bindu in the film tells Peter that not everyone wants to come to America. It was important for us to show both these juxtaposing views.
IE: Biracial marriages and remarriages are not something you often see in immigrant stories, especially about conservative Asian families. I found it very interesting that Bindu’s mother was so conservative about the way she raised her daughter, yet she seemed somewhat radical with her own personal decisions. Is this dichotomy something you and Kay observed to some extent in your own lives?
PM: I definitely experienced this dichotomy. My parents could be extremely openminded about certain things and quite conservative about certain others. Growing up, I had loads of male friends and my parents were okay with it, but they were not okay with me dating or having a boyfriend. Lines are often blurred, and what is okay for the parents can often not be okay for the children. This is especially true of girls. There are lots of double standards and it used to drive me crazy when I was younger.
Kay Tuxford: I definitely defer to Prarthana on her parent’s contradictory behavior, but my own white American mother struggled with this as well. My mother remarried a younger man quickly after her divorce from my father, but her love choices didn’t extend into the parenting of me. They were two separate things.
IE: Your grandfather is famous Indian composer M.S. Viswanathan, aka Mellisai Mannar. You have featured his music in your movie. Can you tell us a bit about him and his influence on your career choice?
PM: Growing up, my grandfather was always larger than life. In Indian cinema, a film’s music is as important as the film itself. Everywhere we went with my grandfather, there would be throngs of people who would surround him and thank him for his music and share all these wonderful personal stories with him. It was very powerful to see that up close. When I was in high school, my grandparents stayed with us for an extended period of time while their house was being renovated and I got to know him as a person. We talked about music and movies. I showed him my short films, and it meant a lot to him that he inspired me to follow down a similar path. He isn’t around to see this film, and I really wish I could have watched it with him, but knowing we have a little piece of him, the film gives me tremendous joy, and we love that it is such a fun part of the film.
IE: When Bindu goes to school, we see that she has been tagged as a “whore” and a “dyke.” This kind of reputation also seems to be something she is constantly worried about in her daily life. Girls generally don’t want to be labelled as a “skank” or a “whore,” but Bindu’s fear of these words seem to stem from somewhere deep within herself. What is she afraid of? What made you decide to put this as a primal fear for Bindu considering she has a lot of other things to worry about?
KT: Some of this is from my own experience in middle school. I had a person who liked to call me “Dyke” every day. He thought it was funny because it seemed to bother me, so he kept doing it. And it bothered me because I knew at that point in my life that I was not straight, though I wasn’t even sure beyond that. I had kept it to myself. So him yelling at me every day made me feel pinned and wriggling and miserable that somehow he knew these things about me better than I did at the time. It felt like everyone else had decided and judged my identity, and it left me feeling very powerless. I think Bindu is coming to the point in her life where she is wondering about her sexuality, not necessarily orientation, but just the awareness [that] she has one, and much to her terror, so does everyone else around her. It’s a new perception she can’t hide from or tune out, so when she’s called those names, it’s like alarm bells are ringing.
IE: What message do you hope to impart to your audience?
KT: I really hope people watch and remember how high school wasn’t all roses, but there were some good moments and a lot of personal growth. It will hopefully make people empathize with Bindu, even if they aren’t an Indian teenager, and be united by that inclusion and universality.
PM: We hope that the audience will take away the importance of being comfortable in your skin and that the opinions of others are insignificant in the larger context when it comes to someone’s self-worth or self-esteem.