was bullied badly in middle school. I was called a freak, a faggot; girls who once populated my bedroom for sleepovers began calling my house and leaving messages on our answering machine. I was masturbating furiously and screaming Green Day’s Dookie in the spooky stark third-floor bedroom of our rundown circa 1892 house in the suburbs of Princeton, New Jersey — desperate to be touched — but knowing full well I was a weirdo and being near me was social death.
I say all this because there aren’t enough stories — especially in film — that tell the truth of girlhood. There are infinite boundaries and selves being forged — who am I? What do I care about? Who are my people? — but mostly there is crushing awkwardness of diluvial proportions. A goddamn flood of bodily betrayals, an intricately unfolding map scrawled in a foreign tongue that one could never follow.
This is why I was so excited to see The MisEducation of Bindu, a day-in-the-life film that follows a 15-year-old girl’s attempts at assimilating to an American high school, pining all the while to return “home,” back to India. (Instead of being forced to navigate her mother’s new marriage to the golden-hearted if clueless Bill, played by David Arquette.)
“I thought everyone in India wants to come over here,” says Bindu’s new friend Peter (played by the charming and adorably feral-looking Philip Labes). “Not everyone,” Bindu smiles sadly.
And why would they when being in America feels so vicious and alienating?
In the 24 hours we travel with the clever, bright but blundering Bindu, she traverses the hallways of small-town Indiana, thrusting us into the intricately cruel social machinations of teenagerhood, the pains of self-differentiation from family, first-time drug use, gym class humiliations, cool-girl tormentors, the dangerous ubiquity of social media, and a very hot make-out scene in a pool with the proverbial hunk-bully Sam (Gordon Winarick).
The movie centers around her collecting enough money — come hell or high water and myriad disgraces — to take the Spanish Proficiency exam she needs to test out of school and never return.
It’s a whirlwind that captures the mania of that age; when a lifetime could be lived between first and seventh period.
A winner of Seed & Spark’s Hometown Hero contest, the film has secured the Duplass brothers as executive producers and will have its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival this year, immediately followed by the film’s hometown premiere at the Heartland Film Festival.
I had the chance to speak with the co-writer and director of The MisEducation of Bindu — Prarthana Mohan, who was born in Chennai, India before moving to the U.S. in 2004 — about what it took as an Indian women to break into this industry, cinema’s role in social change, and the strangely beautiful intensity of adolescence.
Can we talk about the journey of this film? I know it’s gone through multiple iterations — it was originally a short and featured a white girl protagonist! — so how did it evolve into where it is today? And congratulations on winning Hometown Heroes by the way!
So, the journey of Bindu — it started off as a short film that we [co-writer Kay Tuxford] wrote in grad school. At the time Bindu was called Wendy — she was not Indian. When I first wrote the story I connected with Kate — after grad school the summer of trying to find ourselves in this difficult industry we should make this a feature! That was in 2008ish — back when we were youngins. [laughs]
But at that time there was no appetite, not even for a Caucasian female lead. So Kate and I went off and did other things — and then about 3–4 years ago, the DP of the film—Daniel Sanchez Lopez—was like, why don’t you guys rewrite it with an Indian lead?!
So we reimagined the story. And when we wrote the feature, so many of the elements still worked, and the timing was right. People were finally were interested and willing to listen to folks pitching other experiences. Nobody had the time of day for us after school. That has been a huge change. When we heard about Hometown Heroes, we thought, we should do this! We’re the first team to go all the way.
The MisEducation of Bindu opens on a scene of Bindu blissfully watching a vintage Bollywood film—bopping her along to a beautifully saccharine music sequence — only to realize after much confusion the crushing and revolting realization of what she is listening to on the other side of her bedroom wall…her mother having loud, messy, “yes! yes!” sex. Why did you choose to open the film with this scene? What does it achieve?
For us, it was really important that we get into Bindu’s mindspace really quickly. Initially we don’t realize that the person her mother is having sex with isn’t her actual father. And I think you can see her being trapped in this world she lives in. Sexual things happening around her and she is trying to navigate all of this. Indian parents can be so broad-minded and open, but bizarrely conservative about some things. It’s so confusing to grow up this way. Be an independent woman… but no boys. What is Bindu’s world? She is living in the past and she has no control of the future.
This film is a kind of clever inversion of the virgin countdown clock typically seen in the classic white boy, coming-of-age film — instead, we find Bindu forgoing fledgling sex for a Spanish exam. Can you talk a little bit about how you reimagined this “classic” bildungsroman tale?
Kay and I realized we both loved and related to coming-of-age stories for women, but that there truly were so few of them out there. Often times women in high school films are love interests or stereotypes to help a male lead progress in his story, but they never got to be the lead or have a more complex arc. We felt it was sort of our mission to tell a story that showcased that — to show the beauty and the pain of young women becoming adults and learning about the world.
We wanted to show a young woman that transcends stereotypes of pretty, popular, nerdy, etc — the labels you see repeated everywhere—because in reality, they’re pretty fleeting. It was also 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 right until the end.
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.
I’m wondering if you can talk about the depiction of sex/uality within the film — there is a lot of violence around it (cumslut!) and shame … but not that much joy. (To me!) What were your conversations like in how to depict adolescent sexuality…?
Women are constantly made to feel ashamed of their sexuality or they are sexualized; it exists in such extremes. In this film, Bindu is made aware of her sexuality because of the words and insecurities of others. It only becomes real if you believe in it so it was important for us to see her strip away the power from those words by embracing them and rendering them meaningless.
At that age, your self-worth and self-esteem is tied to others’ opinion of you and we wanted to empower Bindu to not be afraid to confront how these words [whore, dyke] made her feel. In her case, she is learning what these words mean as she is also finding out that people are calling her those very things. We wanted to play on the absurdity of that, the culture of projecting one’s insecurities onto others. At the end of the film, Bindu may not have found joy yet, but at least she’s on a path of extricating any shame or stigma that was attached to these things. Our hope is that in this world, she is on that journey and will get there.
You chose to set the film in Broad River, Indiana and subsequently has a very keen sense of place that is also rather nondescript, a kind of ‘America’ that could be anywhere:everywhere…
We based it on Broad Ripple High School — it’s where David Letterman went actually — and it just closed in 2018. It is a really awesome building. It had a planetarium! The school was so awesome. When we got permission to film there the last class of 40 students had just graduated; the school closed to really low enrollment. That’s how we got lucky enough to film there. It felt as though we were memorializing the experience of all these kids — it was as though they had just walked out leaving everything untouched.
When we wrote the film we knew we didn’t want to film it in California or something like that — wanted that anywhere, USA feeling. Our producer — who is also my husband — is from Indianapolis, he was born and raised there. And we wanted to take a project back home. And I think one of the best additions we made. What Indiana gave us was heart. The whole community came together.
“Save some money for your castration surgery!”
So I’ve got to ask. How much of this story dovetails with your own experience if at all?
[laughs.] It’s not autobiographical in any way, but there are things that Bindu experiences that certainly happened. I witnessed a lot of bullying growing up. I went to this alternative high school in India where you supposed to talk about your feelings and that was fine. But there is an underbelly to how kids are — they tell twisted stories behind people’s backs! — and we wanted to explore that.
But also wanted to explore the insecurities of people that age. When you’re that age — you can’t really understand your feelings. And if you don’t have the right support system to channel it the first thing you do is lash out at someone you think you can have power. Bindu is the protagonist, but we didn’t want to depict her as holier than thou. We wanted to show she was fraught. She needed to learn things too as an Indian kid growing up with a conservative background. We wanted to be honest about that journey because it’s not uncommon. We’re all flawed in our own way.
On the surface, this is a fairly frothy light-hearted story, but it takes aim and explores a lot of darkness — bullying, racism, homophobia, the pains of assimilation …
The tone of the film as something we had to be very mindful of. It starts off as a comedy and it has all the typical makings of the high school comedy, but we are dealing with some more serious topics and we wanted to give them the right treatment. We didn’t want this pain to be the butt of a joke, but humor — sometimes — can be a great way to address these kinds of topics.
Some of the things that happen to Bindu are totally nuts, but I worked a lot with Megan [Bindu] to hit the right tone. For our first feature there are a lot of characters to manage and we had to make sure there was a cohesive tone and thread. These people can’t be awful:awful — we had to show a little bit of humanity in everybody.
When we got the note and suggestion to make it a ‘one-day’ film. We had to find the right pieces to touch on all these things. It was definitely challenging!
Why is it important to tell this story?
If not us, who will tell those stories? If we’re given this opportunity, it’s our responsibility to do it — especially in a high school film! High school is so universal. Even if you are not Indian you can relate to the things that Bindu is going through. We all go through puberty — it doesn’t have to be a cis white male.
High school is shitty universally for all of us — and also beautiful and amazing…I remain fascinated with that time period. I can remember thinking it was amazing even at that age that these things were happening. So many changes happening. You’re confronted with your feelings and emotions all the time. And simple dumb things could make or break those years. I don’t think I’ve ever cared about things like I did then — I’ve grown rational and can compartmentalize now! The silliest things would wreck my month! And there is something glorious and confusing about that time.
You can learn things about yourself even from people who don’t look like you.
There’s a moment when Bindu’s cousin who is vastly more “Americanized” says, ‘I can’t you have a white dad — you’re legit now.” It is such a painful and poignant nod to the power of being proximal to whiteness…
That was a direct quote from my niece and nephew who grew up in the U.S. That was such an eye-opening conversation. They totally embrace their Indian identity now, but there was a big part of their life where they didn’t feel they belonged. They weren’t American, even though they were born and raised here. They told me when I married my husband, a white man, they finally felt “legit.” Now there’s a white person in our family! I couldn’t believe that was their experience.
And I think we wanted to play with both sides of that…home is wherever it becomes. You didn’t really want to come here? Well no, coming to America wasn’t the main objective of my life!
For me, I came here in 2004 from India and I distinctly remember the one time the plane was landing and I saw the jammed 405 in L.A. and my first thought was, I’m home. It was such a weird feeling of comfort from just looking at the city at night, filled with lights. This is finally home. But It didn’t happen until after 10 years of living here. You think, OK, wife and a house it will feel like home! But it’s actually the most random things that make home.
And Bindu is waiting for that feeling to happen.