Indian American director Yas Kolathayil blames parental pressure on the kids to perform well in academics for their sake
What is driving more and more South Asian kids in America to depression leading some of them to take the extreme step? Are their immigrant parents putting too much pressure on them to perform well in academics to maintain their status in the community?
‘Log kya kahenge?’ (What will people say?) is the common refrain of most South Asian parents who want their kids to be at the top leaving the kids to fight their internal battles all alone, says Yas Kolathayil, Indian American director of ‘AnGsT,’ a new movie on the subject.
A New York Film Academy alumni, Kolathayil and his co-director Shaji Kamalasanan, decided to make the film after noticing a spike in the incidence of depression among teenagers in the South Asian community during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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Since he and Kamalasanan “have teenage kids and we thought this issue needs to be addressed to raise awareness about the issue,” he told the American Bazaar in an email interview.
To look at the issue in depth, the pair chose the story of how a South Asian teenager with stutter and battling with depression struggles to fit into the society and the impact it has on his middle-class immigrant family.
Based on real life incidents, the story also explores how South Asian parents undermine the importance of mental health and put undue pressure on the kids to perform well in academics in-order to maintain their status in society.
After private preview release, the film has been submitted to film festivals such as Telluride, Sundance and LA Film Festivals and is expected to have an OTT release in early 2023.
Kolathayil, who has also written the story and screenplay of the movie, believes putting pressure on kids regarding academics “is unique to South Asian community.”
In other cultures, kids have more freedom to pick the career of their choice rather than being enforced by the parents, he says.
Kolathayil, however, offers no solutions. It is up to the audience to get the moral of the story, he says hoping “that the audience picks up something from the movie and we are able to raise the awareness about teenage depression.”
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
AB: What inspired you to make AnGsT? What challenges did you face in its making – from selection of crew and cast to the final product?
YK: The movie, AnGsT, is inspired from real life incidents. During the pandemic, I noticed an increase in the incidence of depression among teenagers in the South Asian community. My co-director (Shaji Kamalasanan) and I have teenage kids and we thought this issue needs to be addressed to raise awareness about the issue.
Regarding challenges during the shooting, we were lucky to get an awesome cast. The lead protagonist (Omar Rodriguez Arroyo) is now currently doing a musical for Disney.
We had trouble finding the right collaborators for cinematography and post production. We had to make some compromises due to budget and time constraints. However, once we finalized the team, we worked with them diligently to execute our vision and to create a high quality film.
AB: In what way is teenage depression among the South Asian community different from teenage depression in the larger American community?
YK: As per the recent CDC study, suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian American young adults age 15-24.
Most South Asian parents want their kids to be at the top of their class and also want to make them either doctors or engineers. They will go all end to meet their expectations leaving the kids to fight their internal aspirations vs the expectations of the parents and society.
Also mental health or depression is considered a stigma for South Asian parents. They will try their best to hide it or ignore it hoping that it’s part of teenage hormones and will go away.
The underlying fear is how society will judge them if they find that their kids have mental illness. Log kya kahenge? (What will people say?) is a common question that gets asked?
AB: Again do South Asian parents alone put undue pressure on the kids to perform well in academics? Don’t all parents do it?
YK: My take is that this is unique to South Asian community and other cultures don’t put that much pressure regarding academics. Kids have more freedom to pick the career of their choice rather than being enforced by the parents.
AB: A related question – by putting pressure on their kids to perform in competitions like the Spelling Bee, are South Asian parents robbing them of their childhood?
YK: In my opinion, there are certain kids who are naturally talented for Spelling Bee and similar other competitions. In that case, that talent needs to be nurtured. In my opinion, it’s a bad idea to force the kids to participate in competitions for parents’ sake.
AB: Does your film suggest a way forward — how to avoid the tragic fate of the lead character?
YK: As this is a fictional film (not a documentary), we try to depict the story in a truthful manner that will have maximum impact. It is up to the audience to get the moral of the story. Our hope is that the audience picks up something from the movie and we are able to raise the awareness about teenage depression.
You can watch the trailer here: