Agam Darshi wears many hats. She is a Canadian Punjabi actress, writer and storyteller, director, and co-founder (of the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival – VISAFF).
You’ve likely seen Darshi, who is also a producer, award winner, mother, daughter, partner, among many other things, in cult favourites such as Funny Boy, Snakes on a Plane, and various TV series’ including Sanctuary, and most recently, The Flash.
This past week 5X Press had the chance to sit down with Darshi following the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival (MISAFF) premiere of her new film, Donkeyhead – a film that she not only directed but also wrote and starred in.
Donkeyhead is an Indie coming-of-age dramedy that centers on the Punjabi Sikh-Canadian experience in Regina, Saskatchewan. The film zooms in on the life of Mona Ghuman (Agam Darshi), a 30-something year old writer who returns home to take care of her ailing father (played by Marvin Ischmael).
What was meant to be a brief respite to re-orient herself, ends up extending to the better half of a decade.
When her father’s health deteriorates, Mona’s much more successful siblings, Rup, Sandy, and her twin Parm (Huse Madhavji, Sandy Sidhu, and Stephen Lobo), return home to help. What ensues then is a series of complicated family dynamics mixed with a journey of rediscovery for Mona–all amid a backdrop of the Punjabi-Canadian context.
The cast also features Kim Coates who plays Mona’s married lover and family lawyer, along with Balinder Johal who plays Mona’s “puaji.”
Chatting to Agam this past week, it is evident that sharing this story meant a lot to her, in addition to her also being a first-time director.
“I wanted to share my experience of growing up in Canada. I wanted to show this through a coming-of-age story but with a woman (Mona) in her 30’s.”
She speaks of her love for coming-of-age stories and family dramedies growing up, that she related to but never saw herself in due to the lack of representation of South Asian characters.
”I grew up watching films by Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach - family dramedies. While I related to these films. I didn’t see people that look like me in them.”
We both recognized the great era of what she identified as “east-west films” like Bend it Like Beckham, but Agam speaks to the fact that the narrative has shifted now - that those of us from the east belong here just as much as everyone else.
Through Donkeyhead she wanted to share her experiences growing up in Canada where she felt “as much Canadian as South Asian,” and showcase who we are as South Asians with a lot more depth. She speaks of Parm’s character in particular and how she wanted to shed light on the fact that Sikh men who wear turbans are often misunderstood.
”I have a lot of Sikh men in my life that wear turbans. These men are often misunderstood in society. That's what I wanted to depict with Parm’s character.”
It also fascinated me that the movie was shot in Regina, Saskatchewan. In thinking about the Punjabi-Canadian experience, cities like Surrey or Brampton often come to mind. For Agam, who wanted the film to be shot in Calgary due to her roots there, logistics made Regina the better option. However, she quickly found that Regina was the perfect backdrop for Mona’s story.
She refers to Regina as an “ugly city with beautiful moments.” It’s a place that people tend to leave, but for immigrants it’s an appealing option due to the ease of permanent residency in Regina.
By setting the film in Regina, Agam wanted to avoid romanticizing Canada and instead focus on the factory buildings, warehouses, working-class economy, bleak winters, and the juxtaposition immigrants south of the equator face amidst this colder climate and cowboy-like culture.
“I’ve always found it interesting when people choose to stay where other people want to leave. Regina in that sense mirrors who Mona is. She’s stuck in this place, that’s a little rough around the edges like her.”
As important as the setting and message of Donkeyhead, is the cast itself. As I ask Agam about her decisions around casting, her eyes light up in talking of each actor and the way they elevated their roles. It occurred to me that casting siblings must be particularly difficult due to the unique nature and nuance of the chemistry within these relationships.
”Being an actor for so long. I’ve seen so many miscasts so I was looking for the whole package. While I had the essence of each character mapped out, I was open to being surprised. But, I needed people who could trust me, as a director and actor.”
But it’s clear that Agam made the right choices as Hus brought Rup’s charming nature to life, Sandy restored a level of humanity to the character Sandy, and Stephen went to great lengths in order to embody Parm – each actor brought in an element of their own and shared a level of symbiotic trust with Agam in her position as both director and actor.
Agam speaks to one of her favourite scenes in particular where Hus, Sandy, and Stephen improvised an argument scene in the bathroom, where she felt that their chemistry in that moment, needed no direction.
She also sheds light on her directorial debut experience as a whole. Agam talks about coming into the process being incredibly prepared with an extensive binder detailing every scene from the colours to the music, to the shot list and titles.
“I didn’t realize how high my standards were or my level of specificity. But I recognized that this was my one shot at Donkeyhead and while art can’t be perfected, I wanted to be happy with it. Throughout this though I chose to lead with kindness.”
It also struck me through interviewing Agam, that both directing and starring in your own film must be incredibly difficult. However, she describes it as a much more seamless process. The role of Mona was quite familiar to her, having been able to relate to the character in many ways. But she did work with an acting coach to ensure that she could easily switch between Mona and director Agam. She found that years of acting but also motherhood where you often “don’t think and just do” had prepared her well.
Through Agam speaking of reviewing the dailies and revelling in the beauty of the shots (the raw, unedited footage at the end of the day), listing her favourite scenes and the nuance with which they were filmed, and also being nervous about the audience & their perception of the film - It’s clear that for Agam, Donkeyhead was in fact a labour of love.
While not having seen the movie, I know already that Donkeyhead is the movie I always needed. Agam’s explanation for the title itself has told me enough. She explained that in the film Mona’s father uses the Punjabi term “ਖੋਤਾ”, otherwise known as donkey in English, as a term of endearment for her. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that Mona’s relationship with her father is incredibly difficult and traumatic.
It’s this depiction of themes like complicated parent relationships, the lack of linearity in life, the perfect sibling complex, and growing up as Punjabi Canada that I’m interested in seeing in film and TV.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about representation itself and how it can often reinforce stereotypes. Author and academic Richard Dyer, discusses that, “the way people treat us depends on how they see us,” and that there is a “false illusion that we can know almost everything there is to know about certain people just by looking at them,” through media.
In thinking about this, I appreciate Agam for choosing to explore the intricacies of her different South Asian characters, rather than feeding into common tropes we’ve seen in “east-west” films.
For all those interested in watching Donkeyhead, stay tuned this week for an announcement on Donkeyhead socials. Also for those who are interested in seeing more of Agam’s work you can find her on The Flash and in Deep Mehta’s Funny Boy release on Netflix on December 10th and stay tuned for the other films she’s working on developing.
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