SOMERVILLE, MA. In a tiny, packed room deep in the belly of the Somerville Theatre, an international crowd of tweens and adults focus their eyes on the big screen. On this blustery November evening, viewers are here for the 2nd Annual Boston International Kids Film Festival.
One of the more serious films of the evening is “The Theft.” It is the directorial and writing debut for Gauri Adelkar, a 34-year-old resident of Somerville. In the film, she weaves a complex story of a modern domestic servant—someone of the lowest class and caste in India—who gets wrongfully blamed when household money goes missing.
Like most middle and upper class families in Mumbai, India, Adelkar’s family employed a domestic servant. While most are treated respectfully, she says, there’s still a clear demarcation between domestic servants and the people who hire them.
“You will never find a domestic servant sitting on the sofa in your living room—that’s a big no. That never happens,” Adelkar says. “And as a child I didn’t understand why there was a different treatment. Over the years I just became part of the system.”
In 2002, Adelkar moved to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering. She encountered people from a kaleidoscope of cultures, and began reading up on civil disobedience.
“It was after coming to the U.S. that I started realizing how bad it was, and how important it was to stand up against it, to shout out from the rooftops that everyone is equal,” Adelkar says.
Adelkar’s passion for social justice is tempered by a friendly, easygoing disposition. She frequently tucks her long brown hair behind her ears, and laughs easily. She’d rather discuss her film than talk about herself. Still, there’s a hint of intensity that resides behind her copper-colored eyes.
During filming of “The Theft,” one of the critical crew members started acting out. “Gauri would bend over backwards to accommodate him,” says the film’s producer, Preethi Prasad, 34. Soon it became clear that his presence might compromise the film. “She fired him just a week before production and brought in a new crew member without losing the momentum of the production team and not altering the schedule—quite a feat for a first-timer!”
Adelkar is a weekend-warrior filmmaker. By day she works at a software company in Cambridge as an electrical engineer. (And not a stuffy one—her Twitter profile reads “Electrical Engineer, but cannot repair engines or electric bulbs.”) From an early age she wanted to be an engineer, partly because she loved math and physics
and partly because she never wanted to be a doctor or chartered accountant—and those were the three main career options for middle class kids in India.
“But at the same time I was always participating in drama and elocution—those were the things that charged me up, excited me,” she says. “But I never thought that could be a career option. Arts were not a very encouraged option.”
Yet the arts were all around her—Mumbai is the cradle of Bollywood. She devoured movies as a kid. She and her brother, 33-year-old Siddharth Adelkar, watched everything from Charlie Chaplin films to Bollywood cult classics.
“We watched ‘Mr. India’ more than 50 times. We played the VHS again and again and again,” says Siddharth. “Gauri had earned a name in our extended family for watching movies with an uncanny focus. The screen fascinated her and she tuned in to it.”
“The Theft” is raking in awards in the film festival circuit, including best director at the 2014 Boston International Film Festival earlier this year. Her accolades recently secured her nomination as a top 20 finalist for the 2014 India New England Woman of the Year. But all the awards haven’t inflated her ego one bit.
“A lot of people in the world are caught up in the struggles of surviving,” she says slowly. “If I’m privileged enough to actually be able to do what I want to do, then I should pursue it with all my energy.”
She softly clenches her fists on the table and says the urge to keep telling stories is compelling. “I can’t help myself. It’s already been a little more than a year and I’m itching to shoot another film!”
Lauren McLaughlin is a research coordinator by day, journalism master’s student by night, wife and parent all the time. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Mount Holyoke College and is working on her master’s degree in journalism at Harvard Extension School. She also freelances for Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, where she writes articles for and about students, alumni, and faculty. Lauren is an enthusiast of words and numbers, kale and cookies, science and design. She likes to consider herself a skeptical optimist.