Film, TV, Stage & Radio
11 February 1955, Nairobi
Pratibha Parmar is a British filmmaker, who has worked as a director, producer and writer. She is known internationally for her political and often controversial documentary film work as well as her activism within the global feminism and lesbian rights movements. She has collaborated with many well-known artists and activists, and public figures across the world. Parmar specifically uses the camera to benefit women worldwide. Focusing her lens on disenfranchised communities and peoples internationally, her contribution to worldwide humanitarian rights and education has been crucial. Her films are marked by political complexity and visual richness, taking up the themes of women’s strength, racial and cultural oppression and the lives of South Asian LBGT people. She is well known for drawing on humour, wit, women’s everyday lives and visionary storytelling to articulate the realities and dreams of feminist, lgbt women and South Asian diasporic life.
Her works typically center around the themes of gender, identity, lgbtq+ issues, race, “feminism, and creativity”(alicewalkerfilm.com). Parmar aims to narrate and depict untold stories and experiences of traditionally marginalized and underrepresented groups such as African-American women in the 1970s, survivors of female genital mutilation, and misrepresented gay communities in Southeast Asia.
In particular, Parmar’s award-winning documentary Warrior Marks (1993), made in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple), located Parmar deep within multiple conversations about globalization and women’s responsibilities to other women. Parmar went on to co-publish Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women with Walker.
Parmar has also made music videos for Morcheeba, Tori Amos, Ghostlands and Midge Ure.
In the fall of 2007, Pratibha Parmar was awarded the Visionary Award by the One in Ten Film Festival for her entire body of work and she is a past winner of the San Francisco Frameline Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award.
Parmar was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her family moved to Britain, where she grew up. She received her B.A. from Bradford University and attended Birmingham University for postgraduate studies at the Cultural Studies Centre.
The Parmar family emigrated from India to East Africa during the time of the British Empire. Parmar’s family migrated to London, England, as part of the mass exodus from East Africa of “East African Asians”, as the British media termed this group at the time. Parmar’s work is imbued with her strong identification with her working-class roots and a worldview influenced by her family status as three-time immigrants on three continents. Her sensitivity to the colonization of others is firmly rooted in her own heritage as part of a people persecuted by class, race and gender. She examines the intersection of the three in her work as both a filmmaker and writer.
Pratibha was precocious and showed early talent in scholastic matters and had an avid interest in social justice. She attended the University of Bradford, earning a B.A. with honours in Human Purposes and Communications. While at the university, Parmar took leadership positions in student politics. She was Chair of the Anti-Fascist Committee, which organized various actions against local fascist groups including marches, fundraisers and Rock Against Racism concerts. She was also very interested in working with women and spent three months in Calcutta working with Mother Teresa. Parmar stayed for a year in India teaching basic literacy skills to children in village projects in Uttar Pradesh (North India) and Kerala (in the South).
After completing her undergraduate degree, Parmar did post-graduate studies at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. While there, she co-wrote and co-edited the groundbreaking book The Empire Strikes Back – Race and Racism in 1970s Britain (1982). That book, co-authored with Paul Gilroy and Valerie Amos among others, challenged the then-current academic paradigm of race and race relations as problems embedded in communities of colour rather than problems within society and its institutions creating, codifying and enforcing racism. The Empire Strikes Back is also one of the first texts authored primarily by Black and Asian writers questioning that theory expressed and (re)enforced in academic literature in the 1970s and ’80s.
During the 1980s, Parmar also worked with Sheba Feminist Press as an editor and publisher. Sheba was the only British press to publish writers such as African-American poet Audre Lorde.
After graduation from the university, Parmar worked as a Youth and Community Worker with young South Asian women. It was in this environment she discovered the power of mass media to change and challenge stereotypes of minority people. She then decided to learn the tools of filmmaking. Subsequently, she was asked to work as a researcher/consultant on a pioneering documentary series for the newly formed Channel 4 in Britain profiling Black and Asian communities in the UK.
Pratibha Parmar began her filmmaking career working in documentary. Aesthetically, the reworking Parmar offered the film world of the definition of poetry in relationship to cinema marked her signature. Emergence (1986) and Sari Red (1988) both raised awareness about Black and Third World women’s artistic sensibility in regard to London city streets.
With Khush (1991), Parmar examined the erotic world of South Asian queers. Khush means ecstatic pleasure in Urdu. For South Asian lesbians and gay men in Britain, North America, and India, the term captures the blissful intricacies of being queer and of colour. Inspiring testimonies bridge geographical differences to locate shared experiences of isolation and exoticisation but also the unremitting joys and solidarity of being khush.
The release of A Place of Rage (1991), a documentary about African-American women’s role in the civil rights movement, marked a critical turning point in Parmar’s career. The film was named Best Historical Documentary by the National Black Programming Consortium in the U.S. and received broad international critical acclaim. Her other documentary credits include The Righteous Babes and A Brimful of Asia. Drama credits include Sita Gita, Wavelengths and Memsahib Rita.
Reaching a broader audience
Parmar’s debut feature film, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, saw its theatrical release in mainstream theatres across the United Kingdom on 2006 and United States in 2007. The film won the Wolfe Award for Best Feature film at the Fresno Film Festival along with Best Feature film at Cineffable (France) and Best International Feature film at the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Since then, her interests have diversified within the filmmaking realm and Parmar is currently pursuing universal topics with an eye trending toward a broader audience. Part of her impetus is simply the nature of increased global awareness about and evolving tolerance of, acceptance for and interest in women’s and queers rights. However, Parmar’s works retain her trademark heightened political consciousness, artistic edge and inventive and inspired storytelling.
Parmar has been a Board member and is currently an active member of Women in Film and Television (UK), the Directors Guild of Great Britain, and a BAFTA voting member. In 2001, she founded Kali Films, a film and television production company creating feature films, documentaries and music videos. The company works with material and subject matter that is entertaining, thought provoking, intelligent and aesthetically stunning.
Parmar’s films continue to screen to sold-out shows internationally. Through Kali Films, she is working on several projects including Diversity in Motion, a short documentary showcasing selected children living in the five 2012 Olympic boroughs, and Windows into Our World – Creative Director and Consultant to Di Fie Foe, enabling the production of seven student-led short videos for the Welcoming The World 2012 Olympics Project.
In May 2011, Parmar began shooting a documentary called Beauty in Truth about the life of Alice Walker.
Nina’s Heavenly Delights, Parmar’s multi-award winning narrative feature film debut, A Place of Rage, a documentary film on African-American women and the civil rights movement. In 1993 Pratibha released her most challenging film, Warrior Marks, which documented female genital mutilation.” (alicewalkerfilm.com). Bhangra Jig, A vibrant short video about how young Asian people in Scotland celebrate desire and self-pride through dance and music. Double the Trouble, Twice the Fun, an examination of disability and homosexuality as it affects both women and men. Emergence: analyses common themes of identity, alienation and herstory in the context of the diaspora experience emerge in this powerful tape. Flesh and Paper, a lyrical exploration of the sense and sensibilities of Indian lesbian poet and writer, Suniti Bamjoshi. Jodie: An Icon, a fast paced, breezy look at the transatlantic phenomenon that has made Hollywood actress Jodie Foster an icon for lesbians. Khush, a documentary about South Asian lesbians and gay men in Britain, North America, and India. Memory Picture, a composed profile of gay Indian photographer, Sunil Gupta, and the way his work portrays issues of sexual and racial identity. The Righteous Babes, a short film that explores the intersection of feminism with popular music, focusing on the role of female recording artists in the 1990s and their influence on modern women. Sari Red, made in memory of Kalbinder Kaur Hayre (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0340330/plotsummary), a young Indian woman killed in 1985 in a racist attack in England. Siren Spirits, a feature comprising four short dramas directed by women of color. Wavelenghts, a film that explores the time honored quest for love and human intimacy in the polished world of computers and the Internet.
- Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006)
- Playing Dead (2008)
- Sita Gita (2000)
- Wavelengths (1997)
- Memsahib Rita (1994)
- Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2011)
- Diversity in Motion (2008)
- Brimful of Asia (1999)
- The Righteous Babes (1998)
- Jodie: An Icon (1996)
- The Colour of Britain (1994)
- Warrior Marks (1993)
- Double the Trouble Twice the Fun (1992)
- A Place of Rage (1991)
- Khush (1991)
- Flesh and Paper (1990)
- Bhangra Jig (1990)
- Memory Pictures (1989)
- Sari Red (1988)
- Reframing AIDS (1987)
- Emergence (1986)
- Doctors – BBC 1 Drama Series (2002), various episodes
- Tori Amos
- Midge Ure