Grad Student Wants to Highlight That Sikh Americans are as American as Anyone Else

COURTESY OF CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY
COURTESY OF CHAPMAN UNIVERSITY

LOS ANGELES, California, USA—Last month in Pasadena, the very first float representing Sikh Americans glided its way through the Rose Parade. Atop it was Harjus Singh Sethi, a grad student studying directing at Chapman who hopes to one day use his passion to make Sikhs more visible in American society.

The float was part of an effort to raise awareness of Sikh Americans. Sethi was chosen to ride the float among major members of the Sikh community because – as a future director – he has potential to bring Sikhs to the big screen.

“If there was one word to sum it all up, it was actually very humbling,” said Sethi of being picked to ride the float. He spent the morning of New Year’s Day waving to cheering crowds alongside fellow Sikhs and pillars of the community whom he looked up to as a child – and was given that opportunity simply for pursuing his passion. “These are the people that I look up to; these are the people that I grew up with.”

Originally, Sethi was on track to pursue a career in the sciences. He was prepared to become a neuro-oncologist, but had a change of heart when he thought about what kind of lasting impact he would have for his people.

“Whoever replaces me is going to be as smart as I am and they’ll do the same job,” said Sethi. “But will the person who replaces me in film school try to champion the Sikh identity in mainstream film?”

By casting Sikh actors in his films and telling stories about Sikh identity, Sethi hopes to be an influence in how people think of Sikh Americans.

A sense of identity has been a lasting part of Sethi’s upbringing. Growing up as a Sikh American in Cincinnati, Sethi said that even in a crowd, he could at times feel completely alone. Unable to connect on a significant level to those around him, he found something he couldn’t get elsewhere by watching television.

“People didn’t really understand me, and being so young, you don’t really know how to explain who you are at times. I grew up a little bit by TV, if that makes sense,” said Sethi. “Seeing how it’s able to influence people, change their emotions, change the way they feel and bring light to certain things … as a community we don’t really leverage that.”

It was then that Sethi’s passion for film was firmly rooted.

Now a second-year graduate student at Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, Sethi is taking his first steps toward becoming an influential director. More recently, he’s done work with science fiction and superheroes, following a childhood chock-full of comic books. One of his latest works for his Chapman classes – “Good Will Hunting with superpowers,” as he pitched it – is based off the DC Comics superhero Static. In Sethi’s film, an older Static swears off his powers after losing his beloved while fighting crime. After taking a troubled youth under his wing, Static is forced to face the decision of whether to become a hero again.

For his thesis, Sethi is considering making a film about Bhagat Singh Thind, a real-life Sikh American whose citizenship was revoked just after he returned from serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. What ensued was a lengthy legal battle that brought the nation’s understanding of naturalization to question.

Despite a history in early America that parallels Irish and Italian Americans in many ways, Sethi says that Sikhs are nowhere near as celebrated or recognized. He hopes to work toward changing this with his films. Rather than deal with issues unique to Sikhs, Sethi wants to highlight that Sikh Americans are ultimately just as American as anyone else.

“Right now, a bit of Sikh cinema is, ‘Should I keep my hair, should I cut my hair?’ or ‘Oh, I’m being discriminated against,’” said Sethi. “And these are legitimate struggles. But what I want to explore is, what happens if you portray a Sikh just as a human being? I want there to be a point where people forget that he has a turban and beard, and only see the eyes, only see that he is a human being.”

Jonathan Winslow can be reached at jwinslow@ocregister.com

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