Indrani: “Creativity is the Key to Unlocking the Potential Women Have”

ndian-born photographer and director Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri grew up with a fascination for photography as a medium to transport her well-travelled family back to the places they had been and the people they could no longer be with. Today, her celebrity portraits are portals to the glamorous world of fame. She has photographed Beyoncé since she was a teenager, Britney Spears’ perfume campaigns and her first celebrity commission came from David Bowie while she was still a student at Princeton University.

Her ability to transport people through images is having a much deeper impact too. Founding a school for impoverished children in India at the age of 18, philanthropy has been an ongoing streak throughout her career, particularly in the areas of female empowerment, infanticide and sustainability. Though this may seem like a world away from the glossy images she built her career on, the two are inextricably linked and it is Indrani’s belief that the root to improving people’s lives is to inspire them to see a better future for themselves.

Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri

“Throughout the world women’s potential has really not been realized and that’s due to a lack of imagination. There’s a lot of social conventions that tend to hold women back and so it’s really a process of education and creatively inspiring both the societies, and women themselves, to realize their potential,” Indrani told CAF Foundation in an exclusive interview.

Shakti Empowerment Education (SEEschool) was founded in 1994 after Indrani went backpacking around her home country, witnessing the poverty faced by so many, and realized how little it would take to give these children an education. The school’s focus is on women’s empowerment, though they also teach boys, with a view to changing the attitude that women cannot contribute financially to their families or society. Along with her father, she turned her family home in Kolkata into the school building, funded by her modelling career which she stumbled into whilst looking for photography internships.

“I was very fortunate that my parents always encouraged me to do whatever I was passionate about but they always said ‘Give back and we have to help others as well.’ Having done that from such a young age I’ve really come to realize what a blessing that’s been,” she reflects. 
It’s not only in developing countries that Indrani is concerned with supporting women, as she herself is a rare example of a female photographer and filmmaker at her level. “The fact that the creative fields are so lacking in female voices is incredibly important because we (filmmakers and photographers) shape the society’s view of itself. We shape people’s sense of identity. Women around the world are watching films and looking at imagery that is created almost exclusively by men.”

Indrani has been expanding her own creative mediums and has established herself as a respected filmmaker over the past four years, “I’m very passionate about moving image now… I’m very excited about telling rich, complex stories that are also visually interesting but with the emphasis on meaning and complexity.” Alongside Revlon beauty adverts and music videos for Alicia Keys and David Bowie, Indrani has created some thought-provoking films for charities such as Keep A Child Alive’s ‘Digital Death’ campaign which filmed celebrities in coffins who suffered a ‘digital death’ by blocking their social media channels until their fans ‘brought them back to life’ by donating. The film raised over $1million in under a week for AIDS victims in Africa.

In 2012, there were cries to ban Indrani’s ‘The Girl Epidemic’ film which highlighted the millions of girls who go missing every year through trafficking, child labor and infanticide. The short film, created like a movie trailer, ‘imagines’ a world where pandemonium has ensued at the number of girls in the world and they are treated like an infectious disease. Aligned with the true statistics of the number of missing girls, it doesn’t seem like a fictional, dystopian future after all.

“I think education is key and my goal is to encourage people to realize whatever it is that you do, and wherever you live, and whatever society you’re in there is so much power you have as an agent of change and that each of us therefore has a responsibility to make the world a better place.”

In Indrani’s case, she has been gifted with a creative talent and a passion to make others see the world in new ways. Whether that’s bringing out a different side of a pop star’s personality, or urging you to take action on the injustices in the world, she believes in the power of creativity to spark our imaginations and the power of imagination to elevate the disadvantaged in society.

“[It’s about] standing up and saying ‘I want to make a change’ and doing it. That’s all it takes, and the will power. There’s always a way if you work hard enough at it.” 
Soon to be released is the ‘Girl Rising India’ campaign which was directed and photographed by Indrani. Following in the path of the American ‘Girl Rising’ film, it features top Indian actors and actresses speaking passionately about the importance of girls’ education, including Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor, Parineeti, Madhuri Dixit and Frieda Pinto.

As a commercial photographer as well, she is currently exploring her role in protecting the planet, and she is working on a project for BMW’s electric cars. “My goal is to inspire people to use their decision making in a way that benefits the world and to recognize that it is the ultimate luxury to drive a car that’s electric, to use fuel for your home that doesn’t harm the environment and to be part of the solution rather than the problem.”

Her latest film ‘When Human Voices Wake Us’ will be screened this month and discusses ocean conservation through a fictional story set in Manhattan and inspired by the Celtic Selkie folk stories. In the film, Selkies (guardians of the sea who are humans on land and seals in water) come to Manhattan to try to save one of their kind who has fallen for a man drowning under the Brooklyn Bridge, and mayhem ensues.

Fairytale’s are a common occurrence in Indrani’s work. The celebrities she photographs are captured in all their sparkling glory, highlighting their best qualities in a flawless glow and the films she creates often take place in other worlds, such as her upcoming film ‘Legend’ inspired by the Chinese tale of a snake demoness who transforms into a woman to experience love. 
In many ways, her own story is the stuff of fairytales; born into a historical Indian family, bright, beautiful and talented she travelled the world and gained a first class education, soon being embraced by the world of Hollywood while never forgetting her roots or those less fortunate than herself.

Indrani hasn’t spent her life focusing on building her own fairytale though. Instead, she has focused on building the fairytales of others. Sometimes that was helping to shape the image of a young Beyoncé, on her way to becoming the superheroine icon that she is today, and sometimes that was giving a little girl in India the chance to have an education.

Words: Olivia Pinnock

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