Culture on camera

Rutuja Sawant defies cultural expectations after leaving India

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Growing up in India, UB student Rutuja Sawant never felt like she could express herself.

She struggled between the pressure to succeed academically and the lack of representation in media, but found a sense of identity through filmmaking.

Sawant, a junior media study major, has been pursuing film since she was a freshman. She never used a camera before she moved from Mumbai. Now she has worked with multiple film genres, all with the intention of submitting her work to film festivals. After climbing an uphill battle against insecurities and academic pressure, Sawant has made a full transformation since coming to Buffalo. 

Sawant has made big strides in the department of media study, culminating in the screening of her film “Janitor Jay” in a Performance, Lectures and Screenings in Media Art course. She has received a flood of attention from students and faculty, enough attention to warrant entire response papers on the film.

“I feel like UB has given such a space to me when I came here. I feel comfortable to express myself more than I ever had before,” Sawant said. “Knowing people have discussed my film is a big deal for me. I felt really honored.”

But Sawant didn’t have this confidence three years ago. 

She originally applied to UB to pursue mechanical engineering. She only switched into media study after taking one film class.

“Growing up in India, I was kind of expected to just choose engineering or one of the STEM fields. So after high school, I thought, ‘I’m just going to do engineering.’ My parents expected me to always do well in school,” Sawant said. “I always knew I wasn’t really interested in it, but more so doing it for my parents.”

She said her parents supported her decision, although they would prefer for her to pursue a more “stable” career. Switching majors was a relief to Sawant, who recalls the pressure she experienced during high school. 

“In school there was always a competition over grades. I still wonder if any of us were actually even friends, or if it was all just about the competition,” Sawant said. “People kept pushing me. They would say, ‘You used to be a good student,’ but I was still getting 80s. I was never failing.” 

Sawant said she began to feel the effects of her culture’s demands over time. She began to burn out and isolate herself. 

“Eventually I closed off. I feel like I had so many things to contribute, so many things that I wanted to do in school but I couldn’t take it,” Sawant said. “When I went back home last summer, my sister told me, ‘You were so different two years ago.’ I wasn’t me at that point.”

Sawant was able to come out as gay after coming to UB, but her journey toward self acceptance came with its own obstacles. She was bullied by a former roommate and other students.

“When I came [to America] a few years ago, I didn’t know anyone who came from my country that I could talk to. I felt like I was the only [gay person] from India. Some people were not very nice to me,” Sawant said. “It was hard, but I was able to find a group of great friends. Going through something like this, with people that supported me, it gave me confidence to voice my opinions.”

Now that she is able to pursue her passions, Sawant feels as though she can express her true self. This newfound freedom is seen through her films and work ethic.

Justin Allen, a junior health and human services major, has acted in many of Sawant’s films.

“For all of her films, she has everything planned out and makes sure everyone is on the same page. It’s incredible to see a student filmmaker be so organized,” Allen said. “Her work is so different and interesting. Even as an actor, you become so engaged in the plot and all the small details she includes.” 

Sawant said she hopes to create progressive dialogues with her work as she continues with her career. One of her recent films touched on the topic of gender expression. She drew the inspiration for the film from her own struggle with sexuality. 

“I’ve always had a problem with dressing ever since I was young. People always expected me to dress a certain way. My mom always hated that I liked T-shirts and jeans, nothing girly,” Sawant said. “I always felt you should dress how you want, not based off your gender. I wanted to make a film about it to show people what words might not be able to.”

She wants to pursue filmmaking that will offer different kinds of representation and give different perspectives.

“I want to make films that make people like my parents, who do not even think about sexuality and gender expression, think about new ideas. I want people to understand things better and change perspectives,” Sawant said. “Growing up in my culture I didn’t see people express who they really are, in media or in Bollywood movies. I want to make that for people. That would make me really happy.”

Samantha Vargas is the asst. arts editor and can be reached at samantha.vargas@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @SamVargasArts.