Sonali Gulati: Award-Winning Filmmaker, Activist, & VCU Professor

I am pleased to present the interview of VCU Professor Sonali Gulati, an award-winning independent filmmaker, feminist, grass-roots activist and educator. Gulati's documentary, Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night, was broadcasted on television in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, The Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. Her most recent film I Am has won over 12 awards! Her goal is to do everything in her power to end homophobia. As one of her students, I look up to her message, achievements, and the model she sets for women and men at VCU and across the world. I encourage all VCU students to read her interview and take pride in the inspirational story of Sonali Gulati, one of VCU's very own success stories and inspirations. 

Sonali Gullati

Associate Professor VCU Arts, Photography & Film


What is the basis of your film?
In 2004 I started making I Am and doing the research. In 2008, I went back to my house in India after leaving it locked up for 11 years. My mother was murdered in that house during a burglary, and I left it locked up for so long because I couldn't take being there. Finally, I went back and I emptied out the house. While emptying out the house,  I realized I had this unfinished business with my mother in regards to my sexuality. I know a lot of other adults who came out out to their parents and had conversations with them, but I was never able to. Basically, that is how it began.

Where does your father come into the picture?
My father doesn’t really come into the picture because my parents were divorced. I never really met my father until I was 21 years old, so the film is more about my mother.

How has your extended family played a role in this process?
My extended family knows that I am a lesbian; they have been really supportive with the exception of one cousin. Everyone else has been really good about it.

How has it been different coming out as a lesbian in the United States compared to India?
In some ways it has been easy coming out in the U.S because I am surrounded by friends in places where I feel safe. There are a lot more people who are openly homosexual in the U.S than in India. In India, it was a criminal offense to be gay--possibly leading to imprisonment for ten years. Being homosexual was a crime you can go to jail for, so there was a lot more at risk.

Is homosexuality still illegal in India?
It changed in 2009, the law changed, you can see that in the film. It is still being contested in the Supreme Court, so it may become a crime again, we don’t know. It’s being debated in the courts.

Are the people who appeared in your film at risk at all of being exposed?
They were a little bit, but the law is mainly for men. Based on the law, it basically says that a man having sex with another man is a crime, and that a man having sex with an animal is a crime. It is an outdated law that the British  put into place in India. So yes, the men are at risk, but the law is not really enforced. It is just used to harass people and to extort money from people. Since the law has been around, I think there have been less than 20 cases of arrests and the law has been around for 7 decades.  I made sure that I released the film after the law changed.

What's one thing you would like to accomplish in your lifetime?
I would like to do everything in my power to eradicate homophobia.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I'm a mother.

Are you currently working on any projects/ documentaries?
Yes, I'm working on a documentary on doctors who claim they can cure homosexuality.

Do you have any advice for people looking to start film making?
Yes, just do it. Follow the things that you feel passionately about.

Do you have any screenings coming up on the VCU campus/ do you plan to re-screen your film on campus?
I just screened my film I AM at VCU a few months ago and am open to the idea of screening it again on campus.

I know a lot of people who are currently struggling with coming out to themselves, parents, and friends. Can you share your story on how you came out and give any advice to people who are struggling and worrying about being accepted?
I came out to myself in 1995,  but I was really afraid to tell anyone else. I had a lot of internalized homophobia and thought that I was one of those awful sick people who weren't normal. At the time, I didn't think I could ever tell anyone. But slowly I started coming out to close friends, then to family, and eventually to everyone else.

It took me time to accept who I was and so all I can say is that it takes time for others around you to accept you too. While I wished that we lived in a world where we didn't have to go through coming out and that everyone accepted us for who we are, I know that it isn't easy. I've spent many years in the sanctuary of the closet and it protects us from homophobia and hatred, but I also could no longer be silent and ashamed of who I was. I'm really privileged that I'm not at risk of losing my job or my home, or being ousted by my family, making it more of a reason for me to come out and visible. I think individuals need to decide for themselves when it feels like the right time to come out as different things are at stake for different people.