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Issue 005 Winter 2023 Interviews Profiles

Suneil Sanzgiri Keeps Time

For Sanzgiri, film has always served as a way to disrupt the distance of diaspora.

By Isabel Ling

From Golden Jubilee (2021), dir. Suneil Sanzgiri, courtesy of the artist.

Across a loose trilogy of short films, Indian American filmmaker Suneil Sanzgiri dislodges diasporic storytelling from tropes of representation, recasting it instead as a world-building tool for decolonization.

In these films, the Brooklyn-based artist collapses his own familial lore and history with the geopolitical, stretching narrative across generation and place, only to snap viewers back into present struggles for liberation. For Sanzgiri, this elasticity is what first drew him to film: “Filmmaking, and particularly editing, are instances in which time and space are completely obliterated,” he tells me in a recent Zoom interview.

Sanzgiri’s practice sees him drawing from an amalgamation of sensibilities that can be attributed to his multivariable background as a sculptor, technologist, and video editor for journalism outlets. In his practice, the artist layers conversations with his father, found footage, and renderings of 3D models, creating vividly textured narratives that invoke the cacophony of being of different places and times. One example can be found in Sanzgiri’s second film, Letter From Your Far-Off Country (2020), Sanzgiri’s second film. In this piece, Agha Shahid Ali’s 1996 poem “Dear Shahid” serves as a scaffold, connecting India’s political past and present. The artist interweaves a letter he authored with excerpts of a student reading Ali’s poem at a 2017 Delhi protest. Original 16-mm footage of students is also presented with the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. The artist’s letter, written in the cadence of the poem, is recited by Sanzgiri’s father and addressed to a distant relative named Prabhakar Sanzgiri—an author, Communist party leader, and trade union activist in India. Through this layering, the artist excavates the possibilities offered in witnessing from within the diaspora.

From At Home But Not At Home (2019), dir. Suneil Sanzgiri, courtesy of the artist.

For Sanzgiri, film has always served as a way to disrupt distance. Growing up in the suburbs of Dallas with divorced parents and little contact with relatives in India, Sanzgiri found solace from cultural isolation at the local video store. There, he and his brothers devoured films by parallel cinema pioneers Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, using their depictions of life in India as touchstones to populate their own diasporic imaginaries. The artist’s first short film, At Home But Not at Home (2019), which made its premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, pays homage to this cinematic upbringing. It sutures montages from parallel films together with drone footage of Sanzgiri’s ancestral village, Curchorem. It also incorporates videos of Sanzgiri’s father, Shashi Sanzgiri, as he recounts his own experience growing up in the Portuguese-occupied state of Goa.

Shahi, who appears in all three of Sanzgiri’s films, was an 18-year-old studying in Bombay when he learned of the liberation of his home region in December of 1961. After over 400 years of colonial rule, decades of anticolonial political action, and two days of fighting, Goa had been liberated from Portuguese occupation. Seven years later, he would emigrate to the United States. An indelible link to the colonial past, Shahi’s memories link global historical events like the Bandung Conference and the first Afro-Asian conference into Sanzgiri’s own personal familial timeline. In one scene of At Home But Not at Home, Shahi describes a procession that his older cousin organized after Gandhi was killed. Each turning point of his story is punctuated with the click of a mouse as the younger Sanzgiri scrolls, rotates, and zooms in on photo negatives and a 3D model of a Gandhi statue.

The blinking of a cursor, the switch of the tab, and the whoosh of a new text message are all important storytelling devices that drive Sanzgiri’s narratives forward. These digital modes for communication, sharing, and representation of the self are not unfamiliar to those who come from diasporic households, where grainy video calls across time zones and WhatsApp messages form the infrastructure for familial connection and care. However, it wasn’t this convening that drew Sanzgiri to the desktop, but rather a moment of self-recognition. Early in 2019, before the pandemic firmly tethered us to the virtual, Sanzgiri found himself panning through 360-degree walkthroughs of Goa on Google Maps during an emotional low point—a doom-scroll prompted by a specific type of homesickness for a place where he had never been. In these images, taken by a 3D camera, a glitch occurs where the camera has turned in on itself and can’t render the seamless mesh we have come to expect. Instead, this glitch creates rips in a pixelated fabric, disembodying limbs, heads, and hands and scattering them across the digital space. “I remember having such a primal encounter with these images, recognizing myself and my lived diasporic experience in these sort of grotesque meshes of limbs, bodies, earth, and sky,” Sanzgiri tells me. “It was this moment that really sparked the entire body of my work. Ever since, I’ve been trying to understand the voids, the gaps, and the fissures, and what possibility these limitations to technology might hold.” Sanzgiri’s emotion-eliciting encounter mirrors Legacy Russell’s elemental manifesto Glitch Feminism, where the glitch—and its failures—are similarly celebrated as a generative space for marginalized people to form their own identities.1

From Golden Jubilee (2021), dir. Suneil Sanzgiri, courtesy of the artist.

In Golden Jubilee (2021), Sanzgiri’s most recent short film, the artist recreates his father’s childhood experience with a local protective spirit named Devchar. Father and son reenact this encounter by navigating through a virtual rendering of Shahi’s ancestral home. This reimagined space was created with the same technology that pollutive mining companies in Goa use to map iron mines. Pixelated and translucent, the home undulates as the story unfolds, taking on a ghostlike quality as it is transformed from an architectural structure into a site for memory. In this instance, Sanzgiri adopts the glitch as a point of view. In doing so, he subverts the original extractive intent of this commercial technology and its contributions to the exploitation of Goan land and resources, using it instead as a tool for ancestral preservation.

Sanzgiri’s thoughtful consideration of technology is also evidenced in his embrace of collaborative methodologies for image making. In Golden Jubilee, he uses a process called volumetric filmmaking to represent Devchar. This protective spirit is shown as an austere figure in white, loping across a misty Goan landscape and into a graveyard of half-rendered 3D scans. This representation proxies the spirit’s traditional role as a protector of the Goan people into that of a protector of Goa’s resource-rich land. In order to render Devchar, Sanzgiri worked with Sumedh Sawant, who runs a media lab out of Mumbai. They used a series of 360-degree cameras to capture Sawant’s own father. Dressed in Devchar’s costume, he was asked to model motion by walking in place on a treadmill. In the technological and administrative labor that serves as a foundation for the artist’s films, Sanzgiri admits to finding new relationships of understanding: “It was moving to be working with my father as well as Sumedh and his father [on Golden Jubilee]. It was this really beautiful moment of intergenerational exchange.”

From Letter From Your Far-Off Country (2020), dir. Suneil Sanzgiri, courtesy of the artist.
From Letter From Your Far-Off Country (2020), dir. Suneil Sanzgiri, courtesy of the artist.

Often, the diasporic experience can feel like a race to construct a body of proof—an accumulation of evidence for one’s personal validity across borders in the bid for belonging. In contrast, Sanzgiri’s films loiter in the unknown, employing a speculative approach to storytelling that gives permission to shape the diasporic narrative from the void. For example, At Home But Not at Home was created before he had traveled to India. Similarly, in Letter From Your Far-Off Country he stages an imagined dialogue between himself and Prabhakar, who passed away in 2011, before the artist could meet him. From the unknown, Sanzgiri poses a challenge. All three of the artist’s films are stitched together with questions such as how to reclaim anticolonial heritage without embracing nationalism. Such queries flash across the flickering screen, insisting that the nuances of history not be sacrificed in this search for belonging. For Sanzgiri, a diasporic positionality also affords the freedom to criticize the violence and ethnonationalism of contemporary Indian politics as enforced by Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party: “It’s really important to me to actively fight Hindutva as an artist who makes work about India from the US while also finding a deep love and resonance for your people too.”

Currently, Sanzgiri is working on a feature-length film that expands on his work documenting anticolonial movements. In the film he hopes to delve further into what he calls the “network of relations” that informed the solidarity between liberation movements in South Asia and Africa against the Portuguese empire. He tells me that he will return to the ocean, pulling from Portuguese poet Luís de Camões’s epic about the colonizer Vasco de Gama’s encounter with the Adamastor, a monstrous being from the sea who attempts to prevent de Gama from reaching India by way of Africa. It is a recurring motif across his films; Sanzgiri has previously likened diasporic thinking to the ocean, fluid and ever-evolving. It presents a foil to the state-based collapsing of identity, which he compares to “an arid landscape in ruins.”

When asked about what guides his approach to filmmaking, Sanzgiri says he often returns to the idea of prana. The Sanskrit word for breath, prana also represents the life force between all living things. Before the standardization of time into seconds, minutes, and hours, respiration was used in India as a unit of time, a measurement of moments. “I’m interested in how the diasporic possibility can de-Westernize our sense of time,” Sanzgiri posits. “When we invoke our ancestors and, as a result, invoke our sense of belonging in the past, it’s a form of continuing the struggles of the past in the future, because we know that the reason why we are tapping into this is because it is a means for survival.” Hitching his own existence to a lineage of mutual struggle, Sanzgiri’s films transcend time, coaxing forth new touchstones for a decolonial future.


1. Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism (New York: Verso, 2020).

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the filmmaker’s father. He is Shashi Sanzgiri, not Shahi. We regret the error.