Washington: Upcoming Indian-American actress Pooja Kumar says she met the challenge of portraying a single mother raising a teenager in her new film `Hiding Divya`, about the taboo of mental illness, by tapping into the fear of unknown.
"There were plenty of challenges and emotions to deal with, especially with the type of character I was playing," she told reporters in an interview before the Friday release of South Asian director Rehana Mirza’s film in select US markets.
"Anger, sadness, and rebellion were the primary feelings my character possessed," said Pooja, a former Miss India-US who had a lead role in the IFC mini-series "Bollywood Hero" last year opposite Chris Kattan and Neha Dhupia.
Shot in New York and New Jersey, the English-language drama provides a rare, realistic and poignant glimpse into the lives of three generations of women and the taboos created in the South Asian-American community from mental illness in the family.
Rehana is an American filmmaker of Pakistani-Filipina heritage and "Hiding Divya" is her directorial debut. The 29-year-old is artistic director of Desipina & Company, a South Asian and Asian-American arts company promoting cross-pollination in theatre and film, which she co-founded with her sister Rohi Mirza Pandya who has produced the film.
Linny the character Pooja plays "is a woman at a crossroads - both as a mother and a daughter. She`s dealing with conflict on so many levels, trying to care for her sick mother while also raising a teenager on her own."
"Alone those two things would be a lot to handle, but Linny has also isolated herself emotionally and psychologically, all but rejecting her culture and heritage," she said.
"To be portraying a character with such complex issues you can`t help but feel greater empathy towards people. It was difficult to go deep within myself and bring out these types of emotions.
"Another challenge for me was how to portray a single mother. I decided not to ask anyone on how to raise a teenage daughter since Linny didn`t know either," said Pooja
"I wanted to be able to tap into that insecurity she was feeling and be as authentic as possible."
Pooja said she joined the "Hiding Divya" team as she was "instantly intrigued by the subject matter and the character of Linny."
"We have so few female writers, and so I was so taken with Rehana as an emerging writer. Supporting each other is the only way to ensure women`s stories make it into theatres and the broader world."
Pooja hopes that after watching the film, South Asians "as a community learn to accept that mental illness is a part of our society and that it must be dealt with very sensitively".
"‘Hiding Divya’ will hopefully open our eyes to this illness and help us find ways to help those people in need," she said. "There should be no stigma or fear of what others will say about us."
In Rehana, Pooja found "an exceptional filmmaker - especially for her first time. She had an absolute openness with the actors and allowed us to have full freedom on the set".
Asked how the making of the film over five years affected her other plans, Pooja said: "Independent filmmaking is always a challenge but when you`re part of something you are passionate about, the ‘other’ plans seem to be insignificant."
Working with her idol Madhur Jaffrey of "Cotton Mary" and "Shakespeare-Wallah" fame, who plays the role of a grandmother with bipolar illness, was "an absolute dream come true!"
"Very rarely do our role models exceed our greatest expectations of them, and yet for me, Madhur was every bit as gracious and wonderful a person as she is an actress," said Pooja.