Pratibha Parmar (born 1955) is an Indian British filmmaker. She has worked as a director, producer and writer. Parmar is known internationally for her political and often controversial documentary film work as well as her activism within the global feminism and lesbian rights movements. She has collaborated with many well-known artists and activists, and public figures across the world. Parmar specifically uses the camera to benefit women worldwide. Focusing her lens on disenfranchised communities and peoples internationally, her contribution to worldwide humanitarian rights and education has been crucial. Her films are marked by political complexity and visual richness, taking up the themes of women’s strength, racial and cultural oppression and the lives of South Asian LBGT people. Parmar is well-known for drawing on humor, wit, women’s everyday lives and visionary storytelling to articulate the realities and dreams of feminist, queer and South Asian diasporic life.
In particular, Parmar’s award-winning documentary Warrior Marks (1993), made in collaboration with Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple), located Parmar deep within multiple conversations about globalization and women’s responsibilities to other women. Parmar went on to co-publish Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women with Walker.
Parmar has also made music videos for Morcheeba, Tori Amos, Ghostlands and Midge Ure.
In the fall of 2007, Pratibha Parmar was awarded the Visionary Award by the One in Ten Film Festival for her entire body of work and she is a past winner of the San Francisco Frameline Film Festival Life Time Achievement Award.
The Parmar family emigrated from India to East Africa during the time of the British Empire. In 1967, twelve years after Pratibha was born, the family immigrated to London, England as part of the mass exodus from East Africa of “East African Asians” as the British media termed this group at the time. Parmar’s work is imbued with her strong identification with her working class roots and a worldview influenced by her family status as three-time immigrants on three continents. Parmar’s sensitivity to the colonization of others is firmly rooted in her own heritage as part of a people persecuted by class, race and gender. She examines the intersection of the three in her work as both a filmmaker and writer.
Pratibha was precocious and showed early talent in scholastic matters and had an avid interest in social justice. She attended the University of Bradford, earning a B.A. with honors in Human Purposes and Communications. While at the university, Parmar took leadership positions in student politics. She was Chair of the Anti-Fascist Committee, which organized various actions against local fascist groups including marches, fundraisers and Rock Against Racism concerts. She was also very interested in working with women and spent three months in Calcutta working with Mother Teresa. Parmar stayed for a year in India teaching basic literacy skills to children in village projects in Uttar Pradesh (North India) and Kerala (in the South).
After completing her undergraduate degree, Parmar did post-graduate studies at the University of Birmingham at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. While there, she co-wrote and co-edited the groundbreaking book, The Empire Strikes Back - Race and Racism in 1970s Britain (1982). That book, co-authored with Paul Gilroy and Valerie Amos among others, challenged the then-current academic paradigm of race and race relations as problems embedded in communities of color rather than problems within society and its institutions creating, codifying and enforcing racism. The Empire Strikes Back is also one of the first texts authored entirely by Black and Asian writers questioning that theory expressed and (re)enforced in academic literature in the 70s and 80s.
During the 1980s, Parmar also worked with Sheba Feminist Press as an editor and publisher. Sheba was the only British press to publish writers such as African-American poet Audre Lorde.
After graduation from the university, Parmar worked as a Youth and Community Worker with young South Asian women. It was in this environment she discovered the power of mass media to change and challenge stereotypes of minority people. Parmar then decided to learn the tools of filmmaking. Subsequently, Parmar was asked to work as a researcher/consultant on a pioneering documentary series for the newly-formed Channel 4 in Britain profiling Black and Asian communities in the UK.
Pratibha Parmar began her filmmaking career working in documentary. Aesthetically, the reworking Parmar offered the film world of the definition of poetry in relationship to cinema marked her signature. “Emergence” (1986) and “Sari Red” (1988) both raised awareness about Black and Third World women’s artistic sensibility in regard to London city streets.
With “Khush” (1991), Parmar examined the erotic world of South Asian queers. Khush means ecstatic pleasure in Urdu. For South Asian lesbians and gay men in Britain, North America, and India, the term captures the blissful intricacies of being queer and of color. Inspiring testimonies bridge geographical differences to locate shared experiences of isolation and exoticization but also the unremitting joys and solidarity of being khush.
The release of “A Place of Rage” (1991), a documentary about African-American women’s role in the civil rights movement, marked a critical turning point in Parmar’s career. The film was named Best Historical Documentary by the National Black Programming Consortium in the U.S. and received broad international critical acclaim. Her other documentary credits include “The Righteous Babes” and “A Brimful of Asia.” Drama credits include “Sita Gita,” “Wavelengths” and “Memsahib Rita.”
Parmar’s debut feature film, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, saw its theatrical release in mainstream theaters across the United Kingdom on 2006 and United States in 2007. The film won the Wolfe Award for Best Feature film at the Fresno Film Festival along with Best Feature film at Cineffable (France) and Best International Feature film at the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Since then, her interests have diversified within the filmmaking realm and Parmar is currently pursuing universal topics with an eye trending toward a broader audience. Part of her impetus is simply the nature of increased global awareness about and evolving tolerance of, acceptance for and interest in women’s and queers rights. However, Parmar’s works retain her trademark heightened political consciousness, artistic edge and inventive and inspired storytelling.
Parmar has been a Board member and is currently an active member of Women in Film and Television (UK), The Director’s Guild of Great Britain, and a BAFTA voting member. In 2001, she founded Kali Films, a film and television production company creating feature films, documentaries and music videos. The company works with material and subject matter that is entertaining, thought provoking, intelligent and aesthetically stunning.
Parmar’s films continue to screen to sold-out shows internationally. Through Kali Films, she is working on several projects including Durga Rising, a documentary film exploring the contemporary relevance of the ancient myth of the South Asian Goddess Durga, Diversity in Motion, a short documentary showcasing selected children living in the five 2012 Olympic boroughs and Windows into Our World – Creative Director and Consultant to Di Fie Foe enabling the production of seven student-led short videos for the Welcoming The World 2012 Olympics Project.
Pratibha Parmar lives in London with her partner, Shaheen Haq.