Award-Winning Drama Uncovers Depression in Asian American Community

By Mandy Day
AsAmNews Staff Writer

The 2017 San Diego Asian Film Festival is well underway, featuring films from first time filmmakers to internationally acclaimed directors. AsAm News had the opportunity to talk to Saila Kariat, an Indian American filmmaker who screened her first, but already award-winning feature length film, The Valley at the UltraStar Mission Valley.

The film has won numerous awards at film festivals in Madrid; Berlin; Long Island, New York; and Washington D.C.The Valley

The Valley centers around two Indian immigrants and their U.S. born daughters living among the Silicon Valley elite. Neal, played by Pakistani-British actor Alyy Khan, is a tech CEO under intense pressure by the board of his company to innovate in an industry dominated by younger generations. His wife, Roopa (Suchitra Pillai-Malik), runs the family household while struggling with a sense of inferiority among the career women in the family’s social circles. Their daughters, both college students search for their own identities despite being under the intense scrutiny of their parents. Maya, the youngest, attempts to find herself while placating her demanding mother.

The film opens on Neal, Roopa, eldest daughter Monica, and the family’s housekeeper returning to their home.

Viewers are made aware of youngest daughter’s death in the opening minutes and Neal’s first inquiries as to what caused Maya to commit suicide.

As the film progresses, the father’s desperate search for answers uncovers a deepening depression in his daughter and events that might have hastened her demise. Such a tragic loss unearths the fractures in Neal and Roopa’s marriage which are carefully revealed as the movie progresses.

Saila Kariat

Saila Kariat directed The Valley

Kariat’s screenplay allows the plot to gradually unfold minimizing extraneous plot points. Every scene was calculated and played an important role in the plot’s progression. She ensured that each character’s personalities developed over the course of the film, exposing flaws in each of them while making characters like the mother Roopa more relatable. Shot on a tight budget, The Valley was filmed in three weeks and multiple locations around the San Francisco Bay Area. Kariat told AsAmNews that the film was largely self-funded and reliant on friends for the remainder of the budget. While low budget films often lack flash, The Valley was an inspired passion project meant to address the stigma of mental health in Asian communities.

“I had a brother who had mental health issues. It’s one of the reasons I can sympathize with the Maya character, she suffers from depression”, Kariat told AsAmNews prior to her film’s showing. “In the Bay Area, there were a lot cluster suicides. I think there were fourteen in one high school”, she said when talking about what inspired her to write The Valley. We discussed the high stress nature of the Bay Area’s tech industry and its effects on children’s mental health. Kariat made clear that the root cause was depression and often, families would rather their children suffer than admit something is wrong because it is perceived as weakness.

“Thematically, I think a lot of it is about competitiveness versus human connection, relationships, and empathy, and the choices we make. We choose one over the other,” Kariat told us. Those themes are beautifully developed throughout the film as the plot evolves from a family intent on keeping up appearances, to one that uncovers the deeply rooted pain and secrecy that plagues each member of the family. Unlikable characters become more sympathetic by the end of The Valley.

The Valley is scheduled to screen at film festivals this coming weekend in Vancouver, Canada and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Valley is written, produced, and directed by Saila Kariat, and is also produced by Yumee Jang.

Information about the film can be found on The Valley Facebook Page or on their website.

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Movie Review – The Valley (Portland Film Festival)

By Marlon Wallace
The M report

Earlier this year, Netflix released 13 Reasons Why, a series dealing with the suicide of a teenage girl. This film also deals with the suicide of a teenage girl, but it does the subject matter here extremely better and in shorter time. The movie basically takes its male protagonist down a literal guilt trip too but it doesn’t do so in such a blunt way. It doesn’t play an actual blame game. It doesn’t intimate that suicide is a solution to anything. It results in its character’s self-examination without feeling forced or contrived. There is much more sensitivity here, a quiet and steadiness to it that makes the movie feel less abrasive. It’s certainly not as gimmicky as that Netflix series either.

Alyy Khan stars as Neal Kumar, the CEO of Virtually You, a tech company based in Silicon Valley. Khan is Pakistani but his character Neal might be from India and Hindi. He’s married and has two daughters, both in college. He’s also rich. Apparently, Virtually You isn’t his first company. He’s had a couple of others, which he sold for a fortune. As a result, he lives in Atherton, California, which lies between San Francisco and San Jose, and is considered the wealthiest city in the United States, ranked higher than Beverly Hills. If his address though weren’t a clue, the fact that Neal drives a BMW and lives in a veritable mansion might be an indication of his status.

The value of that wealth is called into question when Neal learns that his youngest daughter named Maya, played by Agneeta Thacker, has committed suicide. It’s never said how Maya killed herself, but a very haunting shot inside her dorm room hints at the way she might have done it. A depression sets over the family, but Neal becomes obsessed with figuring out the cause of Maya’s suicide. He does so by basically interrogating everyone in Maya’s life, her friends and even his housekeeper. This leads him down a dark path of discovery that does just as much to illuminate things about Maya that Neal didn’t know as it does things about himself.

Suchitra Pillai co-stars as Roopa, the wife of Neal. She tries to get Neal to let go of his obsession, to stop him from going down that path. In flashbacks, her treatment of Maya throws her character into doubt. One might see her as a spoiled and stuck-up queen, but Pillai gives a great performance to show there is more layers to this woman existing inside this wealthy, Silicon Valley bubble.

Jake T. Austin (The Fosters) also co-stars as Chris Williams, a college student who mysteriously drops out of school after Maya’s death. He might have also been the last person to see Maya alive. He’s a suspicious character for sure, but Austin also rides the line in his performance where one isn’t convinced how much he may have contributed to the tragedy.

Riding that line is something the movie does fairly well. It understands the impulse that Neal himself has to put the responsibility on one person, so his feelings can be directed at something singular. It makes it easier for people that way to deal with a tragedy like this. It’s a little more difficult when the answer is similar to the ending of Murder on the Orient Express, when it’s not just one singular thing but in fact multiple things, if not everything all at once. Both this and 13 Reasons Why could be called “Suicide on the Teenager Express.” Writer-director Saila Kariat however arrives at that Agatha Christie conclusion in a subtler and more tender fashion, but still very powerfully.

Movie Review: “The Valley” tackles local issues of mental health


Local director Saila Kariat (right) discusses the goals and implications of her debut film, “The Valley,” at a San Francisco screening. The movie has screened at film festivals around the world and focuses on the topic of teen mental health in Silicon Valley. “There’s so much going on with children that we don’t know about,” Kariat said. Photo: Ellie Krugler

Standing on the brink of a sandy yellow cliff, a man gazes down at the foaming waves below — then calmly pulls out a gun. Watching the horizon, he contemplates the events that brought him to the edge of the sea in local drama film “The Valley.” Directed by Saila Kariat and co-produced by Kariat and Yumee Jang, “The Valley” will hit theaters March 3.

The indie drama follows Neal Kumar (Alyy Khan, “Traitor”), a successful Indian American entrepreneur living in Atherton. The lives of Neal and his family are torn apart when his daughter Maya (Agneeta Thacker) dies by suicide while in college. Searching for answers, Neal reflects on his daughter’s behaviors in the past and interrogates everyone who saw her during the days preceding her death.

With revelations of the overwhelming pressures in the Silicon Valley and a focus on mental health, “The Valley” hits close to home in more ways than one.

The emotion and location of the movie is seamlessly incorporated into scenes with incredible filmography. The diverse and colorful settings are easily recognizable as Silicon Valley-esque. It’s no wonder that the drama is up for many awards this month.

The film is incredibly somber, which is only appropriate for the heavy topic it covers. However, as a result of bouncing from one melancholy memory to another, the film conjures a very hopeless undertone despite its quick attempt to close with a semi-hopeful ending scene. The movie lacks a final message about mental health, focusing on the effect Maya’s suicide has on her family rather than showing how she could have been helped.

Nevertheless, “The Valley” skillfully uncovers the irreparable damage that suicide can bring to one’s friends and family.

The film is supported by a strong cast, most notably Suchitra Pillai (“Beintehaa”) as distraught mother Roopa. In her complex role, Pillai captures the devastation of a mother marked by the tragedy of losing her child. The actress brings a sense of reality to the movie, making it hard to look away from the screen.

Throughout the film, the need to pin the blame on someone or something continuously torments the father, Neal. He cannot comprehend how his daughter could be unhappy after providing her with an Atherton mansion, a good education and a privileged life. According to director and co-producer Saila Kariat, however, suicide cannot be blamed on one person or cause. At the film’s San Francisco screening last month, Kariat shared her thoughts on the causes of suicide.


“The Valley” will hit theaters this March. Photo: Ellie Krugler

“It’s a combination of so many different factors, the primary factor being mental health,” Kariat said. “For the family that I show in the movie, one of the big factors is the pressure that’s put on this daughter to be so-called successful.”

Kariat hopes the movie will spread awareness on the topic of mental health and other issues prominent in the Silicon Valley, including the issue of success. According to Kariat, there are unreasonable standards for children growing up in the area.

“The expectations are so high on them – you have to play three instruments, speak three languages, take five APs – it’s almost inhuman what’s expected of them,” Kariat said.

Admirably, the film does not shy away from sensitive issues like this, acknowledging as many challenges that come with living in the Silicon Valley as possible. In addition to mental health, the film uncovers topics of competition, life in an immigrant community and the disconnection that comes with technology.

“The Valley” does an excellent job of demonstrating how families cope with challenges too common in the Silicon Valley. It contains a sense of authenticity that is incredibly engaging. This month, “The Valley” screens at film festivals in Berlin, Mumbai, Los Angeles, Carmel and Brooklyn.