Ashish Valentine understands stories that don't fit into a country's dominant narrative. As a first-generation Indian immigrant, he has lived one of those stories.
When he came with his family to America at age six, Ashish was determined to become as American as possible and that included the movies he watched. In India, Ashish saw a lot of Bollywood, which he at first found formulaic when compared with American and European cinema, so he became determined to leave it behind.
"High school was all about becoming American and Westernized," he says. "I thought the only way to be intellectual was to be Western, and I first settled on studying literature because of my love for those bold French existentialists—Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus."
He became enthralled with avant-garde American, British and French movies from directors like Kubrick and Godard. It was only when he got to college that he realized arthouse directors could be innovative and Indian as well—such as in Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding" or "Salaam Bombay!" and Ketan Mehta's "Mirch Masala."
Even in conventional Bollywood movies, Ashish has rediscovered Indian innovation. "In '3 Idiots' and ‘Munna Bhai’ for example, Rajkumar Hirani works within very traditional Bollywood style to make a point," Ashish says. "The movies are very charming, but there’s also a hidden social critique of the culture in India where every parent wants their kid to be an engineer or a doctor. A huge theme in Hirani’s filmmaking is embracing who you are as opposed to what your culture tells you to be."
Today, Ashish has made peace with his Indian roots remaining strong after being transplanted in Western soil, and he says his fondness for India's cinema will never change. "From Bollywood hits to ambitious art directors like Vishal Bhardwaj, Meera Nair and Deepa Mehta," he says, "the world's biggest film industry continues to fascinate me."
Thanks to movies and a greater understanding of his Indian heritage, Ashish is no longer concerned with whether his story fits an American narrative. In fact, lately his wide-ranging interests in cinema have embraced even more of the world, and he has begun digging into the visceral drama of Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance trilogy and Akira Kurosawa's stylized epics.
What does he see in his future? "Film criticism would be ideal," he says, whether for a magazine, a newspaper, or another medium. "I’d love any work writing about film, anything like that would be great."
In Urbana, as a sophomore, he started writing movie reviews and a foreign film column for “Buzz,” the student-run community magazine and has since been promoted to section editor. He has also had the opportunity to cover a variety of events in the community: “I was able to interview Dave Franco, Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Mintz-Plasse from the movie Neighbors and covered Roger Ebert's Film Festival. Attending it and getting the chance to ask questions to fantastic directors like Ramin Bahrani and Ann Hui was incredible.”
If a career in film criticism becomes possible, Ashish wants to follow Roger Ebert in championing minority and independent filmmakers. "This was the best thing Roger did, in my opinion," Ashish says. "In years to come, I hope people can say—just as they do about Roger—that I made people aware of movies with non-dominant narratives and that I got these directors' voice out there."