When Sree Nallamothu was nine, her family left the Indian city of Hyderabad for Orchard Lake, a suburb of Detroit. The contrast between the two cultures provides the background for her short film She Was in Love Once.

The 20-minute movie follows Maya, a young Indian-American woman who finds out she’s pregnant just as it’s dawning on her that she’s fallen out of love with her husband, Prem. When she visits her grandparents in a nursing home, she learns that her grandfather has died only hours before. Her grandmother, Leela, who’s long satisfied a yearning to travel by poring over maps, convinces Maya to take her on a road trip from Michigan to Minnesota. Along the way they discover a paradox: Leela, the product of a traditional culture, is bitter because she has been denied choices, while Maya has been free to make her own choices yet still feels bitter and bewildered. The two women share a consoling embrace as they sit on a roadside. “You are not me,” says Leela. “Your baby will not be you.”

“I thought it would be interesting to look at two different generations of women,” says Nallamothu, who’s 28 and a recent MFA graduate from Columbia College. “One who had this arranged marriage and then lived it out, and then this younger woman who chose who she wanted to marry, but it doesn’t really matter–it’s still the same result.”

She Was in Love Once was filmed in five days two years ago in August. Like most film students, Nallamothu struggled to raise funds, receiving about $5,000 from grants and contributing $3,000 from her own pocket. Scenes were set wherever it was convenient and cheap; one took place at a Lincoln Avenue motel that cost $60 for the day. “They told us to watch what we filmed, because there were these old guys with young girls coming in and out who wouldn’t want to be on film,” she says. Nallamothu cast family and friends in all the principal roles. Maya is played by one of her sisters-in-law; Prem is played by Suhail, a local metal sculptor and architect; and the role of Leela went to a family friend.

Though Nallamothu had founded and run a South Asian theater company in Ann Arbor for three years following her graduation from the University of Michigan, her family reacted to her cinematic aspirations with some surprise–her three brothers and all of her cousins are doctors. They’ve since come around. “My mom’s a big film fanatic, and they seem really amazed with the whole thing,” she says.

This summer Nallamothu is teaching inner-city teens to make videos through the Mayor’s Employment Training Program. “We help kids make short documentary pieces about things that involve their lives and the issues that they have.” She continues to mine her own background for material. “I want to make a feature in another one and a half years,” she says. “A collection of testimonies about Indian independence.”

She Was in Love Once will be screened at 7:30 next Thursday, July 30, at Columbia College’s Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan. It’s free; call 773-645-0618. –Patrick Lohier

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sree Nallamothu photo by Eugene Zakusilo.