A Sneak Peek at Harsimran Sandhu’s Short Film Pulp

Cinequest Film & Creative Festival is back again. And stronger than ever. From March 6th to 17th, over 200 films, celebrity Q&As, and prestigious after-parties will mark the 33rd year of Silicon Valley’s premiere film fest. On opening night, a steady stream of moviegoers flowed into the grand and gilded California Theatre to kick things off with the world premiere of gothic fantasy thriller The Island Between Tides. Quite a few actors, cinematographers, and directors flew in so they could walk the red carpet—after all, the festival’s films come from numerous States and 45 different countries—but we’ve got Bay Area talent in the lineup too.

 If you only attend the festival’s feature-length screenings, you’ll miss a local gem tucked into the short film program. Pulp, a debut short directed by San Jose native Harsimran Sandhu, is a tale about the immigrant experience. Considering that 40.7% of San Jose’s residents were born outside the U.S. as of 2021, Director Sandhu’s film seems a fitting tribute to our diverse region in a multicultural festival.

Sandhu overcame quite a number of hurdles to bring his vision to the screen. In fact, it took a defeated moment while studying for a B.S. in business at San Diego State to first light the spark. “Junior year, I remember sitting in an accounting class learning about credits and debits, and I had this big existential crisis,” Sandhu recalls. Later that night, “I was on the floor, venting to my roommate. I was like, ‘Life is over. What am I doing?'” After some words of encouragement, Sandhu perked back up and was determined to make a film. “I just felt so compelled to make a capital ‘S’ Something,” he emphasizes. But there was a short window of time to realize that dream. Sandhu had until graduation to utilize his college’s film resources and connections.

So this aspiring director started walking into film classes. “I would talk to professors, and I was like, ‘I can’t enroll in this because I’m not in the major, but can I sit in on these classes and learn and observe?'” He admits that, at first, the imposter syndrome was rough. “I felt like such an ‘other,’ if I’m being honest,” he shares. “An outsider looking in.” But he stuck with it and started pouring late nights into scriptwriting.

With no prior screenwriting experience, Sandhu penned and discarded countless drafts for six months until one of his roommates confiscated his laptop and read his work. The script sheds light on children of immigrants and their experience—a story inspired by Sandhu’s own relationship with his parents, who moved to the States from Punjab, Northern India. “My roommate started crying,” Sandhu recalls. “She was like, ‘This is beautiful, you need to make this!'”

Pulp discusses how many immigrant parents might not know how to express love adequately through words but often show it through their actions. “I fell in love with the imagery of giving someone the bigger half of an orange,” Sandhu says as he discusses the film’s title and key symbol. “It’s a mother eating less so her daughter can eat more… It’s ‘I want to peel it for you. I want to do the work for you so you can reap the rewards.'”

The film also portrays the pull between finding a “responsible” job and following the siren’s song of a creative career—a divergence many children of immigrants must navigate. “You’re supposed to pay your parents back. You’re supposed to take care of them and make their sacrifices worth it—and there’s such a clash with the pursuit of your own dreams,” Sandhu reflects. “That’s something that I’ve personally struggled with: that balance.” Plenty of his peers face the same dilemma. “I’ve had so many late-night talks with my friends about ‘What can we do?’ And no one knows the answer,” Sandhu says. “We’re all figuring it out. There’s no blueprint.”

As Sandhu shared his dream for Pulp with his classmates, quite a few rallied around the project, ready to bring his story to life despite the cost. “I was shocked at the generosity of it all,” the filmmaker says. “A lot of them cited that they were doing it because of the story.” Sandhu then managed to score the Pursue Your Dreams grant by Ascent Funding. “It was amazing, but it was also very scary, because I just got a direct deposit of $10, 000!”

Everything was going swimmingly until it came to rent video equipment from the school. Because Sandhu wasn’t a film major, he wasn’t given access to it. Nothing a little creative problem solving and willpower couldn’t solve. “I’d talk to people in my class, and I’d be like, ‘Hey, just attach your name to the project, and say you’re making a movie so we can check out equipment under your name,'” Sandhu recollects.

After the film was complete, he hit another roadblock. The SDSU Film Festival rejected Sandhu’s entry on the grounds that he was a business major. “I was like, ‘Please, guys, please!'” So they made an exception. “And I ended up winning Best Director,” Sandhu says with an amazed shake of his head.

Sandhu’s success catapulted him into the film festival circuit and earned him an internship with the Emmy’s as well as acceptance into a South Asian writer’s room. He’s currently working on a feature about a mom searching for her son in the wake of the 1984 Sikh genocide. “If I can make someone feel less alone—if I can make a movie that feels like a hug—I would love to do that,” he says.

Showcasing his film at Cinequest is a special moment for Sandhu. He first attended this festival as a teen, seeking extra credit for one of his classes at Gunderson High School. “I was the only one from my class who went,” he recalls. Watching spirited shorts, then hearing directors and writers speak about their films left a long-lasting impression. “I felt so enamored,” he says. “It’s a full circle moment—because I’m on that stage now!”

Ready to make your own memories at Cinequest?

A few films to look forward to this year include The Trouble with Jessica (a comedy starring Rufus Sewell and Alan Tudyk), Ezra (a dramedy starring Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg and Rainn Wilson), Puddysticks (a dark comedy starring Jurassic World’s Mamoudou Athie) and Tim Travers and the Time Traveler’s Paradox (a sci-fi staring Machete’s Danny Trejo).

Special events this year include an AI Town Hall about all things AI and creativity as well as Silent Cinema (1920s old Hollywood classics accompanied by a live organist).

Support Sandhu by watching the shorts program at 9:30AM on March 16th at the Hammer Theatre.