The total Asian population in Chicago grew from 144,903 in 2010 to 189,857 in 2020 — a 31% increase. The South Asian community is especially prominent in Chicago, given that, as of 2015, the city hosts the second-largest Indian population as well as the third-largest Pakistani community in the country.

In continuation of celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re excited to spotlight Chicago South Asian filmmakers and their work.

Special thanks to Jigar Shah, Festival Director for the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, and filmmaker Devon Gulati, for helping us with our search. [Learn more about Jigar & his work on our recent blog].


Sean Sankalp Raju

Sean Raju never really thought about filmmaking as a career growing up.
“Movies, to me, were these magical things that happened to play on my TV and I loved them,” Sean recounts.
Sean later became especially interested in the early indie filmmaking movement, studying the works of directors like the Cohen Brothers, Kevin Smith, and Richard Linklater. He recognized that these talents were not ‘extraterrestrial beings’, but rather people who tapped into their own community. 
Emboldened by this realization, Sean entered film sets and joined writers’ groups. Eventually, he won the 2020 Camera Ambassador Community Builders Grant for his short film ‘A Nickname’, a true childhood story of a seven-year-old girl's grand con — and how Sean got his American nickname in the process.
“A Nickname was the first time I dug inwards as a filmmaker,” Sean shares. “I began understanding that it’s not just the craft, but also the meaning behind the films that I find important.”
Today, Sean is working with OTV Studio, Mandi Theater (a Hindi theater company based in Buffalo Grove, IL), and other South Asian filmmakers, on a black and white Hindi short film based on a series of Indian folk tales.
“I encourage any of your readers to just generally keep in touch with other South Asian filmmakers,” Sean continues. “It's a small community. We know a lot of each other's works and I think it's a really exciting space!"


Ariella Khan

In high school, Ariella Khan wanted to be an actor. Then, she participated in a film summer program and fell in love with what was happening behind the camera.


“Something that I love about the film is that you’ve got so many tools at your disposal to help your story,” Ariella explains. “When you have intention behind every facet of every department, it only makes it (the film) better and more layered.”


Ariella went on to study at Northwestern University, where she wrote and directed her short film Roti. She remembers how self-conscious she’d felt when she’d pitched the story that she’d written in a class full of her peers.


Roti had a very true heart because it was just me - I put my life on the screen,” Ariella admits. “When it premiered, by the end, my producer Owen Pickette was holding onto my arm because I was sinking lower and lower in my chair like ‘oh my God, this is so so vulnerable’.”


Since then, Ariella has graduated, written and directed other film projects, and freelanced as an Assistant Director and Production Designer. Currently, she’s in pre-production on her web series Converting, a comedy-drama about a South-Asian intercultural romantic relationship between two people in their late twenties, who need to explore their own identities before fully committing to one another.


You can support Converting by filling out this relationship questionnaire and/or give their Instagram page a follow!


Devon Gulati

Devon Gulati loves magic. As a child, he was entranced by magicians and their ability to leave audiences in awe.
“My study of illusions as a child became the catalyst that led to my pursuit of filmmaking”, notes Devon. 
Devon grew up in Bentonville, Arkansas, and really flourished under the community and collaboration cultivated by his high school film teacher Mr. Fusselman.
‘Consequences’ is a short film I made with Director Connor Leech and my high school film class about a teenager who decides to drink and drive,” Devon recollects. “We received an award from Mother Against Drunk Driving, so it was a really meaningful project for me.”
In 2015, Devon went on to study Cinematography and Editing at Columbia College Chicago, winning a Telly Award for Best Editing for a PBS Project. Shortly after leaving school, Devon built his brand, Abrupt Arts, in Chicago with his former business partner Jack Heyden. Devon returned to business school while simultaneously working in film to complete his degree in Technical Management, and now is wrapping up his M.B.A. 
“Now, I produce a slate of films from documentaries to feature films,” Devon writes.
2022 is shaping up to be a busy year for Devon. He’s co-producing the short film “The Gaze” (directed by Sean Raju), as well as gearing up for a film currently called “NIGHTSHIFT” (directed by Michael Panico and Matt H. Miller), a debut feature film by VINCO about a motel attendant who becomes suspicious of the late-night arrival of two brothers. Furthermore, a documentary he’d produced about David Glass, former CEO of Walmart, will be released on a streaming platform by the end of this year.


Virat Sharma

Since both his parents worked, Virat Sharma often turned to film and television after coming home from school. Compounded with the fact that he is a first-generation immigrant from another culture, Virat was raised by entertainment in many ways.

“As I grew up, I started getting more interested in the nuances and the process of making it,” says Virat. “I eventually decided to pursue it and I am glad I did.”

Virat worked as an intern/production assistant on a documentary feature “Life Itself”, a documentary by Steve James about the film critic Roger Ebert. He grew up watching Roger Ebert and he, although modestly admitting to playing a small role in production, was moved by the ultimate experience of watching it for the first time.

“Roger Ebert loved film and even if you disagreed with him, he talked about it in a way that related it to real life for everybody,” Virat explains. “He talked a lot about learning empathy through film, which I appreciated so much.”

Ever since, Virat has worked his way up from Assistant to Production Coordinator. Yet, with each job, he’s loved working with the people on set.

“I would choose a project with nice people to work with over the genre of project,” he exclaims. “The rest will follow, as a good movie or show can be created no matter the genre!”

Virat is the Production Coordinator on the show "61st Street", which is currently airing on AMC.


Sam Vaghani

Sam Vaghani is an actor and producer. He fundraised as an Associate Producer on Ravi Kapoor’s Four Samosas, a feature that will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. He is also an IFA Chicago member at Cinespace.

Sam wants to see more Chicago-led film productions. In the past, he’s tried to work with the city’s organizations to create a film fund for independent filmmakers. While that effort has been stalled for the time being, Sam remains hopeful for future local homegrown productions. From his work as an advocate for greener public buildings to his love for the city’s history and culture, Sam sees nothing but potential for Chicago filmmaking.

“No matter how old you are, all the independent filmmakers that wanna aspire to create their own features and/or documentaries will be able to do so and distribute it for the whole world,” Sam concludes. “All here made in Chicago.”

Interested in engaging more with the Chicago South Asian film community? Be sure to check out our previous article on the Chicago South Asian Film Festival here.