Beyond the Surface is an explosion of color and calm, a documentary film, travelogue, and contemplative call to action on issues involving women’s empowerment, helping disadvantaged kids, spirituality and the fragility of the environment.
It’s a journey powered by the waves of India’s massive coastline, and riding – in part – on the surfboard of 25-year-old Ishita Malaviya, who describes herself as the first woman to pursue surfing professionally in India, one in a small community of total surfers there. “What I love about surfing is that in a country like India where people are divided in terms of caste, creed or economic status,” says Malaviya, “the ocean has been a great equalizer and united us all together.”
The film, shot in the spring of 2013 by cinematographer Dave Homcy, was launched the year before when his wife, Hawaii-based surfer and environmentalist Crystal Thornburg-Homcy, contacted Malaviya about meeting during a trip to India. At a local chai shop, Thornburg-Homcy introduced herself and another fellow surfer, Emi Koch, founder of Beyond the Surface International (BTSI). Koch’s non-profit – founded when the now 25-year-old was still at Georgetown University – uses surfing – and a network of surfing groups in different countries – as a means of self-expression and support for underprivileged children in marginalized communities. Koch, who sums up the BTSI mission as “using the power of play for social change,” had hoped to to film and feature young wave riders from the Kovalam Surf Club in southern India.
With a film as shared goal, Koch and Thornburg-Homcy partnered on the project that would ultimately bear the BTSI name – and asked Malaviya if she’d join them for the ride. “It had always been a dream of mine to meet with other female surfers and surf with them in my own country,” recalls Malaviya, who (with boyfriend Tushar Pathiyan) co-founded and runs a surf school, The Shaka Surf Club, on India’s western coast. Malaviya says she felt “truly honored to be asked to be a part of this project and excited about the possibility of going on a month-long surf adventure!”
That adventure, captured in Beyond The Surface, follows Malaviya, Thornburg-Homcy, Koch and three others (Liz Clark, Lauren Hill and Kate Baldwin) as they travel along India’s southern coast and take to the waves, engaging with the surf club youth and the women they meet en route. The film’s band of surfers, activists and adventurers encourage the women they encounter to join them in the surf, to rediscover their uninhibited selves and feel more connected to the water. “In spite of coming from completely different worlds, we were able to connect with each other over something as simple and profound as the joy of riding a wave, says Malaviya, who’s also “seen how surfing is having a tremendously positive impact in local communities where people are discovering the joys of being in the ocean.” That discovery, in turn, is part of the film’s message of protecting the environment.
Beyond the Surface also documents the travelers’ self-discovery along the way – in yoga practice, surfing and conversation – and the travelers share their experiences, to the accompaniment of a memorable soundtrack and scenery.
As a female surfer, Malaviya is aware of her outlier image and the message it sends to women in India.
“As a woman, I feel that growing up in India toughens you and in many way forces you to grow up a little too soon. I love that surfing not only made me a stronger woman but also reintroduced an element of play back into my life,” she says. “More than anything it has been a great spiritual influence in my life and made me realize the importance of living my life now.” In facing big waves, “I learned to embrace challenges and face my fears head on.”
Malaviya – and her fellow Beyond the Surface surfers – have many goals for the film. One is forging a sense of connectivity. “This is a very pure project,” she says. “I hope that people will be inspired to travel, experience new cultures, connect with others through a common love for the ocean, and develop compassion for our fellow human beings and Mother Nature.”
Koch sees the finished film, which blends many perspectives, as “a work of art … like a living museum” and evidence of her conviction that “everyone has a story.” To that end, her non-profit’s newest project, Coast 2 Coast links young people in disparate communities to use their voices to tell and share their stories.
For women, Malaviya says the film’s message transcends borders and cultures.” I hope that these magical moments captured on film will make all women feel like a part of a sisterhood and inspire them to pursue their passion and experience that same sense of liberation in whatever they do.”
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By Moira Bailey