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Most students look forward to applying what they’ve learned at Princeton to their developing careers post-graduation, but by the time Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri ’01 graduated from the University, she was already in what she called “the full-fledged middle of [her] career.” She was a fashion model and photographer.
Pal-Chaudhuri spent five years traveling the world as a model before enrolling at the University to study anthropology. Upon graduation, she had also established herself as a photographer and owner of a photography agency for five years. Since then, her career has spanned a number of media including an Alicia Keys music video, a Beyoncé album cover, film directing and a Bravo reality TV show.
Pal-Chaudhuri began her modeling career almost unintentionally at age 14. When she met with professional photographers to discuss her desire to be a professional photographer, they suggested she start off with modeling since she had no experience with photography.
Having taken two years between high school and college to model, Pal-Chaudhuri said she felt as though she approached her University experience with a more goal-oriented perspective.
“I came to Princeton a little later than most people, and that gave me a bit more of a sense of what I wanted to accomplish at Princeton, so I think I came with a bit of an agenda — intellectually speaking. I really wanted to study South Asian philosophy, and I had traveled in India,” Pal-Chaudhuri said. “And that had opened my eyes to a lot of questions I wanted to find out more about.”
However, she was surprised to learn that at the time the University had no existing South Asian Studies department and had discontinued the Sanskrit program. Pal-Chaudhuri spearheaded a student initiative to create that program and reinstate Sanskrit classes — goals that came into fruition.
“I think that one of the things that Princeton really inspired [in] me is this idea that if you’re interested in something, you can go for it and ask people enough and bother them enough and show that there is a lot of student interest. The University is responsive and does take student interest seriously,” she said. “That was very empowering actually, to see change within the Princeton community and to help make changes afterward.”
Pal-Chaudhuri’s senior thesis, “In Pursuit of Happiness: Desire in Hinduism’s Vedanta Philosophy and Practice,” examined approaches to the concept of desire from premodern to postmodern times.
Pal-Chaudhuri’s former professor also attested to the relationship between her studies at Princeton and her work in the entertainment industry.
“What we practice in anthropology is this profound respect for difference and this sensibility for people’s singularity, and I think that transpired in her work in anthropology,” anthropology professor João Biehl said. “I think [this] most likely also influenced her and helped her in her impressive career, this attention to singularity and people’s plasticity.” Pal-Chaudhuri had been a student in Biehl’s class on medical anthropology.
“I found it really liberating to pursue the intellectual, philosophical background to a lot of the work I was doing because as an advertising photographer, that’s what you’re doing. People desire some things,” Pal-Chaudhuri said. “Now as a filmmaker, I find myself going back even more to my early Princeton studies.”
Upon graduation, Pal-Chaudhuri continued diversifying her career by exploring celebrity and fine art photography. Her work has been featured in over 20 exhibitions and 22 books. Most recently, her photo of Beyonce’s 2003 album cover is being shown at the Smithsonian Institution.
Four years ago, Pal-Chaudhuri found her true passion, and began directing films and videos.
“My real passion is to find interesting stories and myths and retell them in modern settings and find ways to combine elements of artistry in today’s world with elements of the past,” she said.
Her film work has included The Legend of Lady White Snake, a short film based off an ancient Chinese legend that won the four top awards at the International Fashion Film Festival, and Girl Epidemic, a short film on female infanticide that won two Golden Lions at the Cannes Film Festival. She is currently working on several feature films.
In 2010, Pal-Chaudhuri returned to the other side of the camera as the star of a Bravo show called Double Exposure which explored the behind-the-scenes of her photography shoots alongside her partner Markus Klinko.
Although they are currently working independently, Klinko and Pal-Chaudhuri have worked as a photography duo since 1995.
“She’s a very very clever and creative person, very hard worker,” Klinko said. “[Pal-Chaudhuri is] really a perfectionist, someone who takes [her work] extremely seriously, who is able to not sleep and eat for days in order to achieve what she wants to achieve.”
“It was a difficult process because so much of reality TV, of course, is your creating entertainment,” Pal-Chaudhuri said. “It helped me to see myself with a different perspective, my work, and to really learn about storytelling and live action. Being the center of that storm, it was really an immersive experience.”
Her experience on the show inspired her to write a book about crafting public image which will be published next year.
With her extraordinary success in multiple platforms, it is hard to imagine how Pal-Chaudhuri finds the energy and time to stay focused and sane.
“I meditate and that helps me a great deal to focus and not have to sleep that much,” she said.
Pal-Chaudhuri also attributes her success to a fundamental experience in her young adulthood — starting a school for impoverished children in India at the age of 18 that has been running successfully for almost twenty years. The mission of Shakti Empowerment Organization is to empower women. The school, located outside of Calcutta and run by her father, educates 300 students from the surrounding area.
“I’ve had a sense of responsibility; I had to accomplish certain goals to keep the school going, and that’s really helped to keep my focus and to recognize that there is so much that we can all do,” Pal-Chaudhuri said. “It’s been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve done in my life, certainly inspires me to keep going in a positive direction and to keep creating and using my artwork to inspire.”
“I think that she is definitely someone that’s at heart a scholar and extremely dedicated to giving back,” Klinko said. “Whatever financial success and reputation that she can gain through the work, she will try to give it back to the school which she always supported.”
Pal-Chaudhuri has also maintained connections to the University. She participated in a faculty-alumni forum panel on the arts in 2011 and has written for Princeton Alumni Perspectives.
In the future, she said she hopes to create globally- and socially-minded films as she also continues her work in photography and videography.
“It’s incredibly fun; I get to do what I enjoy every day. I mean, not every aspect is fun of course, but creating and inspiring others is,” she said. “I feel very blessed to have wonderful people around me and to constantly be searching for and finding the elements that make life fascinating.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the title of a short film about female infanticide. The film is called Girl Epidemic. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.