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Memorable PSA is just part of Las Cruces filmmaker’s directing, writing, teaching career


One of Las Cruces filmmaker Rajeev “Raj” Nirmalakhandan’s most recent projects was writing and directing a public service announcement for the State of New Mexico encouraging people to wear face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19. He said he loved the challenge and found a way to bring humor to a serious topic in a way that was safe for his cast and crew.

“You plan every detail possible. But then you have to be able to forget all those plans and navigate the problems and find a solution on the spot,” Raj said.

Raj wound up filming the PSA at Sports Accessories, Inc., 250 N. Solano Drive, with cooperation from owner Brian Cox. Raj was one of four filmmakers across the state invited to create a PSA to encourage pandemic-safe behaviors.

See the PSAs on the Film Las Cruces website, www.filmlascruces.com. Click on “Protect New Mexico.” Raj’s PSA is “That Guy,” at https://youtu.be/hbDcsDzBSfU. Raj’s PSA has already had more than 20,000 views.

“I just enjoy doing commercials,” Raj said. And, he said, comedy was an important element of this one.

“Let’s let our hair down a little bit. And, for the PSA, actor David Edwards “let his pants down a little bit,” Raj said.

“Edwards is the only actor in the PSA who is not wearing a mask,” Raj said. “In fact, it looks like he’s not wearing anything at all.” And that’s the point of the spot, because during the pandemic, not wearing a mask when you go into a business is “as shocking as walking into the store naked.”

“I first met and worked with Raj on some of my first film experiences,” Edwards said. “He is a very accomplished and discerning filmmaker, as well as a dedicated educator. I also consider him a true friend.”

Raj’s best-known film to date is 2013’s “The Odd Way Home,” which stars Rumer Willis, Bruce Altman, Veronica Cartwright, Brendan Sexton III and Chris Marquette. Raj co-wrote the script and directed the film.

“The Odd Way Home” is “a great example of (Raj’s) technical abilities as a filmmaker as well as his ability to capture strong images and emotions to tell a story,” said State Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces, who is president of the nonprofit Film Las Cruces.

Raj is now at work on a film called “Can’t Run,” about a wheelchair-bound woman from India who comes to America and is terrorized by the owner of the house she rents.

“I wanted to write a film that empowers a really strong female,” Raj said.

The script also reflects his own physical struggles – Raj has had four spinal surgeries and finds challenges in simple things that most people never think about, he said.

“I wanted to write a character who portrayed those same traits,” he said.

Raj, who turns 44 in August, came to the United States with his family at age of 7 or 8 to escape the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). After living in New Jersey and later Nashville, the family moved to Las Cruces, where Raj’s father, Nirmala Khandan, Ph.D., holds an endowed chair in NMSU’s Civil Engineering Department.

With a lifelong interest in the arts – he’d tried his hand at painting and sculpting – “filmmaking was the next step,” Raj decided while attending Las Cruces High School. It was there that he met Tony-winning playwright Mark Medoff, who would become Raj’s mentor.

Raj and his wife have a four-month-old daughter, and he said he is looking forward to continuing his career as a film teacher and filmmaker in Las Cruces. Raj has lived on the East and West coasts and in Dallas, but finds “something special, something unique about Las Cruces. I’ve been to the Alps in Switzerland,” Raj said. “I like the Organs better.”