A Story of Change

  • Jenna Ruiz (right) directs a scene with Gurinder Singh Khalsa (center) for her film, “SINGH.” Photograph by Robert Dalley
  • The film crew sets up a shot for Ruiz’s “SINGH.” Photograph by Robert Dalley

Jenna Ruiz’s short film “SINGH” tells the story of Gurinder Singh Khalsa, who inspired U.S. authorities to change their policies about turbans and other headgear in airport security checks.

Imagine facing an agonizing situation: in order to visit a beloved family member for what may be the last time, you must compromise on one of your core religious beliefs.

“SINGH,” a 14-minute short film, is based on such a real-life incident.

Jenna Ruiz, a student and actor from Indiana, made the film when she was just a teenager. It tells the true story of Gurinder Singh Khalsa, an American Sikh entrepreneur and president of SikhsPAC, who inspired U.S. authorities to change their policies about turbans and other headgear in airport security checks.

In May 2007, Khalsa planned to go to Sacramento to meet his sick mother in her final days. But he was stopped from boarding a flight in Buffalo, New York, by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents. Even though he had gone through security without setting off any alarms, he was told he had to remove his turban to be further inspected by the agents. He had to choose between taking off his turban to take this trip or skipping the trip to respect one of the most sacred traditions of his religion. He refused to take off his turban.

Khalsa later gathered thousands of signatures from across the United States for his petition, and brought his experience to the U.S. Congress, which inspired a change to TSA policies. He was named a Rosa Parks Trailblazer for his efforts.

“I hope this film gives viewers a different perspective on what it is like to be racially profiled, especially for a Sikh man in a turban,” says Ruiz. “Sikhs are very frequently misunderstood, and can face hardships because of this. I hope that this true story helps to shed some light on what people like Gurinder have to face just because of the way they look.”

Ruiz was bitten by the cinema bug early in her life. “When I was 9 years old, I entered the ‘Today’ show’s Kid Reporter contest and made top 16 out of 30,000,” she says. The “Today” show is a nationally broadcast morning talk and news television program in the United States. “After experiencing the magic of being on set in New York, I began acting. When I was about 13, I got a camera from my grandma and started making my own videos and, eventually, began producing my own films.”

Ruiz was working in and on commercials, music videos and films when she began to work for Khalsa’s SikhsMEDIA company in 2016. “I worked as a media producer, making short weekly update videos for his Facebook page, producing a couple of commercials, as well as taking and editing photos.” says Ruiz. “In mid-2018, Gurinder told me the story, which would inspire the film. As soon as I heard it, I suggested we make a film. From there, we immediately got to work on preproduction.”

The film was shot in the Indianapolis International Airport, says Ruiz.

“They were great hosts and so very helpful every step of the way,” she says. “Production went very smoothly, and we had almost no trouble keeping on track and on schedule. Although, thanks to our wonderful costuming department, we did have a lot of people in the airport occasionally stop and ask our TSA agents some questions. We had to awkwardly tell them that they were actors, which was hilarious!”

Travelers also tried to help Khalsa when they thought he was experiencing trouble.

“The film is just entering the festival circuit. But as far as the trailer goes, everyone seems to be loving it,” says Ruiz. “This film has a very powerful message, and people seem to be receiving it exactly as we had hoped.”

“SINGH” has already been selected to appear at film festivals, including the International Film Festival of South Asia - Toronto and the Covellite International Film Festival, in Montana. Khalsa is going to run for a city council position in his Indiana town, as its first Sikh candidate.

“As far as future plans go, SikhsMEDIA and I already have some other projects in the works, one being a feature film,” says Ruiz. “There are many exciting things to come, and ‘SINGH’ is only the beginning.”


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.