Indian journalist, Meher Tatna, became president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – best known for hosting the Golden Globe awards – at a critical time for Hollywood. It was the height of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements highlighting the sexual harassment, discrimination and gender inequality prevalent in both the film industry and society at large.
With actresses wearing black on the red carpet in a show of solidarity, the mood coming into the award season’s first big event, the Golden Globes, was somber. But in a nod to her Indian heritage, Tatna chose to wear a red Anamika Khanna gown instead. The onslaught of criticism that followed was surprising, to say the least. “I was totally taken aback,” Tatna told us. “I thought nobody would really care because the president is not a celebrity.”
Many assumed that by ignoring the dress code, Tatna was not supportive of the cause but the significance of the moment was not lost on her. “Of course I was aware of the movement and I was really proud to be a minority woman leading the association but my primary focus was to keep the Globes intact. I was still a new president and my biggest worry was to make sure the Globes were a success on my watch.”
Ironically, the deeper message of the night was to look beyond who was wearing what and instead focus on the work of the women in the room. To that end, Tatna made her priorities and that of HFPA clear when she took the stage to highlight the philanthropic efforts of the organization which has been at the heart of her work as president. As she prepares to leave her role at the end of this month, we spoke with Tatna by phone to learn more about the path that led her from aspiring actress to taking center stage at the Golden Globes.
On her love of Hollywood films:
When I was in college in Mumbai we used to cut class and go to the movies all the time. There weren’t that many Hollywood movies that came to India back then. It was mostly Bollywood movies and I was never that interested in those. When I saw Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar, I remember going to that movie by myself and something about that struck me. I remember walking home in a daze and thinking, ‘I didn’t know people could act like that.’
On pursuing an acting career:
I got a scholarship to study economics at Brandeis University but my interests were always towards the arts. I went to The American Academy of the Dramatic Arts in New York City once I graduated from Brandeis and I absolutely loved it. It was hard because I was waiting tables at night to pay my tuition but it was one of my happiest times in New York. When you’re young, you think you can do anything and I was convinced I could make it as an actress. I didn’t tell my parents what I was doing. It was only when a friend slipped up and told them that they found out and they were pretty appalled.
On struggling as an actress:
I was always working temp jobs or waiting tables in between because I could never make a living out of it. I never saw anyone who looked like me that was on television or in films back then. They were mostly stereotypical Indian roles where I was required to put on a heavy Indian accent. It was just a lack of awareness that Indians could be educated and are not all 7-Eleven owners or taxi drivers. And even those roles mostly went to men, not to women.
On transitioning to entertainment journalism:
I moved to LA to give acting a try there but it was the same story. I’d book a sporadic commercial, I’d work a few days on a show, a day on a movie, and (journalism) was actually a survival job because I didn’t want to be 40 years old and still living this life. So I thought, why not write about the business if I can’t act in it. And so that’s when I turned to journalism.
On the philanthropic efforts of the HFPA:
Even though we are an association of journalists, we are also a philanthropic organization. We give away close to $6 million a year in grants. We give money to underrepresented students through scholarships to study filmmaking and the arts who would not otherwise have that opportunity and to empower the next generation of filmmakers; we have a big role in film restoration, and we give $500,000 in humanitarian grants at the Cannes film festival every year. The humanitarian work of the HFPA is something I’m intensely proud of.
On the infamous Anamika Khanna dress:
I’ve worn sarees to a few events but for the Globes I wanted a western dress with Indian fabrics. Anamika sent me a sketch and I said I wanted the color to be red and that was the end of it. Until she actually made the outfit, I never saw it. You have to understand that we get so busy that what I was going to wear was the last thing on my mind. I was just grateful that she agreed to do it and it all worked out except that I got hate tweets because I didn’t wear black (laughs). A friend recently told me that at the last gay pride parade in Hollywood somebody wore that dress and then I knew I’d arrived!
On her favorite moment as HFPA president:
Oprah at my first Golden Globes (2018). It was a barn burner of a speech and it brought the house down. That was an awesome moment!
On what’s next for her:
I’ve lived this job 24/7 for the last two years so I’m taking a little break away from LA to reset and reclaim my life!
Photographs courtesy of: HFPA