Humor is often the best vehicle for social commentary especially when delivering uncomfortable truths about the world. This was illustrated brilliantly in a scene from Late Night when Mindy Kaling’s character, Molly Patel, walks into a meeting and has to sit on a trash can because the two empty chairs at the writers’ table were already “taken.” She was literally kept from having a seat at the table. The metaphor underlies Kaling’s own experience working as a television writer and trying to be seen in an all white, all male writers’ room.
It was only fitting then to have director Nisha Ganatra at the helm of Late Night since her own path so closely mirrored that of Kaling’s. “Since there are so few Indian American women in comedy, it’s rare to find someone who had a similar journey to yours or faced similar obstacles,” Ganatra told us over the phone when we chatted. Although, she was in the midst of promotions for Late Night and starting her next movie Covers, Ganatra graciously talked to us about her journey from struggling indie filmmaker to becoming the darling of Sundance.
How did you first become interested in filmmaking?
My first foray into it was acting, I thought I wanted to be an actor. I did a lot of acting training and took a lot of classes and it really was the door that led me to filmmaking. I remember seeing Bhaji on the Beach, Gurinder Chadha’s movie and it was the first time I saw Indian women that were like my maasis and me and my friends and nobody had portrayed us that way. There weren’t everyday representations on screen that showed contemporary Indian American or British life and I was so inspired by it. I just remember having this really strong desire to write a movie and represent that culture — my friends, my family, the people I saw around me and it was so weird to me that it was missing from mainstream media. I realized that our culture is so media focused and media centric that the most radical thing to do was to represent Indian Americans because if you don’t exist in the media then you just don’t exist. And if you don’t exist then you can’t affect any change or cause any sort of cultural shift.
What do you love about directing?
It’s just the most fun job in the whole world! I love directing because you never get to master it. When you get really good at shots, then there’s performances and how you’re going to direct the performances. Let say you become incredible at directing performances and your shots are the most beautiful in the world, well you now have to work with a composer and a cinematographer and a costume designer and an editor — it is just the most collaborative art and when you’re the director you get to work with the best people in every single one of those fields. It’s just the dreamiest creative position and I get to learn so much every day.
How did the opportunity to work on Late Night come your way?
I heard about it from my agent and he said, ‘Mindy Kaling has a movie that she’s making and I think you should read it and see what you think.’ When I read Late Night it was a really unique experience where someone had written a movie that was so close to my personal experience. I just felt so incredibly connected to the character and the material and it was about political issues that I care a lot about and have spent my career bringing to movies. It was this beautiful project that brought everything I was passionate about in one place.
The movie was a huge hit at Sundance and had a record sale with Amazon. Were you expecting that?
No, not at all! When you look at the history of movies coming out of Sundance with big sales it’s mostly young white men in beanies (laughs). It took a while to sink in and when it did I burst into tears because when you picture who wins, it’s those guys not an Indian American woman holding a baby. I’ve been to festivals before with Indian American movies and had to jump through so many hoops just to prove that we were as valuable as a white mainstream movie. So, this time to go with an Indian American actress as the lead in the movie and be told you’re the most valuable thing at the festival was so incredible.
Any pinch me moments while working on the film?
Every moment with Emma Thompson was a pinch me moment! I was such a huge mega fan of hers and then to be able to direct her and be just inches away watching her performance and be charged with shaping it was just such a dream come true. Also, what I learned from her is that even if you’re Emma Thompson and you’re the best in the world at what you do, you still have to do the work. She worked so hard to prepare and build her character and made sure that every performance she gave was the best possible performance. She never rested on her laurels or her talent.
What’s the message you want people to take away from this movie?
I hope that people find the movie funny and entertaining. I also hope they take away the idea that diversity and inclusion isn’t as hard to accomplish as we think it is and that when inclusion is practiced it helps everyone. It’s representative of our culture and something that’s benefiting all of us.
There’s a great scene at the end of the movie where the writers’ room changes from being all white men to having more racial and gender diversity. What are some real and tangible changes that need to happen so that writers’ rooms can actually look like that?
If I knew the answer to that I would change all of Hollywood overnight!
What’s a story you want to tell that you haven’t been able to yet?
I have a pilot called Pre-Madonna that I would very much like to make. It’s a coming of age series about a freshman in high school who is Indian American — and obsessed with Madonna.
Venk Modur sat at his table inside the ballroom of The Beverly Hilton…