Radha Bharadwaj, Nayan Padrai and Tianna Majumdar-Langham are among the eight honoured by the Writers Guild of America for the stories they told.
It’s the City of Dreams, of Make-believe. The strivers, the strugglers keep coming but Hollywood’s gates are often closed. Can their stories ever be told, if they are a minority, an outsider? Writers of colour are often under-employed in cinema.
Recently the Writers Guild of America, an influential Hollywood entity, set up the Features Access Project to rectify this by encouraging diversity in writing. Coordinated by the WGAW Diversity Department, the project seeks to identify outstanding multicultural writers and makes their scripts available to powerful players in the entertainment industry. Qualified minority writers were asked to submit a feature-length, unproduced spec script, and their entries were read and scored on a blind submission basis by a panel of judges. Winners get access to quality producers and production companies.
Among this year’s eight multicultural honourees, three trace their roots back to India — Radha Bharadwaj (Final Boarding), Nayan Padrai (Billion Dollar Raja) and Tianna Majumdar-Langham (Guns and Saris) who won the honour with her co-writer Chris Bessounian. Details of the winning scripts are at: http://www.wga.org/fap.html
“Being validated by the WGA is an immense honour,” says Majumdar-Langham. “The Feature Access Project is really committed to introducing its honourees to executives, producers and agents, allowing us to sneak some valuable exposure and distinction in a large sea of writing talent.”
Radha Bharadwaj, who won with her script Final Boarding, is originally from Chennai and came to the U.S. to study film and stayed on when she married David Cohen, a lawyer. She says, “My ideal life would involve lots of trips to India: I have quite a few projects — two films and one international TV series — set fully or partially in India.”
Her first film Closetland became a cult film, with a devoted fan base. As a female writer-director, she does material that would be considered male terrain: Closetland dealt with personal and state-sponsored abuse and the power of the imagination to flee these forces, while Basil was about the tyranny of the British class system. Bharadwaj has won several writing awards including the Nicholl Screenwriting Award, the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and the Tribeca Feature Access Project.
“As an ethnic female exploring these subjects, I do face a certain amount of push-back, along the lines of: ‘Why don't you do stories about your country?’” she says. “By which, they mean stories of Indian poverty or the caste system or plight of Indian women. There’s a segment of the Western elite that still expects this — and only this — from artists who hail from a Third World country.”
Nayan Padrai, whose script Billion Dollar Raja is inspired by the Rajaratnam Wall Street scandal, came into cinema the hard way. His family is from Kutch, and he was born and partly raised in Mumbai. His family came to the U.S. when he was nine, and later he studied screenwriting and acting at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, even while working at other jobs.
“My father was an entrepreneur so that spirit is very well ingrained in my psyche,” he says. “In all those years, I always kept writing. I wrote, or co-wrote with my former writing partner, over 15 screenplays. So it was not like flipping a switch — the stove was just on a low flame. Then one day, a mentor told me the honest truth: ‘If you want someone to take you seriously in your goal to become a filmmaker, you have to first commit to losing everything you have. You have to quit your job; you have to go all in.”’ And he was right. Within eight months of quitting my job running a pretty sizable company, we were shooting my first film.”
His first film, a spunky romantic comedy When Harry Tries to Marry, co-produced with his colleague Sheetal Vyas, was distributed on VOD by Warner Bros, and has been licensed to 15 territories internationally. Vyas came up with the idea of Billion Dollar Raja, the largest insider trading case in U.S. history. They both worked on the story together, and Padrai wrote the script.
The third is Tianna Majumdar-Langham, who co-wrote the script of Guns and Saris with her partner, filmmaker Chris Bessounian. She is from Kolkata, daughter of a Bengali mother and British father. She spent her childhood in a small English village called Pirbright, but travelled to India every year. Later, the family moved to the United States where she attended high school and then studied Political Science and Psychology at the University of Redlands in Southern California. After making her first short film in Brazil, she was nominated by Film Independent for a full scholarship to the Los Angeles Film School, where she studied directing and editing, and made a number of shorts films.
Ask her about the tough times and the jobs she had to take while pursuing her passion of writing, and she says, “I’ve been a legal assistant in a criminal defence law firm defending accused murderers, rapists and pimps. I’ve also been a documentary researcher, a casting assistant for commercials, an English teacher, even a mortgage broker!”
Bessounian and she have made a short film The Kolaborator set in Bosnia, which screened at over 50 film festivals and won several awards, including a BAFTA/LA Student Award for excellence. Their next indie feature was Detached and they have written several scripts. She says: “Our latest script that we are about to go out to producers with is called A Perfect Terrorist and is the story of David Headley, who surprisingly, few people have ever heard of in the U.S.”
Things are already looking up for Guns and Saris. Majumdar-Langham says that their U.S. producer is speaking with Indian producers as well as actors and hopes to shoot the film at the end of 2014. She says, “The story is inspired by the true story of a Dalit woman in Bihar who, with the help of an upper-caste soldier, created her own army of female soldiers to protect Dalit women and girls from rampant caste violence.”
Asked if she’s ever thought of taking her talents to Bollywood, she says: “Absolutely. We would love to! Bollywood films are truly magical and I’d cherish the chance to be involved in them behind the scenes. We have a number of projects we wish to pursue that are set in India including a ghost/horror film, a family drama TV series and a mini-series about the complex and colourful union of my Indian/British family during World War II and Partition.”
How hard is it to break into Hollywood for these Indian-Americans? In spite of all her awards, Radha Bharadwaj says, “It's hard. It’s always been hard, and will probably continue to be so. The statistics for employment of women directors is even grimmer. And if you are a woman who defies stereotypes of what sort of content you should be doing, the battle becomes even more uphill. And I run counter to those expectations. Even when I choose to explore a dark aspect of India, my take wouldn’t be to run down or blame Indian culture or Hinduism, both of which I am proud of and admire.”
Padrai says, “This is a very valid question, with no one answer because each person has their own journey. It is not easy, and it is not hard. It is exactly what you make of it. What is hard is the commitment and sacrifice, and putting in your work.” Being close to the heartbeat of Hollywood is important and Padrai moved from New York to Los Angeles to be a part of the scene.
With more buzz about their winning scripts, the three filmmakers are pushing ahead with their projects. “Well, if thanks to the WGA win, I draw an excellent producer into my orbit, that would be splendid,” says Bharadwaj. “That would be the first step to getting it made. The film's eminently castable, with several fantastic roles.”
Bharadwaj recently got a big NYC agent for the mystery books she has been writing. She also has two feature film projects and an international TV show with a storyline set in India. She says, “I am seeking alliances with producers with a strong track record, pointed in the same direction, looking for projects with the same audience demographic in mind.”
With the Billion Dollar Raja, Padrai says there’s a lot of interest from different sources and he’s in the thick of discussions. He also has a comic action trilogy in Hindi that he’d love to make in India.
Asked about the future of Indian-Americans in Hollywood, Padrai says, “Access to entertainment has increased, and the Indian-American community in general loves cinema, so it is bound to happen that a younger generation will want to be involved in telling stories, acting, directing. Right now there are still very few Asian Americans in the industry overall, and that has to change. The demographics of the country are not reflected in Hollywood, but it is changing, and has to change.”
Tianna Majumdar-Langham adds a cautionary note: “The competition is severe with people arriving daily from all over the globe trying to break in. People often talk about ‘big breaks’ but our experience is that there isn’t one big break, rather a commitment to pushing on, constantly learning and improving, and never giving up.”
The writer is a New York-based journalist who blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com Follow@lassiwithlavina Google +