Nisha Ganatra’s big ticket

Her stint in television and her experiences as the lone woman of colour on sets bring honesty, relatability and comedy to Late Night, the Sundance record breaker that releases this weekend

Updated - June 14, 2019 07:18 pm IST

Published - June 14, 2019 06:04 pm IST

Canadian director Nisha Ganatra attends Amazon Studios' Los Angeles premiere of "Late Night" at the Orpheum theatre on May 30, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)

Canadian director Nisha Ganatra attends Amazon Studios' Los Angeles premiere of "Late Night" at the Orpheum theatre on May 30, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)

Nisha Ganatra was not the first pick for Late Night , the film that broke records at the Sundance Film Festival this January when Amazon Studios bought it for $13 million. Paul Feig ( Bridesmaid , The Heat ) had to drop out due to scheduling reasons. But, as Ganatra, 44, told Vanity Fair magazine, Mindy Kaling — actor, producer and the film’s screenplay writer — signed her on after she delivered her pitch like a “good Indian nerd”. The Indian American director’s “laptop presentation” had spelled out her inspiration and references for the film ( Working Girl , Broadcast News , Tootsie ), which, happily, coincided with Kaling’s.

“There was a point in the meeting when we realised, ‘Oh we are two Indian American women working in comedy in Hollywood. That’s so rare. When are we going to get a chance to tell our own story?’” says Ganatra, a happy laugh floating over the call from California. “A lot of people talk about hiring female directors, but few actually do it. Mindy made that decision for her first film! She could’ve gone with a more experienced white man, but she decided to go with me.” And the two — who’ve each been diversity hires or the lone brown face on all-white sets — “didn’t have to explain the character’s journey to each other”.

Late Night follows Molly Patel (Kaling), a diversity hire for a late night talk show hosted by Katherine Newbury (Oscar-winner Emma Thompson), a veteran in the field whose ratings are falling. Partly based on Kaling’s own experiences as the only Indian American woman on The Office ’s writing team, the film leads with comedy, while also exploring questions of diversity and sexism in the entertainment industry.

It’s been exactly 20 years since I first interviewed Ganatra. In 1999, the young Indian American filmmaker had burst into the indie film scene with the critically-acclaimed Chutney Popcorn. The comic desi Diaspora film, which she had developed while at NYC Film School, followed a single Indian mother in New York (Madhur Jaffrey) and her two daughters — the younger (Ganatra herself), a rebellious henna -tattoo artist living with her lesbian lover, and the older (Jaffrey’s real-life daughter, Sakina), married to an American man.

It played at the Berlinale, and magazines like Variety predicted “a rosy future for the precociously talented” director. But, aside from a few indie films — including the charming Cosmopolitan (2003) with Jaffrey and Roshan Seth — Ganatra struggled. It was not until a few years ago that she got her big break in television, directing shows like Mr Robot , Brooklyn Nine-Nine , The Mindy Project and the recent Black Monday . In 2015, She won a Golden Globe for Transparent .

Queer and proud
  • In April, Ganatra made public a thank you letter she’d written her mother. In it, she thanked her for divorcing Ganatra’s father and deciding not “to stay with a man who no longer had love for you or your children”. She added: “Years after that, when I told you I was never going to marry a man because I loved women, you chose to tell me you love me and that nothing would ever change that. Even though you again suffered the humiliation of ignorant friends and family, you still chose love.”

She is part of a small group of desi women filmmakers living and working successfully in the West. Mira Nair (partly based in New York), Deepa Mehta (Toronto) and Gurinder Chadha (London), all Punjabi filmmakers, have long since formed what they endearingly refer to as the “ behnji brigade”. Now, if Ganatra, the fourth Punjabi, joins, this could become a proper club. Interestingly, Nair’s Mississippi Marsala and Chada’s Bhaji on the Beach were two films that deeply resonated with the director as a young woman. Coming full circle, Late Night premièred at Sundance alongside Chada’s Blinded by the Light , which Ganatra told “was a dream come true”.

Edited excerpts:

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 25: Writer Mindy Kaling (L) and Director Nisha Ganatra attend the 'Late Night' Premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Center Theatre on January 25, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 25: Writer Mindy Kaling (L) and Director Nisha Ganatra attend the "Late Night" Premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Center Theatre on January 25, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

You’ve worked on major TV shows. How did that prepare you for this film?

It’s so funny. While I made films, I could not get a job in television for 10 years. Now, for the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of television and people are calling me a TV director... they think I’m a veteran. I’m from the indie films world and I’ve been telling diverse stories. But television is a very white, male, homogeneous world. [Breaking into TV] really helped me understand what Mindy’s journey has been.

Is it still very white and male dominated?

Yes. If there is any big change, it is in the streaming services — Netflix and Amazon Prime, and to some extent Hulu. They’re giving voices to people of colour and female-driven projects, more so than networks.

In comparison, is Hollywood changing?

I think so, though very slowly. I don’t think four or five years ago a movie like ours would’ve been one of the biggest sellers at Sundance or if it would’ve gotten such a wide release.

Tell me about your brand of comedy.

It is ‘character driver’ comedy. I don’t like campiness or over-the-top broad comedy. I really like when it is grounded in the characters.

Did you grow up watching comedies and sit-coms?

I had a really boisterous family. Punjabis are naturally just very funny and everyone is trying to make each other laugh. My brother [now a software engineer in the Silicon Valley] and I would listen to stand-up routines over and over — Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and Monty Python. We would imitate them. I think that’s how you learn comic timing, by imitating the greats. Little by little, we learned to replace their monologues with our own.

What was it like directing Mindy, as this is her screenplay?

On TV, you are trying to capture the vision of the writer, but in film you are capturing your own. It was more cooperative than I would’ve normally done. I was trying to be more respectful of her experience. But film is definitely the director’s medium.

But sometimes scriptwriters can be very possessive of their work.

There were some things she was very tied to, but ultimately she wanted the best for the film also. It was a matter of a little bit more persuasion on my part.

Do it like Thompson
  • Ganatra has repeatedly stated how invested she was in “showing everybody what a comedic force Emma Thompson is. We’ve used some of her real [stand-up] clips in the film, [made when] she was in her 20s. That’s how she started in the business”. The director adds, “She would show up prepared, but also with the approach, “How am I of service to you and the movie?” For one scene, where Thompson was supposed to be getting ready for bed the actor refused to put on make-up. “I just got ready for bed,” Thompson told Ganatra, “Why would I have make-up on?”

And Emma Thompson?

She is one of the finest actors working and she’s so incredible to behold. Directing her was a dream. She is so generous; she really puts herself in your hands. There’s no nonsense like ‘I’m Emma Thompson and I know best.’ She really respects the collaboration between the director and the actor, and is always willing to try anything you ask her to do. I think I’m spoilt for life.

What’s next for you?

I am directing my first studio film. It’s for Universal and Focus Features, called Covers , and stars Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross.

Late Night opens in 1,800 screens in the US this weekend.

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