Interview with Shilpa Mankikar..Writer, Director, Producer, Editor

Writer, Director , Producer , Editor … Shilpa Mankikar is a proud Indo-American who wears multiple hats. As a filmmaker based in New York and India, Shilpa strives to produce work that shows her passion and love for stories that need to be told. Two of her scripts were finalists at the 2016 Sundance Screenwriters Lab, her films have won the Planet Out 1st Prize at Sundance, the National Board of Review Award, and Best of Fest at international festivals including in Palm Springs, Switzerland, and Shanghai. She has interviewed a variety of people from former President Bill Clinton to blind village street sweepers in India, as well as worked with many big names including Youtube star Superwoman Lily Singh. Shilpa is a graduate of the MFA Film Program at Columbia in New York, and Oberlin College. She is currently making music videos, as well as branded content, feature films, and documentaries.

She definitely makes us South Asians proud! Catch her full interview at theranidiaries.com to learn more about her and all of her amazing accomplishments!

Shilpa, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! While researching about you I learned that you have multiple titles, Writer, Director, Producer & Editor. What is the best thing about each of these roles?

SM: All of these roles are creative in different ways.  When you are making independent work, outside of the studio system, you end up wearing a lot of different hats.  It is your passion driving your projects, so no one else will be as specific as you about each aspect.

Writing – I’m alone and can express my own ideas and try to find creative solutions or metaphors for world issues.  A lot of my work is about stories that haven’t been told yet, or envisioning new ways of seeing things.  It’s also self-expression about what’s going on in our world.  Writing is where you can fix story problems and take time, mull things over.

Directing – brings all the crafts together – Acting, Cinematography, Sets, Costumes, Music, Sound.    It’s also working with a big team, and communicating what is in your mind, or bringing out the best in people you have brought together.  You have to make a lot of decisions quickly.  You also have to own your power and be a leader.

Producing – It’s the practical side to accomplish the Creative vision.  There’s an elephant in a hot air balloon the script – what kind of an elephant?  Where are you going to get one?  How much does it cost?  What are the safety regulations?  Should you just do it in EFX?  Casting, Crewing – find the right team/crew for each project.  You are taking a script and making it do-able:  We can shoot these many scenes on this day, etc.  You also handle all the contracts and finances.  Many Producers have a Legal or Finance background.  My background was in Distribution and Marketing, so I like to find business or financial arguments for under-represented stories.

Editing – is when everything comes together in detail after the stress of making the shoot happen. So this is a relief.  I like to find different ways of placing shots or visually expressing something, finding the underlying rhythm and what’s unspoken in a performance.  You can especially be creative in music videos.  Then you add the music.

The Editor and Producer are often un-sung Hero/ines of the Production, because they make everything come together.

Who are your biggest influences? Have you gotten a chance to meet any of them?

SM: This is a hard question!  Depends project to project. I have a lot of different interests in terms of the kinds of stories I like to tell.  Some projects are still in Script form, and haven’t been shot yet.

On the Epic Historical Scale: These are the really ambitious “Oscar” movies that I aspire to one day make:

Milos Forman, Director & Peter Schaffer, Writer (Amadeus), Merchant-Ivory (Remains of the Day), Richard Attenborough (Gandhi).  More recently, Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) & Amma Asante (Belle).

Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabwala were really pioneers.  They were making these “cross-over” movies starting in the 1950’s and 60’s.  They don’t even make those kinds of “mid-range budget” movies anymore in the industry.  It was very inspiring to go to their office and estate/studio and see all the awards on the walls. It’s humbling.  I recommend reading their memoirs.

Gandhi came out at a time when there were the “DotBusters” hate crime group attacking South Asian families. My entire extended family went to see it together, and it was a proud moment.  Plus all my grandparents were active in the South Asian Independence movement.  So it visualized all these stories they told me.  I met Bhanu Athaiya at a festival. (who was India’s first Oscar winner for the Costumes in Gandhi.  This included the funeral procession scene, which had the most Extras ever in any movie – who all had to be dressed in Period and Class/Caste-appropriate wardrobe.)  She gave me her email address, and months later, I went to her studio in Mumbai.  It was full of her sketchbooks over the years.  I learned a lot about being a working creative.  She’s also very established in Bollywood (Lagaan).  She invented Chudi-dhars and started fashions because she dressed the stars – Nargis Dutt and others.  It turned out she was very interested in one of my projects about the same era as Gandhi, and would send me on daily research treasure hunts around Mumbai.  The Iraq War was going on, and a lot of us were involved in the anti-war movement – which got exhausting.  She sent me to Gandhi’s HQ where Martin Luther King Jr. had visited, and other places.

The “New York School” are filmmakers who make gritty films that are shot on real locations, with “real” actors,  and often tragic or full of gravitas and danger.  As compared to the “LA” style which is – Hollywood, shot on studio sets.  I obviously grew up watching and loving Hollywood movies like Goonies or Back to the Future or Sarah Jessica Parker in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun or comedies like Mean Girls.

But the New York side speaks to me in a deeper way, and particularly because I went back to film school after 9/11 to tell stories about our community that were overlooked by the mainstream media.  Scorsese’s New York stories (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) stand out.  He is always saying “Film is dead!”, “The shot is dead!” – that the art form is dead.  That pushes me to think creatively about camera movement and other aspects.  His spectre is everywhere.  For a while I lived on the block where Jodi Foster’s scenes in Taxi Driver were shot.  We once shot on the street he grew up on, in the last butcher shop in Little Italy, owned by a 90-year-old lady who knew his mother.  She kept stealing sugar from our craft services table.  I met Scorsese’s Editor Thelma Schoonmaker because my great-uncle had painted the Oscar-winning sets for Powell & Pressburger in the 1940’s.  (Black Narcissus) His was a lost story, because India was still a colony.  She was married to Michael Powell and maintains his archive.  I had researched his story and shared it with her at their office.  That was very exciting. The shot list for Hugo was on the wall.

Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) – yes, I worked on Bamboozled.  He is a huge influence, because I watched his library of African-American Cinema from the Silent Era, and realized that people were making films under Jim Crow & the Depression.  They were self-distributing and addressing their community, even if Hollywood was not.  We started 3rd i (thirdi.org) in the same spirit.  I was hired there by Geeta Ganbhir and Sam Pollard – who are Emmy-winners in their own right.  A lot of people come out of 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks.

American Indies – Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse).

French/ World Cinema – Claire Denis (Chocolat),  Olivier Assayas (Cold Water), Jacques Audiard (A Prophet). French people shoot film in a different style.  The colors and tones are different.  Maybe it’s more serious.  Jacques Audiard is a master of performances and twists.  Claire Denis has danger in a lot of her work.  Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water left a huge impression on me in film school.  It changed my life.  It was like he channeled some of my experiences.  The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) – tells twisting stories that take place in relatable families.

On the South Asian side, the Triumvirate of Gurinder Chadha, Mira Nair, and Deepa Mehta, who made films about South Asian women as I was growing up, that I could relate to.  Seeing 2nd generation women like me on screen for the first time in Bhaji on the Beach or Mississipi Masala.  Meera Syal, who works more in TV comedy (Goodness Gracious Me), and wrote Life is Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee.

Stylistically – Hanif Kureishi, who always shows the edgy, sexy, and dark side of things. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) – he gets some flack from the South Asian community for that film, but I liked it. His visual aesthetic, some of the upside down shots, etc. Trainspotting influenced me.  Wong Kar-Wai, Director & Christopher Boyle, DP (Chungking Express).   They influenced a lot of Asian American filmmakers, because their style is so cool.

Sub-culture wise – hip-hop or the Electronic dance/rave culture – where South Asian artists made cross-over work or were sampled.  I was very involved with Mutiny and the Asian Underground scene.  That was the first time 2nd generation kids were making really good music that stood up against the other stuff we listened to.

I’ve met most of these people either through distributing their films in the US or at screenings.

How did you get started in this field and what is your biggest accomplishment?

SM: I was always in school plays and leaned towards dance, music, and art.  My mother put us in Bharat Natyam class as kids, which is a narrative mythical dance form.  Though after a while I found it to be boring.  I also studied music.  I was one of those teens who used to compete in  Piano at Carnegie Hall & Lincoln Center.  That’s where I learned the Discipline of practicing, or learning a craft and getting better.  So Film & TV brought all that stuff together on Set.  Then I went to Oberlin College, because it’s a very creative and progressive school with a well-known music conservatory.  It’s a very small town, but no one has a TV and people are always doing creative things.

I started working on sets in New York when I was home from Oberlin College for the summer.  Then a friend and I taught a class on Asian American Cinema our senior year.  Those were stories and issues we related to.  I also learned more about the history of Asian America.  When I graduated, I worked on Sets in Physical Production for Adrienne Shelley, who there is now a women’s film fund in honor of, and Jim Jarmusch’s producers.

I got into Distribution at the digital division of Universal – selling films – because it was more stable than freelancing in Production.  I worked near the (old) World Trade Center.  After a while, I moved to San Francisco to work at Center for Asian American Media, where I was involved with the Distribution and Film Festival side.

Then we started 3rd i because a lot of South Asian projects fell through the cracks in the US.  Our first screening was Gurinder Chadha’s short films, and it was standing room only.  We knew we were on to something.  So we US or World Premiered a lot of people’s work from the whole diaspora and then toured them around the country.  These included hard-hitting documentaries like Anand Patwardhan’s War & Peace, Asif Kapadia’s (Amy, Senna) shorts, Riz Ahmed’s (The Night Of) music videos, or Bollywood sing-alongs.  We would have to rent the 35mm prints or get the DVD’s directly from the makers/companies, and then rent a theater to screen it.  This was before Youtube, so we US Premiered Goodness Gracious Me from the UK, and Dev Benegal from  India, Mehreen Jabbar from Pakistan’s indie community.

Every screening ended with a party or pizza.  We partnered with .org’s if it was a social issue.  People could talk about the material.  So we had a community space.  We had up to 1500 people depending on the show.  In New York we were based out of Two Boots Screening Room on Ave A and East 3rd St. In San Francisco we were based out of ATA in the Mission.  Then we developed partnerships around the country in major cities.

I was taking a Documentary class with a co-worker when 9/11 happened.  So then I started running around with a camera and documenting what was happening.  We interviewed influential Asian Americans who had lived through World War II – such as Yuri Kochiyama, who had been in the Japanese Internment camps and Malcolm X died in her lap.  Kartar Dillon was a Sikh American who grew up in 1910 in Oregon and was a “Rosie the Riveter” in World War II.

There was a backlash going on.  People with turbans were being shot, masjids and temples were being burned down.  There was a constant barrage of negative media.  It seems like we are experiencing that again after the Election rhetoric.   I was able to get a nationwide release of relevant documentaries about Asian Americans onto PBS.  I was asked if I “supported terrorism”, and that it was insulting to the victims.  But I grew up seeing the World Trade Center everyday on my way to school, and ate lunch or commuted through there at my Distribution job.  I had family friends who were there at work that morning.  So our community was doubly hit.  Some of us had barely escaped, but then we were suddenly considered the enemy.  We as 3rd i put out a Statement of Solidarity among South Asian American people – that it was part of our mission to show the diversity of our human experiences.

PBS was funded by Congress, and Congress was going to War.  I had to go to bat on the side of Public Education.  Luckily, my boss was convinced, because we were screening existing titles in our library.   We referenced  Filipino American veterans of World War II, and South Asian Americans from the turn of the century – to show that we were not new to this country.  He was from the Vietnam Era, and ended up giving us days off to go to Iraq War protests – because he would go “Die In” with his daughter.  Then 3rd i personally became more important to me, because we could create a space for our community to come and hang out and discuss what was going on.  We would coordinate the monthly screenings with DJ’s or as fundraisers for .org’s.

At the same time, I was writing Narrative Films related to the friends and sub-culture I knew.  So I went back to Film School at Columbia’s MFA program.  They had a 1 in 3000 acceptance rate, so I used that statistic with everyone who thought I should be going to Med School.  Mira Nair was on faculty.  Monsoon Wedding was written there when Sabrina Dhawan was a student.  Milos Forman used to teach there.  Boys Don’t Cry and a number of other Academy Award winning projects came out of there.

Then I started telling my own stories.  My themes were mainly around post-9/11 stories – Airport Security, South Asian American history – or other under-represented stories.  But this has in some ways put me ahead of or at odds with the Mainstream industry.  Because I’m not making movies about us as Terrorists.  The big “T” word.

Then I also started working and living in India.  A lot of people here consider it a Failure – to go back to India.  But that is their own bias.  These days, you have to have an International career.  Also if your film is based in India, you have to go there to shoot it, and develop your own network there so you have a Production team.  India is the world’s largest film industry.  There are world-class crews.  There has been HUGE growth of brands and entertainment.  So why stick to an American bias?  Especially if the Industry here sees us in narrow or stereotypical ways.   A lot of people have gone there and shot their first feature, or broken out into TV there, and then they have a portfolio to go to the next level.

In terms of my own work – the game has changed.  Whereas we came up thinking about Indie Films, going up the Hollywood ladder, or starting as an assistant in a TV Writer’s Room, the whole world of Social Media has opened up.  So you can go straight to the Audience.  I’ve worked with YouTube Stars like Lilly Superwoman Singh.  My work has won awards at major festivals around the world.    I’ve interviewed interesting people – from blind village street sweepers in India to Presidents.  I’ve been a Director at ABC-Disney Showcase.   That was a highlight – to see my name below the logo of my favorite network with shows like Fresh Off the Boat, and then get a check from Disney – which you grow up watching.

Before found success, did you face any failures you were able to learn from? How did they change you and the way you worked?

SM: Success is relative, there’s always the next thing you want to do.  When you are making films, you are acutely aware of the flaws and success in each beat of your project and process.  It can take years from writing the first draft.  Also this is a very financially unstable business.  Until you really hit it big.  It makes no sense in a lot of ways.  You have to have multiple revenue streams.

Each project has its own team and own challenges.  One may need a specific actor that you just can’t find.  One may have a lot of rules and supervision from the State because there are Kids on Set every day.  Sometimes the biggest stars are the easiest people on Set – because they know they have to set the tone, and that’s how they got ahead.  But someone younger may challenge every decision you make. Then there’s fundraising. Just being able to release something feels like a miracle.  You have to keep the Faith, think positive, and work hard.

My mantra this year is “Completion Not Perfection.” Keep it moving to the next step so you can get the next project going.    I’ve also seen a lot of people come and go – literally – pass away at a young age after winning major international awards and recognition.  So just being alive and creating is a privilege.  Count your blessings.

They say the business is like climbing a mountain by going around rather than going straight up a staircase.  You will stop and realize you are at the same point further up — starting a project, delivering it, etc.

Has your East Indian ancestry influenced any of your projects or been an important aspect of your work?

SM: Yes being South Asian has influenced most of my work.  That’s what I’m passionate about.  Part of it comes from growing up in a huge South Asian American community.

On the Distribution and Marketing side, or working for other people, I learned how the business works and niche marketing for all audiences.  If there was a California Bro Comedy, how to sell tickets. If there was a Cambodian documentary, how to bring that audience out.

Especially after 9/11, my work has focused on us and our history.  If we don’t, no one else will.  However, I grew up in the Indian enclave of a multi-racial community, so I usually have diverse characters.  I also refuse to make movies that perpetuate this idea of us as “terrorists”.  There is enough other material in the world.  Perhaps that keeps me out of some commercial opportunities, but I feel strongly about that.

Also, I say “South Asian” because it comes out of the specific experience of the “South Asian” student groups, organizations, and desi parties in and after college.  Where Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis all ate samosas and choreographed dances together.  After 9/11 I realized how ignorant even I was about Afghanistan – technically South Asia.  And here we were going to War.  So my generation agreed to get along and express Peace under the term “South Asian” – even if our parents had brought biases from their experiences with the India-Pakistan Wars and such. There is strength in numbers.

Maybe Millennials or the Post-9/11 Generation has a different opinion on that, and there is less solidarity between people of different religions.  I don’t know about that.

You support many other filmmakers of South Asian origin, how important is it to you that females in our community have a chance to shine in film-making? What advice can you give them if they are wanting to get into this field?

SM: The most important advice I can give is – Stay Hydrated.  Drink lots of Water.  All the time.

Yes – for example, Actors should just be able to play a role and not be stereotyped. I think people in my generation like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari broke through a lot of those barriers, and then went on to have their own shows, but there’s a lot more to do.  There are a lot of us who graduate from film school, but then fewer people get to the next level.  It’s a hard business, especially if you are telling stories outside the mainstream, and paying back your student loans.  Figure out how you will pay your bills while making the breaks happen.  There are many sides of the business, or other businesses that will allow you to make money and pay for your projects.  I was also advised to get an MBA. Decide what you want to say, and try to think about how to make it commercial.

Start collectives and work on each other’s projects.  Make it in the cheapest way possible.

Be Disciplined.  Write every day, and exercise.  Maintain your health – mental and physical.  Meditate.

Find your Voice.  If it’s 1-minute stories on instagram or making theater or writing essays.  If you want to make raunchy, sex comedies or kids’ mythology.  Make mistakes, and experiment.  Spend your spare time chiseling at your work, so you can step up when it counts.  Picasso had 300 sketches for his famous mural Guernica over 5 years, before he suddenly got a commission to deliver it in 6 weeks.  The idea mulled, and there’s a whole museum just of his sketches.

It takes 10-15 years to become “an overnight success”.  No one tells you that.

Support each other’s work.  The Industry makes us think that only one of us will get ahead, and many of us are competitive or perfectionists by nature.  But there are so many of us that we are a movement.  We all have our own stories and taste.

There is so much happening with women in the world – our stories should be told.  No two of us are the same.

What areas would you like to explore in the future?

SM: Virtual Reality, Writing a Book, Shooting Bigger and Better – all the scripts on my laptop. A Vineyard – I just got really into gardening and my CSA (Farm Vegetables).

 How can people get in contact with you, to learn more about film-making?

SM: My website is www.truth-force.com.  You can contact me there.

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