Interview With American Film Maker Shilpa Mankikar
Shilpa Mankikar is an American filmmaker from New York and India. Shilpa’s work combines a commercial sensibility with provocative content. She writes about rebellious youth, women, 2nd generation immigrants, progressive issues, and epic historical subjects.
She was a Director at the 2015 ABC-Disney Talent Showcase. Her family comedy “Diwal’Oween” has won 9 international awards including Best Family Series, Best Actor, and an Audience Award at international festivals from Bali to Baltimore. Five of her scripts have been finalists at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Shilpa’s films have won the Planet Out 1st Prize at Sundance, the National Board of Review Award, and Best of Fest at international festivals including Palm Springs, Switzerland, and Shanghai. She has interviewed a broad range of influencers including former President Bill Clinton, actor Cameron Diaz, writer Maya Angelou, Fortune 100 CEO’s, American veterans, and village street sweepers in India.
Hello Shilpa. We don’t need an introduction. You are well renowned personality in the world of film making. But would you want to add something?
I’m a Director, Writer, Producer, Editor, and Camera Person for Film, TV, Music Videos, Commercials, and Digital Content. I have been in the Entertainment business for 20 years in Production, Distribution, and Film Festivals. My foundation is gritty “New York Independent” Film – where you shoot on real locations. My work is about women, 2nd generation immigrants, and social issues. I have always promoted South Asian Americans / diaspora where I could, while working in the Mainstream Industry. I was one of the founders of 3rd i in 2001. It’s important to be proud of our heritage and Brown Excellence. Media and Pop Culture play a big role in that worldwide. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go (and even die). I’ve seen radical changes in our Industry in Technology and Distribution. Hopefully everyone — and especially the women I came up with – will now get those opportunities to lead behind the camera, run shows, etc. It’s our time to Flex.
When was the first time you realized you had this incredible passion for writing and film making?
All kids love storytelling. Especially when you grow up with a vibrant heritage, full of myths and fables. Growing up in New York and New Jersey, it was a way for our grandparents to keep us connected to desi culture. We would get those Amar Chitra Katha comic books at Temple in Flushing. I remember my entire extended family went to see Gandhi in the midst of the DotBusters hate crime attacks in Jersey. Movies were a fun way to show pride and history.
I always loved writing. I used to win writing contests in school. We had a big extended family, and our house was often noisy. I liked entertaining everyone, and was often the “cultural translator” between American and Indian culture as each new family member immigrated through our home. I loved burying myself into the quiet of reading or writing. I brought a music teacher home when I was 5, from my Italian friend’s house, and acted in school plays. Growing up in an immigrant family, Pop Culture was the easiest way to fit in at school. We would watch horror or dance movies like Halloween or Girls Just Wanna Have Fun at sleep over parties.
I was also in dance classes Jazz, Tap, Garba, and Bharat Natyam – which as an Adult I can appreciate as a Narrative storytelling form, but it was too strict for me. All the Squatting, and we had an old fashioned South Indian teacher Padmini Auntie, who would tap the beats on the floor with a stick and tell us to keep bending our knees. Many girls went on to study in India during high school junior year summer, and did their Arangethram graduation recital when they came back. It was like the Desi Sweet Sixteen. But by middle school, I was a Bharat-Natyam drop-out!
I went to Oberlin College, because it was super liberal and had a great music school. Junior year winter, I read about Talvin Singh & The Asian Underground parties in London – in a DJ magazine. I pre-ordered Soundz of the Asian Underground from the now defunct electronic music store Other Music in New York, and had to wait almost 1 year until it was available in America and finally shipped to me in Ohio. I started working on film sets in New York the summer of my junior year in college. My first job was going to Pearl River Mart and buying clothes pins for Grip & Electric on a film called “The Cooler.” My friend Sue Chen and I taught an Asian American film class our senior year at Oberlin. Around that time, Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach and Deepa Mehta’s Fire came out. I watched Kurasawa’s Dreams many times, for its surrealism. I was in a desi dance group, and we went to SASA remix parties. DJ Ladla in Queens had just started remixing Bollywood with hip-hop. I also went to Raves and Clubbing when I was home. I took basic film classes at NYU, and had numerous side jobs in other fields. At that point, I was also Pre-Law and majored in Art History/ Politics/ Japanese. I started booking Films and bands on campus with the Oberlin Film Co-Op & Concert Board. The summer after Junior year, I also went to the BMM Marathi festival, where I met documentary Producer/Director Geeta Ganbhir, Musician Karsh Kale, Prasad, Sumita, and Maneesh Bidaye, and many other people. We formed a creative / indie crew. Prasad was one of the first Music writers for Toronto’s newspapers, and Sumita was a big activist and teacher. Maneesh went on to Produce for Drake, but he was in high school at the time. He also contributed music to my latest series concept project “Diwal’Oween.”
My senior year Thanksgiving Break, I went to the first Mutiny party and saw Vivek Bald’s documentary about the (South) Asian Underground electronic scene in the UK. It really captured the cool, rebellious voices, and how we could use Culture to create spaces, companies, and push back at anti-immigrant sentiment. That album changed my life, because it was well-produced and good music with a desi edge. We started doing mudka dances to Asian Dub Foundation or Nusrat. I also met DJ Rekha and some of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective SAWCC members like Swati Khurana and Jaishree Abichandani around that year, and had that outlet when I graduated and moved back.
Mutiny and DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra became important spaces for me, because they combined the dance and hip-hop club culture with the desi culture. They attracted creative people from all walks of life. You would see drag queens and Wall Street frat boys, and everyone was dancing. It was no big deal. I ended up working on the Mutiny documentary, and made life-long friends in the international South Asian creative community. I also got involved with activism through DRUM and South Asians Against Police Brutality. In those days, the Amadou Diallo verdict had rocked the country.
When I graduated from Oberlin, I worked full-time on Adrienne Shelly’s first feature I’ll Take You There. The set was lit for 3pm, but we shot all night. That was the first time I really fell in love with “movie magic.” Adrienne also told me to be proud of being a woman in the Industry. I didn’t realize at the time that women were only 8% of Directors. Now it’s gone down to 1.5% of major studio film releases are directed by Women of Color, but there are more opportunities in TV. Then I worked for Spike Lee as an assistant in the Editing Room to Sam Pollard and Geeta Ganbhir. I would watch Mr. Lee’s DVD’s about the history of African American cinema from the Jim Crow era and Great Depression. So that was empowering, because in those days, we had very little representation. Digital cinema was taking off, and I worked on some of the early feature films at InDigEnt, which had celebrities shooting feature films for $100K. It showed how accessible filmmaking could be. I also did research and editing on Shebana Coelho’s Desi: South Asians in New York made by PBS WNET Channel Thirteen. This was the first documentary made about South Asian Americans, and is still the most comprehensive in 40 minutes. Working on that was a tribute to the community I grew up in. I interviewed the Paan Wallah on Lexington Ave and other people across the board. We also showed the first non-stereotypical 2nd generation South Asian Americans – like Aladdin Ullah whose family moved from Bangladesh to Harlem in the 1930’s, Vijay Iyer the Jazz pianist, DJ Rekha, some boys who sang at their mosque in Staten Island, a Sikh cab driver who had started several schools in his village.
Tell us the first time when this thought of writing entered you mind?
I think when you’re bi- or tri- lingual, as many desis are, Words matter. I was the oldest, so I would have to “translate” my grandparents’ Indian-British-English into “American Accent”. There are often Words that can’t be translated from one language to another, or are very specific to a culture. Like “Saavn” means “start of the monsoon rains.”
In 4th grade, I wrote a story about a detective turtle that my Elementary School friends still remind me about. Lol. I wrote my first plays in high school, but didn’t think seriously about it as a career. In immigrant families, no one encourages you to study Art. Then at Oberlin, I was surrounded by creative people in the middle of corn fields – with incredible discipline. I came back to New York and worked on other people’s films like Adrienne Shelley, Spike Lee, and Gary Winick. I got to read a lot of scripts in their offices, and I did Script Coverage (Evaluation) at Open City, which was a big independent film company in those days. So I read scripts that later went on to be hits, like “Better Luck Tomorrow.” As an Assistant, I would deliver scripts to the Actors like Sarah Jessica Parker, or Transcribe Scripts for the Translators for Delivery like John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented.
I wrote my first Screenplays in 2002 – about Post-9/11 Desis in Queens and New Jersey. I didn’t see anything like that on screen – especially about young women. I really just wanted to represent for us – in a professional and technically advanced way. I was also inspired by Hanif Kureishi’s rebellious desi kids, and Bend it Like Beckham / Monsoon Wedding being such successes that year. Monsoon Wedding dealt with a lot of issues like #MeToo before anyone was talking about it, and was shot in the style of American films. By May 2003, Bend it Like Beckham became the highest grossing British film of all time, so that put the nail in being a creative and financial success. I worked on Marketing for that film from its US Premiere at CAAM through release. So it was really inspiring to see. I started film school that fall.
Then I found out that my great-uncle worked for the British Directors Powell & Pressburger, doing Set Design on Black Narcissus, Red Shoes, and other films in London after World War II, for which they won an Oscar. So maybe I got his genes somewhere. In desi families, we often lose our “lineage” in modern society.
Where do you get inspiration from?
I get inspiration from daily life. My work is about women, 2nd generation desis, and rebellious youth. Once I saw a photo from another period, and wrote a film about that photo. I spent several weeks researching the characters of that period, and then revised the script with Actors’ and Writers’ feedback at the Kalakars Lab in New York. Recently I have been more in touch with Nature, and get inspiration from that. Also, I have always been Outspoken and I feel that more than ever now.
Tell us about your first project. Talk about challenges you had to face?
Luckily, I was working at CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) during 9/11. My former co-worker documentarian Judy Ma and I were taking a Documentary class with credits from work, at San Francisco State, that started in August 2001. My first documentary was 9/11 Voices. My former co-worker documentarian Jim Choi and I would run out of work with cameras to interview the older generation of Asian Americans like Yuri Kochiyama. She was a Japanese American internment survivor and activist. Kartar Dhillon was also 2nd generation South Asian American from the 1910 Oregon generation. These women were still alive, had a great elderly perspective, and redefined what it meant for me to be South Asian American – that there were others before us.
I also interviewed my community of South Asian New Yorkers about being in Manhattan in October 2001, 3 weeks after 9/11. Alladin Ullah the Bangladeshi-American comedian who grew up in Harlem, Shree Srinivasan who was a Columbia Journalism professor at the time and had experienced some confrontations on the street, my Sikh friend’s brother who was a 9/11 first responder on his first day at NYU Medical Residency and someone attacked him while he left Ground Zero because he was wearing a turban. I was learning how to use Premiere and Final Cut Pro for Editing. We had no funding. We ended up getting in trouble at work, because in those days, in the post-9/11 haze, it was considered risky to show alternative voices, particularly since we were funded by Congress. But we felt it was an important time to document. We were also lucky to be working at CAAM at that time, which had a relationship with Japanese Americans and a historical context for South Asian Americans’ worst fears during a crisis like that. Some of these interviews evolved into me Producing the Bay Area segment of Jason DaSilva’s “Lest We Forget,” including identifying investors and interviewing Yuri Kochiyama as an “Angry Asian Girl”. Still, I felt that I wanted to put all these feelings and characters into a narrative film. So that led me to film school at home. It was important for me to get back home to New York at that point, and tell local stories. I felt like no one was really standing up for “us” in the mainstream media.
Do you have to set a mood for writing? Or you can write anytime and anywhere?
I can write anywhere and anytime. I grew up with a big family, and got used to blocking out noise. My parents were the first to immigrate, so we always had many relatives staying with us – laughing, cooking, etc. Plus I write so much that I just get in the flow. If I’m confused about how to start a project, I outline key scenes and give it a structure first. I wrote “Diwal’Oween” 40 pages in one day, because I had structured it the day before. Then I did 2 more drafts in Development, 11 drafts during Pre-Production and Production. Some of the Actors added jokes in the Rehearsal phase. Once you’re on set it’s Collaborative. I can write a Feature Film (90+ pages) in a week.
Transforming that into Direction requires visualizing the scenes, revising the script, finding references, and breaking down every moment or scene for what you want the Actors to feel. Then everything adapts on Set when there is the Reality of Actors, the Location, and Time or Legal/ Technical issues that may come up.
Tell us about your favorite project?
That would be hard to say, because they all show where my mind was at different points in time.
Currently I have spent the last year traveling to festivals with “Diwal’Oween” and pitching it as a South Asian family TV series. Most content is made by adults for adults, but there’s a huge vaccuum in the family sitcom/ kid-friendly space for South Asian Americans. Many of my family and friends have kids, so I feel like I’m making it for the next generation to have a desi “Black’ish” or “Fresh Off the Boat”.
Some of my favorite jobs were :
– Directing the ABC-Disney Showcase. They selected 12 actors out of 7000 applicants and 7 rounds of auditions. Then we workshopped Comedy scenes with the Executives for several weeks. Then there was a show and digital content. That took me out of my “post-9/11 tragedy” zone into Comedy. The Actors were really stellar – many of them are starring in Hamilton, Atlanta, or various TV shows now.
– Directing Lilly Superwoman Singh & Awkwafina for “Tawk.” This project came up very quickly. I had to prepare my shot list based on the script in one night. Lilly Superwoman Singh was only available for 3 hours during Fashion Week, to shoot several sketches and an interview. So we shot with two cameras, and everyone was really professional. We also had to clean up the language for Lilly’s audience base, who are family-friendly, whereas Awkwafina’s fan base was raunchy. So then I realized what a big Family audience there was, and I went into shooting Diwal’Oween in a multi-camera style with confidence. Plus it was really fun to work with so many women who were on top of their game, including the Producer / Actor Shamikah Martinez from Austin-Martinez Comedy. It’s been amazing to see Awkwafina in Ocean’s 8 & Crazy Rich Asians.
If you were not a script writer/ filmmaker?
I’m also a Director, Producer, Editor, and Camera woman. I always had Law School in the back of my mind, because I took Pre-Law classes at Oberlin. First Amendment Law was especially interesting to me. Especially now with everything going on in the USA. I also got really into health and natural health remedies the last few years, went Vegan, etc.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I’ve been pitching expanding Diwal’Oween into a TV Series / family sitcom.
I also have several Feature Film scripts in the works about the past and present.
What is your favorite destination for travelling?
The last year was very lucky for travelling. “Diwal’Oween” screened in 15 different locations. South Korea was amazing, and left a big impression on me. They had taiko drummers, amazing scenery, and great food. They also pushed out their unpopular President. I missed our festival awards in Bali because of the earthquakes of Indonesia, but I hope to go some day. My family roots are in Goa, so you can’t beat that for sun and beach culture.
Tell us about your regular day.
My days vary, depending if I’m on set or writing/editing/producing. I’m usually working on some aspect for 8-12 hours/day. When you are handling every aspect of your own project, you juggle many hats. I try to meditate everyday, work out, and walk my dog in a scenic place.
Some words for your fans and new writers.
It’s an exciting time to be South Asian American in media or entertainment. Our generation is finally breaking out – or Has broken out for the last decade. There is always room for more, as projects can be as specific as the Writer. There are so many more ways to reach an audience. When you’re starting out, you don’t realize that it takes 10-20 years to “reach” the place where you are considered Established, and most of the people we look up to are actually in their 60’s+. Believe in Yourself! Take risks.