We hear it all the time – Life begins when you step out of your comfort zone. This was the convincing thought process for Steven Roy Thomas, a filmmaker born and raised in New York who decided to drop everything and relocate to Mumbai, India in order to pursue his life long dream of working behind the scenes in show business; the glamorous world of Bollywood.
A year after graduating College in NYC, Steven packed his bags and went for it. His pre-association with some of the biggest stars in the industry definitely gave the assurance that the move would be worth it; and so it was! He primarily worked as an in-house assistant director on a few projects for Anil Kapoor Film Company – most notably India’s first Disney feature film, Khoobsurat, starring Sonam Kapoor and Fawad Khan. In his time in India, he’s worked with few other production houses on the creative direction team for films, commercials, TV shows and celebrity endorsement campaigns. After 3 eventful years, Steven decided it was time to come back home.
Almost immediately after coming home, Steven found himself in a completely different narrative; that of co-sharing office space culture. This contrasted move would take some by surprise, but Steven is convinced he is onto something as he believes he is part of a very unique global experience which is changing the way people live, work & create.
In our conversation with Steven, we talk about his experience as an expat working in Bollywood, as well as his take on how the new age co-sharing cultured work environment has influenced his path as a filmmaker.
What made you decide to go the Bollywood route as opposed to Hollywood?
I’ve grown up watching Indian films and as a filmmaker I identify a lot with my Indian roots. There was a point in time when I was in middle school, I was bullied and made fun of for being Indian and I never quite understood why that was happening but whatever it was, I succumbed to the ignorance and felt ashamed of my ethnicity. It was that same time that Indian Cinema really was emerging on the world map and it has now dominated by being the biggest film industry in the world. To witness the success story in real time of an industry that I’ve grown up loving, gave me the confidence to be proud of my culture and I wanted to start my career working for the Industry that did that for me.
How challenging was the experience? Did you have any help getting your way around a new city?
It was challenging in the sense where it was all about overcoming the unfamiliarity. I don’t speak Hindi fluently, I would understand a little but not enough to entirely navigate my way through situations. So because of that, I would feel like an outsider and be treated differently. Another challenge was not having any family around and that made it tough. My only friend at the time in the city was Harsh Kapoor. I was very fortunate to have him & his family help me out as a first timer to a new city. As soon as I’ve reached Mumbai, I stayed at their home and they were very helpful in getting me started. I can’t emphasize how caring and warm that family is.
Working for Anil Kapoor in his home production company must have been an unforgettable experience especially at a time when the company was riding high on the success of the Indian remake of the US hit show ’24’. Would you at times get overwhelmed or intimidated being around such an Iconic person?
Not at all. To be honest, I’ve completely blocked that side of him out. Yes he’s a true staple in Indian Cinema but at the end of the day, that’s my friends father. At home, I’ll address him as Anil Uncle and at the office I’ll address him as AK. He’s just like anyone else, only with the coolest job ever.
Being close with Anil’s children, Harsh and Sonam, how do you feel about the constant criticism Star Kids get in regards to Nepotism in Bollywood?
They both are very well aware of their privileges and don’t take it for granted. They work very hard and have made a lot of sacrifices to get to where they are and that’s something people overlook because its so easy to bring someone down just because they are a star kid. Unlike most people, their challenge and struggle was not about getting into the film business but instead it’s to sustain and prove themselves in such a cut-throat industry. Sonam is on her 10th year and labeled as one of the highest paid actresses in the country. I think she has proven her point.
What was a memorable career highlight for you during your time in Mumbai?
When I heard the song ‘Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai‘ (Music Video from the film Khoobsurat) for the first time being played out loud on the streets during a festival and seeing people dance and having a great time to it. That shoot was special to me because it was my first time working on a music video for a feature film and I was given a lot of responsibility on that shoot. The track went on to be the #1 song in the country for months and has become a party anthem of that year. Definitely made the challenges of that schedule worth it.
With work opportunities going so well, why did you decide to ultimately leave and come back to the US?
I can’t speak for everyone but for me, I don’t think it’s possible to be the best version of myself in a country I’m not from. The longer I was in Mumbai and the more work and commitments I was making, the more I was making my life and future about Mumbai. As much as India is my heart, and as much as it’s been filled with the most amazing people and experiences; home is the US, its where my family and friends are and its where my familiarity lies. This isn’t to say I have completely blocked out India and the Indian Film Industry. I have every intention to do great work there when the opportunity and timing is correct. A life of a filmmaker can never really be tied down to one location but its important for a filmmaker to establish a home base.
What about the timing in the industry was not working for you?
The Indian Film Industry is going through a rough patch. It’s become a harrowing challenge to execute good cinema in India. The pressure of business has made it very hard for filmmakers to use film as a platform to create different, meaningful, evolved content. I have seen first hand how even the most successful people in the industry, are having the hardest time taking off with new age concepts that are different than the welcomed standard. It’s tough because in a country ruled by the masses, most of the content caters to the demographic which hits home with the box office and that doesn’t necessarily mean the content is good. I’m hopeful the day soon will come where Indian audiences will welcome great stories without depending on a big star or dance number to carry the film.
Upon returning back to the US, What has your career focus been now? How did you find yourself in the middle of a co-sharing office community?
I want to use this time to creatively reboot myself. For years, I’ve worked on executing other peoples vision and now I want to focus on taking everything I’ve learned and put out my own content so that people can get a sense of who I am as a creator. Immediately after returning back, I landed up in a co-sharing office community called WeWork – it sort of just happened. Being in this new era of workspace, I’ve come across many different talented people with great resources and knowledge which has helped me in my creative pursuit and growth as a person. A Co-sharing office community really makes the world smaller and easily connects you with like minded individuals.
So for people that are not too familiar with co-sharing office space, can you elaborate on what that is?
It’s a shared working environment as opposed to having an office setting with one organization. You come across people from different industries and it’s a great way to collaborate, network and execute great ideas. WeWork is amazing because it has one of the biggest communities in the world. With bustling energy through the walls, you will find inspiration in every corner and opportunities at every door.
With all the opportunities and achievements you’ve made in India, something that most can only dream of – did you have any doubts about taking a slightly different route in your career?
At the end of the day, I am a creator – and WeWork is this global playground filled with so many passionate, intelligent, creative hustlers with the thirst to create. The energy is indescribable but it’s that energy that has convinced me to follow my gut and stick around. I loved my life in India – but I needed this time to take what I learned abroad and move on to a new experience and work towards the bigger picture.
You say WeWork is filled with inspiration in every corner. Being surrounded by an array of interesting people, where does your source of inspiration come from?
I’m inspired most by peers in my generation that are paving the way and doing great work. If I had to be specific at this point in time, I would say the young man who is the head of WeWork’s brand. I’ve had the chance to work with few great brands in India but this is the first time I’m really captivated by how a new-age product/concept like WeWork is branded so uniquely and effectively across different markets in the world. The notion of how the brand imitates the culture and vice versa is orchestrated really well by this person who overlooks a very talented team – and its encouraging for me to see people in my age group, killing it.
In what ways has your time being in a co-sharing office environment help shape the direction of your career path?
For years, my primary focus has always been narrative filmmaking and I never thought to explore beyond that. However, after being surrounded by professionals at the top of their game in a co-sharing office environment, my interest has ventured into other things like commercial filmmaking, brand & marketing as well as the financial art and etiquette of developing ideas and running a business. At the end of the day, I still consider myself a storyteller; whether its through the medium of film, a short, a music video, commercial, a stand up comedy set or even a brand campaign – I will always tell a story and its my objective to reach different people with my perspective and style. Broadening my scope in doing so was possible because of the productive environment that allows you to find yourself and pave your path.
With a broadened interest to reach audiences in different mediums, can you discuss what is coming up for you in the pipeline? Anything brewing this summer?
I want to take this time to work with brands that excite me. Working in films has been my channel in connecting with people through stories and characters and now I want to connect with people through impactful brands and ultimately create content that compliments the user experience. To kick it off, this summer, I’m directing a commercial for a well known luggage brand, a music streaming service as well as creating some content for a celebrity app. I can’t disclose specifics yet but I’m excited to try new things and just spread my wings a little more. I’m also simultaneously writing and working closely with my creative partner , Sunil Mampilly, in putting out some new content for our production channel in 2018.
Going back to your childhood tale of fulfilling your dream of working in Bollywood, would you say you have some unfinished business?
Absolutely. I’ve barely scratched the surface. I am very much in the loop of everything going on with the industry in India and some of my closest friends are doing some amazing work so my attachment and involvement with the industry will always exist. When I am ready to tell the kind of stories I want to tell for the Indian audience – I will finish what I have set out to do in the first place. Till then, I will continue to perfect my craft and take on new experiences that will shape out who I plan to be as a creative professional.