Film Independent Forum 2019: Nisha Ganatra and Lilly Singh on Measures of Success as Queer Women of Color

In an honesty-first keynote at the 2019 Film Independent Forum at Loyola Marymount University’s Playa Vista campus, self-effacing moviemaker and TV director Nisha Ganatra (Late Night, Girls, Transparent) was gently goaded by ebullient moderator Lilly Singh.

Singh, host of the upcoming late night—coincidence much?—talk show A Little Late with Lilly, pushed Ganatra toward accepting her rise as one of Hollywood’s first queer brown female directors as a legit success story. 

The feels—and tears—came towards the end, after Ganatra broke down the familiar yet specific contours of her journey, and it occurred to her that in her case, too, “everything happened when it was supposed to happen.” However, the last five or so years notwithstanding, it has been far from clear that anything would happen for women, let alone queer brown women. It has been hard to conceive that moviemaking and TV production would be arenas where they felt they belonged to as “normally” as their white straight male counterparts. Even during their exchange, Singh and Ganatra had to repeatedly serve each other rhetorical reminders to brag and celebrate. 

The conversation was noteworthy as a process of self-reasoning for Ganatra, that she was indeed successful, by several measures. This reasoning culminated in her breaking down just a bit. Mostly though, it was gratifying to see two queer brown women—one who made her first indie when Internet startups were all the rage, and another who came of age in an older Internet as a heart-on-her-sleeve YouTuber—support each other in this extended cultural moment when it is possible to reason about the normalcy of one’s success despite the struggles posed by one’s identity.

Here are some fascinating and heartfelt nuggets about Ganatra’s journey, identity and contributions as a successful mid-career female moviemaker.  

On Origin Stories and Non-Existent Industries 

My parents came over from India. I went to college. I was going to go be a lawyer, like a good Indian girl. And then, I was sneaking into all the film classes. My amazing roommate said, “Hey, you might want to look into that because it seems like you’re really interested.” I found out there was this whole thing called the film industry. I started interning. [Lilly interjects: “and started to lie to your parents”; laughter.] I just found myself with a camera, and shot something with friends who were actors. I was working on sets and kept trying to figure out where the director was coming from. It seemed like you could work your way up to any position except the director role. And that director was always flown in from some secret location. And I figured that was NYU film school. So I applied to NYU and got in, and that sort of launched everything. I made an independent film, Chutney Popcorn, there. Spike Lee was our professor. [Lilly interjects: “Casual. Whatever. Dust”; laughter.] He said, “Make a film because if it’s good, it will launch your career, but if it sucks, you can just tell people it’s your student film and try again.”  

On the Moment When She Realized, “Oh, I’m in this!”

I still have not felt that. I’m doing my first movie now for Universal, for a studio. Every time I drive up to Universal and I give them my ID and they lift up the gate, I go, “Oh my god they let me in. Like, everyday.” I don’t know if anyone feels they’re in finally. Obviously, Seth Rogen feels like he’s in.

Lilly Singh (L) and Nisha Ganatra (R) speak onstage during day two of the 2019 Film Independent Forum. Photograph by Araya Diaz

On Navigating This Industry as a Queer Woman of Color

I was in this loop where I was trying to break in but couldn’t break in to the role of TV director. It’s a weird catch 22 where no one will let you direct a TV episode until you have directed a TV episode. You couldn’t over break that cycle until someone was going to take a chance on you. Over the years, my brain began telling myself, “I guess I can’t really do that… Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m not good enough.” 

One thing that did happen that was significant was when the Department of Justice brought this lawsuit against Hollywood. They said, “Hey, there is no gender parity. It is systematic discrimination against women directors.” When that lawsuit came and when studies were done and there was scientific evidence of discrimination against women directors, it lifted this weight, in a way, where I felt like, it wasn’t just me. It was all of us. We were playing a game where the rules were stacked against us… I wasn’t thinking, oh I’m a woman of color, I’m gay. It was just realizing once that was taken out of the equation, how much I was not given the benefit of the doubt at the first meeting. How much it was like, okay, you have a lot more on your shoulders if you fail. If I failed at directing an episode, it was going to close the door for a lot of women behind me. That pressure was bullshit, basically.

On Brag-Worthy Moments

It was the penultimate episode of Girls, the end of a very beloved series… This script, at the point when I got it, at the end it said, “Hannah says goodbye to whoever we can find.” I said, that’s not a scene, that’s a placeholder. The great thing about Girls is that Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham absolutely trust you to do your best work. They let you direct it the way you see it… We were shooting it and I just had this inspired moment where I realized the character would be in a montage but it’s actually a flashback but you won’t reveal it until then end. And your future self will be smiling at your past self and your past self will be smiling at your future self. I did this whole thing and I looked at Lena, and she’s like [mimics weary tone], “Okay, that sounds cool. Let’s do that.” I watched that episode and I was like, oh wow, that’s really satisfying. And the episode that aired was almost exactly my director’s cut.

On Hard Work

I thought, I’m Indian. I work really hard. And then I wrote a pilot with Amy Poehler, I realized how much harder Amy Poehler is working. And it made me raise my game to 100% harder. I realized, these women—Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig—you can’t believe how incredibly hard they are working. And when I watched Emma Thompson come to [the Late Night] set, she had been putting her character together for a while, her script was full of notes, she worked on every scene. In between takes, she was running lines, talking to the costume designer… What makes these incredible superstars is not just their beautiful talent but just how dedicated and hard they work at their craft. That’s a lesson I keep learning over and over, that the difference between the great ones and the good ones is hard work. It sounds so basic but you do just have to do the work.

On the ReFrame Stamp on Late Night, and Ensuring Gender Parity On Set

I’m on the board for Women and Film. They started this program called ReFrame. If your film has gender parity behind the camera (not just in front), you get a Reframe stamp and you can put this logo at the end of your. It really takes on the idea that who is telling the story is as important as what story is being told. Your crew having a gender balance is not just the right thing to do because it represents our workforce more accurately, but it will affect the final product in a positive way, because it does matter who is doing the makeup, who is recording the sound, who is deciding where the camera goes, what’s the point of view and gaze of the image we’re capturing. 

With Chutney Popcorn [Ganatra’s first feature made two decades before], I noticed that there were all these women who had all this experience but nobody let them be in a key position. We had an assistant costume designer but nobody let them be the designer. We had gaffers but no one let them be the director of photography… I just made sure in my first film that I had all female keys, so that they could put Chutney Popcorn on their resume and get their next job. 

In an indie film you absolutely get to hire your crew. In a studio film, it’s a little bit more challenging. I see how the system got in place. I find that I get put in more of an educational role where I’m saying, of course [these women] don’t have the experience of other people out there because they haven’t been given the opportunities. We can’t compare resumes apples-to-apples. We have to think, what could this woman do if she were given the chance? And not what she has done to show that she can do this. That takes extra effort. You have to push people really hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a lot of money at stake. It’s scary for you as a director because you’re putting yourself on the line for all these people you don’t know and that you hope will rise to the occasion.

[Lilly interjects: “It’s hard to be a saint.”]

On How Moviemakers Can Break Down Barriers

The biggest thing is to not wait for anyone to give you permission. Because no one ever will. You’re always hustling. I met these amazing women, and they’re still hustling, just like day one, and they have books written about them.

On What Would Need to Happen for Her to Feel Successful

I guess [success] is these highs and lows. When Chutney Popcorn went to festivals, we went to the Berlin film festival. As we were walking to the front for the Q&A, I saw people getting up and I said, “They didn’t like the movie.” By the time we got to the front and turned around, I saw there was actually a standing ovation. And they send this Mercedes to drive you around, and you get free drinks and go to fancy restaurants. And then you get on a plane and go back to Brooklyn, and can’t afford the taxi from the airport to the apartment, so you just wait for the subway in the snow. 

[Lilly interjects here, saying that because of all that, so many women are going to have the chance of success because of you.] That’s the measure of success.

On Her Mentors Growing Up, and Her Real Honest Advice

[When I was young] I went to the theater with my mom and saw Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach. I was like, “who is this person?” Then Mira Nair made Mississippi Masala. It made you think, these women are doing this incredible thing and how can I do it too? You just existing tells billions of people that it’s possible. I thank those women before me. Being brown and breaking the ground is really hard work. You literally have to break the ground.

When you said, “Do you think I’ve made it,” I don’t yet. But I feel like, everything happened when it was supposed to happen… That door opened when it opened. I wish I could tell that person, “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to work out.” [Tearing up] I have this rare moment where I feel I get to do the art that you always dream of doing, and that’s all you can hope for. And for that, I feel [choking up] successful, and so thankful. MM

Featured image photograph by Araya Diaz.

1 Comment

  1. Peaky Sports

    May 20, 2019 at 6:52 am

    This is really a great step towards gender parity. I hope our women make it balanced.

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