1) Why did you decide to get into this industry?
As a child, I wanted to be a writer. My mom gave me a love of words — she was a poet though she never pursued it. We’d trade books, primarily crime novels, back and forth, and discuss them at length. She gave me The God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy (which is still my favorite book) and I tried to write stories in Roy’s style. My stories weren’t very good! But my love of words took me to London where I studied English Literature at King’s College London.
When I arrived in London, I was completely lost. I started searching for a tribe and unexpectedly found it in my university’s theatre society. I had never even seen a play. Theatre was nonexistent in the UAE and all I had seen were crude, garish high school musicals. One of the first plays I saw was Red written by John Logan, and it changed my life. Instantly, I decided that I wanted to be a theatre-maker. I threw myself into the student theatre world and within a year I was directing plays and interning with wonderful theatre directors.
After graduating, I returned to the UAE, hoping to find the same support at home, but the dearth of an art world or theatre scene startled me. A traveling short play festival had come to Dubai, and I tried to get involved. But the plays chosen were safe, orthodox and restrictive. I realized that even though I loved theatre, it simply didn’t have the same authority that film had in the UAE. I wanted to tell stories that pierced the echo chamber, stories that were dissenting, dangerous and open-minded, but theatre just wasn’t the appropriate medium for this. The UAE has strict censorship and blasphemy laws. Plays need physical, tangible, private or public spaces. This means they can be shut down, the lights can be turned off, the audience can be kicked out, the venue can be locked up. But in the UAE, because of the internet, films have always found a way to subvert the public’s consciousness.
I had almost completed my application for Columbia’s MFA theatre program, and then changed my mind at the last minute and applied for the MFA film program instead. This was the beginning of my career. I still adore theatre and would love to return to the medium, but I haven’t regretted changing my mind even once.
2) What’s a defining moment in your life?
Failing out of high school and getting kicked out! I had performed fairly well up until the 11th grade but in my final year I completely checked out. I had become disaffected by the Catholic school I was in. I started to feel suffocated by the rigidity and myopia of my education, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I was a disobedient, rebellious teenager and I think the administration was looking for a reason to be rid of me. At the time, it felt like my world had ended. My parents were dumbfounded and disappointed – convinced that an undergraduate degree was now out of the question. The day I got my grades, my sister and my brother-in-law took me to see a film to cheer me up. My sister said to me that in five years I would look back and recognize that this was a defining moment and that I could only go up from here. Five years later, I had graduated with a BA in English from King’s College London. I had won the Jelf Medal at graduation, the most prestigious award an undergraduate student can win at King’s. I had been accepted into the MFA Film program at Columbia University. And I was about to move to NYC to begin my career in film.
Photo: Phumzile Sitole & Yanna Buttons in LostFound by Shakti Bhagchandani
3) What is your biggest concern with the future?
I worry that I will lose myself to the privilege and egotism of this industry. I love cinema and this career means the world to me, but this is a seductive, insular and self-centered world. Sometimes, I have to step back and remind myself that filmmaking is a privilege, not a right. Spending so much time behind a camera warps your perspective on the world. It can disconnect you from people outside of your echo chamber, and make you forget that filmmaking isn’t the only instrument you have to inspire. You can volunteer, donate, fundraise and do a number of other things to make a change in this world.
4) What is a successful moment in your career so far?
Objectively, it was probably attending the Sundance Film Festival with my short ‘LostFound’. But on a personal level, it was telling my cast and crew that we had been accepted – that this film we made with no money, no help, no insurance, had achieved this wonderful thing. We had made something out of nothing. All that passion, hard work and hustling had paid off. Telling them this was an incredible feeling.
5) What advice do you have for other women in the industry?
I hear women in film calling themselves ‘female filmmakers’, and I too instinctively call myself that, but I think we need to stop. We are not female filmmakers, we are just filmmakers. Men do not need to qualify themselves as ‘male filmmakers’. We shouldn’t have to, either.
Photo: Sasha Rubanov in How to Make a Bomb by Shakti Bhagchandani
6) What, if anything, do you collect?
I collect an odd hodgepodge of things – historical, curious treasures. I have an old signed sketch by Daniel Johnston, a signed copy of ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank, a signed Martin Parr photobook, a signed deed by Frederick Douglass (from when he was the Recorder of Deeds), a banned Pakistani children’s book called ‘My Cha Cha is Gay’, a first edition of ‘A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, a first press of Bob Dylan’s ‘Times are a-changing’, a signed ‘Path to Power’ by Margaret Thatcher, old New Yorker and Time magazines, propaganda magazines, old records, things like that. I am actually a hoarder – something I get from my dad who has collected old stamps his whole life.
Photo: Olivia Washington in LostFound by Shakti Bhagchandani
7) What are you working on next? In addition, if people want to find out more about you, where can they find you on social media?
I am preparing to make my debut feature!