Finding her voice in Hollywood

Alisha Shinde
Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Jhanvi Motla, who recently released her short film Raksha, talks about her choice of career, valuable lessons she learnt, and why it’s important for award winning filmmakers like her to generate as much authentic Indian content as possible.

Jhanvi Motla, who has Indian roots, is becoming a popular face in Hollywood. The award winning filmmaker, who has not only produced but has also written scripts for films, comedy shows, animated shows and short films, recently released her short film Raksha. It revolves around the effects of holding onto cultural beliefs and how the effects can translate into real life in unforeseen ways. Motla tells us more about her journey till now, how the market for short films is growing, among other things.

Tell us about your journey into filmmaking? 
It developed over the course of a few years. When I was at a boarding school I chose Economics, Business and Biology as my subjects because my parents were there. As soon as they left I took the liberty of trying out other classes and switched over to English, Theatre and Economics. The switch to humanities led me down the path of discovering films and I realised that it is not just actors, but a whole team that brings to life movies. As they say in Los Angeles, “It takes a village to make a movie”.

Was it difficult to start on your own and what lessons did you learn?  
It was certainly not easy. From the people I worked with to the work I had done independently, the most important lesson that I learnt was to be true to yourself. There are a lot of ways to get caught up in making money or selling a ‘product’, but if you want to be a filmmaker you have to really find your own voice and use that difference to your advantage.

What is the most amazing and most challenging part of working in this industry?
Rejection. Time and time again, you will hear stories of people who will say they auditioned for years or that no one thought their writing was any good. Rejection is the most amazing but challenging part of the industry. I say amazing because being humbled is a very essential experience for artists. Sometimes rejection is the best thing because other better opportunities will present themselves.  
Tell us more about the projects that you have worked on and upcoming ones as well.
In 2018, I worked on a wide range of projects. I produced a film set in post apocalyptic Los Angeles, served as a consultant on a feature film, associate produced a commercial for G-Star Raw starring Jaden Smith, and also wrote a script that is currently doing its rounds at writing competitions. My personal video projects include a documentary about the value of unpaid labour done by Indian homemakers due to release in November and a short film about a lesbian South Asian young woman who is navigating coming out to her family.

Since you have Indian roots, does it help you to look at certain things from a different perspective?
It’s a part of who I am and affects everything I do. Even when Hollywood is pushing for diversity the representation of South Asian people is little to none. Either you are a caricature or the conversation of race is completely absent. There are varying degrees of South Asians in the US — some who just moved here, some who grew up here and some who grew up in both places. These nuances go unexplored because people want to cater to larger markets and are extremely risk averse. That’s why it’s important for filmmakers like myself and my peers to generate as much content as possible, make it as authentically Indian as possible, so that people in positions of power cannot deny its appeal.
The #TimesUp and #MeToo movements are gaining momentum. What’s your take on this?
I was in LA when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke out and it was disheartening that the movement in India did not take off at the time. I’m glad that women have finally spoken up. I’ve been reading a lot on it and I see a lot of people fighting the movement or implying that men’s careers are going down too quickly. To that, I say these very women who are speaking out risk losing jobs and probably gained a bad name even in the past when they may have resisted or threatened to take action. In a country where you cannot even enjoy a train journey without fearing someone might grope you, these allegations are not a shock to me. I bet there are women and men who think that accusers are playing victim right now and that is a very warped way to look at this. These men and women who are naming their abusers are fighting an ingrained system of patriarchy. 

What was the inspiration behind making Raksha and why do you think people should watch it?
We created Raksha because we wanted to explore the effects of holding onto cultural beliefs. It is undeniable that our culture is in a constant state of evolution and sometimes holding onto old traditions in a modern day has interesting results. The co-writer, Vidhya Iyer, and I both were experiencing resistance for our career choices and the unwillingness to settle down around the same time. We channeled all that energy into making a film where the protagonist is giving in and being obedient, and somehow things still don’t work in her favour. We want the audience to question the nature vs nature aspect of Archanaa’s life. Is she really cursed or did she become this way because she tried so hard not to fulfill her prophecy? I think people should watch it because it does a good job of showing Indian family dynamics without villainising the parents.  

In India, shorts don’t find a big  market. What should be done to make these films work here?
I think the market is growing. Royal Stag has a film programme and film festivals are growing bigger each year. That said, for short films to have a market, we need actual production companies to acquire shorts and turn them into bigger ideas. If we keep remaking old films or brewing the same musical blockbuster formula films, we might make money but we will suppress some voices that are yearning to be discovered. Screening short films at schools, events and having the filmmakers present will help people understand the process. Most people think Bollywood is impenetrable or cheap but I think if you really want to change it, you have to make movies that reflect that. With each short that makes an impact there is discovery of new talent. It may seem that it’s not economically viable in the short term but it’s a great way to discover and nurture future talent. Short films were never made for monetary gain and probably never will be.

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