By Abraham Ferrer
In the six years since she brought director Leena Pendharkar’s RASPBERRY MAGIC to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, producer Megha Kadakia has seemingly been a constant fixture at subsequent Festival Week editions. Consider last year, 2015: in addition to serving as Executive Producer for Ravi Kapoor’s MISS INDIA AMERICA (a double-award winner at the Film Festival), she also re-teamed with director Pendharkar for DANDEKAR MAKES A SANDWICH, a droll day-in-the-life short that is being expanded into a full-length feature. Not too shabby for a former UCLA bio-chemistry major whose career shifts into arts management (she served for a time as the Marketing and Communications manager for Artwallah and other multi-cultural arts festivals) have resulted in a rising career as a producer of short and feature-length motion pictures.
On the eve of the official World Premiere screening of her latest project, THE TIGER HUNTER by first-time feature director Lena Khan, we invited Kadakia to describe her ascending career, the challenges of filmmakers and producers of color to sustain competitive careers in entertainment, and the achievement of bringing yet another high-profile feature-length narrative film to the Film Festival.
ABRAHAM FERRER: Tell us a little about how you became a producer. I’m curious how a bio-chemistry major at UCLA makes a seemingly 180º pivot into business management and, later, into arts management. Is it a love for the arts? Or maybe, a desire to try something else than, say, a career in medicine?
MEGHA KADAKIA: I grew up having one foot in the arts and one in academics. I played the piano and learned Indian Classical Dance — Bharata Natyam at the Shakti School of Dance in L.A. since I was 5 years old. I never felt whole, unless I was doing something that was both left-brain oriented and right-brain oriented. The arts were always a core part of my identity, so combining my science and business-oriented interests with my artistic ambitions was just built into who I am. Even while at UCLA I was part of the Cultural Affairs Commission that put on the Jazz Reggae Fest, UCLA World Fest and various other cultural events throughout the year. Once I graduated I was involved in the South Asian Arts Movements both in New York and L.A. through Diasporadics and ArtWallah. It was a natural transition once I went to Business School at Columbia in New York that I wanted to add that element back into my life and producing felt like the perfect combination of both art and business.
Why a producer, rather than a director? Even now, in many circles a “producer” doesn’t sound as sexy as a “director.” What is it about that position that draws you into the filmmaking process?
Haha! I know, I sometimes wish I did look into directing earlier. But honestly, what I love about being a producer is that you truly get to shape how a film gets off the ground and eventually distributed. As an independent producer, you wear many different hats — you are a creative producer, working on script development and casting; you are an executive producer in that you're raising financing and pitching the film; and you are the on-set producer who actually makes the film. On an independent film, a producer is so vital to making the film happen from beginning to end. It taps into both the business side and creative side of filmmaking. However, you never know, maybe one day I'll try my hand at directing a small piece as I continue to find my voice.
We’ve been able to observe your development as a producer starting with Leena Pendharkar’s RASPBERRY MAGIC back in 2010, but I see you’ve actually served as a producer on independent projects for over a decade now. What do you think of your upward climb from short narratives and documentaries to shepherding works that move closer and closer to the mainstream entertainment arena?
It's been an incredible journey and a long one at that. As with most careers, it's a marathon and not a sprint. I'm excited to see that with each project I learn more and more about producing and with each project I uncover new challenges, which is what makes the process interesting. As I master certain skills and learn new ones, I feel I am poised to take on different types of projects whether they are increased budgets, new genres or other types of producing challenges.
We were so excited to see the development of MISS INDIA AMERICA, from its very successful crowdfunding campaign, its prolonged tour of regional and ethnic film festivals, and to its current theatrical and VOD engagement. Compared to that high-profile awareness, it seems that THE TIGER HUNTER, your latest producing project, pretty much flew under the radar this past couple of festival seasons. So, let’s start with that: how did this latest achievement come together?
It certainly did and many people were surprised to learn that I had produced another film so close to MISS INDIA AMERICA. The project came together when our Executive Producer, Alan Pao, recommended I take a look at THE TIGER HUNTER script and meet Lena Khan. Lena was looking for a producer who could make the project happen. She and I met and one thing led to another and before we knew it, we were in pre-production on THE TIGER HUNGER in 2014, just a few months after wrapping on MISS INDIA AMERICA. However, Lena had conducted a successful crowdsourcing campaign of her own and had attracted a larger number of interested folks in the film. So it was great to build on that momentum and continue to push the film out there. I've had and continue to have a wonderful experience working with Lena Khan.
Compared to the contemporary themes of MISS INDIA AMERICA, what challenges were there in realizing a period comedy? I wonder if the idea of doing a period piece wasn’t quite “sexy” for prospective investors, and if you had to be “creative” in securing the financing to make the film…
The wonderful thing about THE TIGER HUNTER was that it pretty much came financed through Lena Khan's hard work in advance — something I had not experienced in my previous other films, because I was involved in raising money for those projects. Because I came on rather late to the project, I was not involved in pitching the film to investors. However, since coming onto the film, I have met many of the investors and they were absolutely excited to see a film done in the 1970s about an immigrant experience — something that many of them could relate to in their own lives. It was a story that they felt needed to be told and they had a lot of faith in Lena's ability to make that happen. Which she of course delivered beautifully in this film.
Tell us about the participation of Danny Pudi and other members of director Khan’s rather high-profile cast. Seeing the finished film, they all seemed to work seamlessly, and added to the impression that it was highly-polished — remarkable, since it was a first feature.
We had a great time casting this film! We had an incredible casting director that I've worked with multiple times — Emily Schweber. She got the feel of the film through both Lena and I and really understood what Lena was going for in the overall cast. We saw several actors for each role, but we could truly only cast the other roles once we (secured the actor for) our lead character, Sami Malik. I remember Emily emailing Lena and I part-way through our casting process saying she found the perfect Sami in Danny Pudi! Both Lena and I were elated. We met Danny and knew instantly that he was our Sami Malik. Once that was determined, it was very easy to build the cast around him. And we knew that the cast needed to include Rizwan Manji for Babu, Karen David for Ruby, Jon Heder for Alex Womack — besides being our first choices, they also fit so nicely with Danny Pudi. And of course, the roommates are wonderful, led by Parvesh Cheena.
If you can, tell us about the directing styles of Leena Pendharkar (RASPBERRY MAGIC; DANDEKAR MAKES A SANDWICH), Lena Khan (THE TIGER HUNTER), and the husband/wife team of Ravi Kapoor and Meera Simhan (MISS INDIA AMERICA); and to what extent that you tailored your producing acumen to their individual creative styles.
They each have a unique way of working on a project, from the overall vision, to how they bring out the performances of the actors. As a producer, I respect the vision of each director, and I definitely tailored my producing style to what they needed to execute what they wanted. Of course, there are things to have to accomplish on every project, so once those nuts and bolts are squared away, it allows for creativity in bringing the vision to life for each director.
With RASPBERRY MAGIC, it was my first feature and Leena Pendharkar's first feature as well, so it was definitely a learning experience for both of us. We hustled and created a feature film learning as we went along. With Ravi Kapoor and Meera Simhan, I had worked with them previously on Meera Simhan's one-woman show, also called "Miss India America", and we had spent some time together. So moving onto the feature film MISS INDIA AMERICA was a nice transition. And of course in that process, I also brought on board my now husband, Saurabh Kikani into the mix to help produce the film. Together we learned a lot about raising financing through crowd sourcing, working with a bigger cast and budget and creating set pieces that involved large amounts of extras. But ultimately it was communicating effectively with Ravi and Meera, collaborating with them to give them what they wanted, so that their wonderful script could be brought to life with Ravi's signature directorial flair.
Finally, working with Lena Khan on TIGER HUNTER was unique because we had many more moving parts than on any of my previous films. Lena was a first time director, but had a specific vision in terms of tone and style. As a producer I learned a lot about working creatively and strategically with other departments, like production and costume design, for example, in bringing Lena's fun and colorful vision to the screen. At the end of the day, with all the directors I have worked with, it has always been about communication and collaboration. I feel lucky as a producer to have been given the chance to work with such strong directors.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but given the pronounced lack of Asian Pacific American faces on TV and the movies, I clearly see a relative parade of South Asian American faces on the airwaves in recent years — from Rizwan Manji, Parvesh Cheena, and Rebecca Hazlewood (OUTSOURCED); Danny Pudi (COMMUNITY); Aziz Ansari (PARKS & REC; MASTER OF NONE); Kunal Nayyar (THE BIG BANG THEORY); among many. And, uhh, a writer and producer for THE OFFICE named Mindy Kaling? Is this relative plethora of Desi faces a positive thing? And how much more work do we have to do — Indian American and other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders alike — to sustain and even increase this current level of visibility?
The recent explosion of South Asian talent over the last several years in television is fantastic and it continues to grow. I think, from a network television perspective, we’ve come a long way. To have a show where your lead is South Asian — Priyanka Chopra in ABC's QUANTICO; or Hannah Simone in NEW GIRL — is wonderful. Having a show detailing the lives of Asian Americans in ABC's FRESH OFF THE BOAT really shows the progress we have made. I believe we still need to do more work in providing South Asian and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders access to roles behind the camera and at the executive level, especially for film. Right now, when casting for Hollywood feature films, a majority of them continue to use the same stars and we have yet to see executives at the Studios push for more diversity in roles. It's happening, but rather slowly. And I think one of the main reasons for that is that we need more diverse voices in the roles of producers, Studio executives, writers and directors to offer that new perspective.
Another area where we can use more representation is distribution. Many distribution companies are still not open to theatrically distributing content, for a lack of a better word, with 'brown' faces. They still want to distribute tried and true content that has been successful, and anything that deviates from that formula requires convincing and challenging the norms — very few distribution companies or studios want to take that risk. But it has to be done if we are to see authentic and diverse American narratives in mainstream film and television. It's good for us of course, but everyone benefits from having more voices and expressions of our shared experiences.
As for yourself: what benefits are there in being a producer who champions filmmakers of color — and women, at that — and how would you like to see that develop as you progress to even more mainstream projects?
As a producer of color and a woman, I strongly feel that you have to uplift others and tell their stories. I want these stories out there. I want these directors and writers to have their voices in the mainstream and I want to activate that through my producing. I feel we have to help each other achieve our goals, and the only way to do that is to elevate the voices in our community of those directors and writers that have a vision that I believe should be told. Further, it's always great to help women succeed. Too often, women don't help other women and I think it really doesn't benefit the overall cause when we do that — it only works when we come together. And I've been lucky in that I've worked with very strong women, from Leena Pendarkar, Meera Simhan to Lena Khan. As I evolve and as my projects evolve, I'll always want each project to either share women's voices and/or continue to bring forward great South Asian talent into mainstream filmmaking. And as a producer, I too hope that others will also see that in me.
I saw in the opening sequence of THE TIGER HUNTER that you cast yourself as a member of a traditional dance ensemble…sneaky! As much as you’re invested in bringing diverse kinds of stories to the big and small screen, do you see the same goals for yourself and others like you in other forms of the arts?
LOL! Lena really wanted to have me in the film, and she knew I could dance, so she asked if I can be in the opening dance sequence. I learned the sequence the night before, and boom! we were shooting the next day. It was really fun to be part of the film and I'm glad to have a very small role, living out my secret Bollywood dream for a moment. As for other forms of the arts, I absolutely want those same goals to be pursued, and I encourage other artists and producers to push to get their projects made. We have talent all around us, and whether it is dance, music, theater or other artistic endeavors, having more diverse voices makes for a more fun, interesting and colorful life for everyone. Always a great thing!