It was a spontaneous, follow-the-heart decision for Roshan Sethi, a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He took a break from his residency to write for the CBS show Code Black — a medical drama — and has co-created The Resident, another medical drama set to air on Fox from January 2018. Did it matter that he’s Indian by descent? Not anymore.
The past few years have yielded a plethora of opportunities for Indians in Hollywood, particularly onscreen. On top of the list are Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone. Also making waves on the festival circuit is Siddharth Dhananjay, an Indian student who bagged an acting and musical part in Geremy Jasper’s hip hop movie Patti Cake$, which screened at Sundance earlier this year. And these roles are not mandatory diversity picks; they’re reflecting an evolving industry as well as America’s ethnically varied social fabric.
This acceptance of diverse people in Hollywood extends to behind the screen as well, and aspiring Indian artists and students are making their presence felt. A crop of young writers, producers, directors, cinematographers, sound and animation artists, etc. are making a beeline for the West to make their cinematic dreams come true.
Take, for instance, 34-year-old Siddarth John, a senior pre-visualisation artist and lead animator based in Los Angeles. Armed with an MFA in Animation from Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design, John moved to Hollywood around four years ago and has racked up a stellar roster of projects. These include Thor: Ragnorak, Kong: Skull Island, The Martian, Ghostbusters and Pacific Rim Uprising. In fact, for Kong, he worked closely with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
“As long as you work hard there is nothing stopping you here,” says John. “I haven’t faced specific challenges as far as ethnicity goes, although it’s harder for people from other countries to work here because of visa challenges.”
Last year, America elected Donald Trump as its 45th President on a strong anti-immigration wave that has made life tougher for aspiring professionals from other countries looking to work there. This uncertainty extends to all visa categories although the H-1B is the most deeply affected, particularly pertaining to Indians.
“There is a constant anxiety of where we are heading that I am now forced to live with,” says Tanmay Chowdhary, a final-year graduate student at University of Southern California (USC). “With reforms to the H1 cap and immigration visas in the works, it is the most direct way I have felt political influence so far. I feel like I live in bubble at USC, which is a bit removed from this in a way.”
Chowdhary, 27, studied business at the undergraduate level at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before following his dream of becoming a cinematographer. A Craftsman, a short he worked on, was nominated at Poland’s International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography Camerimage 2017, the world’s premier camerawork fest. Chowdhary’s Hollywood goals, though, lie more on the indie side.
“I do think opportunities for Indians are opening up in the US, especially with the current emphasis on diversity,” he says. “For me, the biggest difference between the Indian and American film industries is the work culture. I have been on a few sets in India and the most immediate difference I notice is the overall attitude of people towards one another. Plus, the exposure that film students get in the West is incredible. The connections you make really give you access to the international film scene.”
But, perhaps the greatest struggle for any young aspiring film professional in India, is content. Sonali Sundararaj, 26, kicked off her career as an associate producer for Star Vijay Television working on shows like Neengallum Vellalam Oru Kodi (Tamil version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?), Vijay Awards, and multiple finales of Super Singer and Jodi No 1. She moved to Los Angeles in 2015 to pursue ambitious projects that make a difference. “One of the major reasons people are moving westwards is because of freedom in content,” she says. “In India, creativity is suppressed. Independent film-makers are trying their best to put out new content, but their films struggle to make it to the screen. Even television in India is losing viewers as many are now switching to Netflix and Amazon Prime to watch American shows with more substance.”
And Sundararaj should know. She recently wrapped up her stint at FX’s critically acclaimed show, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and line-produced the American segment of S Shankar’s upcoming sci-fi movie 2.0 starring Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar.
“The film industry in India is less open to experimentation and innovation,” says John. “People stick with the same routine scripts. This hasn’t given others who want to push the boundaries and make progress a good playing field.” Chowdhary too agrees. “I think there’s less freedom of expression through film. It is extremely difficult to express anything radical without having a ban imposed on your film.”
Being in the film industry anywhere in the world is no joke, and it isn’t that Hollywood is candyland where everything is perfect. The recent sexual abuse and harassment scandal has rocked the industry at its core, and there’s a certain upheaval in the air, what with people of diverse ethnicities, races and genders raising their voices against decades-old status quo. But, from a creative perspective, it is fertile ground where hard work, perseverance and talent pay off handsomely. That’s something Indian cinema should take note of.