MANAA’s Interview with “On the Lot’s” Shalini Kantayya, MANAA’s 2004 Scholarship Winner

“On the Lot,” Fox’s reality show about 50 directors (chosen from 12,000 submissions), aired its finale on August 21, 2007 with Will Bigham named the winner of the $1 million development deal with Dreamworks Pictures. The series faced many problems, including an ever-dwindling audience that sunk to less than two million viewers (the finale got the attention of 2.5 million), the firing of Chelsea Handler as original host, and the hiring of greenhorn live host Adrianna Costa. The main interest of “On the Lot” to MANAA supporters, though, was the participation of Shalini Kantayya, a 30 year old director originally from Connecticut who’s lived in Brooklyn for the past 10 years.

The Indian American won MANAA’s 2004 scholarship and demonstrated her commitment to the cause week after week, finishing in the Top 10. Guy Aoki, a MANAA Board Member and the group’s founding president, interviewed Ms. Kantayya by phone. The following interview previously ran in an abridged version of Aoki’s “Into the Next Stage” column in the Rafu Shimpo newspaper.

Guy Aoki: Well, first of all, we’re so proud of what you’ve done.

Shalini Kantayya: Oh thank you!

GA: I mean, what’s really terrific is that you used at least one Asian person in every one of your films (SK laughs). And you know, that’s so refreshing because I often hear Asian American writers say, “Well, I’m gonna have to wait ’till I make it [to help Asian Americans].” They get onto the writing staff of a TV show, and they’re still very self-conscious about being Asian American. I understand that: If there’s like only one Asian in the whole writing room and everyone else is white, then they don’t want to be an advocate right off the bat. They want to just kind of fit in and show that they’re like a team player.

SK: Very understandable.

GA: And then you wait and wait and wait and you wonder, “Well, are they going to remember when they make it, or are they just going to get so used to doing white stories and casting white people that they’re gonna forget about it by the time they, quote, ‘make it?'” So I was so happy that every one of your films featured an Asian person, and it didn’t take away from the piece, and it was part of the success! Was it [intentional?]

SK: Well, we had a pool of actors to work from so you’re pretty restricted. Do I have a commitment to diversify? Absolutely. But I think more than that… I never want to be held back or boxed in as an Asian American filmmaker. I hope that if I’m asked to make a film about Latino gangs, I’ll be able to do it, or white American suburban life that I’ll be able to do it. But I think as my voice grows as a filmmaker, we make films about things that we know about. And I happen to know, for instance, the script for “Doctor-In-Law” was great. That script could’ve been about any immigrant community. It could’ve been Czechoslovakian people, could’ve been any first generation family, but I think those kinds of immigrant stories are very close to my heart and Doctor-In Law, I think, was a script asking for me to direct it.

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