Geeta Malik, an Indian-American Colorado native, grew up watching large-scale Bollywood musical numbers with her mother.
Malik said the films inspired the Indian roots in her own film work.
The UCLA alumna received the 2016 Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for her newest script “Dinner with Friends.” The screenplay follows the coming-of-age arc of a pampered Indian teen in Southern California who discovers the former feminist background of her mother and considers the implications of her own identity.
Through the year-long screenwriting fellowship, Malik will write and complete at least one feature-length screenplay, focusing on perfecting “Dinner with Friends” this year. On Thursday, she will receive her award, and actors will stage a scene from her script at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
The Daily Bruin’s Alexandra Kukoff spoke with Malik about the importance of addressing social issues such as feminism and cultural identity in film.
Daily Bruin: Would you say that you use your medium as a platform for social change?
Geeta Malik: For me, the debate of the personal versus political has always been a huge aspect of my work. It’s impossible to be objective in art; simply by being an artist, you have a perspective, and a story you want to tell.
Daily Bruin: In the five years you’ve spent refining “Dinner with Friends,” has your perspective on feminism changed?
Geeta Malik: I’ve been a feminist since birth, I’d say, and that really translated to “Dinner with Friends,” when my protagonist is considering why her community is allowing this rampant sexism to just continue without doing anything about it. I also considered, though, the context of this new, weird trendiness surrounding feminism – which isn’t necessarily negative as long as people understand what feminism is and why it exists.
DB: How did your Indian culture growing up influence themes in your films?
GM: My parents always had Bollywood movies playing, so I learned a lot about big musical numbers – song and dance – that way, but at the same time I grew up in the West and am telling smaller, more character-driven stories.
DB: How do you maintain universality in your films despite focusing on Indian culture?
GM: With earlier films, you could either tell a story about your culture or a story about you, and I feel we’ve really evolved from that. I’m Indian-American, so I have two perspectives on this whole thing, but I find that when I write more unique, character-driven experiences, the more political aspects of the plot unfold from there.
DB: Would you say that smaller, character-driven stories like that are indicative of Western film trends over Eastern ones?
GM: India and America tend to parallel each other in terms of film trends. Here, we have the big, corporate movies – the Marvels and Transformers and what have you – that are really blown up a lot by the media, but we also have Sundance and smaller indie films. India’s had a thriving independent scene since the sixties alongside the Michael Bay sort of movies. It’s definitely a lot like what we have out here.
DB: How do screenwriters and directors navigate giant studio systems like that without sacrificing creative autonomy?
GM: The way to go, for now at least, is definitely independent. On “Troublemaker,” my first feature, I got a lot of feedback telling me to make the protagonist white since the movie, while featuring an Indian lead, has very little to do with being Indian. I chose to keep her Indian, of course – if I hadn’t, we’d be watching a movie we’ve seen 800 times already – but if I’d listened and gone the studio route, I might have had to sacrifice creativity for funding and visibility.