I grew up in Dayton, Ohio with parents that both came from tiny towns/farms in India. I had two sets of friends: The Indian friends (the children of my parent's friends who I was forced to hang out with), and my School friends (we had pretty much one of every ethnicity in our squad, like the United Nations). So I would say I had a lot of dichotomy in my life growing up. One night might be me and my school friends eating Taco Bell in our car while listening to "All Eyez on Me" by Tupac while poorly freestyling and drinking Boones Farm Strawberry Hill, and the next would be me and all the other Indian kids that lived in Dayton (about 10 of them in total) sitting in one of their basements eating Indian food from styrofoam thalis and listening to Bollywood music and trying to figure a way out of the house through the gauntlet of kind-of-drunk Uncles and Aunties.
I eventually graduated and went to school at BU in Boston where I pursued a BSBA with a focus on entrepreneurship and marketing and spent weekends DJing at clubs for free long island ice teas. Pretty good deal for a college student.
After that I moved to LA with three friends, sleeping in one tiny room together and working in a tiny office together in the real estate finance world. I still remember how excited we were when we finally got a water cooler in that office. We would fuel ourselves with sour candy and sandwiches made with bread and baloney from the 99 cent store across the street and occasionally make sales calls with shots of vodka in between. Turns out I was pretty damn good at selling, even better when I was inebriated.
I did the finance/sales thing for over a decade before I finally got tired of having my right brain stuck in a state of perpetual hibernation, so I made a new years resolution one year at 2 AM, drunk and full of Taco Bell (see a pattern here?), that I would write a novel that next year. “Write a chapter a month and by the end of the year I’m done!” Sounds easy right? It wasn't.
I came home after work every day and wrote and wrote and quit and quit, but nine months later I finished and published Beta Planet: Rise, a "tech-fueled post-apocalyptic thrill ride of young heroes entangled in death-defying missions!" I think my mom made that quote. Available on Amazon if you like books or you can just Venmo me the 10 cent royalty I get when I sell one.
Those nine months changed my life. I realized I had never been happier than when I was writing, and even though I had to make a lot of sacrifices (like no TV for a year), it didn’t feel like work. I really felt alive and in love with what I was doing for the first time. I immediately quit my job and took a screenwriting class at UCLA because I realized that novel writing wasn’t the best medium for me.
Fast forward four years and I have now written eight scripts (two features, four pilots, two specs), and not to toot my own horn but to my surprise they have all done very well, each of them placing in major competitions such as The Academy Nicholl, Sundance Lab, Austin Film Fest, Screencraft, and more. This was extremely validating for me to get positive feedback from these competitions and really kept me motivated to keep going. I also made my first two short films in the last year or so, both of which have earned laurels as well.
The ironic twist to this story is that I had never thought about being a writer, as my very fobby Indian parents would never consider any form of the arts as an “actual” career path, but when I was in the 7th grade I inadvertently won first place in a HUGE creative writing tournament between a bunch of the best writers from all the schools in Southwest Ohio. I wasn’t even supposed to compete that day as it was an 8th-grade team and I was just there as an alternate to learn a bit and kill time after school, but the coach obviously saw something in me and the morning of the competition she swapped me onto the team and I won the whole damn thing! I was on the front page of the Dayton Daily Newspaper and everything the next morning. My parents were really proud of me but after that day they never once even thought to foster writing and definitely just buried it as a one-off stroke of luck I guess.
I have had one of my scripts basically be optioned by three different companies, spent countless hours doing
rewrites (28 in total on one feature!), and gotten so excited for the possibility of getting my movie made and had it fall out all three times. This is a fickle and complicated industry and historically has been much harder for a minority to break through, so I’m glad we are finally starting to see more of our marginalized voices getting represented and respected for their voices.
Two years ago I was offered representation by a great guy from a well-respected management company and I didn’t accept. Partly because I didn’t feel ready, partly because I thought “well I shouldn’t accept my first offer, I should shop around and find my manager soul-mate”, and partly because I’m stupid. Who knows. I would have three more offers in the next year that I also didn’t accept, for the reasons above. And when I finally felt ready, COVID hit and I couldn’t get representation anywhere. Managers were struggling with an overload of work with the WGA/Agent fallout, working from home trying to change shitty diapers and still find work for their clients, all while hungover, trying to get the plug on toilet paper, and worried about the collapse of human society in general. It wasn’t exactly the best time to get repped. Suddenly I was hating myself for passing on some great managers and wondering if I missed my chance completely.
Fortunately, Coverfly and Tom Dever came into my life and greatly helped promote me, advise me, and facilitated in getting me signed to two great managers at The Gotham Group.
How did you celebrate your first screenwriting success?
When I signed with my managers, I went to OSPI and ate an absolutely ungodly amount of carbs and drank an equal amount of negronis to match. It was awesome.
A Writer's Routine
I am extremely goal-oriented, so if I have a goal, a deadline, or enough of an idea to actually write a script about, I will ALWAYS see it through. I never half-ass anything that I do and I have always performed better under pressure in all aspects of my life. But If I don’t have the above, I am often plagued by the same challenges that other writers have: lack of daily writing discipline, crippling insecurity, and fear that I have nothing interesting left to say. Being a writer is fun!
Screenwriting: Reality vs. Fantasy
Ask me again when I have some paystubs to prove it.
In all seriousness, I think it’s too early for me to say on this one, but I will say that so far my experience has been that it doesn’t matter who you are in the industry. For the most part, it’s a constant hustle to get shit done. Even Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg (my favorite comedy writers for the record) have many stories of struggling to get fantastic projects through the system and get made. Great films that have earned noteworthy awards have sometimes taken decades to get made.
It’s not a democratic system, unfortunately, and getting repped, getting staffed, getting optioned, doesn’t guarantee a career. I already can see (and gladly welcome the challenge) that like most industries it will be hard work, hustle, networking, and a dash of good karma along the way to have longevity in this business.
Prepping for That First Meeting
Due to COVID I have taken all my meetings virtually, which has pros and cons. The pro is no pants required, no traffic, and I definitely look better on Zoom than in real life (work those angles, people!). The con is that I always do better at making a connection in person and no virtual call will ever truly replace or represent a person’s energy accurately.
That being said, I make sure I have my lighting good, the place quiet, and have researched the people I'm meeting the best that I can. I try to find some common ground, whether it be where they are from, what school they went to, hobbies, whatever. I’m not against cyberstalking ANYONE on Instagram. And it's usually a good idea to know what projects they are working on right now or what things they have had successes on and be excited and congratulatory. Trust me, it’s a struggle for them as much as us and it’s always nice to hear that someone else is pumped about your work.
A Writer's Low Moment
One night, I was properly inebriated and read that Jonah Hill was making his directorial debut on a film that sounded suspiciously very similar to mine. I was devastated. Here I am struggling to get this film off the ground and he just pushes a button and it’s done! Of course, he somehow got a copy of my script and stole it! So, I did what any completely sane and sound of mind having motherfucker would do. I DMed him. I didn’t fly off the handle or anything but let’s just say when I woke up in the morning I realized how ridiculous it sounded and unsent that message. Whether or not he read it, I’ll probably never know. I watched the film about a year later and it turns out it wasn’t even remotely similar to mine.
This is going to happen to EVERY writer starting out (and probably seasoned ones too). And the truth is, yeah, ideas do get stolen, borrowed, whatever you want to call it. And on the other hand, there's a lot of talented writers writing similar stuff out there, all with their fingers on the zeitgeist, so similar stories aren’t at all surprising. But unfortunately, the people with the most influence, power, and connections will always have a faster route to getting things done than the writer nobody knows. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. NO ONE can write like me, NO ONE can write like you. Someone can steal an idea but there is only one of each of us. Focus on that and keep writing more. Relentlessly outlast your competition.
I think the inefficiency and broken parts of the Hollywood system are a source of worry for me and anyone trying to make a living at this. I worry that biases will always be a factor in me getting passed on and someone else getting the deal. Age, race, sex, culture, religion, who you know, that one naked selfie tweet (sorry Mom) will always be factors in this business. I worry that I started too late, but then I tell myself, “Well, you have SO much more interesting things to say now!”
I think we will always have worry, the best thing to do is accept it, embrace it, and keep pushing to make dope shit.
What is your mantra for when the going gets tough?
"Your dad got his first pair of shoes when he was 18 and you’re bitching about the upstairs neighbor that thumps too much or the fact that Taco Bell took the Mexican Pizza off the menu (but seriously fuck them for that)! Shut up, and get your shit done."
Quitting: Not an Option
I never actually considered quitting in the last few years because I had made a pact with myself to give myself five years for ANYTHING good to happen. Keep in mind I came into this with absolutely zero training, no background in writing, no clue if I was even a halfway-decent writer (aside from my one 7th grade experience). I just knew I loved doing it.
Amazingly I had many validating things happen along the journey, much sooner than five years, from competition placements to representation offers to optioned scripts. They didn’t turn into actual dollars but it didn’t matter because the important thing was that it motivated me to keep going, knowing that people were actually interested in my voice and knowing that my goal of telling minority-driven stories through comedy was closer and closer to reality.
The possibility of inspiring people with these stories, taking them on a journey, making them laugh, cry, and also educating and having relatable content has always been my inspiration.
Waiting to Exhale: The Other Side of Success
I am literally still holding my breath. I think insecurity about our art is the most common theme among any artist that has ever existed. Which is ironic because I am very confident and comfortable with myself and who I am in any other circumstance, but when it comes to something I’ve written or a film I’ve made, it’s gut-wrenching to have to share it with anyone for fear of what they will say (or worse, think).
It reminds me of that scene in Chef when Favreau has been in the kitchen all night whipping up some new dishes and when his two sous chefs come in the morning, he gives them a taste and REPEATEDLY keeps saying “is it good,” “is it really,” “don't fuck with me, is it good,” even though the sous chefs clearly love it. If you’re a halfway decent artist, pray that this insecurity never goes away because it is the fuel that keeps us always improving and growing.
The ScreenCraft Subtext Series is a group of personal interviews with writers who’ve recently taken their first big step into the industry. The interviews hope to shine a spotlight not only on their success, but on the journey behind it - the determination, the setbacks and the persistence that leads a writer to their success. We hope they are inspiring and that you can take a piece of advice or two for forging your path.