How do you learn to speak up and step into the power of your voice? For filmmaker Jhanvi Motla, it started with a physical journey from Mumbai, India, to the United States to study filmmaking and bring stories to life that matter to her. In this engaging conversation, Jhanvi shares story after story about how she had to become resilient and disciplined to be independent while also learning to accept other people’s support. Throughout the conversation, the weight of family and culture is present as she steps into her voice to tell the story of herself, her mother, and the unacknowledged heroes of the home in her upcoming documentary feature, Household Heroes.
Jhanvi’s bio from JhanviMotla.com: “Jhanvi Motla is a Los Angeles based filmmaker that was born and raised in Mumbai, India. She moved to the US in 2011 for college at Emerson and went on to receive her MFA in Producing from the American Film Institute Conservatory in 2017. She has produced shorts that have premiered at Cleveland International Film Festival, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, LA shorts, Rhode Island Flickers Fest, Asian American International Film Festival and many more. Motla has extensive experience producing Music Videos working with artists such as Jaden Smith, Sizzy Rocket, Mateo Arias and Theo Crocker. In 2017 she Associate Produced the G-Star Raw Commercial “Forces of Nature”. In Spring 2019, Jhanvi was selected as a Producing Fellow for Film Independent’s Project Involve as well as a mentee for Hillman Grad’s mentorship program. In Fall 2019, Jhanvi began principal photography on her feature documentary Household Heroes, that she is both Directing and Producing. It is currently in Post Production.”
- Julia Cameron
- AFI Conservatory
- Women in Film
- Hillman Grad Productions Mentor Labs
- Darren Aronofsky
- Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash
Jhanvi Motla (JM): So my name is Jhanvi Motla. I am a filmmaker based in Los Angeles and at the moment I work as a freelancer, a freelance producer. And when I’m not doing that, I’m usually writing or figuring out my next project.
Chris Martin (CM): Nice. That’s awesome. And I liked the way that you said freelance, cause you said it with kind of a smile and a laugh to it because it feels like the whole world is freelance right now.
JM: Honestly, I think it was such a, like, in retrospect, such a good decision to do that because it really prepared me for like all the fits of, you know, unemployment.
JM: Cause I think people got really scared with good reason, you know, when Covid happened. But I was like, Oh, this is just my life. Like I go through months where I don’t get work. Um, so yeah, it was kind of funny.
CM: How do you handle those months where there isn’t much work. Does that inspire you to be more creative or are you like me where you kind of get down and paralyzed and can’t work?
JM: You know, it’s probably a mixture of the two. I think when Covid first happened, I was actually not even in the country. I was with my boyfriend’s parents down in Mexico. I mean, this was like when the lockdowns went into effect and you know, we, you know, back then, we were so naive, we were like, Oh, like, you know, this will be over in like a couple of weeks. Like, it’ll be fine. And um, next thing, you know, like there was just, all our jobs went away, the one remote job we had went away and it was kind of scary in the beginning, but you know, I’m very fortunate that, you know, my, my partner was like, Hey, don’t worry. Like we’re going to be okay, no matter what, like this is going to be fine.
You know, I came to the US with a really big dream and wanting to be independent, especially financially independent. That was like a pretty big goal. So it, it did feel very debilitating in the beginning, to just be, hands tied, no opportunities. I think the only thing that gave me comfort weirdly enough was that it wasn’t just me that was experiencing that. Like there was across the board, so many friends, family that, you know, came together to just be like, it’s going to be okay. Like we’re all in this together, pretty much. So yeah, I think in the beginning, I, I didn’t do much because I kind of was like, you know, I just need to go easy. Not, not stress myself out. There’s already enough going on in the world, but then I think one month in, I was like, I can’t just not do anything. Like, I’m going crazy. Like how much can I like, you know, just like listen to music and watch movies and eat good food.
Like, it sounds such a champagne problem, but after a while, I just felt like I didn’t have any purpose to the day. So I think that’s when I just was, like, talking to my mom and she was like, just have a routine, uh, and, and that should help you get sort of, you know, going, and, and I think the big game changer was probably working out every day. That really helped deal with a lot of the anxiety because you’re getting so much, you know, natural, sort of, pheromones that are making you feel good. And then I started, uh, doing, I was, I was, I mean, you know, Julia Cameron would be so proud. I was doing my morning, morning pages regularly. Uh, I was like, so, like, committed to the artist’s way and then, and then actually, you know, some part of–it’s so funny that I thought of this, but like some part of me when we were going to Mexico, I was like, Johnny, just in case you can’t come back on time, take one project, like video project that you can work on.
So I actually had the travel, drive for my documentary that I’ve been working on. So I actually, it’s funny, like, I don’t know how to explain this other than, like, all my projects give me immense anxiety. It’s so weird. Like when I have to edit something, I get scared. So, for so long, I just hadn’t touched my project. But then eventually I was like, this is all I have. So then I would basically, like, I would just plan my days where I would wake up, work out, do my pages, eat, do a little bit of editing, have lunch, write for a couple hours. And honestly, that’s, that’s how I got through it, honestly, like until I came back. So from, I would say from April to June, so like I was in Mexico from like March to June.
JM: Yeah. So the, the, the last two, two and a half months were, like, probably the most disciplined I’ve ever been in my life, like, in terms of getting work done. I probably wrote the version of my pilot that now, people when they read it, you know, for so long, they were like, I don’t get what you’re trying to do. And now everybody’s like, Oh my God, I really like your protagonist. And that, that is so hard to do. So, you know, we got that. I mean, we got attention from a manager. I wrote out the outline for my feature. That’s when I actually fell in love with writing because it showed me that, like, I can just go live in this alternate universe as, as a coping mechanism.
I mean, you know, I was way away from, I mean, yes, I was, it’s funny because now my boyfriend and I–we we’re married so he’s my husband now. So I was with family, for sure. Like his family is like my own, but you know, I think after a while, no matter how close you are, no matter how much you love each other, being trapped in the same space is going to affect your dynamics.
JM: So I think having a place to go, even though that was a place in my mind, it was just so nice. And I think everybody in the house, like, found a way to do that. So, like, my partner, my husband now I guess, was doing this project where he could help his father test how much water was in their reserve tanks because they had, they had just moved to Mexico and, you know, in the US they always had water, but in Mexico, their tanks would be filled up every alternate day. And they were not used to having so many people in the house. So he was building this sensor for his dad using a little raspberry Pi computer ’cause he’s really into technology. And then his, uh, older brother who was also with us and kind of runs a production company I worked for, uh, he’s also a painter. So he was just painting new stuff every single day that he could and, like, meditating. And it’s, like, everybody just had, like, found something to do. And, like, it’s so hard because it was just too painful otherwise. Like not, like, what do you talk about, right, like, if you don’t do anything in the day, there’s just nothing to discuss. So I think the navigation was pretty much, like, didn’t do much for a while, but then eventually, like, wasn’t feeling good about not doing anything, and then eventually just found kind of a routine. And I mean, yeah, it was a lot, it was definitely a lot to be away from LA when all of this stuff that happened over the summer was going on, too. So I definitely really needed to write to just stay focused.
CM: Yeah. What I love about what you just said is that, you know, when you came here, you had independence on your mind and I’m curious what that meant versus some of the independence that you’re talking about now. I mean, building sensors so that you can understand that the level of the reserve tanks, that’s a form of independence. And, and so like, how has your view of independence, where did it start, and how has it changed?
JM: I think my view of independence in the big way that it changed is that it’s okay to lean on people because I don’t think I let myself do that, you know, in the past. So I moved to the US when I was 18, like I shared, moved countries. And you know, again, I’m not alone in this, thousands of people do it every year. I actually think there’s a lot of people who do it with a lot less help than I had. I mean, I had like a minimum wage job in freshman year in Boston. I was making eight bucks an hour and I was so proud of myself. Like, that’s how I bought my camera because I didn’t want to ask, my dad was already helping me with school, so I didn’t want to keep asking for more. So I guess I’ve always kind of been that person who was very, like, industrious. Like, I was the first immigrant across my little international group who had her social security number, you know, and, and it was a pain to get it, but I remember being so excited to get it. And as time has gone on, the real shift happened when I moved to LA after college. I worked as an assistant to a writer/producer right out of college. Like I was so unqualified for that job. I was not ready for that job at all. And I was actually let go from that job very unceremoniously. And I think, you know, that, that’s what really made me think about everything because that job was going to sponsor me to stay here. And three weeks before my sponsorship was due, they said, we don’t want you to work here anymore. So I was like, wow, okay. I have no money. I have no visa. I have no job prospects. Like, what am I going to do?
And it’s funny, you know, you wouldn’t normally see that somebody going back to school is somebody thinking they need help. But actually that’s exactly what that was, like, I went to graduate school, which is where I met Nathan and that’s how I met you. And I remember at the time it was just a way for me to keep staying here in the US because I definitely just wasn’t ready to go back home. I felt like I hadn’t done what I had set out to do. But then I went to school and I realized, like, I actually don’t know how to make a movie. Like, I can talk about movies endlessly. I can watch them. I can critique them. But like, how do you actually make one? And how do you keep doing it consistently? How do you do it with less money? Because no matter how much money you have, it’s never enough. We all know this. That was like the first time where I was like, wow, I really needed the support. I really needed all of this guidance. And all of these people, like I was, I was, I think I was one of the youngest kids there–I was 23 when I went in or 22, not even, and everybody around me, like, you know, there were filmmakers that had gone to Tribeca, to Sundance, people who had shot features, like people who were, like very, very far along in their careers. And then there was me. But, but I think I really like enjoyed the experience of, you know, I mean, in hindsight, I think I got to learn a lot in a way that I don’t think any job could have taught me because I think if I had the freedom to fail, like I had the freedom to like fail really badly. And like, nobody was gonna fire me. Nobody was going to tell me to leave. So I think that was like the first big shift.
And then after AFI was like, really, when I was like, you just need to take all the help you can get, like, stop being stupid and, like, saying no to people who want to help you. Because, you know, I finished school, I had this whole plan of how I was going to, like, work as an assistant at this management company that I had interned for, and I can’t tell you how many job interviews I walked out of and they were like, you’re too qualified for this. I’m like, wow. So four years ago I was not qualified. And now you’re telling me I have too many qualifications. And then it came down to, like, really taking any job that I could find. You know, initially I was, like, no, I’m only gonna do this and nothing else. And my partner was like, “that’s, like, suicide for freelance–you can’t do that, especially when you’re starting out, you really can’t do that”. And I was, like, no, I have a plan. Like, you don’t know what I’m doing. And he was like, “fine. Like, I’ve been doing this for three years, but do what you will”.
And then eventually, you know what, I think I kind of did just suck it up and kind of do whatever came my way. But you know, I’m really grateful. I did that because now, you know, knock on wood, like, I don’t have to look too far to find the jobs. You’ve done this long enough to know that, I think, all your jobs beget new jobs. So I think that phase of really just taking on anything that came my way, no matter what, like 16-hour days, sure. Like, I’ll do it. I don’t care. And it really paid off. And I think in that phase, too, you know, yes, I was taking whatever job I could, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was getting paid the right amount of money. So I really had to just kind of, you know, own up to, like, my partner and be like, Hey, listen, like I’m doing this, but I’m not making enough money. And he’s like, “yeah, no shit”. And so he, and he was like, “don’t worry, like, just do what you need to do, get your visa” because, you know, this is the other thing on, on top of like just kind of making it in the industry, is like, as an immigrant, I was also always trying to like find a way to stay here, which is exceptionally difficult, legally, to do. It requires money and time and yes, I’m not making enough money. And then I have to pony up, like, a couple thousand dollars to a lawyer at the end of the year.
CM: Oh my gosh.
JM: You know, like, forget paying my bills. I just was like, so, like, I was living this insane life where, like, I had, uh, you know, I would take any job. And then, like, 60% of my income would be saved.
JM: And, like, I would just, like, not go out. And it was, yeah, it was a weird time, but hey, I got the visa. Like, I managed to stay here, uh, I’ve been here three years now on the visa. And you know, it was all, like, a mixture of, you know, just kind of learning from your own mistakes. I think Tyler the Creator has a really good line in his album that he put out–Igor–last year. It’s just in between songs where he’s, like, exactly what you think you don’t want to be and you spend your life running away from is what you become. And I spent so much of my adult life being like, I don’t need help. I can do this.
JM: Like, I can do this by myself and the truth is you can’t. It takes a village to succeed in any area of life. So yeah, that was, like, the big sort of lesson and learning about, you know, ’cause, I, I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this, but, like, I’ve always grown up with an immense amount of privilege and that really forced me to be, like, okay, like, you can’t take this lightly. Everything you do has to be worth it. And also it made me very, like, averse to taking any help from my parents unless I absolutely needed it. And this sounds, like, so like, I feel, like, I sound so silly saying this ’cause you know, I, I’m aware of how much harder people have it. So I think that motivated me, like, all my friends around me who were, like, you know, trying to pay back student debt and, like, really hustling. I was, like, no, Jhanvi, there’s people who have it harder than you so if you have the help take it. Like I had so many friends who: “really, dude, like, don’t be stupid, just take the help, it’s fine”. So yeah, it was a lot of, like, friends just kind of reiterating that I was kind of digging a hole for myself if I wasn’t gonna take this help. ‘Cause yeah, sure. I don’t have student debt, but you know, I have to ensure my legal status has never jeopardized. I have to always maintain that and find money to do that. So that’s, like, its own sort of problem. And yeah, all of that together really helped me learn that independence is great, but you’re not going anywhere without support.
CM: Right. What you’re speaking to as well as like the sense of resilience that you’ve developed along the way, because not only do you need a tremendous amount of resilience to be a filmmaker and to pursue making movies, but you have the added struggle of maintaining your legal status, which, it sounds like the emotions of that alone is, is almost like an exponentially multiplier on, on filmmaking.
JM: And then on top of that to doing that, you know, under the Trump administration.
JM: Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you, I can’t believe that, A, I got approved under the Trump administration. Although my lawyer does tell me that my timing was impeccable, that if I would have applied any later, the rules they’ve been introducing would have probably made me ineligible.
JM: Like they’re making it really hard unless you have a ton of money is what she was telling me. And, you know, yes, I’ll, like, you know, I, I, it’s not like I don’t have a family that could help me, but also my family doesn’t have just have, like, a magical money tree. There’s like 13 people that we support. So, like, yeah, it was, it was agonizing. And I think more than anything, I heard this the other day and I was like, this is what life feels like: I always felt like I was on borrowed time. I have until this date to succeed, I have until this date to prove that I can do it. And the date was being set by whichever officer was deciding how long I would get to stay here. So, I mean, you know, obviously now that I’m getting married, some of that is going to be alleviated because, um, that makes me eligible for permanent residence here. But, you know, again, getting that permanent residence does, it’s not cheap, costs a lot of money. So hopefully this is, you know, the end of the road for, you know, trying to be able to stay here and not, kind of, be restricted by the piece of paper that tells you what to do ’cause the visa that I had is very restrictive. So, like, if I didn’t have a job, uh, for example, right now, if I can’t get a job in the entertainment industry, I can’t just wake up and go to Starbucks and be like, Hey, can I work here? Like, that would jeopardize my legal status. Or if anything is a little too tangential from my field that I’m told that I’m in working in, that could make me ineligible. So like, it’s just, it’s like, you have to be careful that you’re not stepping on landmines, kind, of wherever you go.
CM: To look at it in a different way, too, it’s like what a fantastic way to make you really think about your niche as a human being, too, as opposed to I can do everything. And if this doesn’t work out, I’ll go over here. Whereas you’re like, no, this is the very specific thing that I have to do. I mean, that’s interesting,
JM: You know, I will say, Chris, that like all my friends that are immigrants, at least majority of them, ’cause like, you know, at AFI, we had a good chunk of us that were from other countries. And as soon as you finish, it’s like a race to see who will get approved for the O-1 because that’s the visa all of us try to go for, and then also who’s going to materialize a job and I kid you not, but all the kids that were immigrants did exceedingly well because we had all this added pressure on top of us. So yes, it is infuriating, but also it motivates you to work that much harder. Like, a lot of people, when they meet me, they’re like, oh wow, like you’ve done so much and you’re only 28 or whatever. And I’m like, well, I didn’t have a choice.
JM: Like, in order to stay here, I had to prove that I was really good at what I do. You know? So it’s like a double-edged sword in many ways.
CM: Yeah, for sure. I’m curious what stories, as you were growing up, you internalize that not only, you know, directed your desire to make movies, but help you now.
JM: Mmmm. Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that ’cause last year during the pandemic, I, somebody emailed me saying, Hey, the Women In Film Mentoring Program is reopened–do you want to apply? And uh, their question was, like, why did you become a filmmaker? Like, what about your life has framed sort of your experience? And it’s funny, I had to rewrite that a couple of times. And I think the one thing I landed on that felt really appropriate was that I think as a young girl, I really wasn’t told that I had a voice that was important very explicitly.
JM: Like, it was just, like, your, your upbringing was just so gendered. Like, my brothers were getting, like, hot wheels and I was getting, like, a kitchen set. And, like, when I was 9 or 10, I was expected to go help my mother in the kitchen. And, you know, I mean, of course, like, the boys had to do stuff, like, lay the table and pick up the stuff. And, like, there were certain things that we all had to do, but there was definitely stuff that I was pushed to do more than my brothers. And, you know, listen, it’s been, like, a journey to understand that my parents were really just doing what they thought was best for me. They’re, they’re not malicious. They love me to pieces. They would do anything for me. But, um, you know, I held this against them for a really long time, but it’s, like, you know, they grew up in India in the sixties, like, what was I really expecting? Like, they’re going to be, like, you know, and my father had to, had to, like, the way that he had to take over his business was just so, like, sudden, like my dad was 27 or 28 when his dad passed away.
JM: And, you know, his dad left him a business and we’re a big family. So, like, my father has spent the bulk of his life, kind of, building wealth to make sure we all are okay and we can finish our schooling and have jobs. And then my mother, like, really made sure to just run the house in a way that my dad would never have to worry about anything. So, like, taking us to school and feeding us, taking care of grandma, like, all of that. So, you know, they’re lovely human beings, but I feel like they were just trying to teach me what they knew, which was that when I grow up, I’m going to have to support the family in this way. And I think that’s what motivated me to leave.
CM: Makes sense.
JM: Like, I was, like, I don’t want this for myself. And, and I don’t even think it was so much my parents, I think a lot of it was the extended family. I think my parents, like, really tried to, at the end of the day, my parents were like, good values: just be nice to people, like, do your thing, but, like, don’t hurt other people in the process. Like, that was really important to them was, like, just being nice to the people around you because India is so community driven. So they wanted to make sure wherever I went, I was able to build one for myself. And I, I’m really grateful that they taught me that.
JM: But yeah, like, I definitely had, like, extended family members who would be, like, Oh my God, you’re so fat. You’re never going to find a guy.
JM: What, are you talking, like, to my face?
JM: And, like, or like, you know, I still remember an uncle of mine being, like, at night I had like come back from college and you know, I did, like, the bottle neck tour of, like, going to meet all my relatives when I came back. And then he was like, I don’t know what you’re, what you’re doing over there. And I was, like, what do you mean? I was like, I’m going to school. Like, I’m going to be filmmaker. And he’s, like, yeah, but, like, at 30, you’re just gonna, like, be pregnant and live off your husband, like, what’s the point of spending all this money? And I’m, like, Oh, wow. Like, forget that you’re viewing my education as an expense. I think it’s shocking to me that you think that a person raising a child should not be educated, you know, to me like, that’s the connection that I made.
JM: Is that there’s such a disconnect here, like raising a child isn’t easy. I think it’s the hardest thing that people do.
JM: So, so stuff like that really kind of emboldened me to be like, Jhanvi, don’t come back here to, like. More than anything, I think there’s a lot of room and space in India to grow, but I just felt like I was just going to fight with my family if I stayed there. So for my own sanity and their sanity, I was, like, I got to go do this in a different place. And you know, when I came to film school also again, Chris, like, I, I hate to say that I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker; I did not, okay.
CM: Nice. That’s awesome.
JM: Like, I was, like, film sounds cool. Like, I want to try it. And the only reason I did that was because my, my college counselor told me that the whole advantage of going to the US was that number one, you could transfer, you can change your major. And there’s a lot of flexibility there. And she was, like, you want to do arts and communications so just go to a school that offers all those things in one year and if you don’t like it, you can just change. And I was, like, Oh, this is great so that’s kind of what really attracted me to the US, is that it was far more flexible and open than a lot of the other schooling systems that I was kind of looking at. So when I came here, I remember, like, somebody was talking about Citizen Kane and I was, like, what is that? And they were like, what are you doing here? It was, it was so funny, like, I didn’t know. I just, my film history and, like, all of that was just not that great. I think I’ve had to play catch up for, like, a lot of my life. I still haven’t seen a lot of great classics for sure. But I think, I definitely know now that, you know, I actually want to be a filmmaker because I think like you said, you have to be really resilient. There’s so much you have to deal with if you want to make movies and I enjoy it, I thrive on that sort of, um, environment where, you know, problem solving and, like, really, you know, making sure you’re doing everything you can to get the story right. Especially, you know, I’ve had the privilege of doing all the roles.
JM: Like, I’ve worked as director, I’ve done producer, I’ve done writer in film school, I did like sound, I did scripting, I did camera’s assistant. So I did it all. And I was, like, man, this is so cool. Like, 30 people just come together and, like, make this thing happen. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in my life. And I really enjoy that because you get to meet different people on every project. So I think, yeah, like a lot of the things in my childhood that made me feel, like, I wasn’t important or all I was going to do was, you know, kind of get married and have childre–that really motivated me to leave. And then I think film school really helped me realize that, like, no what I have to say can impact someone. I think it just kind of empowered me to do what I always wanted to do, which is speak up.
JM: Because whenever I spoke up at home, it was always seen as, like, oh, like you’re being loud–you’re being, you’re, you’re talking too much. Um, like my mother told me that apparently at some family dinner, when I was, like, 10 or, like, 8, I can’t even remember this, but my uncle, like in the middle of dinner turned on the news and I was like, why are you watching TV? Like, we’re all talking here. Why are you watching the news? And my mom was, like, holding a hand, being, like, keep quiet, like, just let him do what he wants to do. And I was, like, no, like, you need to turn that off right now, like, it’s rude. ‘Cause my parents, at home, were like, it’s really rude to have the TV on at dinner. And he was like, no, I’m going to watch it and if you turn it off, I’m going to leave. I’m, like, sure leave. And I turned it off and he left and it caused this huge stink in my family. So I think all the things that I was, like, berated for as a kid were really celebrated at film school, like speaking up saying the uncomfortable thing, showing the things that nobody really wants to talk about are rewarded. Rightfully so. Cause you want to shine a light on stories that haven’t been shown before. So I think, yeah, like that combination really kind of helped me figure out that that’s, that filmmaking is kind of the place I want to be.
CM: So fascinating that journey. And what, what I’m interested in right now is, like, how do you go from being someone who’s told that your voice is better not spoken, that in a way you’re better to be not seen than seen. How do you then step into the power of your own voice?
JM: That is, that is a great question. Um, you know, it’s funny, like, I tell my friends this all the time that even though I was told all the time to be a specific way, it never sat well with me. It’s funny that we’re talking about all this–a lot of this is part of the documentary that I’m working on. And, like, a lot of my documentary is actually introspecting my childhood to understand sort of why things happened a certain way. And I think it was a lot of it had to do with the school my parents sent me to. So my mother was obsessed with sending us to really good schools because, you know, she, my mother comes from a very, like, humble middle income, like, family in India, two hours outside of Mumbai. Like, she comes from a very small town. Like, they still don’t have traffic lights there, you know.
CM: Oh wow.
JM: But lovely, I mean, I love going there. I love my family, but I think I realized when I grew up in the city and then I went there that, like, my mom probably didn’t grow up with the same things that I did. And I think she recognized that and she was, like, no, man, I have to take advantage of this. If I’m in the city, my kids have to, you know, just have the best possible resources so when I was about 8 or 9, they moved me to the school called the Bombay International School. I mean, if you look it up, it’s probably one of the best rated schools in the city. And the school, at least at the time, was unique in that up until eighth grade, they didn’t follow a traditional Indian curriculum. All our textbooks were from America and Europe and England. And uh, you know, we were learning about the crusades by enacting them.
CM: Oh wow.
JM: We would, like, like we would, we would, like, have religion class and then, like, the way we would learn about, like, Islam was they would take us to the mosque and then all the Muslim kids’ moms would feed us the food. And like, it was this very, like, Bohemian way of education, if I might add. And, um, a big part of it was, kind of, learning about how just through research, you kind of learn about the opportunity that people in the West have and then movies, like American movies. I was like, man, look at these girls wearing their shorts and tank tops and, like, just roaming around, like, nobody’s gonna do anything to them. That looks awesome.
JM: Like I, I, I do think watching movies had a lot to do with it, too, because my parents, they, they were, like, she really loves watching the TV, I guess. But what I was really doing was, you know, I was watching, like, American Beauty and, like, Black Swan and, like, these really amazing movies that were, like, making me feel all sorts of things. And I was like, man, like, this is amazing. Like this, I bet Darren Aronofsky did not think that some girl in India is going to watch this under her blanket, like, at midnight, and think, oh, I can do this too, but that’s really, I think those movies were, like, such a great escape. And then I think once the internet came around, because everything was kind of slow to come to India, I would look up these filmmakers and then all of their journeys were the same: I was bullied, I was, my family didn’t understand me. And um, so then when I, kind of, moved to LA, then I worked in the industry and I was, like, okay, cool, like, I guess all you need to do is, kind of, take that leap and then hopefully things will, kind of, fall into place. I mean, obviously it took 10 years for things to fall into place, but, um, I think that initial leap was really sort of motivated by definitely just watching all these movies about how things were in the West. And then also, you know, meeting a lot of the kids that had studied abroad and then seeing how different they were from the people I was hanging out with at home. They just felt like they were more aware of things that were going on and I, I really wanted to be that person. And I was, like, if I’m away from home, there’s not much they can do about, sort of, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking, what I’m wearing, what I’m saying.
JM: And so I just wanted to try that out. I think literally it was all about just get out of here, see what happens if you get out of here. And then I think it was too addictive to not be, uh, I think to not be held back. And so I think that’s why I fought really hard to stay here and then not go home.
CM: You know, you hear stories when representation of, you know, your race or gender is on screen, you can see yourselves in them. I mean, was that a factor in play or was it just, the, what you wanted was the representation point?
JM: I had the lucky sort of opportunity of growing up in India that has a very robust industry. So I never felt like I wasn’t represented because I had a whole industry to look at. But obviously now, being older, I understand that that industry is fraught with its own problems. You know, there’s a lot of colorism, a lot of ignoring the caste system. Like a lot of, like, things that, you know, they really need to address, I think, but for, like, the 8-year-old kid who could see that girls with my skin color were on camera, at least ever so often or women that look like my mother were there. I personally didn’t feel like I wasn’t represented, but there was this real cloud of negativity around the film industry in India, rightfully so. I have friends who are actresses and I hear things that, like, you really shouldn’t hear from people in any industry.
JM: So I think there was a lot of, like, discouragement of ever even being part of the industry because of that. But as far as, you know, the West went because we were so far away from it, you didn’t really hear about the problems in those industries. And, you know, I think, I think India has a big, like, imperialist issue where, like, everything American or British at, at a certain point in time, it was always viewed as superior, I guess, anything that wasn’t Indian, anything that came from elsewhere because we were, you know, colonized for, like, 400 years by the British. We were told by them that we’re inferior and they’re better than us and I’m sure that has trickled down into our psyche a little bit. So I think my parents were more comfortable with me doing it outside of the country actually. And so I just took that bait and I was like, I don’t care if I even ever end up writing a movie. I just want to see what this experience, experience is, is like. Like, I had no frame of reference to know what it was like, right? Because my family was so far removed from entertainment. And so I don’t think I was ever driven by the lack of representation, mostly because actually, Chris, when I came here, I came with this very interesting notion of what a filmmaker was.
Like, I thought I’ll go to film school and then I’ll work at a studio as a studio executive because filmmakers are, like, this one sounds stupid, but I used to think, like, filmmakers, they’re just born to do that. Like, they just know that, like, they wake up and they’re, like, okay, I’m going to go make movies now. And I don’t know need any, any training or any practice and it’s just going to be great, like, in my brain, that’s how it worked. And then obviously going to school and seeing how, you know, you really have to train and practice and try and fail to get there. That’s, that’s sort of when things started moving a little bit in my head, but I still didn’t think that I was creative enough or smart enough to write something. Like, I remember a screenwriting class when I was an undergrad was agonizing for me because I think I was still carrying those voices in my head that my voice didn’t matter. You know, it’s funny that we’re talking, we’re talking about this together because Raksha was the first time I wrote something.
JM: And it was all driven by, you know, the pressure of, actually we, we started writing it because both me and Vidhya were being pressured by our families to get married at the time. And obviously, neither of us were ready to do it. So we just started writing out of frustration, that’s all. I mean, and she was a screenwriter so she’d been writing a while. It was me who was, like, who kept talking about it and she’s, like, dude, you should just write about this. Like, we should, we should just do this together so that it gets on paper and it’s not in your head. And, and I think that’s when I finally gave myself permission to do it. Like, for a long time, I didn’t even let myself think that I could write or direct or produce. I was, like, no, I have to work within the studio system: I’ll have a job and there will be, like, a schedule and, like, they’ll tell me what to do. Like, it was all still very much, like, framed by sort of what I had been raised with of, like, what was a good thing to do or what was a good job to have, et cetera. But as I’m seeing like the process of, kind of, unlearning that was definitely very interesting.
CM: Yeah. At what point do you go from, I can just pour my anger and frustration into a short film, transitioned to, Hey, I’m going to tackle a feature documentary.
JM: You know, that was kind of similar to, so, so I remember I started dating Alan, like, the end of AFI and, um, you know, obviously, like, when you’re in an intimate relationship, you’re going to talk about things that are really personal to you. And one thing that kept coming up for me was, like, I was, like, you know, it really, like, one thing that really drove me crazy was that my mom itself was kind of indoctrinating me with a lot of patriarchal values and I couldn’t understand why she was doing that. And, you know, Alan was, like, Jhanvi, like, this is how she was raised, like, you can’t hold that against her, you know better so just ignore what you don’t want to necessarily follow and, and, and just don’t fight about it, but I just couldn’t shut up about it. And I was, like, no, it’s not just my mom, it’s my aunt, but I, I feel like, I feel like they all wanted to do so much. And I wonder if they’re like resentful of me because I’m doing all these things that they didn’t get to do. And he was, like, okay, okay, you might have a point. Like, he’s, like, what if you talked to them about it? What if you, like, shoot, shoot them on camera, talking about it–maybe you’ll find something there. And it all started very, like, innocently. Like, we went to India mostly because I wanted him to meet my family. And we took the 5D with us and some gear
JM: And we interviewed my mom and two of her friends. And, you know, my mom’s interview was interesting because my mom was, like, yeah, I’m very proud of everything I’ve done: my kids are so successful and I know that I had a big role in that, et cetera, et cetera. And then the interview comes to an end and I, and, and, you know, I asked the one cheesy question that every, like, like, amateur doc filmmaker asks their subject, which is, if you could choose anything differently in life, like, would you? Like if, if you had a chance to live life all over again, what would you do differently? And my mother said, I would never get married at 20 years old. I was like, whoa, this woman, I’m 21 and she’s telling me to get married, but here she is on camera saying that she would never get married at 20 years old. There’s something here–I’d hit a nerve and I need to explore that.
JM: You know, since then, I’ve, I actually took a month to go film in India last year, funding, no, no, wow, my memories of the year is so faded. 2019, I went India, uh, the last year, it just feels like a blur.
CM: Yes, it does.
JM: So 2019, I actually took Alan with me to India for a month. And the way that I did that was actually moved out of my apartment so that I wouldn’t have to pay rent. And that’s how I funded the movie, uh, ’cause we were gonna move in together and, uh, I was like, well, why don’t we just move out sooner so that we don’t have to pay rent? And he was, like, oh my god, that’s a genius idea. And so that’s what we did.
CM: Makes sense to me.
JM: And you know, it’s funny, like, I thought I was shooting the movie, but it was agonizing because I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Like, I was so close to what I wanted, but I wasn’t quite there yet. And I think what I personally love about this documentary is basically I realized that for a really long time, I had, kind of, thought of my mother as not sort of the important parent in my childhood. I always viewed my father as, like, my hero, you know, because I, I, you know, I mean, and it’s obviously cultural: like, the men are viewed as the people that keep the family, sort, of going because they’re earning the money so there’s more importance placed on that versus my mother, who was definitely doing the important stuff of, like, you know, keeping me clean, feeding me. I mean, we didn’t grow up, like, super wealthy so, like, we didn’t have washing machines. Like, my mother would wash five people’s clothes by hand, she would cook all the food, she would take, like, there was only one car between me, my family, and my dad’s brother’s family and it was, like, 12 of us. So, like, a lot of the times there was no car to pick us up from school so she would, like, walk to school, bring us back.
JM: Like, like my mother was a hustler, but for so long, I didn’t give her that respect in many ways, I guess. And then here I am making this movie trying to understand my mom and I guess it led me down this path of kind of exploring homemakers and sort of how they have played into everybody’s upbringing. And whenever I would talk to people about it, they would be, like, oh my god, yeah, like, you know, my mom was a stay-at-home mom, but, like, it’s really impossible to imagine that life would turn out this way if she wouldn’t have done that, or my mom had to work a job and she had to take care of me, you know, there’s a lot of people who had to do that. I mean, granted, my mom was raising three kids–I don’t think she could have physically had a job and done all the work at home. I think that’s precisely why she didn’t try to pursue a job outside because there was just so much work to do in the house that she didn’t have time. And actually, my research, like, once I started looking this up, like, I just started Googling, like, homemakers, like, what are people saying about this?
JM: And I actually discovered that there are these economists, mostly women, out there who for years have been saying that women like my mother, millions of women are people that are intentionally left out of the economy. You know, when we’re talking about unemployment in India, specifically, it’s mostly women, but these women are not NOT doing anything. If it’s in the case of my mother, she was looking after the kids. If you’re going to a village, more likely the women are, you know, traveling really far to get water, firewood, making food, they’re doing all this unpaid work that keeps us alive. And so then I was faced with a conundrum of, like, oh, is it not work because they don’t get paid, but you know, at the same time would I be alive if she didn’t do that work? Would my dad be able to do his job if my mother didn’t do that work, you know? Yes, my father is going out there earning money for his kids and his family, but who’s taking care of his family? It’s my mother.
This is interesting: this is me kind of reconciling with my own stuff, but also realizing that everybody, kind of, has it wrong. Like, somebody who’s a stay-at-home mom or a stay-at-home dad is actually really vital to our economy and to our lives. And so what I essentially realized is that I was trying to make a movie that follows my own internal journey, but is really talking about a bigger issue, which is that the way that our economics is set up, it’s not really healthy, A, and it always makes us feel like we have to choose, like, we have to choose between family and work when those things are actually super interlinked together.
JM: So yeah, I’m basically making a case in my movie to include this work in the, kind of, you know, quote unquote, “GDP of a country”. And people have been doing this for years, like, big economists have talked about it, but, you know, obviously it kind of makes us very, like, jargon-heavy and kind of esoteric as we all know. So that’s what I’m trying to do: I’m trying to figure out how can I use my personal story to really bring this to the masses that may not necessarily be interested in picking up a textbook and reading it ’cause, you know, I’ve had to do a lot of research to even be articulate enough.
JM: It took me two or three times of reading those books to even understand what was going on. So, I was, like, this is a lost cause: nobody’s going to read the book, but if I show them a movie with an emotional story and then somehow connect it to all these things, it could be really cool. And the movie is still very much in production stage where, and I think it’s, it’s going to go on for a while because a lot of this is going to be influenced by personal moments between me and my mother and you can’t rush that.
JM: And then I’m also not there, so, like, how, you know, and I can’t be there right now because of all the restrictions. So what I’m doing is I’m mostly, kind of, interviewing myself, doing my research, kind of, really exploring why I had this narrative, what are the things that influenced me, can we explore those. But I think the only reason I took this on was because it was really interesting to just learn about myself and really deal with my past, really acknowledge that maybe I was wrong in the way that I thought–maybe there’s something here, whether this is going to be done anytime soon, I can’t tell you, but it’s very much in progress, it’s going on. And, um, I have the, I have, like, incredible support because my partner happens to be a cinematographer so, um, you know.
JM: I have a good setup, for sure, and, um, yeah, and it’s empowered me to do so much more, like, I’ve learned how to edit because of it, I’ve learned how to, like, really shoot with a camera and actually be able to record something useful, uh, ’cause you know, I don’t think anybody can just pick up and shoot something that’s useful. Like it’s, it’s uh, it’s an art in its own to realize what you need.
CM: Yes, it is.
JM: So it’s, it’s my own education, I think that’s what it is: it’s, like, me really learning how to actually tell a story when there’s no script, which is the trickiest part of a documentary.
CM: What’s interesting, too, is, I mean you’re highly educated and yet you’re saying that this is, this is your education. And, and I love that because you can learn everything in the world in school, but until you actually pick up a camera and start speaking with your voice, do you really learn what you have to say and what really matters?
JM: Absolutely. And, um, you know, I mean I went to a school that focused exclusively on narrative filmmaking. Uh, we did not focus on documentary and documentary is its own beast. Like, uh, um, it’s, uh, it’s agonizing because I’ll go shoot for, like, two weeks and I’ll be, like, I can’t use any of that, you know what I mean?
JM: So unlike film, which is, like, so calculated, and you know, like, agonizing over the script and they’re like, great: it works on paper, now let’s make sure everything goes okay on the day of, and, like, you really have a plan when you’re shooting narrative. And yes, of course you have some kind of a plan when you’re shooting doc, like, I think the easiest docs to make are probably, like, those crime documentaries ’cause there’s, like a, there’s, like, a villain, there’s a victim, there’s the law enforcement, there’s, like, the society, the community, right versus this: I’m exploring myself and my mother and our relationship to figure out how I can tell a story through that.
So I like the challenge and I think that’s why I was, like, I need to do things that terrify me–that’s the only way I’ve ever grown is when I’ve thrown myself into the deep end and done something that I don’t think I can do is the only way I’ve learned. So I think this is just keeping in trend with that of, like, just always have one project that just scares you so bad that it’ll, it’ll force you to grow. It’ll force you to do the things you’re afraid to do.
CM: Yeah. Love that. I love that so much. And speaking of things that terrify you, do you think about, like, the big picture about releasing it and about the business model of the film or are you so, like, not wanting to think about that?
JM: No, I think it’s so far out to even think about that, you know, it’s so far away, like, you know, and I, and I think that, actually, I’ve had that approach in the past and that approach has been so detrimental to me. And it’s funny because it’s counter-intuitive to think this way, that’s the problem, like the smart person or the right, I think personally when I started out, the right thing to do was, like, okay, I have this, this idea I’m writing. I need to know which network is going to be on. I need to know which manager is going to want it. And I’m, like, great, but, like, is the actual script good?
JM: Like, don’t, don’t even worry about that other stuff. Is the script good? And I’ll just tell you the story of my pilot and that’s what really helped me understand. So I started writing my pilot “Spinsterhood” forever ago. You designed a poster for the short film and then, you know, it went through so many iterations, so many iterations. And then about 2018, halfway through 2018, we were, like, we’re not really loving this and we’re like, why? Because it felt too safe. It felt like we were very aware of, like, who was the audience, who, which network we thought it was going to be on, which actors we think would be good for it, but we weren’t necessarily focused on the story. And we’re, like, let’s forget about all that. What’s the story we want to tell, what do we want to talk about? And I kid you not, other than the names, nothing has stayed the same.
JM: It’s all so different. Like, like Sarah lives in Texas, she lives out of a storage unit. You know, she ran away from the alter, like, there’s all this stuff that, like, we, we would have never dreamed of putting in because we’re, like, that’s too out there. And funnily enough, when we did all the things that we thought were too out there is when people started really loving the script.
JM: And they were, like, oh, she’s, like, making, like, terrible decisions, but she’s all driven by her art and, like, what she wants to do. And, like, the parents have their own drama, the brother has his own drama: like, everybody, kind of, became more dynamic because we weren’t as afraid to push them as people on the page.
JM: And, so, we’re, like, great, and then I kid you not, like, the minute we wrote that version, like, people were, like, “oh, you want me to send this to my manager” or, like, I met someone through my mentorship at Hillman Grad and he was, like, “oh, like, dude, like, you don’t have a rep, like, you should meet this manager, like, she’s looking for people like you”. Like, I didn’t even have to look for it–it came to me. It was so weird and so that’s what I realized is, like, just focus on the work, just do the work, just write every day. Just get it, get it to the place where you have given it your absolute best and you can’t give it yourself anymore and you need other people to come in and, kind of, work with you on it because that’s truly how I think scripts work.
I think, you know, you’re working in a void as a writer so there’s only so far you can go. There’s only so far your brain will allow you to go, and then, but I think it has to be kind of rock solid as far as your input goes. And, I think, you know, that’s what happened. We met–I met a manager, she read it and she was, like, “this is great, like, why haven’t you sent this to me sooner?” I’m like, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. And, you know, she’s excited, like, she put me up for a show. I mean, we’re not, like, she’s not my manager, but, like, she’s already thinking of things I would be good for.
CM: Oh, that’s cool.
JM: And I’m, like, that’s great. Like, this is all I needed. So, so, after that happened, I deleted Facebook off my phone, I deleted Instagram off my phone and, um, all my news notifications are turned off and I’m really trying to just be, like: you need to write every single day, you need to edit as much as you can, you need to read as much as you can. Just focus on making yourself as knowledgeable as, like, work as much as you can, because this is how you build your craft. Like, if you don’t build your craft, then I don’t think, why should anybody take a chance on me if I’m not willing to give it my absolute best? I think, that’s what you don’t register for a really long time because you’re so focused on trying to get it out. And I don’t think it’s a bad intention to have.
I think it’s good and noble to feel, like, no I’m working towards something, but I think it can almost be detrimental because then you’re focused on the wrong things sometimes. So, yeah, I, I actually try to steer clear of all the business model stuff, if possible. And, like, I’ve definitely just become that person where I’m, like, you know, I’m just going to save aggressively every month and fund my own stuff so I don’t have to wait around for people.
JM: Literally. That’s, that’s who I’ve become. I’m, like, yeah, like, I have this short film idea and if I just save, like, this much for the whole year, I’ll be able to make it.
CM: Yeah. Brilliant.
JM: And I honestly feel, like, that’s such, uh, I mean, you know, that’s a privilege, again, to be in that position where I don’t have to, like, pay for something else. But I think if, you know, you, you change your habits and I think Covid has certainly helped because I’m not going to bars, I’m not going out. I’m not spending any of that money that I would normally spend so I’m, like, okay, well, how can I use this to, like, just make the stuff I want?
Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I just need to keep practicing as a filmmaker so that I understand: okay, how can I better communicate my vision because I don’t think people tell you enough how much work that takes. Like, I mean, unless you were born in the film industry and just kind of knew the ins and outs. I think it takes a couple of movies to get it right. I mean, maybe that’s just me, maybe that’s just me, but I think I’ve heard so many filmmakers be, like, please don’t go watch my first movie–it’s so bad. So that’s my long-winded answer as to why I don’t think about, sort of where, it’s going to go.
CM: Brilliant. I think it’s brilliant. And, so, this has been such an awesome conversation. I have learned so much.
JM. Thank you.
CM: And, uh, can you share where people can learn more about what you do, where, where they can keep up with the work that you do in the future?
JM: Yeah, um, everything can be found on my website. My website is just my name, it’s www.jhanvimotla.com. I try to do a good job of updating that. And then on Instagram, I’ll go and update my work. That’s really what I’ve only allowed myself to do is when I absolutely have to post something, I go there, but my website is probably more reliable. I do that more regularly.