GROWING UP IN THE U.S.
I was born in Vancouver, Canada, but my family moved to Pasadena, California when I was still in school. There wasn't a large Indian American community at all in Pasadena, so we were definitely one of the few. It was kind of weird, going to high school with the sort of typical California blond-haired, blue-eyed students all around me.
When I was growing up, I wasn't aware of my Indian identity. I think it was more American. Then I got to college and realized how Indian my upbringing was. It was a weird feeling. I had identified myself as American, spending all of my adolescence rejecting my Indian culture, saying, "I'm American. I'm American." And then when you get a little bit older, you realize "wow, now I'm more Indian than American."
My family was very traditional and very Hindu. I remember my mom saying, "Well, if you don't learn how to cook, no one is going to want to marry you." There wasn't much progressive thinking going on in those days. So I totally rebelled. I was more like a tomboy and joined sports teams and was always doing the things that interested me, but that my mom said wouldn't make me a good marriage candidate.
FROM ACTING TO DIRECTING
I took my first acting class in high school. I got very excited about it, and it was the first thing I got interested in and thought, "Wow, I wanna do this. This speaks to me the most." And, of course, that's not a very popular decision with Indian parents. So, it kind of played into the whole double life of trying to be a good student by day and then going to these acting classes at night and trying to learn that craft.
When I got to college, I was pre-law at UCLA and I did acting on the side, hoping that some big break would come and then I wouldn't actually have to go to law school. During my last year at UCLA, I took a screenwriting class and wrote a script. Then I thought it would be fun to make a short film because all my good friends were actors from acting class. So I put them all in it and once I moved behind the camera, I fell in love with directing.
I decided to learn about the film industry and I started working in L.A. at different companies--a music video place, a commercial house, an agency, and then a post production house. I was just trying to learn as much as I could about film and get a sense of what the industry was like. I wanted to gain as much experience as I could before going into it. From that experience, I realized the best thing for me to do was go to film school. I found the top program in the U.S. and applied to NYU [New York University].
MAKING A DIFFERENCE AS A DIRECTOR
I was tired of going to films and never seeing any sort of representations of Indian Americans. When I was acting, I was frustrated because there was never a part for an Indian girl. I was always playing Latinas or I was always playing any ethnicity, but never Indian, because nobody was writing parts for Indian Americans. So I thought, this needs to change and the fastest way to change it is to actually write. So I thought, let me learn how to write and direct and then I can create change a lot faster. I can write the parts for Indian Americans and I can tell our stories, and then cast Indian American actors. I can actually give other people opportunities rather than just kind of wait around for somebody else to give me one, which is the role you're stuck in when you're an actor.
Nisha Ganatra's short film JUNKY PUNKY GIRLZ, made when she was attending New York University's graduate film program, won PBS's Grand Prize for Outstanding Short Films of 1997. Her first feature film, CHUTNEY POPCORN has screened in numerous festivals, winning many awards, including the best feature film award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and Outfest Los Angeles, Newport International Film Festival, Paris International Film Festival, and second place at the Berlin Film Festival. In 2002, Nisha directed the Real World New York for MTV and the Road Rules/Real World Challenge, which is currently airing. She also directed COSMOPOLITAN, starring Roshan Seth and Carol Kane. This one-hour narrative film broadcasts on PBS on May 18, 2004. Her next production is CAKE, a new romantic comedy starring Heather Graham.