Cinema Asian America: A Conversation with ‘Troublemaker’ Director Geeta Malik

Pranidhi Varshney in "Troublemaker."

This month Cinema Asian America on XFINITY ON DEMAND presents Geeta Malik’s acclaimed debut coming of age drama, “Troublemaker.” Rekha is a twenty-something Los Angelino with a bad temper and a worse case of writer’s block. Stuck in a dead-end waitress job, and losing friends left and right, her life is on course for no good, with no end in sight, when unexpected news and an impulsive act turn everything upside down.

After overhearing about her newly surfaced, suddenly rich father, a man absent from her life for over ten years, she decides it’s time to confront him and make him pay for all the trouble he’s caused her. With best friend Omar in tow, the two embark on a road trip mission to find her long-lost father, rekindle a messy romance and move Rekha closer to deciding whether to stay mired in her quarterlife crisis, or if it’s time to finally grow up.

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“Troublemaker” tells a number of stories: it is the chronicle of a struggling writer, a road trip/buddy film, the coming-of-age of a young Indian American woman, a complex family drama…what was the starting point for you as you wrote the screenplay? Did you begin with characters, motivations, or the grander themes that the film explores?

GM: The screenplay for me really began with the larger theme of overcoming one’s past in order to move on to a better life. I really wanted to explore how the past continued to affect the character Rekha in ways that she didn’t acknowledge until she was close to hitting rock bottom, and how she used her dysfunctional family as an excuse to keep making the same mistakes – acting out, being irresponsible, and taking important relationships for granted. From there, as the road trip unfolded, the characters also went on a journey of growing beyond past hurt to get to a more honest, secure place.

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Your film explores the messy life of Rekha, an irresponsible twenty-something trying to track down her deadbeat dad. That she is Indian American is at once central, but also peripheral to the story. How and why did you find this nicely pitched balance?

GM: The balance came from the idea of not making the movie about a culture clash. Rekha is indeed Indian American, and the movie never acts as if she isn’t – she speaks Hindi and knows her heritage. At the same time, the complexities in her life aren’t due to the fact that she’s Indian American. Her issues are universal, and ones that I wanted everyone to be able to relate to. This story could have easily been cast with actors of any ethnicity, but growing up, I saw very few well-rounded portrayals of Indian Americans, so it was very important to me to show a different side of my minority culture – one that didn’t involve arranged marriages, or characters having to choose between being an artist or going to medical school!

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Troublemaker is a film whose scope and production values belie its independent origins. Many independent projects focus on fewer characters and locations to keep costs down; what kind of challenges came from the road trip that your film is built around, and the constantly shifting locations you shot it in?

GM: So many challenges! We were working from the kindness and donations of friends, family, and strangers, and people really came through with free or low-cost locations, which was a big help. A huge challenge was that we were shooting completely guerilla-style, without permits, so we had to find creative solutions to getting the shots we needed. I was very lucky to have an amazing cast and crew that pitched in whole-heartedly, and everyone was game to throw out ideas. For instance, for the road trip portions of the film, we shot on the Canon 7D camera, which allowed us to install the camera on the car itself, which was vital in terms of budget and time.

Read more interviews with Cinema Asian America filmmakers here.

You attended UCLA’s graduate film directing/producing program – one of the best film schools in the nation. What are the paths available to film school graduates in a media environment where webisodes and television shows seen on mobile devices are competing with feature films like Troublemaker made to be seen in theatres?

GM: That’s a great question! The best thing about this rapidly shifting paradigm is that you can do what we did with “Troublemaker”, and not have to wait around for a studio or big investors to give you money. While I would love to see “Troublemaker” play in theaters around the nation, the model we used doesn’t necessarily require us to have a traditional release, and there are tons of new avenues to find an audience with whom to share your work. Film school graduates can take the knowledge and the connections they acquired in their programs, write a piece that is meaningful to them, and then remain in control creatively from pre-production to distribution. It’s exciting that the playing field is level, but it also means that your work has to really stand out in order to gain traction to move ahead.

What are you working on now?

GM: I’m developing two feature screenplays as well as a web series, so those projects will keep me busy for many months to come!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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