If you hang around the water cooler long enough you’ll hear people discuss the weather, their relationships and if you happen to be in film school or writer related work place you’ll occasionally hear people say, ‘write what you know’. Sometimes I just want to turn around and say, I don’t think anyone wants to hear about me getting into trouble when I was younger and being punished by doing janitorial duties at a prestigious college, or that my son always imagined training his toy dragon or that I was so hung over one time I couldn’t remember what happened the night before. I think my life is pretty dull… but what if I exaggerated the story somehow? If a crime had been committed and we had to cover it up, the janitor job created opportunities I didn’t see coming and my son wanted me to attach strings to his dragon to demonstrate the tricks… then we might have a story. If you deliver it with some panache you just might foster something great.
We can’t all be writers but there are those born with gifts, telling stories and spinning yarn so captivating they were destined to share them with an audience. Danish Renzu is a writer/filmmaker that has tapped into that rabbit hole to discover stories that are both relevant and captivating. He emigrated from Kashmir to attend UCLA in the hopes of inspiring a new generation of Kashmiri filmmakers to practice their art as a force for unity in the conflicted region. He has directed several short films including award winning, In Search of America, Inshallah in 2014. His first feature film, Half Widow (2017) showcases the plight of a Kashmiri half widow and received rave reviews worldwide after premiering at Seattle International Film Festival. His latest film, The Illegal (2018) stars Academy winning Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma in the lead and explores the journey of an immigrant in Los Angeles and his journey towards the American dream.
The film won an award at Vancouver’s International South Asian Film Festival recently and I was lucky enough to have viewed the film in its brilliance. I spoke to Danish from his home in Los Angeles about the entire process, what motivates him and what he discusses around the water cooler.
“Having watched the film and learning about your own journey into UCLA, I get the impression this film was inspired from your own experiences. Would that be correct?”
“I few of my life’s incidents had definitely inspired the story, especially being an international student coming to the US. For the most part the film is about immigrants making the journey to the US, especially Babaji’s character (Iqbal Theba), there’s so many Babaji’s working in the restaurant industry here. It was definitely inspired by their stories, their plight as immigrants to the US and their struggle. It’s not what you see on TV, the Hollywood dream; there’s a lot more to it and we wanted to explore that.”
“I really enjoyed the film and the writing. You tell it very well and manage to depict what it’s really like to immigrate to another country.”
“I had created it in 2017 and it’s even more relevant now. It was never planned to follow the headlines in the newspapers, it was always intended to be an immigrant story and about the struggles and sacrifices.”
“Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) is in your film. How did you get him onboard?”
“When I want to reach out to someone I just reach out with the expectation that they might not reply and it might not work out. So I looked at his Imdb page and saw that he was represented by CAA, the biggest agency in LA. We reached out and sent them the synopsis and found out they were interested. They connected us to Suraj, he was graduating from film school at NYU so it was an ideal time for him. He read the script, we met in New York, he loved it and we connected. It just worked out and it was a bit of a miracle, I was so happy.”
“What types of stories do you want to tell moving forward?”
“The first thing we want to focus on is the representation of South Asian characters in Hollywood and normalizing it, it’s also very important as well to be making crossover films. Kashmir is very close to me, I’m from there. With so much war happening, there’s so many untold stories over there that people need to know about.”
“How long did it take to complete the film?”
“The shooting aspect was really fast. We only shot for 21 days, we didn’t have more days than that. We shot 18 days in LA and 3 days in Delhi. The post-production took us a year because there were many delays. The music also took awhile, it was such an important aspect of the film because it really elevates the story and it has an art to it. I wanted all the right people on board so it took us a year and a half to put it together. Being that it’s super low budget, it’s difficult to get to this stage and so I feel so blessed to have it out there now. We’re getting great fabulous reviews and awards.”
“You’ve made many short films, was this your first feature film?”
“No, I made another film that came out around the same time called Half Widow that’s available on Amazon. It did really well on its International premiere and they both took off together in 2017. Sometimes things just work out. I’m the kind of director that can make 2 films at the same time. I just want to be on set and be able to tell stories. You’re creating life, it’s beautiful especially when you have such a great crew and cast together. It really takes a village to make a film.”
“How did you go about financing the film?”
“Well it was a low budget film and it was such a valuable topic. Trump was the President and it was so relevant with the immigration issue. We got lucky; we had 2 or 3 investors during various stages of the film. Because it was a low budget it wasn’t a huge risk for investors, we had a star attached as well so that helped because the investor was a fan of Suraj. It just worked out and it had to happen. It was not an easy ride by no means but we have a great film now moving forward.”
“What happens with the film now, are you looking for distribution?”
“We started moving it into film festivals in September and we’ll keep sending it to festivals until February and then we want a theatrical limited release in North America. We want to find a distributor after that but we’re still looking at the best ones to work with. Given the current political climate we think it’s a good strategy to have it out on the screen at a limited release and we really want to see it in theatres.”
“Was it difficult to find and shoot in a restaurant?”
“It was all created, we made it all on set (laughter), we had a really good production designer. Because it was a main location with many of the scenes shot in there we wanted to ensure it was the best solution. We had approached restaurants and found it would be too expensive and we could only shoot when it was closed. The parking would’ve been a mess and it was more economical to create it on a set.”
“You had an amazing cast, were they all from LA?”
“A lot of actors and leads but the other ones were created by me, I know the people and met them at festivals and past work. We had a really good casting director that gave us such good auditions and options that made our lives much easier but most everyone was cast in LA.”
“You opened a production in Kashmir, do you see potential to make films there?”
“Yes I did, I realized how talented people are there. The only way to get out of the country is to express themselves and work to create something. There are so many artists that want to express themselves and showcase their work to the world. It’s something that can lead to empowerment and change. I really believe that and because I’m from there and having the opportunity to do what I’m doing it’s something for me to give back.”
“What’s the message you want to convey in this film?”
“The biggest message is to empathize with applied immigrants. Not everyone can make it and the ones that have need to appreciate the ones that haven’t. Instead of labeling people that don’t have documents or status and can’t live the American dream, it’s very eye opening to be able to empathize and acknowledge that this side of America does exist and some of them are unsung heroes that have sacrificed so much for their families. Their stories are as important as the other story and it’s very important for people to watch it and feel compassion and show empathy for their struggle.”
“Hot air balloon ride or racing a car around a track?”
“Racing a car around a track. I’m afraid of heights.”
A native of Kashmir and alumnus of UCLA, film director Danish Renzu’s next film Pashmina is set for release next year and tells the tales of several Kashmiri lives upended by decades of strife. The film is comprised of a stellar cast and crew. He is also working on musical Songs of Paradise set in Kashmir reviving music and art in Kashmir. He opened his own home production in Kashmir with the goal of reviving cinema back into the valley encouraging youth and local talent to pursue their dreams while bringing the lost culture, music and traditions of Kashmir to a worldwide audience.