How do you make a feature film without Hollywood connections? According to filmmaker Lena Khan, the answer is serious hustle. She began with a Kickstarter campaign where she rallied the South Asian and Muslim communities to which she belongs, to write, direct, and produce The Tiger Hunter. The film, starring Danny Pudi and Jon Heder, follows an Muslim-Indian immigrant on his journey to discover where he fits in 1970s America.
Khan navigated a steep learning curve complete with investor meetings, talent negotiations, and on-location shoots in India. Throughout the process, she maintained an inclusive crew led by women producers to tell an authentic immigrant story that is perhaps more politically relevant today than when she started.
After her film swept awards at festivals in Los Angeles, Carmel, Philadelphia, and Santa Fe, Khan proved she had the chops to skillfully direct inclusive narratives. She signed with a leading Hollywood agency, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and is now working on two television shows, a movie, and a children’s book. As for her film, they are negotiating a limited theatrical release and streaming on Netflix.
Teen Vogue spoke with Khan about what it takes for an outsider to break into Hollywood and how to get more inclusive stories on the big screen. (Interview is re-posted with permission from Lena Khan).
Teen Vogue: The Tiger Hunter revolves around the story of a South Asian Muslim immigrant. Why did you think this story needed to be told?
Lena Khan: The film was inspired by stories of my father and other immigrants I know of when they first came to America. Growing up as a minority here I wondered, Who would be interested in a story about brown people? It’s more necessary than ever to have stories that actually reflect the world and people around us. The [main] character of my film happens to be Muslim, but that’s not the majority of his story. It’s a young man trying to live up to the legacy of his father and feeling worthy enough for the love of his life. These are obstacles that are relatable.
It would be a lie to say that Hollywood hasn’t done its fair share in creating part of the fear of Muslims that exists. It’s time for Hollywood to do its part in erasing what they and the media helped create and let Muslim storytellers tell their stories.
TV: As a woman, a Muslim, and a South Asian writer-director, what role models did you look to for direction? What was the biggest challenge you faced in forging your own path?
LK: Starting out, there weren’t many South Asian or Muslim role models in entertainment to look up to. When I entered this industry, I always hoped to achieve even a little of what Spike Lee did in bringing issues of my community and others to the forefront in entertaining ways. But since then I’ve been focusing on what it takes to find myself as an artist and strengthen my own style. I think a lot of minority filmmakers and actors second-guess the value of their own stories. Many minority filmmakers don’t think they’ve “made it” in quite the same way if they achieved success because of a film that has to do with their community rather than one that starred a white dude. But people are now becoming more comfortable in telling stories around their identities because audiences have proved receptive, so the industry is starting to encourage it as well.
TV: In light of #Oscarssowhite, why is it now more important than ever for inclusive stories to be told? What do you say to people who say these stories don’t have mass audience appeal?
LK: Stories told well create mass appeal. People had reservations about movies starring black people, but now they are no longer considered to be “only for black audiences.” They weren’t sure Asian-Americans could drive an audience, but Fresh off the Boat is doing amazing on ABC. They weren’t sure films with female leads could make money, but you have movies like The Heat and Hidden Figures which ruled the box office for lengths of time.
But more importantly, these stories challenge stereotypes by exposing viewers to more genuine portrayals of different groups. Look at the massive change in perception of the LGBTQ community fueled by lovable, compelling LGBTQ characters in shows like Modern Family and Glee.
TV: You’ve mentioned in interviews that everything you do is with an eye toward activism. Why do you think film and TV are a good medium for activism? How can viewers do their part to get involved, too?
LK: When I was in college I was involved in campus activism, particularly raising awareness about what was going on in Darfur. I worked so hard to organize a program with amazing speakers and tons of advertising, but not many people came. Then, a few weeks later, Don Cheadle from Hotel Rwanda came to speak on the same subject and it felt like all of UCLA came out! That’s the immense power of Hollywood.
TV and film are incredible means of social influence, but they require some viewer participation. Support independent films, especially those featuring minority leads or taboo social issues because that’s how they achieve wide distribution – sometimes to the point that people don’t realize they were independent films to begin with. Spread the word on social media. Take a look at films and shows with demographics you aren’t used to watching. And, of course, avoid watching pirated movies! That hurts all filmmakers, especially the ones at the bottom!
TV: The majority of your cast and crew are women and people of color. Many directors often fail at this effort even though they have more experience, a larger network, and far more resources. But you proved it’s possible. How did you succeed in putting together an inclusive cast and crew?
LK: We just decided we were going to do it. I had key personnel behind me: my producers Megha Kadakia and Nazia Khan, and my executive producer Alan Pao (three different types of Asian-Americans, plus one Muslim-American). Megha was already very much connected with a lot of the South Asians in Hollywood, and as we casted they put in a good word with each other, too!
Since Megha and I are minority women, perhaps we didn’t have as many unconscious biases when it came to hiring. For instance, when people see me, I am certain the first thing they notice is my headscarf. I would get a lot of questions just fixating on being a hijabi in the industry, which I think I’d get less of if I were a Muslim man with a beard. But when we had another Muslim woman wearing hijab apply to work for us, it didn’t make a difference to me. I think when women and people of color empower themselves, it spreads.
TV: Were there ever any moments during the filmmaking process in which you doubted yourself?
LK: I doubted myself most of the time! This was my first feature and it ended up being way bigger than I ever imagined. I never thought it would have awesome, recognizable actors like Danny Pudi, Jon Heder, or Karen David. Sometimes I wondered if I could pull it off and if I really knew what I was doing. But I did two things: I refused to listen to the doubts and I made sure I was constantly learning.
I found mentors who helped me strengthen areas I was weak in. I did an intensive directing fellowship in the middle of pre-production to prepare me to work with these actors. I rewrote with a story editor literally two weeks before filming. I would meet with venture capitalists and investors and realized the more I was real with them, the more investments I got. You just have to turn off the negative part of your brain and work harder than you even think you can.
TV: How do we make inclusive films and shows mainstream?
LK: I think artists of any background just need to focus on perfecting their craft and telling stories that matter to them – without factoring in everyone else’s biases. We break biases in this industry, we don’t have to conform to them.
Five years ago I never would have thought my first feature would have a South Asian lead, that the second feature I’m working on would star an African-American, or that a show I’m working on would have a Muslim lead. But all these choices were encouraged by industry professionals. Instead of being a liability, identifying with who I am became the strength in my stories and strengthened the lens through which I tell them.
TV: For young filmmakers who dream of making a movie but are often met with opposition from inside and outside their communities, what advice do you have?
LK: First, you have to know that this is a difficult industry. It will be grueling, it is incredibly hard to get into, and it will be a little harder to tell stories that are outside of this “Hollywood mold.” If after hearing that you are still willing to try – then you are the type of person who should enter this industry.
Before you take on your community you have to make sure you are going to take it seriously and be professional about it. I had plenty of community aunties and uncles (that’s what we call elders in the South Asian community) flat out tell me I was making a stupid choice picking this profession. They have since changed their minds after seeing me constantly learning and working hard. Believe in yourself and prove that you and your work are worth that risk.