Filmmaker Files - Episode 9 : Featuring Kishori Rajan / by Casey Kohlberg

Kishori Rajan is an Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed HBO series Random Acts of Flyness, which received a 2019 Peabody Award for "breaking the mold of what TV can be". Kishori also produces feature films including The Short History of the Long Road (Tribeca Film Festival 2019), The Price(Samuel Goldwyn Films), and American Fable(IFC Films). She is the recipient of the 2019 Producer’s Award from Cinereach for a "remarkable commitment to complex and authentic films" and is a 2017 Cannes Producers Fellow, a guest lecturer at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and a contributing writer to Filmmaker Magazine. Kishori graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Film Studies. 

Kishori, in her kitchen, at her home in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Kishori, in her kitchen, at her home in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Describe a moment in your career you felt most brave.

Probably right when I was starting out, which was when the 2008 recession hit. People close to me were worried that I was pursuing a career in the arts, especially since there were so few jobs at the time. Since I had no money in my bank account, I had to do a million side jobs to keep going. I was definitely the most scared then, but stubbornness helped. 

In one’s artistic life, there are some very long seconds or moments, that make us stop. There may be an epiphany or a shift. Can you tell us about a recent one?

There's a Shelia Heti quote that really resonates with me whenever I think about it. It goes, "I don't know why I don't do the obvious thing - instead of fantasizing about other lives, why not try to image what it'd be like to be me, and live the life I'm living now - fantasize into the life that's actually mine?" I think that applies to how you curate your work; I try to be brutally honest about picking movies/episodic work that I would genuinely want to see as an audience member, work that I genuinely feel fills a void within what my own taste would like to see more of. Fantasize into existence what you don't yet see. 

Kishori in her home office - with a power blazer and power chair.

Kishori in her home office - with a power blazer and power chair.

Now, on reflection. What was THE film that made you want to be a filmmaker?

Pedro Almodóvar movies, especially Talk to Her. I discovered his movies in high school, and there was this 2004 New York Times cover story about him, where he takes Lynn Hirschberg around his office and basically explains what his day-to-day life is like. I remember reading that and thinking “That sounds like a good way to spend a lifetime.”

Was there something you watched recently that you had a particularly strong response to?

The first thing that comes to mind is Ari Aster’s Midsommar. I ended up seeing it twice in theaters. 

Kishori, in Brooklyn.

Kishori, in Brooklyn.

What are some aspects of films or shows that you connect with?

I think geography and locality have been constants for me. I really gravitate to movies and shows that have a strong sense of place. My work has definitely focused more on communities of color, but for me it’s not just about, [insert black] or [brown person] here. I talk publicly a lot about a rule that existed within the Random Acts of Flyness writer's room which was to not centralize the oppressor, whether that be whiteness, heteronormativity, or the patriarchy - it could be anything. The question becomes “Can you insert your existence in the art form without having to be constantly explain this to the main gaze?” or “Can I assert my femininity without explaining it to men, or even worrying about that gaze?” or “Can I have an immigrant character where we’re not just talking about how they’re assimilating into the west?”. Essentially - Can we look at these people and talk about them in a way that’s not just explaining their existence? That’s become a good rule for me to think about. I think it’s trendy now to talk about these things, but I think there’s still a gap in why we’re talking about these things. A lot of the powers that be in the industry in general are saying, oh yeah, we need to put more melanin in a scene, that’s aesthetically what we’re going for. And sure, that’s a step in the right direction, but the control hasn’t shifted in a meaningful way, the financing hasn’t shifted in a meaningful way. The acknowledgement that a big hit doesn’t have to include white audiences still hasn’t shifted, even though non-white audiences are significant on their own, volume-wise. So I’m still interested in pushing the edges of that question.

On the future. What is next for you?

I'm reviewing work right now for my personal producing banner, Reverse Osmosis Films. A fun fact about my family: my grandfather invented reverse osmosis (the membrane process by which we filter water.) His immigrant story defies a lot of Western tropes and is a reminder for me to push those unheard, complex stories out a little more. Season 2 of Random Acts is also in the future and I'm doing a dance digital series for TOPIC studios as well. This is a travel-heavy fall for me, and I'm excited for that too. 

Kishori, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Kishori, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

What keeps you going?

Honestly, it’s other people’s art, even beyond TV and film. It keeps me optimistic and inspired. I’m also very slowly working on a novel. Put the emphasis on slowly, but that’s been increasingly something that I’m pretty committed to finishing. 

What does the world need now?

I think the world’s on fire ,and in the not so distant future we're all going to have to start loosening our grip on national identity. This goes for the US, India, Brazil, the UK - extreme nativism is everywhere right now, to a point where it's usurping survival priorities. Between climate change and the refugee criss this idea of borders and a national identity is going to become more obtuse. Assuming we collectively care about not letting a lot of people die, something’s got to give. We have to expand our idea of what "community" means, change our idea of what being a neighbor means. 

Kishori, amongst the trees in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Kishori, amongst the trees in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

8 film scenes or filmmaker quotes that have stuck with you.

 The scene from Habla Con Ella where Dario Grandinetti's character flashes back to watching Caetano Veloso perform Cucurrucucu Palmona. Pedro Almodovar movies made me want to make movies, and this scene makes me emotional every time. I also love that Almodovar places famous actresses from his former movies in the crowd during this scene, as party guests enjoying the music. 

In Quiz Show, when Ralph Fiennes's character is trying to confess his wrongdoings to his father over a piece of chocolate cake, but can't summon the courage to do so. One of my most favorite screenplays with remarkable acting throughout. This scene is the most intimate of the whole movie, and Paul Scofield's kindness and Ralph Fiennes shame makes for a gutting combo. 

Judas's opening song, "Heaven on their Mind" from the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar. I love this movie. It's wild and messy and emotional and very imperfect, and I genuinely take inspiration from all of it. I adore Carl Anderson's performance of Judas in particular. I watched this movie first as a kid with my sisters, and so it also reminds me of my childhood. 

The "Dola Re Dola" dance scene in 2002’s Devdas -There are a lot of Indian movies to choose from but I think this ranks as one of the best choreographed and executed dance sequences on film. No dance scene in the American /European film canon comes close. The camera movement and costumes alone are insane. This scene is always an inspiring reminder for me that sometimes, you just need to go extra af. 

Kishori in her power blazer.

Kishori in her power blazer.

The scene from Wings of Desire where Peter Falk talks to an invisible-to-him Bruno Ganz near the curry wurst cart, trying to convince the angel that he could be his friend. Fun fact I always like: Claire Denis, then Wim Wenders assistant, is the one who thought of Peter Falk for the role. 

In Salaam, Bombay! - the scene where a beaten down young boy, the main character, delivers chai to a prostitute and her daughter. The three of them temporarily ignore their enormous problems and dance their troubles out to a Bollywood song, a perfectly placed reprieve to an otherwise grim narrative. Salaam, in my opinion, is Mira Nair's best movie and probably my favorite example of how a very tiny budget movie can feel big if you focus on where you place your camera. 

The Man Who Knew Too Much. The Albert Hall symphony scene is just a masterclass in suspense, a perfectly edited scene. I love how the music served as both the score and the literal music cue for the characters within the scene. It's so cool how the orchestra's percussion section becomes as creepy as the grim reaper himself. 

In Children of Men  I love the famous car attack scene because I'm a sucker for any really long takes in movies. Anyone who's spent time on a set knows how many miracles need to happen for something like this to get pulled off, on top of a relentless amount of work and rehearsal. When a whole scene doesn't have a single editorial cut, it  satisfyingly showcases the hard skills of everyone on set; if even one department or person isn't firing on all cylinders the take can be completely ruined. The technical execution and emotional punch of this iconic Children of Men scene stills blows my mind over a decade later. 

 Photos by Rachel Kessler
Interview by Casey Kohlberg
Edited by Shruti Ganguly

This Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.