Diversity in Film: Rtusha Kulkarni
BY Gina Hackett, November 25, 2019
Diversity in Film is a bi-weekly series covering underrepresented groups in Film.
This week, we sat down with recent graduate Rtusha Kulkarni ’19 to discuss how her cinephile parents changed her life, learning not to whitewash her own characters, and the importance of diversity in TV writers’ rooms. Kulkarni is an Indian American writer, director, and producer from Minnesota.
You’re quite the jokester. Tell me your best joke.
Rtusha Kulkarni: Whenever people pronounce my name, they’ll ask if they pronounced it right, and I’ll say, “It’s actually pronounced Beyonce.” That always gets a lot of laughs.
Can they not pronounce your first name or your last name?
RK: My first name. They’ll try to say Rtushka. Or Rusha or Tusha.
I don't know if I have jokes, like a comedy writer. I just have weird opinions that happen to be amusing to people...I have a lot of things I want to endorse. I have a lot of things I also hate, though. I love Chase Bank, and obviously Shout....But I do hate lettuce and teeth. I hate going to the dentist...What kind of maniac is like, “I just love teeth?” You nasty.
Speaking of jokes, you’re currently interning at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. What’s the most surprising thing about that atmosphere? What have you learned?
RK: What’s interesting is just how aware of being a person of color I’ve become at the show. And it’s weird, because I grew up in Minnesota, and I went to a predominantly white school, but I never really experienced the “you have to work harder because you’re a woman,” or “you have to work harder because you’re a person of color” thing, which I know is true, especially for black women or Latina women....I feel like I’ve always gotten the benefit of that horrible stereotype, though it’s very often true: that “if you’re Asian, you’re really smart, and you’re gonna be successful.” There’s that benefit of the doubt that’s given to you. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist at Colbert, but you can really feel the presence of just how many white dudes are employed at this place. Because the whole show is focused on making sure everything is in Stephen’s voice, which is the voice of a white guy in his fifties.
Do you think you’ll pursue a career in late night TV?
RK: Ultimately if I’m working in late night, I want to be hired as a writer, but you don’t get that opportunity working up from an intern position...And I think ultimately there are so many good movies that I’ve seen lately. I’m thinking particularly of Parasite. I left that movie theater thinking, “This is so exciting.” It was almost a perfect movie. Nothing excites me more than watching a TV show or a movie where I fall in love with the characters, it’s beautifully directed, and the script is so interesting and original. And I have never really felt that level of excitement for a late night show, except for maybe SNL. SNL I would love to write for. But I think ultimately, my heart is in narrative stuff.
That’s a good lesson to learn. How did you fall in love with narrative film?
RK: Basically, I’ve been watching movies since I was five. My parents are insane film buffs who started taking me to movie theaters when I was 3 months old. They claim that I would always stay up watching it. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s a cute story.
There was this Indian actor named Shah Rukh Khan. He’s the biggest star and has been for decades in India. When I was five years old, watching one of his most famous movies, I was so enamored by him, and I remember turning to my mom and saying, “I want to be in movies so I can marry Shah Rukh Khan.” He was fully married by then and had a son my age, so that was weird. At that point, to me, being in movies meant acting, because I didn’t know any better. I was five. So I would write small plays for my sister and me to act in. I would also force my sister to act in them, and then she’d cry because she didn’t want to, and then I would cry because I would say, “I need you to act in my stuff!” And then finally my parents gave me a camcorder (when that was still a word) when I was 10, and then they actually started going from small plays to films.
And at that point, because my parents thought “She seems serious about this,” they started making sure the movies I was watching were quality films...And from that point on it became like a staple diet of wonderful cinema, because I was blessed to have parents who knew their stuff about movies. From classic films like Double Indemnity to Pulp Fiction, and even more modern things that were coming out at the time.
Wow. I want to meet your parents.
RK: My dad is a genius. I think, if anybody, my dad is the true cinephile. He was the one who made me start watching so much noir. He has this whole collection of Hitchcock films. One of my favorite Hitchcock films is Rope, and I’ve seen that because of him. My favorite Billy Wilder film is Double Indemnity.
My dad really helped with giving me these classic filmmakers from all over the world, and then my mom came in. She has great taste too, but she said, “It’s really important to understand what works for the masses if you ultimately want to make money at this, which is going to be a priority at some point, because you’re going to need to eat.” So she was like, “here’s how to balance the two, and hopefully you’ll be able to find a blend.” Like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Jaws. Those are totally mass appeal blockbusters but also amazing movies!
You’re so lucky. Your mom sounds like a producing teacher.
RK: Yeah. There’s no other producer in my life that is better than my mom. And she always says, “It’s because I have kids. You just learn to organize and then get it done.”
Apart from the films your parents showed you, when did you first start thinking about how your experience as an Indian-American is represented on screen?
RK: For a really long time, I was whitewashing my own movies and scripts. Every time I would sit down to write a story or a script, it always featured white characters, even if they were stories based on my own life that happened directly to me. I would just never think of it as an Indian family, I would always think of it as a white family, which is weird, and I think it’s because so many movies I was watching in theaters only featured white people. I watched a lot of Hindi films growing up as well, because my parents also love Hindi cinema, but that felt like a different world. It was like, “Well, of course Hindi films are going to have Indian people in it, because that’s a Hindi film.”
So honestly and unfortunately, the only time I started thinking about properly and intentionally including main characters that are diverse was when I got to Columbia, which is insane. But it’s a habit that I only recognized when I came to grad school and then had it pointed out in class. We have a very diverse class. Everyone’s so smart and talented, and I noticed they were writing characters like them, and I thought, “Why haven’t I been doing this the whole time? I’ve just been emulating the movies that I love, and a lot of those movies tend to have white people in them.” It just never occurred to me that, “Hey, this story about you walking in on your parents, it doesn’t have to be about a white family. It happened to you! So why don’t you make it an Indian family?”
And this was your first short film at Columbia, right?
RK: Yeah. It’s about a young, know-it-all girl who is unpopular and nerdy in school, One day when she’s forcing her popular older sister to hang out with her, she overhears her friends talking about this word called “a sex.” And Sophie doesn’t know the meaning of it. So she’s determined to find out the meaning and finds it out in an ultimately very terrifying way. To give the ending away, she walks in on her parents.
I remember thinking the script was brilliant.
RK: I love my 8-12. I was very proud of it. I felt it in the room during my crit. I really loved the way Professor Malia Scotch Marmo gave her critique. She said, “Okay, this is what I understand of your story” and then went through every beat, and at the end asked, “Is this correct?” And there was nothing omitted.
Now when I read scripts or watch people’s films and give them notes, from a producer’s standpoint, I always implement that. Because that is a good way to say, “This is what I understood from it. If that’s not right, there are things you need to fix.” And that’s such a nice way of pointing out your case to a writer or a director because you can’t argue against it. It’s not a matter of “this didn’t work for me because of my preference.” You’re like, “This is what I understood, and if that’s not what you intended, then there’s something missing.” And you can’t argue that.
Are you thinking about making another short?
RK: I would absolutely love to. I directed a lot in undergrad. I made several shorts, so I wasn’t nervous about directing. Weirdly enough, even my stupid little movies that I’d make with my friends and my sister when I was 10, bossing people around and telling them what I want in a shot...it wasn’t something I was unused to. But what I learned at Columbia was having a lot of intention behind a shot, not just putting a camera somewhere and saying, “I guess a medium will do here.” What does it mean? Why did you put the camera there? Are you going to get access to your actor? Is there blocking?...You’re going to get better the more you do it, which is why I would love to direct again. I think writing, directing, and producing are all muscles you have to keep flexing, otherwise you get stiff and then you don't progress, which is always my fear.
When did you first realize you could work behind the camera, instead of in front of it?
RK: The first script I ever read, which my dad gifted to me, was Juno. It had just won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay (I was in eighth grade), and he said, “You should read this. You like the film a lot, so now it’s time to start reading scripts and asking, when you look at a film on paper, can you see the potential of it being a great film or not?”
You’re so lucky! You had a real education as a kid.
RK: I truly got so lucky. My parents were just low-key film school professors, and I was like “na na na, I like movies.”
So I read Juno, and the voice in it is really similar to how I write currently. Very talkative to the audience, trying to be funny, and fun to read. One of my favorite authors of all time is Roald Dahl, and I remember the first time I read his books and he started talking to the reader, I thought, “What? You can do that? That’s so cool!” And reading Juno, [Diablo Cody] was doing the same thing, and I thought, “I love this! This is how I write!”
At this moment, what feels most limiting in the industry to you? What feels liberating? What keeps you going?
RK: The most limiting I think it really is my growing awareness when doing these internships, or simply looking up the names in writer’s rooms, of how few women, people of color, and women of color are in these spaces. All these diversity applications and programs seem ridiculous, but they are so so necessary. I feel foolish to not have realized sooner how much power white men really have. I got lucky with the people that I know, particularly my Columbia Film friends, all of whom are so diverse. We have so many different stories that we’re talking about, thinking about, writing about, and all these diverse backgrounds, so it felt like a faraway thing that didn’t affect me, but it really is so present. I didn't have my eyes open.
So while that feels so limiting and often daunting, it is the thing that keeps me going. Because I want to be able to make sure that there’s space for all these stories. They’re so much more interesting! I’m gonna watch Ford vs. Ferrari, but how many more movies do I need to see about white dudes with cars and cool accents? Who cares! There’s so many more interesting movies.
I want to be in a position of power where I can give that platform to people. Because I want to be making movies like that. And ultimately, I want to be making movies with my friends. It’s so exciting when one of them gets into a cool festival or gets a really amazing grant, because I'm like, “Oh my god, that’s my friend!”
That’s so cute. You don’t have a competitive streak.
RK: I used to. I would really get envious. I don’t know what changed. Suddenly, one day, the switch flipped. It always seems small-minded to not recognize how your friends’ success can be your success as well.
What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
RK: I have three features I need to finish! The people who are going to be really successful are the people who are great at following through and finishing. I have this a capella script that I like a lot. You know, your classic a capella genre film. I also have this animation film that I’m really excited about and love, because it’s really weird, and also it has an Indian family at the center of it, and it’s a dysfunctional Indian family, so I feel like I know it. I also have this idea for a feature about four young women who are at a prestigious university in a business program. None of them are getting jobs, and so to make quick money, they start to sell their used underwear online.
Oh my god. That’s genius.
RK: Eventually it becomes a full fledged business and ends up going awry. That’s my absolute favorite project I’m working on. And I’m excited because there’s a lot of different avenues I could take with it...I literally know a girl from undergrad who truly paid off her entire tuition by selling her underwear online.
I think you’ve told me about this.
RK: It’s super fascinating because it ultimately stems from this idea of what is the worst thing I would do to make money really fast. With all these prestigious schools, including Columbia, tuition is balls-to-the-wall expensive. And I thought, you can’t work a full-time job at Starbucks or waitress and still be a great student. There are so many students that are sugar babies or, you know, maybe they’re doing exotic dancing...I've heard so many stories of women going to these prestigious universities that do this. So I thought, “What is the worst thing I would do...I guess selling my underwear, I would do that. That’s not that bad.” And that’s when the idea for the script came.
Describe a day in the life when you’ve “made it?” Are you endorsed by Chase Bank or Shout?
RK: I want to have my laundry room wallpapered in Shout. I’m definitely doing Shout commercials, just to get those residuals checks.
You really believe in the product.
RK: I eventually want to have my own production company, so I should just reach out to Shout or Chase Bank and ask if they’ve ever thought of streaming. There’s Disney Plus. Shout Plus!
Anyway, a perfect day in the life...Well, I will have really matured and become a morning person magically. And I wake up at six a.m. and drink a green juice for breakfast, and I have a chef who makes it for me. And I have a cool home office, where I’m reading scripts all day, and I’m like, “no,” “no,” “yes.” Running my own production company for sure. I’ll obviously have multiple estates. One in Minnesota probably, one in New York.
You’re like an NBA player that has one home in the place they’re from and one where they have to play basketball.
RK: Truly. I’m just going to Lebron through my life. My real hope is that I’ll have enough money to pay off my parents’ mortgage. They had to deal with me in my teenage years. I was a god damned brat. And that entire time, they still said, “We still love you. We support you. Here are cool scripts for you to read. You’re being kind of a brat, but we’ll deal with it.” So that’s the least I can do. To be successful enough to take care of my parents.
And then ultimately, to be fulfilled by the films I’m making. I don’t want to be putting my name to movies that I don’t believe in. I know sometimes people do that initially to get traction and get stuff on their resume. But it’s a lot of work making movies. I don’t ever want to know I was part of a movie that I didn’t believe in one hundred percent.