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What this Hollywood director wants brands and agencies to know about casting

Direction Jury President Nisha Gantara on diverse casting and authentic characters

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

As a child, Indian American Director Nisha Gantara used to watch movies with her family and wonder why no one on the screen looked like her. As a student at UCLA, she used to sneak into film classes while working towards the degree she felt social pressure to pursue. It was Ganatra’s college roommate who saw her passion and encouraged her to eventually pursue a career in film that led her to NYU. Flash forward to today, and D&AD Awards 2023’s Jury President for Direction has worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names (Emma Thompson, Ice Cube, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Tracee Ellis Ross, Will Forte, Don Cheadle and Judd Apatow), and she’s been casting and working with Black and brown actors in the films she’s directed — including Sakina Jaffrey in Chutney Popcorn (1999) and Mindy Kaling in Late Night (2019) — since her feature film debut in the late 1990s.

“I think that part of my drive to become a filmmaker was not seeing any representations of women that seemed accurate to me, and not seeing any representations at all of Indian Americans,” says Ganatra from her brownstone in New York. “When I was at film school, I just wanted to represent our stories, because we live in a culture that is so influenced by media, film and television, that if you don't even exist in those things, then it is almost like you don’t really exist at all. I think I just saw it as an act of political activism really, representing and telling our stories, because nobody else was.”

“I think I just saw it as an act of political activism really, representing and telling our stories, because nobody else was”

Now, in 2023, Hollywood has become more open to diverse faces, but Ganatra says there’s still work to be done when it comes to diversity in the screen industry. “I see diversity initiatives that sometimes stop at organising a panel, or having meetings, or forming committees or adding stock photos of people of colour to a company landing page,” she says, “And that stuff is, uhm, great. But the next step is essential. It's really easy to do diversity, you just hire people who have not historically been doing the job. You look around, and see that your organisation or company is a part of the problem and you change. Hire women. Hire people of colour.”

Gantara says it’s easy to fall into a trap of only being comfortable casting people who have been hired before — but that nothing will change if the industry continues to do that. “You have to take a chance, you have to hire someone new or our industry will go stale,” she says. It’s not just about checking a box either, but about bringing in varied perspectives and fresh viewpoints that will end up making shows or movies better in a meaningful way. “And then, after you hire that new person, you must support them so they don’t fail as a newcomer. Make sure they get the support they need so that they succeed.”

“It's really easy to do diversity, you just hire people who have not historically been doing the job”

For Ganatra, being inclusive is intrinsically linked to being authentic, and telling the kind of stories that connect with people. “I’m always thinking of how to reach just one person. The question I ask myself is ‘what’s the weird thing that I love that makes me really laugh?’ Then I tell that story, and I’ve been lucky that audiences respond to it,” she says. “It isn’t about reaching a mass audience. That kind of thinking is what leads you down this road of constantly casting the same faces. It’s not about trying to find the biggest star that will say ‘yes’ to the part. But asking: ‘who is the best person for this part? And how are they making you believe these words on the page?’”

Ganatra believes the road to authenticity is for directors to trust their instincts, and also collaborate with casting directors who want to bring in new talent, but are often asked to cast the safe choice. “Casting directors are really good at this and they want to do this job because they love actors”, she says. “I really love to ask them, ‘which actors are exciting to you?’ Every casting director can then tell you at least 20 actors that are super exciting that nobody has worked with before and haven't been cast for ridiculous reasons — like ‘they haven't done it before.’”

Written by Madhuri Chowdhury

D&AD Awards 2023 is now open for entries. Download the entry kit and submit your work here. Read more insights from jurors into their corners of the creative industries here.