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How Filmmaker Nisha Ganatra & Poet Rupi Kaur Stay Confident at Work

The entrepreneurs discuss the professional challenges women of color face.
Rupi Kaur & Nisha Ganatra
PHOTO: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for IMDb/Rupi Kaur

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At the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in January, a packed room of creatives gathered to honor female entrepreneurs and the resilience of women in celebration of the new short film, RiseDirected by award-winning filmmaker Nisha Ganatra and in collaboration with Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, Rise points out gender inequality in the labor force while showcasing the moving stories of three women who launched their own companies. A poem from best-selling poet Rupi Kaur serves as the narration.  

Kaur’s voice lovingly honors mothers and grandmothers who labored for their families but never got recognition or glory. The stories and memories of Sajani Amarasiri of Kola Goodies Inc., Jocelyn Ramirez of Todo Verde, and Maria Jose Palacio of Progeny Coffee flash across the screen as Kaur tenderly speaks: “Who am I doing it for? My roots. My dreams. My family. Change isn’t easy. Let’s be honest, it’s going to get messy. But there’s never been a story we haven’t marched through. We’ll lift each other up. We’ll break down doors. And for all of the tables that refused to seat us, we’ll build new tables and pull up a seat for everyone who arrives after us.” Kaur concludes the film with a call to action, referencing the “duty to dream.”

For the uninitiated, Kaur began performing poetry in 2009 and sharing her work on Instagram. That snowballed into four books, including her debut Milk & Honey, which has sold over 2.5 million copies and spent 77 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller’s List. Ganatra smashed onto the scene with her debut underdog film Chutney Popcorn in 1999 and went on to become a Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee for her work on Transparent. She’s directed episodes of And Just Like That and Fresh Off the Boat as well as the hit 2019 film Late Night starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson.

It certainly feels like they’ve “made it,” but both women have faced their own fair share of creative obstacles, self-doubt and imposter syndrome because of their gender and race. Following the event, hosted by Stacy’s Pita Chips, Ganatra and Kaur spoke candidly with STYLECASTER about their own duties to dream and how they find the strength to push through the hurdles women of color face.

STYLECASTER: Women, and women of color especially, often face imposter syndrome. How do you both keep yourself motivated through that feeling?
Kaur: I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I want to say and what I want to write. I’m just getting started and the best work is yet to come. I often think about my first book, Milk and Honey. I never intended to do any of this but it sold millions and millions of copies. It’s the thing any author would want. 

It’s such a first-world problem and I’m so privileged that my first work did all that, but the thing that happens is then it felt like I could never create anything less than that because it means I’m a one-hit wonder, or a failure, or whatever else. I have to follow it up. With all that pressure, I started to feel like I lost my magic and I’m never going to do it again. I think I’m just now getting to the point where I can think about the work I’m going to write at 80 and I’m getting excited about that. 

Ganatra: That’s such a cool way to look at it. 

Kaur: I want to know what you do. 

Ganatra: I’m going to do what you said now. [laughs] You just think about all the things you still want to tell and all the stories that are in you that are dying to come out. I had a really amazing experience where the distributor of a film said to me, “You know, Nisha, artists are allowed to fail. You’re allowed to make a bad movie.” I was like, “No, I’m not.” He was like, “You are. You can make a bad movie and you can keep going.” Then he pointed to all these male directors. But are women allowed to make a bad one? Are you a one-hit wonder? The pressure is even higher on the one-hit, queer, female, south Asian, director. 

Kaur: Right. It feels like we can’t afford to fail because who’s going to give a woman of color a second chance? You see it with white men all the time.  

Ganatra: There’s a third chance and a fourth chance. 

Kaur: It’s endless. They lose millions, tens of millions of dollars because their friends will give them many more chances. 

Ganatra: We don’t have friends. [both laugh] Or our friends don’t have tens of millions of dollars to give. 

Kaur: When we fail, what happens is they get to use us as an example.

Ganatra: For why the next person can’t do it.

Kaur: Exactly. We gave them a shot. Clearly, their people don’t come watch these films. We did our best but we can’t do it again.

Ganatra: Totally. You carry the weight of ruining the opportunity for everyone behind you. That can be paralyzing. 

Nisha Ganatra and Rupi Kapur
PHOTO: Presley Ann/Getty Images for Stacy’s Pita Chips

Rupi, when you first got started performing your poetry, you’ve said your siblings were selling books in the back of your shows.
Kaur: I started with open mics when I was in high school. By the time the book [Milk and Honey] came out, I was in university. I would order 50 copies of my self-published edition and I’d be like, “Hey guys, come help.” My sister would come and she was in high school. They would have a money box we bought at the dollar store and we’d be like, “How much did we charge? $20?” They were hand-selling all the copies, going to bookstores asking, “Hey, do you want to stock this?” 

Look how far you’ve come now. Your work has taken over social media, sold millions of copies and some people call you a voice of this generation. How does that feel?
Kaur: I’m so honored. It doesn’t compute. But I’ve been on this incredible world tour. Every single show, every single person who walks in just realigns me with my purpose because it can get so difficult. When you look into somebody’s eyes connected to the words, it is all the strength I need to keep on going. I’m learning to become more confident. I’m the most powerful I’ve ever felt. Those are my people and those are the people I’ll keep writing for. 

And Nisha, you’ve been filmmaking for a long time.
Ganatra: I was just thinking that when we made Chutney Popcorn, it was so homemade too. Me and my friends were the crew. I asked some actors to be in it; they were super nice. No one made any money and we would go to film festivals. If you don’t have distribution, a film company, a publicist, all this stuff, you’re just trying to sell your film. We had these little DVDs and we’d be in the back of the screening like, “If everyone could just buy a copy” [laughs] … We’ve built these things from scratch so we know all the jobs. That is really hard but don’t trade that experience for anything because you’ll use it for the rest of your life and career. 

Rupi Kaur and Nisha Ganatra at Stacy's Roots to Rise Market
PHOTO: Presley Ann/Getty Images for Stacy’s Pita Chips

In the poem in Rise, Rupi talks about this “duty to dream” that we all have. How have those words impacted your own lives?
Ganatra: I was really inspired when Rupi wrote that. I’d never thought of it that way. That’s what amazing poets do. They distill everything into beautiful words that make you think more expansive again. I was so inspired by that because I’d never thought of that. Sometimes you can think your dreams are a little selfish, especially if you’re doing something so in the public and you have siblings taking you down all the time. [laughs] But that was such a beautiful thing to say. 

Kaur: When I go home, they’re like, “Rupi’s home, mom’s finally going to turn the heating on.” That is literally my family. It is what it is. 

Ganatra: But I think it is that thing of… if you tap into the higher reason of why you are drawn to this work, it is our duty to tell these stories and represent. It is the only way. Who will tell our stories if we don’t? Our ancestors and our parents and our siblings and cousins, everybody? Everyone deserves to see themselves represented. Because if you don’t, how do you even exist in our culture? 

Kaur: I feel like I needed to write the poem in Rise being part of something so organic. I started to write the poem when I wasn’t dreaming at all. I feel like I was dreaming and dreaming and dreaming these big, giant dreams until I filmed a self-produced poetry special. It was so exciting. I [was like], this going to be the first poetry special on a Netflix or a Hulu, right? We built this incredible stage and amazing people came on to support this project that had no distribution, that had no deal, but they believed in it. And trying to sell that project shattered me, it broke me. That’s when I stopped dreaming. Eventually, we self-released it and we’re now very lucky that it’s available on Amazon Prime. But it was so difficult after that moment, and seeing how difficult it was for women of color—

Ganatra: Because you realize the gatekeeping, who says what gets on what platforms; it’s not a very diverse group of people. 

Kaur: Absolutely. And you think you’ve done the things to prove it. You showed them that people care about poetry. You show them over 10 million people bought the book. But at the end, it felt like the color of my skin, I still couldn’t wash that off. One look at you and they’re like, “We can’t sell you.” That’s when I stopped dreaming. 

Ganatra: That just makes me so mad because when I did Chutney Popcorn, which was almost 20 years ago now, they said, “Why did you cast Indian people because this is such an American story?” That is the point, they are Indian American. We don’t all live in India and Africa, some of us are here. And they were like, “But now we don’t know how to market it. We know how to sell City of Joy and Karma Sutra but we don’t know how to sell an Indian American story.” I was like, ”Isn’t that so exciting?” 

Kaur: No. They were like, “That’s a risk and we don’t know if we can make money off of it.”

Ganatra: Exactly. But the international market was so open. They were like, “Oh my God, Indian Americans and lesbians, we’ve never seen that,” and they bought it. We sold the movie all over the world, then America was the last country to buy it.

Kaur: Yeah that tracks. I agree with you, especially with my experience on this world tour. Traveling across countries, a lot of people will be confused about the format of my show. It’s 90 minutes of visual—there’s storytelling, there’s poetry, there’s comedy. But when I perform in Europe, it’s like, “Yeah that makes sense.” There’s this ease of them being very open to it. I don’t really know what that is. I think that this project made me realize that … when I was trying to sell the project and it wouldn’t and it was so difficult, I stopped dreaming. But we can’t let them take that from us. Seeing the women in the film, it was like, “Oh God, I got to get my shit together and get back on it. These ladies are on it!” 

Ganatra: Rupi, you have your shit together. [both laugh]

Rise is now streaming on Prime Video.

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