Stephen Colbert. John Oliver. James Corden. Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Kimmel. Conan O’Brien. These are some of the top names in the late-night comedy scene, and they are all male. Female late-night hosts are almost non-existent. The spectrum has always been dominated by men. There were rumours about Tina Fey taking over the mantle from David Letterman, but Colbert beat her to it. But in a new film, Late Night, we get to see a woman as the host of a late-night show. “There was a brief stint by Joan Rivers, but they never made it official. Mindy Kaling, who has been this force of nature in comedy, wrote this script, centred around a late-night comedy show, and she wrote it for Emma (Thompson),” shares Nisha Ganatra, the director of Late Night, which stars Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a female late-night show host, and Kaling as her new writer, Molly Patel.
“I wanted to direct it. The studio flew me to London last year to meet with Emma, as she had the approval over the director. We talked for hours about the script and her vision for the film. I was on my way back to the airport when I got a call that she would make the movie with me,” recalls Ganatra, over the phone from Los Angeles, where she is based. Late Night is being produced by Amazon Studios.
This is Ganatra’s second collaboration with Kaling, whom she directed in an episode of The Mindy Project in 2015. “It was a beautiful collaboration, very respectful. Mindy is so hard working, one of the only Indian-American women working in comedy. We anyway don’t work with a lot of women, leave alone Indian-American women,” she says.
A woman writer and a female-led movie, directed by a woman — Late Night seems to check all the right boxes, especially in Hollywood, which is still reeling under the impact of #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Themes like the male vs female gaze are now part of the conversation. “The energy on the film set is surely different. Where you put the camera, even when Mindy is kissing someone, it’s different than what a male director would have focussed on her. I wanted to make sure the movie doesn’t get out of the hands of the two women who were central to it,” says the 44-year-old, “There are times you see a female-driven movie directed by a man, and women are portrayed from a male point of view. We need diversity behind the camera as well, as it will narrate a more complex, and varied narrative.”
Ganatra has also directed a few episodes of web series such as Transparent, Girls, Dear White People and TV shows Fresh Off the Boat and Brooklyn Nine Nine, while simultaneously directing a slew of indie films. For her, the digital space is what replaced the thriving indie space. “The digital space is like the new independent film. It’s pushing a counter-culture and alternate stories and challenging audiences to see new things, which otherwise would be seemingly niche. In Hollywood, the financing dried up for indie movies and it was replaced by these big tent pole movies. Independent filmmakers have caused the revolution in the digital space and made it what it is. It’s like how filmmakers moved to HBO, in the ’90s and they made groundbreaking narratives,” says Ganatra.
She grew up on a diet of old Hindi films, especially those by Raj Kapoor. Satyam Shivam Sundaram is something she vividly remembers. “I watched the films that my mother saw as a child. The VHS tapes were hard to get. There would be this one Indian grocery store which would get them and we would all share it,” adds Ganatra, whose parents came independently to Canada from India and met there. They moved to the US after getting married. Ganatra grew up with a mish-mash of dramatic Hindi movies at home, and in the New York of the ’80s.
“I was this nerdy Indian girl. Madonna, Raj Kapoor, the AIDS movement of the ’80s — all of that made me take up filmmaking as a career. Late Night is special to me because I bring all of it together. It talks about feminism and reproductive health choices under the guise of comedy — like what Colbert does; he actually helped us lot on the film,” adds Ganatra, who attended Film School at NYU.
Gender and related narratives about people on the fringe are central to her body of work. She doesn’t pull any punches in calling out the rampant sexism that ails Hollywood and Bollywood. “At least India is honest about their sexism and their lack of gender equality. In America, they hold this image that it’s equal and they have feminism here. Statistics are almost equal here. But then Bollywood needs to step up, as its impact is global,” she adds.
One would assume that with a big studio movie set for a theatrical release — it had its premiere at Sundance Film Festival — Ganatra has finally broken into the echelons of Hollywood. “I am still breaking in. I am simultaneously sad that it took this long to happen. There was no reason for it other than biases in the industry. I have seen my male counterparts get breaks sooner. It’s tough because then you start thinking if you are good enough. Till the Department of Justice came out and said that they were suing Hollywood for gender discrimination, we didn’t realise it was a systematic problem. It’s been getting easier,” she adds.