Leah Khambata Interview

The New Age of Entertainment

Ok, so this statement isn’t going to rock your socks off, but we’re going to say it anyway: the entertainment industry has changed quite a bit and it continues to change every day.

The entertainment industry of the mid-20th century, for example, put a huge emphasis on specialization.

You were either a director, a writer, a producer, or an actor. The list goes on and on but you get the idea.

Your identity was based almost entirely around what started your career in the first place. If you were a successful director, then chances were others would hire you to direct more projects.

It was a way to minimize financial risk. Studios liked to know that they could rely on someone to complete a specific task.

Unfortunately, this left very little room for any real kind of growth or artistic development You were expected to work on the skills you already had.

But this model just doesn’t work very well anymore. We need people who can do lots of different things, sometimes all at once.

This is especially true in the world of independent filmmaking and production. There isn’t always enough money to go around to hire a full crew, leaving the project’s creators to pick up the slack.

And while this can certainly make for a very demanding creative environment, it can also produce some very interesting results.

Leah Khambata and the New Hollywood

Leah Khambata refuses to specialize, opting instead to utilize her expertise in many different areas.

Leah Khambata
Leah Khambata has invested herself in many different aspects of filmmaking.

She’s a singer, an actor, a screenwriter, and a producer. And she doesn’t have plans to slow down anytime soon.

She created her own short film, “(t)here”, and has appeared in a number of television pilots as well. She also works with ShortsTV to find new short films that deserve a larger audience.

We sat down with Khambata in a mercifully quiet coffee shop to talk a bit about what entertainment looks like today.

Somewhere in the middle of our discussion a friend recognized her and stopped by to say hello, but other than that, we were able to have a long, uninterrupted conversation about how she got started with film and the changes she would like to see in the near future.

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You’ve been involved in film and television from many different angles. Which role do you find the most compelling?

Khambata: While I do love writing, directing, and producing films, acting has always been where my heart lies. It’s ironic to say but I feel most myself when I’m playing someone else. I love being able to experience life through different lenses and jump in and out of worlds all while in a single physical space.

In addition to acting and film, you also studied psychology. Have you found that that perspective has helped to inform your creative decisions?

Khambata: It definitely has, especially in the context of acting where you need to really bring your character to life by understanding why they do the things they do, and also in the context of producing, where you need to be able to adapt your leadership style to your cast and crew.

I became extremely interested in the Myers Briggs Personality test some years ago and it really has helped me to notice the subtle differences between people and what makes them tick, for example, whether they make decisions based on feelings or logic, whether they get their energy from being around others or being alone, etc.

So when I approach a new project, I very often try to break down the characters in terms of those different elements.Leah Khambata

You also spent some time with William Morris. Was it enjoyable to help promote others’ work?

Khambata: I absolutely loved my time at William Morris because I truly enjoy being the bridge that brings people together. While I was there, I felt I was really able to be this bridge between the talent and the outside world, so it was very fulfilling.

Given your experiences working on television pilots, did you notice a special excitement or dedication on set?

Khambata: In New York especially, there’s this amazing sense of community within the industry, this “let’s get it done ASAP” mentality where everyone quickly comes together to get projects off the ground. People just want to be involved in something bigger than themselves.

I was helping produce the pilot for “Surina & Mel” a year ago where we had to assemble most of the cast, find locations, and get all the crew on board in less than three weeks and there was definitely an adrenaline rush that came along with it!

On set, since everyone knows that people are dedicating their time, sometimes for little to no pay, no time is ever wasted. It’s this constant machine, which can get exhausting at times, but it’s invigorating and inspiring nonetheless. I haven’t had the chance yet to work on TV pilots in LA, but am curious to see how it will be!

Tell us more about your music. Are there certain ideas or themes you feel you can only express through music?

Khambata: Music has been such a fundamental part of my life. I’ve been singing since I was five years old, playing the piano since I was eight, and playing the guitar and writing songs since I was 14.

I find that music is what can really bring out the emotion in a film. And having a good sense of rhythm is so important when it comes to editing. My film professor at Wesleyan, Professor Jeanine Basinger, used to always tell us that to be a good filmmaker, you should play a musical instrument to ingrain that sense of rhythm and that’s so true!

I always try to bring my musical sound to my films, too. In my most recent short film, “(t)here”, the film’s main song is one which I worked on with my friend and singer-songwriter Natania Lalwani. It perfectly encapsulates the essence of the film.

Hollywood has only recently made a serious attempt to hire creative individuals with diverse backgrounds. In your opinion, has this effort come too late? Is there a substantial pool of diverse writers, actors, and directors?

Khambata: While there have definitely been a lot of positive diversity initiatives in Hollywood over the last few years, I don’t know if things will significantly change much in the near future.

One thing I have struggled with is the fact that a vast set of diverse people that Hollywood wants are actually the ones who are being turned away due to visa situations. For example, networks usually don’t hire actors, writers, or directors unless they have green cards or artist visas, but to get those in the first place, you need network credits.Leah Khambata

So while you do get to see diverse people on screen, I don’t think it is truly representative of everyone out there in the world.

I grew up in Bombay, a city which has so many different kinds of people. English is my first language but my accent is not the stereotypical Apu from the Simpsons one you see on TV. It’s a South Bombay accent, and so many people here find it hard to believe I’m actually from India because they’ve only been exposed to certain archetypes of Indians, whereas in reality India is a country full of diverse populations and accents.

That is actually something I hope to change, with respect to India at least, by eventually having my own production company that bridges the gap between Hollywood and Bollywood.

How have you been able to incorporate your background and heritage in your work?

Khambata: Growing up in a Parsi household in Bombay significantly influenced me. I constantly saw members of my small, tight-knit community have a global impact, from industrial magnate J.R.D. Tata to conductor Zubin Mehta to Queen’s Freddie Mercury. It made me really want to make my community proud by doing so within film and bring different shades of India to the screen.

That is what I’m doing now with my short film, “(t)here,” which I wrote, produced, and was the lead actor in. It’s about a millennial Indian girl, Rhea, trying to figure out which side of the world she belongs to, whether to stay in the U.S. or head back to India. And this is affected in part by the interaction she has with an Indian grocery store owner.

Family is the most important institution in India so I wanted to show two South Asians who were away from their families but for different reasons. One has the means but not the legal status to go back and forth, and one has the legal status but no means.

It is actually partially based on what I went through after I graduated from undergrad and moved to New York. I had to experience my grandmother’s death via phone from across the world as I was stuck in this weird visa scenario where if you left the country, you could only come back if you had a job to come back to.

I was working on a film set at the time, and if I had left, they would have just found a replacement. Over the course of 4 years, I’ve missed two funerals and two weddings of close family members so I wanted to tell a story through the lens of a different type of South Asian, one who is forced to make these major life decisions when they are not even looking to immigrate to the U.S. permanently.Leah Khambata

What do you feel is one of your greatest assets or advantages as a creative?

Khambata: I think it would be my emotional intelligence. I feel like I’m able to quickly read a room, pick up on others’ emotions, and adapt myself to interactions accordingly. It allows me to empathize with people and also translate those emotions from both my mind onto paper and from paper onto the screen.

I also feel that being at the intersection of “right brain” creative and “left brain” analytical puts me in a unique position since not many people in film possess both. I got to really hone my creativity through my Wesleyan University film degree and production experience thereafter and later got to hone my managerial skills through my Cornell University MBA.

Having experience on the business side of the industry has been extremely useful because you get to actually see the consequences of creative decisions. It equips you with the business knowledge necessary to give your creativity a platform on which to blossom.

Can you tell us about some of your favorite contemporary artists and why you admire their work?

Khambata: Ah, there are so many! But off the top of my head, on the acting side, I really admire Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. They are extremely talented and carry themselves with such grace and dignity, not getting caught up in petty feuds, just focusing solely on their work. And the roles they choose are exactly the ones I would want to play.

I also really admire Leonardo DiCaprio. Think he is one of the best actors of this generation. And as you can guess from the above, I’m a big fan of “Titanic.” When it first came out, I was too young to fully grasp the intricacies of the story, but I remember being moved to tears by Jack and Rose, feeling heartbreak for the first time, which is what evoked my passion for filmmaking and acting.

In terms of writing, I really like Amy Sherman-Palladino as she really knows how to write strong female characters and her work is so dynamic.

When it comes to directing, I really like Damien Chazelle as I love how music is always such an integral part of his films.

Are there any films that have been released this past year that you enjoyed more than the rest?

Khambata: I really liked “Searching”. It was such a unique form of storytelling which still kept viewers at the edge of their seats throughout. And of course, I am a fan of “A Star is Born.” I’m obsessed with the song, “Shallow” and have been singing and playing it on the guitar almost constantly!

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