The new Akhtar on the block


Are you, like me, guilty of binge-watching Never Have I Ever? Then perhaps you’d also be wondering if this series is the handiwork of someone who has experienced being a brown kid in an American school. And you’d be right. Kabir Akhtar, the director of this series, is of Indian origin.  

“I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, but grew up outside Philadelphia from the age of four. I famously celebrated my fourth birthday in Mumbai with my cousin Farhan (Akhtar), as he had turned five the same week. I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where I spent more time in theatre than I did in classes – a decision which led me to work in entertainment,” says Akhtar, 45, as we chat during breaks in his hectic schedule.

“I just wrapped directing the first episode (of a show he doesn’t name) to be filmed at Universal during Covid. It’s wonderful to be back at work, but everything is very cautious now. Until the pandemic subsides, I’d expect filming to be slower and more expensive. We’re definitely using fewer extras and fewer camera angles as we get started again,” he tells me from LA. 

“Celebrities act like they don’t care about winning awards, but it is indescribably exciting”

The Emmy-winning director-editor has worked on shows like Unsolved Mysteries (1987), Arrested Development (2003), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015) and more recently, Never Have I Ever (2020). His Emmy was for editing the pilot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; he was the first person of colour to win in the category. Akhtar has also co-chaired the DGA’s Asian-American Committee for two years and been on the Television Academy’s Editors’ Peer Group Executive Committee for a four-year term.

Showtime tales!

“I think there’s a tendency among celebrities to act like they don’t care about winning awards, but it is indescribably exciting. It feels like a mix of ‘this has been a dream for so long’ and ‘wow I can’t believe this is actually happening,’” says Akhtar.

Until his final year of college, Akhtar had no idea what to pursue as a career. “A friend suggested I go to film school. I laughed because that sounded so frivolous, but he reminded me that I loved movies and that I had been doing theatre since I was very young. Suddenly it all clicked!” he shares.

Colour coded

What was Akhtar’s schooling experience like? “I’ve certainly faced my share of racism. Sometimes it’s been aggressive, but most of the time it’s softer and more subtle, like people who assume I do or don’t know things based on my skin colour. Usually, I laugh and they realise they were making assumptions,” he says.

The racism he encountered was quiet and systemic. “For a very long time, there was no space for minority or women directors in Hollywood. After I directed Mumbai Calling in 2009 (a British show filmed in India), executives here told me they loved the show and would love to hire me to direct a show in LA, except they considered my experience irrelevant because ‘it wasn’t an American show’. It took me years to realise that this wouldn’t have been a problem if the show had featured an all-white cast. Today, with ‘diversity’ being such an important buzzword, that same experience would be a fast-track to getting hired. So thanks to a larger social awakening, our industry is finally taking big steps towards ensuring hiring practices are more diverse than ever, which is great not just for people at work, but also for a society, which can now see itself reflected more accurately in television and movies,” says Akhtar. 

Clockwise from right: Kabir Akhtar thrilled with the Emmy award, 2016; (Inset) As a child with his baby sister Nishat Akhtar; With Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Jaren Lewison from the show Never Have I Ever

Real and reel

It’s easy to understand why Akhtar identifies the most with the character of Devi in the show. In fact, when he first heard they were making a show about a first-generation Indian-American teenager, he practically yelped aloud because he knows very well what that experience is like!

However, Ben is his favourite character. “He starts off so unlikeable, but when you get to see his home life, you understand why. I directed the episode that delved into his backstory, and I loved the opportunity to create empathy for him. It comes as a surprise to viewers that one minute they’re rooting against him, but then they hope he will come out on top. It illustrates how valuable it is to have empathy for others; I think society would be a lot better off if we all worked to understand each other more and shout at each other less,” he reasons.


 The India connect

Akhtar was in Delhi and Lucknow this March and landed back in LA a few days before everything shut down. “I’m very glad to have gotten that trip in,” says the director who happens to be lyricist Javed Akhtar’s nephew. “When we were kids, Zoya and Farhan stayed with us in Philadelphia a lot, and we would go to Mumbai to stay with them too, so the four of us (including my sister Nishat) got to spend a lot of our childhood together. It was like having two extra siblings!”

“I’ve faced racism… It’s subtle, like people assume I do or don’t know things based on my skin colour”

He finds it cool to see big studios in the US taking an interest in creating Indian content. “If they’re going to bring their usual creative and financial firepower to the motherland, it should open up a lot of opportunities for new and authentic stories to be told with the production values that modern audiences worldwide are expecting,” he explains.  

As of now the sprightly director-editor is looking forward to directing more varied content. “In the meantime, I’m reading screenplays and working on lining up my first movie.”

Follow @lubnasalim1234 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, September 21, 2020

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