From Buildings to Blockbusters: Indian Filmmaker Prarthana Joshi on Her Unconventional Career Path

With a background in architecture, Prarthana Joshi never imagined she would be an award-winning filmmaker today. Since graduating from the New York Film Academy with a Master’s degree in filmmaking in 2013, she has worked on over 70 projects in different capacities. Her films have been screened at festivals all around the world, including the Sedona Film Festival and the International Film Festival of India. But how did she get here and what advice does she have for young filmmakers?

Check out our chat with her below.

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Where did you grow up and how did that impact your love for film?

I was born and raised in Pune, a small city in India. It’s a culturally flourishing town with lots of theatre, music, and art. In university, I was actually studying to become an architect and it was my graduation thesis that led me to start exploring filmmaking. For my thesis, I designed a museum dedicated to Indian cinema. I started to read a lot about the history of Indian cinema, the origins of the studio system, how it was like during the early days, and how the industry here is different from other regions. I also started meeting tons of different filmmakers and started to understand what they loved about movies.

My thesis ended up being the third-highest or the fourth highest in the school. I remember feeling like I almost cheated my way there, that I didn’t do any work at all because I was enjoying what I was doing so much. After that experience, I decided to pursue my Master’s degree in filmmaking in Los Angeles and I’ve been here ever since.

How did your family react to your shift from architecture to film?

They were shocked. It wasn’t like I always thought that I was always going to be a director. Growing up, I didn’t know any single person who was a filmmaker, an actor, or in theatre. I think it was similar for my parents too. Since they didn’t have access to that world, it was an alien concept. Where I come from, being a filmmaker also comes with the perception of people being high on drugs and that film is a really terrible world you shouldn’t be a part of. This only changed when they saw firsthand the people I was working with and the projects I was working on. They became very involved in pretty much everything I’ve done. Once when I was directing a short film, both my mom and my aunt took the day off work and came on set to help me even though I didn’t ask them to. They got to see how much hard work goes into a film and what it actually means to work on one. It slowly changed their mindset and it happened extremely organically. My parents are now my biggest support and my strongest allies.

When did you realize your love for storytelling?

I think the formula for storytelling is probably inherent in all of us. The moment I realized that I genuinely love storytelling was when I started attending tons of different film festivals. When I saw all the stories and movies in film festivals from all around the world, I realized that there is a different language we speak as people. It’s a very human language that really crosses the boundaries of race, religion, and language. What attracted me to storytelling in the first place is that I knew how I was impacted by stories personally, and how I was a part of stories. I think what motivates people to want to become a storyteller stems from having felt that impact or that fundamental shift inside you.

What is a film that has inspired you and your career?

One of the stories that really inspired me was the making of Lagaan, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars in 2002. I was still in school when I watched the making of that film and listened to their process. Hearing the performers, the director, the people behind the scenes, the producers, all talking about what it took to make Lagaan really moved me. It’s the beauty of all these people aligning themselves in one goal of making a movie and making it the best movie possible. It’s almost crazy the things people do to make a movie. The sacrifices from leaving their families behind to spending endless amounts of hours practicing. Fundamentally film is very non-glamorous, but from the exterior people who are not in the field don’t see that.

Image courtesy of Prarthana Joshi
Is there a particular project that you’re the proudest of?

The first feature film that I worked on was as assistant director on Vihir. I worked with Indian director Umesh Kulkarni, and I remember the way he worked with the actors. When I read the script, I had built into my mind how the scene was going to come out. But what he was able to do was translate and uplift that story to such a huge degree, that the reader wouldn’t even be capable of imagining. My mind was blown. Even when I watch that movie now, I’m still so happy to have been part of a product that was so amazing.

Another project that impacted me was when I got to work with David Armstrong. I was his assistant on The Assassin’s Code from 2016 to 2017. I see him as my mentor. I feel like I got this VIP treatment on his set that probably no assistant really gets. I would go out to dinners with all like the main heads and he gifted me an iPad on the first day of the shoot. Normally you’re not allowed to have a camera on set. But I had my cell camera, and he was like ‘You want to take photographs?’ And he used some of my photographs later on. It was a completely mind-blowing and very unique experience. When I come across people who are new or who haven’t been on set, I treat them differently because that’s how he treated me.

Why do you want to connect with young filmmakers?

What I’ve learned from connecting with new filmmakers is that I can give but I can also gain so much. They are coming from a space with a fresh perspective and they’re not jaded by the industry. The more time you spend working in a field, the more molded-in you become. I feel like everyone ends up having the same sort of tunnel vision. Working with younger people helps break you out of that. It makes you connect with who you really are because you start to think about how things were when you first started.

What advice do you have for young filmmakers?

It’s important to explore different avenues, different stories, and different worlds. Go out of your comfort zone and go out of the world that you know so well. By worlds, I mean other cultures, countries, other spaces that are unfamiliar to you. It’s very easy to do what you’re good at and it’s almost too convenient. I feel like the older you grow, the more stuck you get in your own world. So the ideal time to venture out and narrate stories from other worlds is right now, at the beginning of your career.