Maureen Bharoocha, a filmmaker and segment director committed to diversity and intersectionality in media, has fearlessly pioneered a way for herself in the male-dominated film world by following one motto: MAKE COOL SHIT. Her newest work, Hairpin Bender, is about four female comedians struggling to make it in L.A. Bharoocha took some time to chat with Ms. about intersectional perspectives on the big and small screen and her advice for women in the industry.
How did you become interested in pursuing a career in film?
I always really loved movies as a kid, you know my parents were both really big movie buffs. My mom loved thrillers and she loved Alfred Hitchcock movies and my dad was a big action person and loved silly movies so I had a wide range of things I was exposed to. I loved Hitchcock as a kid and basically ended up renting movies every Friday and we would watch the most obscure movies because we basically ran out of things to rent. I have a younger brother and a younger sister, and my younger brother is actually a comedian now. We would put on plays and do Christmas pageants in the living room, and because I’m the oldest I was always in charge of everybody. I didn’t realize that you could go to school for film until I took a film studies class my Freshmen year of college, and I was like ‘Wow this is awesome, you can watch films and write papers and get a degree for it!” And that’s kind of how it started. Like, growing up I always did theatre and painting and stuff like that, but I realized film kind of encapsulated all of that together, and that’s why I started to lean towards school. So I did film studies in undergrad and then I went to grad school for film production. I really wanted to immerse myself, and now that’s kind of the only skill I have!
The film industry has been a male dominated space. What has it been like working through this challenge?
It’s definitely something that has come to the forefront recently, which is great because it’s something that needs to be acknowledged—that there aren’t a lot of women directors, and that they’re hard to come by. I’m also glad that I never knew that going into studying film, I knew it was going to be hard because like, being a director and working in film is so hard. I never even thought that being a woman would be an even harder challenge and in a way I’m grateful for that. It never really seemed to be a factor in my mind, I was just like, I’m going to keep working as hard as I can, and keep creating. My Motto is “make cool shit”—so I’m gonna keep making cool shit that I like and I’m gonna do it no matter what. I’m in it for the long haul. I don’t know if I was a man if It would’ve been easier, or if it would’ve taken me less time, but I’m really happy with the way things have gone for myself. And it is interesting to go on a set a lot of the times, because actors will be like, ‘wow, a woman director’, like they audibly say that which always takes me back. So, it’s not really something I think about on a daily basis, because it could really mess with you. But it’s something that’s out there and to be aware of, but not something to hold you back, or think it’s gonna be harder. I mean it will, but it’ll be hard for anybody. When I step back and I think about what I’ve done, I’m proud of myself because it’s like, ‘Wow, I did this through connections and people helping me, and just my work.’ You know, I’ve applied for so many directing programs and other things based like being a minority, like being of mixed race and a woman, and I’ve never gotten into any of those programs. On one hand, on paper I would be great for these programs, but I had a friend that pointed out that it’s really cool that you’ve made it on your own not even having to do those programs.
With the current political climate, how do you use your role in the industry to push diversity and intersectionality?
We need stories and unique perspectives more than ever now to combat that fear. In this climate we’ve seen such hate but we’ve also seen such love. People swarming the streets just to support each other, and I think we need to have more of that. I come from a mixed house. My dad was born in Burma, and he’s of Indian heritage, but then he naturalized to Pakistan when he was 17 and he’s Muslim. My mom is Irish Catholic. So we were mostly raised Catholic but we were also raised with the mindset that God is God and it’s all kind of the same, it’s just the way people practice that’s the different part. Growing up like that I didn’t really think it was weird but now more than ever I realize that it is a really unique perspective to come from a house where both parents practice their own religion and neither one converts. I went to Catholic school for 12 years and did my first Communion and all that stuff. Everyone always asks if my dad was okay with that, and like yeah of course he was. The thing is that my parents that my parents had the same morals even though they practiced different religions. So I think that perspective growing up, not that I knew it at the time, made me definitely think it’s almost absurd that just because people practice different religions that they can’t get along.
That’s why I shot my thesis in Pakistan. My dad would tell me about growing up in Burma, and one time he took his rooster to a cock fight, he was so naive that he thought it would win and it immediately died. So when I went to school at Boston University, I had never been out of the country before, but I wrote this short film and I was like, let’s just shoot this in Pakistan. So I took my brother and my grandmother, and we had cousins there. We went for two weeks, we scouted and shot in the streets. It’s a narrative, so my cousin who was nine at the time plays my dad, and we got a rooster and did fake cock fighting. We kinda just did this whole thing, like I didn’t speak the language my cousins just translated the script, so it was kinda fun and exciting. I also got to go to Burma to see where my dad grew up. So it was just a really cool experience and definitely did not feel like a student film because I shot it in Pakistan.
Unique voices in film is great, and it’s important for me, and I do really gravitate towards real stories.
What was your inspiration for the story of Hairpin Bender?
I just wanted to make a movie about women struggling to get by, kinda like how me and my friends were. You know, we were shopping and talking about guys and about paying the bills and how hard it is. So kind of just having real conversations happening between a group of women that are trying to get their dreams. Basically each woman in the movie is like a facet of my life.
One of the women is doing well at her career that’s not comedy, and that happened in my life where I was like, I’m doing well, should I not be doing what I want to be doing? And somebody else is not anywhere where they want to be, and there was a point in my life where I felt like that. And then another character is getting successful, and I’ve had that feeling as well. So the characters are kind of a weird split of my personality. Also, the actresses brought their own personal things to the table, so these experiences are close to how these ladies have felt in their careers as well. I just wanted to make something real and grounded, and you don’t really get to see that in between. Female comedy is either so broad, or so weird, and there’s nothing really real in the middle. So that was kind of my answer to finding something that was real, grounded, funny and honest.
A lot of those ladies are such awesome comedians, but they don’t always get to stretch their acting arms, and they were all incredible playing in something that was grounded and real and still having that comedy come out.
I’m trying to make Hairpin Bender a feature, and I’m also working on a show with my brother, who is a comedian named Ahmed—we wrote a pilot about growing up in our house. So it’s kind of what happens to us as kids, we had a nuclear family, my parents, my brother and my sister and I, and then my grandmother from India came and lived in our house, and my mom’s sister on the Irish side lived in our house. It was just a time in the 80s where everybody was living under one roof. We’re setting it pre-9/11, because growing up in our house, it was before people knew about Muslims and the religion, so it’s kind of just a way to talk about issues without beating you over the head with it. We pitched to a few networks, and we’re trying to get that out there because it’s really what the world needs in a show.
What advice would you give to future female filmmakers?
Make cool shit! You know, like whatever you think is awesome and cool and you wanna talk about—just do it. Gravitate towards what you think is awesome and just trust yourself and trust your gut. Whatever you think is good and is gonna be entertaining or tells a story that’s never been told—that’s my first thing, just kind of make what you think is awesome… Just try to find like-minded people who you want to make stuff with. I still to this day work with people I went to film-school with, and awesome people that I’ve worked with at UCB, or people my brother works with. Just find your people—people who want to make cool shit with you.