- His pedigree of Bollywood royalty didn’t count for much in Hollywood. He climbed the ladder all on his own. Excerpts from an interview with “Shabana's nephew.”
Akhtar is a readily recognizable last name to people in India who know the Bollywood film industry well. It is comparable to the last name Coppola in Hollywood. Akhtar name is synonymous with Bollywood royalty. But for the Indian American Emmy-award-winning director, Kabir Akhtar – who has climbed the ladder of success in Hollywood on his own stead – the rich legacy of his uncle, Javed Akhtar, his cousins –directors Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, and aunt, actress Shabana Azmi, did not ring a bell in Hollywood. No power studios or agents made a beeline outside Akhtar’s door on the virtue of his last name.
Akhtar’s parents migrated from India to the U.S. in the 1980s and coming from a family of creative artists, he was drawn to the theater from a very young age. He made his way through university and industry programs, and on to his first set experience with no solid backing or support from anyone.
Starting out as a TV editor in the early 2000s, Akhtar eventually achieved his directing goals and tasted early success with the series “Unsolved Mysteries” (2008) and “Arrested Development” (2013), before finally firming his position in Hollywood by winning an Emmy for his work on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (2015).
Now a frequent collaborator with Mindy Kaling, Akhtar spoke to American Kahani about how “Never Have I Ever” (final season now streaming on Netflix) broke demographic boundaries, his challenges and triumphs, and about keeping the engine alive for South Asian storytelling to stay and keep cruising on the Hollywood highway.
Sunil Sadarangani: You’ve collaborated with Mindy Kaling twice now – first on “Never Have I Ever” and then on “Sex Lives of College Girls.” What was that experience working on these two projects?
Kabir Akhtar: She [Mindy Kaling] is great to work with. It’s funny because one of the weird things about working in entertainment is a lot of times you know people that you work with, long before you’ve met them, right? I had seen her on “The Office” … you never really know what’s going to happen. Sometimes you’re excited to get a chance to work with someone who’s been doing so much cool stuff. But then you meet them and sometimes it’s a real disappointment. With Mindy, it was quite the opposite. She was very generous. Very friendly, and she has great instincts about what to do. And I think that’s a big part of the reason that I directed –I don’t know –eight episodes of “Never Have I Ever,” and then worked on “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too, for a while. And I think for me, one of the things that really drew me to “Never Have I Ever” at the beginning was that it was the first time someone was making a show about a first-Gen Indian American teenager.
SS: Even adults connected with the story of “Never Have I Ever.” Did you ever think it would connect with demographics across the board?
KA: When I was working on season 1 of “Never Have I Ever,” I very much felt like we were making something fun that’s good. But [I thought] I’m not sure who’s going to watch it. It’s a high school show. Do people in high school watch it? Maybe some middle school? I don’t know. I had no idea it would really resonate with so many people, really connect with the universal story and the family aspects of it, and the dating aspects of it. But at the time you’re like, let’s just make each moment feel as real as we can.
SS: I saw the first episode of “Primo” that you directed and it kind of reminded me of India –a lot of similarities in the Latino and Indian cultures.
KA: A friend of mine just told me the other day, “Hey, I just saw “Primo” and I saw your name at the end of it as a director, I didn’t know you had worked on it. While I was watching it, I felt like some similarity to “Never Have I Ever.” And I was like, Really? I don’t feel like those two shows are very similar. But then you think about it, and you’re like, there is a lot of authentic family interaction where it’s not perfect. I feel like for a long time, TV shows back in the day were like, look at this perfect family. I think one of the things that’s great about storytelling now is that they’re a real family. They have problems and things are not always alright at the end of the day. You want to believe and hope that people can work on their differences and make things better. And in a television setting, I think the experience of having more genuine storytelling is valuable to people who are watching it. I think people relate to it more.
SS: As a South Asian Indian in Hollywood, you have successfully carved a place for yourself in TV as an editor and director at a time when our tribe was and still is, in many ways, a rarity. Tell me about that journey from then until now and the changes you have seen about diversity and inclusion on television.
KA: It’s obviously such a big topic. I’ve been involved for many years on a lot of different committees with different organizations – the Director’s Guild or the Television Academy – trying to move the needle on diversity and to make sure that people were having those conversations, and that the different people were getting opportunities than [they] usually had in the past. I was pretty naive about it for a while. My parents moved here from India. I grew up here and did my very best to survive growing up where I was typically the only Indian kid hanging out with my group of friends. It wasn’t cool to be Indian in the eighties or nineties. It started to change a lot in the 2000s as every comedy series started to have one Indian American comedian in them. It was a great change from how the culture had always been depicted as either bumbling or stupid or evil.
SS: You come from a well-established Bollywood family of accomplished artists –your uncle Javed Akhtar, and cousins, Farhan and Zoya. Any plans on collaborating with your cousins in India or even here?
KA: We talk all the time about trying to find a way to collaborate. But my joke is always that even after I won at the Emmys, there was press – Indian headlines –saying things like, “Farhan’s cousin wins an Emmy” / “Shabana’s nephew wins an Emmy.” It’s very humbling. It’s good for me to remember that.
SS: With the current surge in South Asians being recognized for their talent in Hollywood, what, in your opinion, will be the factors to keep this momentum going and establishing South Asian storytelling as part of content coming out of Hollywood?
KA: I’m 24 years into my career, and I think entertainment careers are already difficult to get off the ground. And then depending on if you are an outgroup, that makes it harder to get a career going. The work it has taken me to get to this point over time –you end up building a bit of scaffolding around your progress, which helps you keep building, and expanding what it is you’re doing, who it is you’re working with. Hopefully, having a good reputation, and creating further opportunities. A lot of the focus has to be on expanding opportunities and keeping the door open. I have a lot of mentees, and they’re like, “It’s great that you’re sending the elevator back down.” I’m like, “Well, just to be clear, there was no elevator on my way up. It can be easy once you’ve gone up the ropes and through the jungle by yourself, [and] you get to the top. It can be easy for a lot of people to not build an elevator to send back down. But I think those people don’t succeed in the long run because then they end up being up there by themselves.