Shalini Kantayya: Filmmaking, Eco-Activism & Reality TV
Gig Seeker Pro

Shalini Kantayya: Filmmaking, Eco-Activism & Reality TV


Band Comedy


This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos




"Never before has the saying 'A drop in the bucket' become more monumental than the impact of this film. Crafted with precision, it has all the impact of our future. Shalini Kantayya takes us on a journey of society's class system and the world of profit. In 17 minutes this film will change your life."—Conrad Bachmann Shorts Juror at Palm Beach International Film Festival commenting on A Drop of Life, Awarded Best Short Film 2008

“One thing has been common in Shalini's works so far. They reflect the opinion that her On The Lot judges had of her during the show: she is a champion of human causes. Indeed, A Drop Of Life has set tongues wagging all across the US, given her research on water privahtisation.” -- Mail Today, by Sharin Bhatti, April 5th 2008

“Shalini Kantayya, director of the 2007 Audience Choice Award winner, A Drop of Life, will serve as master of ceremonies. "I got the idea while in India making a documentary," Brooklyn-based Kantayya commented via email. "The more I researched and read about water, the more I became convinced of Vice President of the World Bank Ismail Serageldin's statement on the future of war: 'If the wars of the 20th century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.' I found the statistics alarming; between one-half and two-thirds of the world's population will not have access to drinking water by the year 2027.” --By Pasadena Weekly, by Jana J. Monji

“Women will watch [First Sight] and tear up! Very good job, Shalini! –Gary Marshall, Director, Pretty
Woman commented on Fox’s On the Lot

“Michael Bay, (Director Armageddon and Transformers) voted the film as his favorite: "In three minutes you told a very succinct story, and you gave me a chill. That's what directors try to do. Really great job. You have the best visual style of anyone tonight." Also the contestants voted the film as the best film of the night! Shalini Kantayya's choice of film was daring as she was relying for votes from a mainstream audience across the country. The fact that the movie got her to the next round suggests that either public consciousness is changing…” Ego Magazine August 17th, 2008

“This girl is talented! No wonder they plucked her out of a pool of 12,000 applicants from all over the world… She had the best film of the night and Michael Bay, the guest judge who directed “Transformers”, agrees with me… You’ll be cheering her on as effusively as I am.” --Sepia Mutiny, by Anna, June 5, 2007

“Shalini was one of two women to make the top ten out of 12,000 filmmakers and that's INCREDIBLE! Well, Shalini's dream is just beginning to flourish so stay tuned for incredible work to come from our hero...” --Our Voice in Media, by Michelle Yozzo Drake. July 24, 2007

“But [Michael] Bay and most of the other contestants opted for Shalini Kantayya’s “Laughing Out Loud,” a portrait of a gay, Southeast Asian stand-up comic. Bay correctly noted that Kantayya showed the most film-making skill.” –The Hollywood Reporter; Risky Biz blog. June 6, 2007.

“[LAUGHING OUT LOUD: A COMIC JOURNEY was] a great idea for a short film that was written, directed and filmed fantastically. The message and story was positive and inspiring and, without a doubt, this was my favorite film of the night.” –, September 5, 2007.

“…The result came out nearly flawless. Shalini was spot on, it was very funny.” –on Dr. In-Law. “Cheese Says” June 26, 2007

“It was a bold choice in a competition filled with derivative films, and was executed with a sophistication that's been missing from the contest thus far.”, Brian Juergens on “Living out Loud: A Comic Journey”. June 6, 2007.

“It’s hard to dismiss her talent; I found myself cheering at the TV repeatedly for the brown girl in the ring.” –Sepia Mutiny, by Anna. June 26, 2007.

“[AT FIRST SIGHT] was beautifully shot… This woman has definitely got a voice.” “Nirali Magazine”, Priya Patel. May 29, 2007.

“Funny little story about antagonistic in-laws at a doctor’s check-up. For someone who thinks comedy is out of her comfort zone, Shalini does a bang-up job here. I think this one’s my favorite from her too.” (on Dr. In-Law) –-Five-Legged Iguana, June 27, 2007

“[Shalini’s Dr. In-Law] had nice dialogue… I thought [it was] close to brilliant.”
–BlogCritics Magazine, review by Heloise. June 27, 2007

“I like her films because she always tries to place a positive, inspiring and/or social message in her films… It looks like she’ll try to have a positive influence on Hollywood.” –KindaLikeSorta, by Efrain Gomez. July 9th, 2007.

Links - What Hollywood says about Shalini...


Glamour Magazine
Brooklyn Edible
Lassie with Lavina
Wesleyan University Press
etc. -

"Film or Die!"

You need not read any further if you are already familiar with this multi-hyphenated term: ‘multi-racial multi-cultural eco-supershero action figures’. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s probably because you are not yet familiar with Shalini Kantayya [top during the making of Manthan] – film director, storyteller and activist.

Shalini is Indian and grew up in the US, but as she puts it, came of age in India. She is a documentarian and a fiction director as well as an activist. She attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts where she studied human rights. She then worked in installation art for a brief period, during which she discovered her love for film. And this in turn led her to a Masters in Film program at City College New York. This combined interest in activism and films has led to a refreshing blend of work which includes documentaries and short films such as Manthan (a documentary about the Kumbh Festival in India), A Drop of Life (a speculative fiction film about the privatization of water in India and its effects on a group of villagers) and Bombay Longing (a short poetic film about a Desi queer in India).

Shalini is the recipient of a William D. Fulbright Fellowship.
Manthan received the first prize award for best documentary at the Asian American Film Institute Festival in New York. Shalini has also received recognition from the New York Women in Film and Television, the Third Wave Foundation, and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. Her films have been screened at multiple international film festivals. And she is the founder of 7th Empire / Amma Films – an independent film distribution and production company.

EGO columnist Azra Dawood interviews this articulate, talented and very busy filmmaker.

AD: Why films?
SK: Um, good question. Most days I wish I could do something else, anything else. But the truth is (at the risk of sounding corny) I fell in love with images. There was actually a moment, when I was in a Tibetan monastery in Bylakuppe (South India), and I was in a sea of hundreds of monks praying. I was acutely aware that they were recreating their culture in exile, and in that moment, I felt like there were things that I could not express in words. And before I knew anything about iris or aperture, I began to put imaginary picture frames over everything I saw. I actually began to rediscover my sense of sight, and see the world in a new way. That was ten years ago. And while I often describe my relationship with film as rocky and sometimes abusive, I am still in love with the medium and its power to inspire, educate, and move people.

AD: So would you say that the love of images (and therefore of film) came about as a result of stories that you wished to tell and messages that you wished to get across? Or did the [love for the] medium come first?
SK: Why does anyone fall in love? Isn't it always a little irrational? My love for the image was just that - impulsive, passionate, all-encompassing and without reason. But my love for visual storytelling also became integrated with my love for human rights. I always considered myself a humanist & was always inspired by stories of ordinary people who overcome seemingly insurmountable hardships. These are the stories I like to tell... And as the media becomes increasingly corporate-controlled, I believe that telling these stories is more important than ever.

AD: How/why is your relationship with film rocky and abusive?
SK: It takes all my money. It takes all my time. And it rarely permits me to see other people!

AD: If not film, then what? Is there anything else you would consider? Or is it a rocky and abusive but ultimately satisfying love affair from which there's no turning back?
SK: I am a registered Ayurvedic Nutritionist. And I am not kidding but every year I start to work on an application for a green MBA.

AD: Why?
SK: Commerce is one of the most amazing ways to make a difference in the world. When you first asked me that question ‘If not film, then what?’, the first thing that came to my mind was: ‘Film or Die!’ But the thought of a green MBA is because I am fascinated by corporations. By the impact they have on our lives. Corporations are antithetical to human culture, yet they interact with our lives in intimate ways. You know, I have worked with activists and they have this ‘us and them’ mentality. I am interested in [understanding ‘them’… penetrating the corporation’s mentality]. I am fascinated by the psychologies of corporation. I am fascinated by corporations such as Enron, by their greed and ingenuity. Enron is one of my favorite documentaries. I went to the World Water Forum where private businesses and governments interact. And I looked around and said to myself I will go up to the person who makes me feel the most uncomfortable and I will talk to that person. And I did, and the funny thing is they sound like us. They agree with our concerns but [when it comes down to acting on them] they don’t go about doing things our way. I believe that greater good can come if there is more social corporate responsibility and liability.

AD: Let’s go back to some of the questions I had emailed you earlier that we didn’t get around to covering. You have directed documentaries as well as fiction... Did you start out with the intention of focusing on one over the other as a means of story telling?
SK: I started out as a documentarian. And I still have a great love for documentaries. But I found that I couldn’t be as truthful in a documentary as I wanted to. I brought my own ideas and thoughts to a subject. It wasn’t exactly objective. ‘Any representation is a misrepresentation’. With fiction, I can be more honest. I can say this is my creation. Fiction does have the capacity to be a clear mirror of reality. I am not saying it always is, but it has the capacity for it. Enron made me believe in documentaries again, but for a while I was disenchanted by them. And a part of me wants to make ‘pretty pictures’!

AD: Currently you are working on post-production for A Drop of Life…
SK: Yes, we are adding special effects and sound.

AD: And its 27 minutes long but if it does well you might turn it into a feature length film…
SK: Yes. We are going to try and release it in festivals, on European TV… It’s a little hard because the industry is set-up against the short filmmaker. It’s not easy to sign a deal with a channel that you are completely happy with. I also want to distribute it via Internet and through grass roots efforts.

AD: I read somewhere that you wanted to direct a sci-fi trilogy and that A Drop of Life might actually segue into that.
SK: Yes, I am moved by movies such as Star Wars – for the record, the first three! – I am intrigued by the archetypal stories [such as] Mahabharata, Ramayana… I have been influenced by Joseph Campbell’s work, ‘A Hero with a 1000 faces.’ This is what influenced George Lucas and what led him to make Star Wars. These are stories that people have heard over and over and yet they’ll stay up late at night to watch another rendition of ‘Ramayana’. The stories resonate with them. They fulfill some longing and quest in mankind – the idea of saving the world resonates with people. I want to create a heroic sci-fi trilogy but one that deals with real issues [such as] the environment and human rights. There’s a real truth to the planet being in danger. I want my superheroes to embrace archetypes that have traditionally been ignored by Hollywood [and] mainstream commercial films: Women, people of color, queer people. I love the idea of women heroes. I call them supersheroes. Eco-supersheroes! I want to make ecology sexy if you will. I am already envisioning a line of action figures! I want little girls to have something other than Barbie to play with or look up to. I didn’t like Barbie when I was little. Did you?

AD: I think I really desired one when I was little because they were hard to come by in Pakistan at the time, but I do see what you mean about having a different and stronger role model for little girls than Barbie… So what are the different parts of your trilogy? Have you thought about that?
SK: The trilogy as a whole is about local and global connections. I think this is really the only way that you can fight. When people from both sides come together. One of the ideas in A Drop of Life is that the businesswoman and the schoolteacher in the Indian village fight together. They are the supersheroes. The trilogy will have three parts : Water, Energy, Rice.

AD: Rice makes me think perhaps of India…
SK: Well…I would like to make films beyond India. I want to go out of the box. I want to span 1st world and 3rd world scenarios.

AD: Is there a third world super hero in films that you can think of?
SK: [Pause]… Um, I think there’s that movie The Gods Must be Crazy. Also, Octavia Butler’s writing has some of that in it.

AD: You received a Fulbright in 2000 to make a documentary about political street theater in India. How was that experience?
SK: It was really eye opening. It taught me… how to build relationships. It taught me about the time that it takes to build relationships and how this is important when you are making films. I have a lot of respect for the political activists in India. I am impressed by the work that they do while their lives are in danger. I didn’t complete the film. But I have received a grant from the American Institute of Asian Studies to complete it.

AD: How many projects are you working on right now?
SK: Too many! I think people think that because we are working freelance or for ourselves we have absolute freedom. I always joke with my friends that yes, we have absolute freedom. We can work any 20 hours of the day we feel like!

AD: Who are the directors that you admire the most?
SK: Errol Morris (mockumentary maker). Trinh Minh-Ha. She dissects the relationship between the subject and filmmaker.

AD: Do you like Bollywood?
SK: I am … entertained by Bollywood! Actually there are some very good actors in Bollywood. I would LOVE to work with Aparna Sen for example.

AD: I liked Bombay Longing (about a Desi queer in India). How did you come about this script?
SK: My friend Georgina Maddox wrote the story and I wanted to direct it. I like issues related to Desi queers. Homosexuality is still one issue where it’s considered ok to be openly bigoted. We are with gay rights where we were with civil rights fifty years ago... lacking equal protection under the law.

AD: Bombay Longing was shot in India. Where have your filmed most of your films?
SK: I would say half and half.

AD: What’s the main difference between working in either the US or India?
SK: The Hell of it is the same!

AD: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of filmmaking in either country?
SK: In the US it’s money. Financing. In the US, the spirit of digital technology and independent filmmaking is very strong. In India it’s catching on. But they are still pretty faithful to 35mm. Um, there aren’t enough women in either country who are filmmakers. In 2006 only 1% of Hollywood directors were women. One of the good things about India is that they have great technicians but it’s harder to get things done in India. You have to know someone… You can’t just get by on your credentials.

AD: How do you decide between digital technology and 35 mm for your films? Do you prefer one to the other?
SK: I think it depends on the story. The story dictates the medium. You know, if I were filming a story about a relationship that gets started in a bar I would use digital video. But I would use film in an environmental science fiction. It’s a way of bringing some ‘bling’ to social issues. Audiences are savvy and you have to be hard-hitting and your product has to be sexy. You need high production quality to attract attention to social issues.

AD: Is there a film that you wish you had directed?
SK: Gattaca! Excellent political sci-fi. And I wish I had written 1984.

AD: You mentioned that you would love to work with Aparna Sen. Are there any actors that you wish to work with as well?
SK: Uma Thurman!

AD: Oh, yes. She would make a fantastic supershero.
SK: Yeah, wouldn’t she! And I liked working with Nandita Das very much. I like Konkona Sen. I LOVE George Clooney. I have dreams about him… I think Angela Bassett would be amazing.

AD: What’s next for you?
SK: I am going to an artist in residence program for a month. At Provincetown in Massachusetts. It’s a program funded by the Gaia Foundation and the Fine Arts Work Center. I am basically moving my office from Brooklyn to Provincetown for a month. I am going to take creative writing courses. Spend some time thinking about my next project…

Images Courtesy Shalini Kantayya

Links - Ego Magazine

"Water Wars"

Water Wars

Budding filmmakers envision a thirsty world in the very near future

By Jana J. Monji

If you are a green-conscious filmmaker but don't have the big bucks of Leonardo DiCaprio or the political clout of Al Gore to get your project green-lighted, why not enter the Intelligent Use of Water short film competition?

Last year's jury award winner, Sergio Cannella, was from Italy, but the competition's sponsor and the awards ceremony are both located in Southern California?

Following a special Oct. 11 screening at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia, winners will be announced immediately and cash prizes of $6,000 for the Jury Award and $3,000 for the Audience Choice Award will be given by the event's sponsor, Rain Bird of Azusa.

Rain Bird, the leading manufacturer and provider of irrigation products and services for lawns, gardens, agriculture, golf courses and commercial developments, is giving amateur and experienced filmmakers a chance to showcase their talents and use the power of film to highlight the need for responsible water use with this contest, now in its second year.

Shalini Kantayya, director of the 2007 Audience Choice Award winner, A Drop of Life, will serve as master of ceremonies. "I got the idea while in India making a documentary," Brooklyn-based Kantayya commented via email. "The more I researched and read about water, the more I became convinced of Vice President of the World Bank Ismail Serageldin's statement on the future of war: 'If the wars of the 20th century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.' I found the statistics alarming; between one-half and two-thirds of the world's population will not have access to drinking water by the year 2027.

"The water meter in A Drop of Life was originally created to illustrate a frightening future where water is the planet's most scarce natural resource. But then I learned that this frightening future, a world in which water is reserved for only those who can afford it, exists today. The science-fiction water meters I had imagined already exist in 10 countries including South Africa, Brazil and impoverished areas of the United States. This 'coincidence' has affirmed my belief that this story has the power to move, inspire, and mobilize people to act on this vital issue," Kantayya said.

A filmmaker for her 7th Empire Media who has done commercial work for Sting, Mariah Carey, and Phil Collins, as well as interviewed and filmed people such as the Dalai Lama and Gloria Steinem, Kantayya also considers herself an activist and educator.

"My interest in conservation is about survival of every species on the planet," she explained. "Everyone should be aware that water is a precious limited resource and we must conserve, avoid bottled water, and convince our leaders to keep our water clean, safe and as our shared human right."

Kantayya's film, as well as Cannella's Carpa Diem, the tale of a fish and water, can be viewed on the Rain Bird IUOW Web site,

Entries may include narrative, documentary, animated, experimental and/or student-made short films that run one to 10 minutes in actual or excerpted run time and the subject matter should explore methods and ideas to responsibly manage and utilize earth's most precious resource.

The competition's 2008 judges are Robert Glennon, a professor at the University of Arizona's Rogers College of Law, Gary McVey of the American Cinema Foundation, and Amanda Pope, a professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

All entries must be submitted electronically as an .mov, .wmv or .mpg file no later than 11:59 p.m. (PDT) Sept. 1.

Links - Pasadena Weekly

"New Indian on the Hollywood Block"

New Indian on the Hollywood block

Sharin Bhatti
Saturday, April 5, 2008

She has been dubbed variously as 'the neo Mira Nair' and 'the finer Shekhar Kapur.' Meet Shalini Kantayya, Hollywood's latest happening filmmaker of Indian origin, who is ready with her first commercial release

"HI. It's fabulous to hear an Indian voice the first thing in the morning," Brooklyn-based Shalini Kantayya chirps at the other end of the line when we contact her from Mumbai. Well, fabulous things have been regularly happening to Shalini of late. The 30-year-old filmmaker, who first caught the attention of global TV audiences last year on NBC's talent hunt show, On the Lot, is now foraying Hollywood.

Her first commercial flick in Hollywood as director, a noir short named A Drop Of Life, is all set for release. When we catch her on the phone a week before the film's red carpet premiere in Los Angeles, Shalini is sipping early morning chai in her cold New York apartment.

A Drop Of Life takes a futuristic look at rural India without water, and among the film's ensemble cast is Indian actress Nandita Das. More than the film itself, Shalini is right now kicked about the impact it has created. In Hollywood, where women directors comprise a mere eight per cent population and where only two per cent people are from the Indian subcontinent, Kantayya has been hailed as the neo Mira Nair. Her film impressed Steven Spielberg, to begin with. Rush Hour director Brett Ratner calls her "the finer Shekhar Kapur." And when George Lucas saw her work, he instantly compared her cinematic idiom to "the mad and colourful brainwave of Guy Ritchie."

Shalini's definition of herself as a filmmaker is as mad as her cinema itself. "I am a tech-head, a tree-hugger and a humanist," she says. It's this mad streak that helped her garner instant attention on On The Lot, the show that spots potential filmmakers. On the show, she managed to make it to the final 10 stage from among thousands of aspirants, week after week giving Hollywood a taste of the cinema of the proud Indian immigrant. Bold, satirical, sensual and reflective, her one-week canned short movies on the show instantly impressed the judges with her sensibility.

Right now, Shalini is looking at space for inspiration. She has set up an independent film production house named 7th Empire Media Productions, and she wants it to be her Dreamworks Studio. "I will be making a fleet of science fiction movies for a production house. I want to come up with a line like George Lucas's ' May the force be with you' in Star Wars -- something that anyone anywhere on the planet can instantly recognise."

But there is little that one knows about this William D. Fulbright scholar in filmmaking. Among various felicitation that have marked her road to Hollywood, Shalini was awarded the Best Documentary award at the Asian American Film Festival in New York in 2006 for her movie on the Kumbh Mela, titled Manthan: The Churning. Her other critically acclaimed film, Bombay Longing, mirrors the life of a Butch woman in India's heaving financial capital.

One thing has been common in Shalini's works so far. They reflect the opinion that her On The Lot judges had of her during the show: she is a champion of human causes. Indeed, A Drop Of Life has set tongues wagging all across the US, given her research on water privatisation.

It all started as an act of rebellion for Shalini, though. "My parents moved to Connecticut way back in seventies when Jimmy Carter welcomed South Indian immigrants. Both my parents were doctors, and were assets to the United States. But I was a first-generation American-born Indian with my own ideas. When I announced that I wanted to be a filmmaker in my medical family, I was met with shock," recalls Shalini, who was a Human Rights Major in college.

After much haggling over parental resistance, which she wittily describes as "Bollywood drama," she was ready for film school. "I was already an installation artist by that time, so visuals naturally appealed to me. I moved to New York to study film," she says. Fine-tuning post production skills was all about editing music videos for Sting, Mariah Carey, and Phil Collins.

"I slogged during those years. I wanted to learn all I could on the job that I didn't learn in film school," she points out. The Fulbright scholarship gave Shalini the chance to make movies in Senegal, Mali, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Pakistan and India.

Shalini holds her Indian experience as her most special one. In 2002, she touched down with her roots and worked on what would be the pathbreaking movies of her career, all made in India. Manthan, Bombay Longing, and A Drop of Life were all conceptualised that summer. "I've learnt everything from India. The country is as much visually arresting as it is emotionally riveting. The issues that concern human life are so beautifully visible in the people here," Shalini says.

Apart from the rich portfolio that the stint helped her build, it helped Shalini score quite a few points on the personal front too. "My mom could never believe that I would travel alone to parts of India where even Indians think twice before going, but I did it. 'Such a bold girl,' she says today while proudly introducing me to her friends," laughs Shalini.

Her "lab rat parents" -- as she calls them -- were proudest, though, when they saw their daughter battling it out on prime time television in On The Lot. "Mom used to call up friends and say, 'my daughter is on TV!' Reality TV is about being tenacious. It made my parents realise that this is what I was always meant to do." The reception she got on On The Lot also gave Shalini the courage to release A Drop Of Life commercially.

"Everybody warned me that a movie on water privatisation in India would never work. I took my chance," she says of the film, starring Liza Jessie Peterson. Having released her film in cinemas across the US on World Water Day, March 22, Shalini plans to take it to the festival circuit now. She has had previous brushes with film festivals, of course, in Paris, London, New York, Chicago, Venice, Vancouver, Mexico City, Madrid and Mumbai. "In my creative pursuit, the fact that I have come of age between two countries -- the US and India -- is my source of inspiration," Shalini says.

Today, A Drop Of Life has already reached over 40 affected African communities through the African Water Network, besides 15 major universities in the US. And Shalini isn't giving up human causes yet. "Activism sells in today's global milieu. Voices have become critical to the survival of the planet. I want to reach new audiences in remote parts of the world where messages need to reach," she says.

For now, though, it's time for a science fiction blockbuster. One can picture Shalini already at work in her studio apartment, to come up with her wonky script. May the force be with her.

Who's that girl?

* Shalini has interviewed personalities like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Gloria Steinem, rapper M1 of the underground hip-hop band Dead Prez, and R& B star Goapele
* Her new film, A Drop Of Life, has already won the Audience Choice Award at the Rain Bird Film Festival, besides awards for the Judges Choice, Best Editing and Best Production Design at CitiVisions
* Her commercial work includes editing videos for Sting, Mariah Carey and Phil Collins Shalini has lectured at colleges, universities, and international conferences, including keynotes at Arizona State University and Mount Holyoke College
* She has received the William D. Fulbright Fellowship to make a documentary film about political street theatre in India

SHALINI KANTAYYA opens up, first person

ON BOLLYWOOD: "It's colourful. But I'm more a fan of South Indian cinema than of Bollywood. Their songs and movies are simply intoxicating. I enjoy MG Ramachandran and Rajnikanth's films."

ON HER AMERICAN INDIAN IDENTITY: "It's fabulous. Being born in America I am extremely proud of calling myself a desi. We are a prouder bunch of Indians than India would have them."

ON HOLLYWOOD: "It's magical. Mainstream is fun. But it's not as challenging, exciting and democratic as it looks on the surface. When we talk filmmaking, we talk Hollywood because of the sheer size and grandeur with which they do things."

ON HER ON THE LOT EXPERIENCE:"It was mindblowing. There were sets, actors, equipment, coffee, costume, schedule, laptops and even loos on call."

ON INDIA: "It's stimulating. I had the craziest experiences in India. The craziest was when I was shooting for Manthan. I couldn't speak Hindi that well. And I was stranded in a tent with Naga babas around me. It was the most unforgettable image that my naked eye has ever captured."

ON HER FAVE MOVIES: "I like watching movies like The Constant Gardener and The Interpreter. They are great social movies that emotionally move you. These are the kind of progressive features I want to be associated with. The documentary world is still lightyears behind. But I like the way one can communicate through documented imagery even without a story."

Links - Mail Today

"The Woman with a Movie Camera: Shalini Kantayya, Director of a Drop of Life and Founder of 7th Empire Media"

The Woman with a Movie Camera:
Shalini Kantayya, Director of A Drop of Life and Founder of 7th Empire Media

By Alissa Bohling
Published January, 2008

World Pulse: As a grassroots artist-activist, how do you ensure that your message retains its integrity as your work enters mainstream media?

Shalini Kantayya: That's an interesting question... I believe I maintain integrity in my work by continuing to draw from real life people and their stories. Although I do aim to make big budget commercial films, I also stay very true to the documentary tradition by doing a great deal of research. And much of my information comes straight to me from grassroots activists doing work on the ground.

WP: While your direct approach powerfully delivers your message, it also leaves the film open to accusations of "heavy-handedness." Was A Drop of Life meant as a head-on indictment of water privatization? How do you weigh the aesthetic risks you take as an artist against the desire to reach a critical mass with your activism?

SK: When you tell one story, people often mistake it for the story. A Drop of Life is based on a true story of a prepaid water meter scheme that caused tremendous destruction within the community. I wouldn't venture to say that I know exactly what the right place is, what the right way is to get people access to water. Who's to say? I don't think I tell an anti-privatization story in my film. My goal is simply to make people think critically and to raise awareness about what is happening.

WP: Although you initially thought that the film's prepaid, privately-owned water meters were something you had dreamed up—you quickly found that such meters already exist in several countries. Did the discovery that your invented fiction was already a living truth change your approach to making the film?

SK: Yes. After I thought of the prepaid water meter, I interviewed with Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians, founders of the Blue Planet Project, an international organization promoting the human right to water.

Maude told me a story from Orange Farm, South Africa: After the initial offer of a certain amount of free water per family, residents had to pay to use the meter. Soon, no one could afford the prepaid water. Their only choice was to go to a second source that wasn't clean. As a result 5000 people died of cholera. She told me of officials who came to visit and show off the benefits of the meter. They were confronted by an angry child who had made the connection between his mother dying of cholera and the prepaid water meter. "You killed my mother! You killed my mother!" he screamed at them.

WP: American corporate water executive Nia travels to the village conspicuously escorted by an entourage that includes several Indian urbanites. What influenced the crafting of this scene?

SK: I wanted focus on the people who would accompany a corporation: members of the World Bank would be there; state officials would be there. Have a look at how language is used in the film: the villagers are speaking Kutchi and the officials are speaking Gujarati, the state dialect. Meanwhile the meter speaks in Hindi, the national dialect. The whole experience is alienating to the village people because it takes place in the political language of the country.

WP: Nandita Das' character, Mira Ben, is a city-educated "outsider" who teaches in the small Indian village where much of the film is set. Why did you choose this particular identity for her?

SK: The decision was motivated by tension. . . Mira reminded me of a lot of people who come from an urban environment and want to do something good for a community. They'll always carry with them the tension of outsiders wanting to help.

I also find the dynamic between men and women in that village interesting; though Mira is an outsider, she operates within the gender dynamics of this Indian village.

During the shooting of the film the men had to give us permission to film the women. The women agreed and we moved into the village. I was living there, preparing to shoot the film. Then at the last minute, the men would not give their permission. So in the end, the women in the film are not actually from that village, but from a small town nearby.

WP: What changes do you envision in the world of filmmaking as more women choose to pursue careers as directors?

SK: Only eight percent of Hollywood directors are women; Of those, less than one percent are women of color. When there are more women's voices in film, we will see a very different kind of story. I'm extremely excited about that possibility.

Women have so much transformational potential within the media! When our democracy is compromised by the homogeneity with corporate media; when one company can determine so much of what we see... from the theatres to everything we read at a store. The voices of dissent—the women's voices—play a more important role than ever in advancing democratic media.

WP: Have you begun to measure the impact of the film? What results do you hope to see develop from your work?

SK: What I'm most proud of is that A Drop of Life is now used by 40 water rights organizations in the African Water Network, in Malaysia, in the Philippines and in India, where ironically there was no water meter when I made the film but the meter was subsequently introduced. The film has won many awards, and it is frequently shown in schools and on campuses to raise awareness. I'm also currently working on a feature film about water.

WP: What advice do you offer to girls and women aspiring to be filmmakers?

SK: Only do it if you feel called to do it, because it's hard. It takes such hard work, long hours and plenty of midnight oil. But if you have to do it, then never give up... creating work is not about not making mistakes, it's about continuing to get back up and continuing to be diligent, to be relentless in your passion for the art.

Learn more about the film. | Watch the trailer. (Quicktime required.)
Purchase the DVD. | Visit "Shalini Kantayya's Blogsphere."

Filmmaker, educator, activist and reality show survivor Shalini Kantayya lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has received the recognition of the Jerome Foundation, the Public Fund for Media, IFP, NY Women in Film & Television and film festivals across the globe.

Links - World Pulse Magazine

"Using Film to Change the World"

Using Film to Change the World:

An Interview with Shalini Kantayya

By Britt Bravo
Published October 12, 2007

Sixty years ago, very few people would have seen the connection between peace and hydrology, but today that connection is clear to the foresighted. If we do not deal with the water problems on a global scale, I believe we will see conflict on a global scale.--UNESCO in the Spotlight

Shalini Kantayya is a filmmaker, educator, and activist who uses film/video as a tool to educate, inspire, and empower audiences. She believes in making films that spark positive social change and recently completed a short film about water rights issues, A Drop of Life.

Shalini finished in the top 10 out of 12,000 filmmakers on FOX’s On the Lot, a reality show by Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett. Below is the transcript of a recent interview with her from the Big Vision Podcast.

Shalini Kantayya: My name is Shalini Kantayya, and I am the Director of a company called 7th Empire Media. The mission of my work is to take the things that I care about the most, women, the environment, and social issues, and package them in a very sexy commercial medium of narrative filmmaking that reaches millions of people. My mission is to take the things that I care about, and to inspire and educate people through narrative story telling.

Britt Bravo: What are you working on now?

SK: I just completed a film called A Drop of Life, which is a film about the future of water; it's about a woman from America who comes to India to seal a deal that would put plastic prepaid credit card meters on the village water pumps so you can't get water unless you have a prepaid card. It's based on a true story of these water meters that exist in 10 countries, including the U.S.

I just think that it's incredibly alarming that by the year 2027, two thirds of the world's population, over four billion people, will not have adequate access to clean drinking water. Water is something that sort of shook me out of my seat. What I am seeking to do now is to make a major motion picture about the future of water that will move audiences and really put this issue on the map.

BB: Where are you in the process and how can people who are listening support you?

SK: The short film is available at, and now I am in the process of seeking development money and looking for very, extremely talented writers to help me in this process.

I want to create a really fantastic story. I think coming from India I've been really moved by stories like the Mahabharata, or the Ramayana, or even Star Wars, for that matter, because it tells you this epic story of the hero's journey. It's so interesting because I talk to little kids today, and Star Wars is still one of their favorite movies. And I think, oh my god, how can this movie dated in 1976, 30 years ago, which is a lot of time in cinema, still have relevance today?

How could the Mahabharata, being 2000 years old, still be told today? Over and over we sit the whole night to listen to these stories. I think that we need a new mythology, we need a new story, we need a new hero, we need a new she-ro, and I think that's what my mission and my gift is, to create really compelling stories that engage people in the most critical issues of our times.

BB: What's the path that brought you to this work?

SK: I don't think I ever made any intellectual decisions in my life [laughs]. I feel like most of the big callings in my life have come in the form of falling in love, these great romances, first with images and then with this river.

I was actually 19 years old, and I was in a Buddhist monastery in South India, it was one of the 13 villages India gave Tibet. I heard these monks chanting this deep throated prayer, it was like 800 monks, and something sort of hit me in my heart, and I knew that there were things I couldn't express in words. From that moment, I started to put imaginary picture frames on everything I saw, and sort of experienced my seeing in this new way.

This was before I knew aperture, or iris or knew anything about filmmaking, it was just almost discovering my sight in a new way, and feeling that there were stories that I needed to tell that I could not express in words. So, filmmaking happened that way and then, on a whim, I was on Fulbright in India, and a friend asked me to document this festival called the Kumbha Mela, which is the largest gathering of human beings on earth where an estimated 70 million people come to bathe in the confluence of these three rivers, at this particular time, because they believe it will wash away their sins and bring them closer to Moksha.

Through working on this documentary I spent 40 days living in a tent at the banks of the Ganga and the Jamuna, and I took lots of baths, and I was really moved by the devotion to a river as a life-giving goddess, even the word "India" comes from the river Indus. But at the same time, I wondered about calling something "mother" and then throwing all this shit into the river. And so I began to question, but it happened through my having such reverence for this river, and having this really personal experience and kind of communion with this river. Then my love compelled me to ask questions, and to take action in some way.

Then I read this book, Blue Gold by Maude Barlow, which I recommend everyone read. It shook me out of my seat. I think coming of age between the United States and India, I've seen the world of the technologically advanced and the material excessive, and the world that can't get a clean glass of water.

I'm just really alarmed that our generation isn't speaking up about it. I think for a lot of us who grow up in the "First World, " and hot and cold water runs--even me, I live in New York. What can I possibly have to do with the environment? I mean my food comes from the bodega, the water runs hot and cold from my faucet. But, then you realize that we're all part of this very fragile ecosystem.

Even in the cities, a transit strike goes off, or there's a power outage. You realize that you're not living inside of a machine, that even urban cities are part of this environment, and that we are all part of an ecosystem. The very simple choices that we make every day really matter.

So that's sort of what brought me to this journey, is this thought that a billion children are suffering every day. Every 14 seconds a child dies because of lack of clean water. Beyond those statistics, I mean, these are children that are beloved to their parents and their communities. I feel like every time a child dies because of lack of clean water that we have failed as a global community.

So I seek to put my voice as a filmmaker, and the sharpness of the tools of major motion picture filmmaking, behind this thing that I care so deeply about.

BB: Your roots are as an independent filmmaker, but you've just finished being part of a big reality show. How do you balance those two worlds?

SK: I know it's really hard to make the leap from a Buddhist monastery in South India, and holy baths in the Gunga, and then a Fox-based reality TV show. It seems like a little bit of a disparity. But I really came to the show, Fox On The Lot, with a very clear intention. I don't know that everyone had the same intention. My intention was to bring our issues to the forefront and to get progressive media onto Fox.

I had four films screen on Fox, and two of them were political in some nature. I feel like we can't shy away from going mainstream. I mean, I really have a strong respect for grassroots documentary. I've certainly done it a really long time. But what I admire about filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas is that they've transformed culture. It's not that they're just filmmakers.

It's hard to imagine American culture without Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas. I mean, they gave us E.T. they gave us Star Wars, they gave us, Jaws, Jurassic Park. These are major pillars of American culture. I feel like what is the most powerful about this work is that you can say, "May the force be with you," anywhere in the world and people will know what you're talking about.

With my filmmaking, I really seek to do that with my work. I'm not thinking small. I really want to reach millions and millions of people around the world, and transform culture with my work. And with that comes the machinery of commercial filmmaking. Of course, that's sort of treacherous territory. [laughs] I won't lie about that. But I think we need to get in there, I think it takes all types. I think some of us need to work within the system, and some of us need to work without it.

That's my goal, is to reach as many people with my work, and have the largest distribution possible, and have the machinery of commercial filmmaking behind me. I mean, when you look even at cinema, there were more women directing films in the Silent Era, before filmmaking became a commercial industry, then there are today. I think that just goes to show that we need to put our money behind women filmmakers.

BB: As an artist and activist, how do you balance your art, your activism, and making a living?

SK: Well, my mom always used to say to me, "Filmmaking, schilmmaking, how you eat? [laughs] "Movies, schmovies. How you eat?" But the thing is that I really honestly believe is that if you follow your highest calling in life, and I've never been more clear, I mean, I have other issues, but following my calling and having passion is not one of them.

I really feel like if you follow what you think is your gift in this world; and if you show up every day, and you work hard, and you're tenacious, that sooner or later it's going to happen for you. You're going to get the resources to do what you need to do. That's what's been happening in my case.

So, for eight years I've been able to--for 10 years actually, I've been able to make a living as a filmmaker. I'm definitely not getting fatter, but I'm definitely eating. [laughs]

BB: What advice do you have for artists, who want to use their art for social change?

SK: I would just say, "We need your voice. We need you to get up, and stand up, and get out of bed when you feel like it's too hard to. Have faith in yourself and speak your truth because we're living in an age where six corporations control most of what we see, read, and hear. I can't think of a bigger threat to democracy.

No matter how you feel about an issue, we have got to have voices of dissent. It's not easy. It's not easy to be the single voice that says, "We need to do this." It's not easy to practice your art, but I feel like we each have our little garden patch of change to make. I would just say to everyone out there, "Speak your truth and have faith in what you know and believe."

BB: You've done a lot of interviews. What is the thing that you wish you were asked about?

SK: Isn't reality TV strange? [laughs] Reality TV is really strange. I'm probably not supposed to speak about it publicly, but I will. I'm really interested in why reality TV has become such a craze in our culture, and I wonder if people listening understand how completely manipulated--now I'm speaking as a viewer of reality TV, no implications of my own show--but how constructed reality TV is and why it is that people like to see that kind of low-brow drama, and the way that it's constructed and why people feed off of it. I think is really interesting.

I think it's a commentary on truth. Are we looking for drama, are we looking for truth? I don't know. I don't know what the answer is. I just see it... I actually kind of see it as a disease, honestly. I feel like the way that we've been taught to consume violence, and to consume drama, and to enjoy people fighting with each other is really a sickness that we have, and I feel like our media is completely distracting us from the things that really matter.

BB: I read somewhere that you interviewed the Dalai Lama. What was that like?

SK: I love the Dalai Lama. I interviewed him in 2002. I had a private audience with him. The work actually started at a conference called, Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence. I was 19 and there were about 200 youth there that didn't know what to do with this idea of nonviolence. How do you practice that? What do you do with it?

On a whim, I ended up speaking on behalf of the youth at the closing ceremony of the conference, and ten minutes later the Dalai Lama gave us $10,000 to start a new organization. So I feel like the Dalai Lama has had this sort of direct impact on my activism.

Also, it was just a wonderful affirmation, because as a youth, I feel like we sometimes don't know what we can do. How do we make change? It seems crazy. How do we stop this war? I feel like when you're young, you feel like, "I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm going to do something."

I think that's something we should never lose. I feel like whether it's a small action or a large action, I feel like that, "I have to do something," is something that I really treasure in youth and people that are able to do that.

And so I interviewed him. I interviewed him in Dharamsala, in Northern India. He accepted on the basis of me standing on the Youth Coalition for Peace and Justice. He came because the Dalai Lama is actually very interested in youth issues.

So, I talked to him, and he is such a charming man. When you're around him, you just want to tickle him because he's so giggly and he has such a presence. There are two moments that I really, really appreciate from my interview with the Dalai Lama.

There was this moment where I was saying, "How do you build bridges between race and sex and sexual orientation."

He said "Sexual orientation?"

And his translator was in the room. He was speaking in English, and you heard a couple of Tibetan words going back and forth. "Ah! Oh! Boys. Girls. Ah." He was understanding what sexual orientation meant.

And then there was another really brilliant moment with the Dalai Lama where I said, "So Your Holiness, you're saying if someone hits you, it's OK to hit them back?"

And he said, "I think so." It was this big epiphany for me because I realized he really does believe in self defense. He's said, "Say you're sorry. Don't do it maliciously." He was saying all of these things, but it was just this really wonderful moment of kind of breaking the mold of what I had thought of him. So that was lovely.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about your work?

SK: My ultimate goal is to do a trilogy of feature films about the environment and to create a mythology for our generation that makes it cool to be a change maker that transforms culture and associates being an activist with being a hipster.

I feel like our culture has to change, and our values have to change, and I think whenever that happens it has to happen through youth. And so that's the target of my films, to reach youth.

You can learn more about food and water issues from Food and Water Watch.

- Have Fun : Do Good by Britt Bravo


Finalist, ON THE LOT, Primetime on FOX Television
William D. Fulbright Fellowship
Nomination, Reebok Human Rights Award
Senior Performing Arts Fellow, AIIS
Best Short Film, Palm Beach International
Best Documentary- Asian American Film Festival
Crystal Dior Award nominee, Tokyo Short Shorts
Audience Award, IUOW Film Competition
Finalist, The Doorpost Film Competition



Filmmaker, eco-activist, and reality television survivor Shalini Kantayya captured the attention of the nation during the television series ON THE LOT, a reality show created by Steven Spielberg in search of Hollywood's next great director. Out of over 12,000 filmmakers, Shalini was the only woman to finish in the top ten. Winning the acclaim of Hollywood's biggest name directors—including Gary Marshall, Michael Bay, and Brett Ratner—Shalini proved her superb visual style and unique subject matter.

Combining biting social commentary with a dash of commercial appeal, Shalini's films aim to make social change irresistible. Her production company, 7th Empire Media, is committed to using media to give a powerful voice to the unheard. A William D. Fulbright Scholar, Shalini's recent film, a Drop of Life, a futuristic sci-fi flick about the mounting global water crisis. The African Water Network has used a DROP of LIFE an organizing tool in over forty villages across Africa. The film has screened at festivals worldwide, winning the Best Short Film at Palm Beach International and Audience Choice Award at the IUOW Film competition. Shorts juror Conrad Bachmann commented, "Shalini Kantayya takes us on a journey of society's class system and the world of profit. In 17 minutes this film will change your life."

In addition to filmmaking, Shalini finds it crucial to engage youth culture through activism. She has given over 15 keynote speeches in the last year to colleges, universities, and conferences nationwide. She has spoken on a variety of topics related to media, ecology, and activism. Crafting each lecture and screening selection to the needs for her audience, some of her topics include:

Making Media, Making Change – From youtube to the silver screen, award winning filmmaker and eco-activist explores the impact media has on the world and the importance of media that inspires positive social transformation. The presentation includes short films created by the director and strategies on how to use media to create social change.

a DROP of LIFE: Inside the Mounting Global Water Crisis- Water is quickly becoming the oil of the 21st century and is heavily affected by climate crisis. This interactive presentation explores water as a human right and provides students with an “activist toolkit” to impact practice and policy.

Sureality TV – A rare insider’s reflection on reality TV from casting to competition, how production techniques create drama, and the impact of the reality phenomenon in society.

Shifting Focus - Using popular media, this interactive workshop explores industry constructions of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation in media. The workshop provides a brief history of the contributions of women directors in world cinema and depictions of women in film and television.

Recent speaking engagements include NY Women in Film & Television, Arizona State University, Discover India Festival, Bioneers National Conference, Earth Team Leadership Summit, Mount Holyoke College, San Francisco Waldorf High School, Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communications, Utne Reader’s Revolutionary Women, and the Intelligent Use of Water Film Competition.

With key partners and supporters such as Women Make Movies, Working Films, Water for All, and the Center for Corporate Accountability, Shalini is impacting the lives of citizens in affected communities and tapping the viral energy of youth culture to engage a new generation in a large-scale environmental movement.