Shuchi Kothari

Shuchi Kothari, Senior Lecturer in Film, Television & Media talks of her love of making magic on the page.

Shuchi Kothari, Senior Lecturer in Film, Television & Media
Shuchi Kothari, Senior Lecturer in Film, Television & Media

I was born into a small but extended family in Gujarat, Central West India. Like it is with most middle class Indian families, education was always a high priority.

My mother has a degree in law and a masters in social welfare. My father has a degree in engineering and so did my grandfather. Whether I’d go to university or not was never a question. It was taken for granted like breathing.

The hard thing for my father was that in 12th grade I told him that I didn’t want to opt for Science or Commerce. Instead I wanted to do my Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at St Xavier’s College – the most prestigious Arts College in my city. It was a period of figuring out what I wanted to do, learning to be open-minded, critical, and also compassionate. I had great teachers and my experience there enabled me to bridge literature with lived experience.

My biggest awakening was meeting some of my classmates from villages of Gujarat. Given their poor grasp of English, I didn’t understand why they were in an English Literature class discussing Dryden and Pope. The more I visited their villages, the more it became clear to me how the study of English literature in India was very esoteric and removed from the experience of most Indians. What these students wanted was a degree – with a BA they could go back to the village and teach English.

At the end of my BA I wanted to do my Masters at a prestigious university, somewhere that was going to push me. Poona had this new programme “Indian Writing in English”. It was a new specialisation with only six students taking it. At that time Salman Rushdie’s work had central stage globally. In India too there was a movement of English speaking writers laying equal claim to authenticity without essentialising India. They wrote about class, gender, sexuality, and the business of everyday life from an urban perspective. One of my professors was publishing fiction with ambiguous characters. Even though he hadn’t “come out” then, it was exciting to be reading and discussing these ideas in an Indian context.

Another reason to go to Poona was India’s largest Film Institute that offers degrees in directing and editing cinematography. During my BA, I had done a short course in Film Appreciation, (about 8000 people apply and only 75 students are accepted) staying on their campus for five weeks, watching over 200 films – it was insane and fantastic. University education in India is free for women – I paid approx $4.10 as an administrative fee every semester. I spent my spare time helping out on shoots, subtitling, I felt a very strong sense of cinema’s magic in terms of its ability to reach out to a wider audience than literature ever could.

In the middle of my masters I knew I wanted to go to the US and study film. Money was a consideration. I couldn’t accept admission to some of the film schools because they did not waive international fees. I confirmed my place in the RTF department of University of Texas in Austin: a fantastic programme ranked sixth in the US. I started a directing major – there were 10 people in my class.

During introductions, as I introduced myself, I wondered why I had been given admission given the experience of others around me. Soon I realised that America is a strange place – you pump gas at a petrol station and you have retail experience in the petroleum industry. Within a week I felt the whole directing thing was so much about one’s ego. My tutor aggressively told me I would never be a director until I learnt to like being the boss. I hated it. That was my interpretation at 22 and I am willing to concede that I had entered that programme at 28 I might have felt differently. I applied to change to a screenplay-writing major.

At the tail end of my MA, James Michener, the writer donated $32 million to my university to start the Texas Centre for Writers, offering an MFA to novelists, poets and screenwriters. One of my writing professors strongly encouraged me to apply. I said “I have one MA from India, one MA from here – I don’t want another Masters.” My minor was Development Communication and I had those academics saying: “Do your PhD you will always have your creative writing.” I was torn. I applied with the screenplay that I had written for my MA – the day before I graduated I heard I got the post-grad fellowship. They would pay my tuition paid and stipend irrespective of the degree I studied – how could I not start my PhD?

In my first year of my PhD I did both –my doctoral courses and creative writing seminars. That duality set a path for me. While enjoying the opportunity to write with exceptional writers, academic courses made me a sharper and more critical researcher. That is why I am sympathetic to students who want to pursue creative work within a university context.

I had this vision that after my PhD I would just write full-time. My partner was offered a job at The University of Auckland and I was open to the adventure. Just before I arrived, my former professor from Poona, who by then had come out of the closet, suggested my name to adapt his first short story collection for screen. Riyad Wadia, the first filmmaker in India to openly explore gay stories, commissioned me to write the screenplay. Within a week of arriving here, Roger Horrocks, who was then the Head the Centre here offered me some tutoring work.

The University gave me both a physical and intellectual space to work from with enough time to do my own writing. In 1998 I applied for a lectureship. At that time the University was keen to develop production as part of the School of Creative and Performing Arts. I began to initiate and design the Masters Programme with my other colleagues. It was an exciting period. The staff and students were equally enthusiastic to begin something new.

Now all my research outputs involve screen-writing. I have written and/or co-produced two feature films (Firaaq, Apron Strings) three short films, one television documentary, and a television series for TV3. I enjoy teaching in the best graduate production programme in New Zealand and writing screenplays for local and global industries. This twin life of academic and industry practitioner suits me just fine.