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Rising Star Shakti Bhagchandani: “Why I plan to start a foundation dedicated to helping survivors of physical and sexual violence in the Middle East”

In the near future, I hope to start a foundation dedicated to helping survivors of physical and sexual violence in the Middle East. Under this umbrella, a particularly vulnerable group are domestic workers in the Gulf. Thousands of women from Uganda, Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries temporarily take up household work in the […]


In the near future, I hope to start a foundation dedicated to helping survivors of physical and sexual violence in the Middle East.

Under this umbrella, a particularly vulnerable group are domestic workers in the Gulf. Thousands of women from Uganda, Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries temporarily take up household work in the Gulf to raise money for their families back home. Sadly, many end up running away from abusive and exploitative employers but can’t return home because of a merciless labor system that strips them of their passports. Many are beaten, sexually assaulted, confined, underpaid, overworked and live in inhuman conditions. HRW brought light to this issue a few years ago, but nothing has been done to help these women.

They become trapped in the UAE, charged with bogus claims of theft (and even sorcery), charged obscene amounts of money for ‘recruitment fees’, charged for absconding and breaking their contracts, and some are even imprisoned.

I hope to raise funds to release these women so they can return to their home countries and reunite with their families. The prevention of physical and sexual violence is the cause that has meant the most to me, not just in the Gulf but on a global scale.


I had the pleasure of interviewing filmmaker Shakti Bhagchandani. Shakti is the first screenwriter/director from the United Arab Emirates to have achieved international success. Her films have played at Sundance Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinematek, Hamptons Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival, and many others. She is an alum of the Sundance Screenwriters Intensive Lab, an alum of the National Academy of Sciences’ documentary filmmaker retreat, and a recipient of a Hollywood Foreign Press Association Fellowship. She is also a professor of screenwriting and directing at Pratt Institute.


Thank you so much for joining us Shakti! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a child, I wanted to be a writer. My mom gave me a love of words — she was a poet though she never pursued it. We’d trade books, primarily crime novels, back and forth, and discuss them at length. She gave me The God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy (which is still my favorite book) and I tried to write stories in Roy’s style. My stories weren’t good! But my love of words took me to London where I studied English Literature at King’s College London.

When I arrived in London, I was completely lost. I started searching for a tribe and unexpectedly found it in theatre society. I had never even seen a play. Theatre was nonexistent in the UAE and all I had seen were crude, garish high school musicals. One of the first plays I saw was Red by John Logan, and it changed my life. Instantly, I decided that I wanted to be a theatre-maker. I threw myself into the student theatre world and within a year I was directing plays and interning with wonderful theatre directors.

After graduating, I returned to the UAE, hoping to find the same support at home, but the dearth of an art world or theatre scene startled me. A traveling short play festival had come to Dubai, and I tried to get involved. But the plays chosen were benign, orthodox and restrictive. I realized that even though I loved theatre, it simply didn’t have the same authority that film had in the UAE. I wanted to make work that pierced the echo chamber, that was dissenting, dangerous and open-minded, but theatre just wasn’t the appropriate medium for this. The UAE has strict censorship and blasphemy laws. Plays need physical, tangible, private or public spaces. This means they can be shut down, the lights can be turned off, the audience can be kicked out, the venue can be locked up. But in the UAE, films have always found a way to subvert the public’s consciousness.

I had almost completed my application for Columbia’s MFA theatre program, and then changed my mind at the last minute and applied for the MFA film program instead. This was the beginning of my career. I still adore theatre and would love to return to the medium, but I haven’t regretted changing my mind even once.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

When I went to the Sundance Film Festival, I attended a ‘Women at Sundance’ event. Kerry Washington was on the panel and she spoke so passionately about her trajectory and her experience as an actor and a producer. She said that she always brings two other women with her when she attends an important meeting when she enters an ‘important room’.

She said, “One woman in a room is a nuisance, two are a minority, three are a revolution”.

I love that message.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

When I was designing the credit sequence for LostFound, I decided to give each member of my crew their own title card. We were such a small team, and I was worried that when the film was screened, my credit sequence would be over in a few seconds. This was a really ridiculous thing to be concerned about! So, I gave everyone their own title card and let each one run for a good few seconds.

But then when the film was screened as part of Sundance’s shorts program, I discovered that even though all the other films had bigger teams than me, their credit sequences ended in about 30 seconds. After each short ends, the credits start to roll, and the audience applauds. The applause fades out as the credit sequence comes to an end, and most of the time (for shorts at least) the clapping and the credits come together quite organically. When my film finished and the credits started to roll, the audience clapped… then slow-clapped…. then the claps started to fade…. then there were no claps…. then there was silence… then a few sighs…. a few coughs… a few giggles… a few laughs… then more silence… more sighs… more coughs… and my credits were still going… still going… still going! The credits went on and on and on! It only ran for about two minutes or so, but it felt like a lifetime!

Thinking about it now, I’m actually pleased with my intention. I’m so proud that we made this film with so little help — everyone on my team did five jobs each and we made something out of nothing. It was a blessing to work with them. That being said, I would never design my credits like this again, because it truly was mortifying.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I recently co-wrote a film with my partner Sean Robert Dunn supported by the Scottish Film and Talent Network. We are in post-production now, and I’m so excited about the film’s future. I’m also developing my feature screenplay, a film that confronts the women’s issues that have meant the most to me and have framed all my work thus far.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

In 2017, I attended a filmmakers’ retreat organized by the National Academy of Sciences. The aim of the retreat was to throw a bunch of filmmakers and scientists into a room and get them exchanging ideas. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet some of the greatest scientific minds out there. I learned so much (and also learned how little I knew). I spent time with Susan Landau, a mathematician and a cryptography expert; Janna Levin, a physicist, and professor who contributed to the understanding of black holes; and Abigail Marsh, a neuroscientist who researches altruism and psychopathy.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Sleep! And ask for help. Anxiety can be crippling. Wake up early. Make time for hobbies you love. I love crafts — crocheting, origami, working with my hands, and spending time with my dog, Dill.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. ☺

In the near future, I hope to start a foundation dedicated to helping survivors of physical and sexual violence in the Middle East.

Under this umbrella, a particularly vulnerable group are domestic workers in the Gulf. Thousands of women from Uganda, Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries temporarily take up household work in the Gulf to raise money for their families back home. Sadly, many end up running away from abusive and exploitative employers but can’t return home because of a merciless labor system that strips them of their passports. Many are beaten, sexually assaulted, confined, underpaid, overworked and live in inhuman conditions. HRW brought light to this issue a few years ago, but nothing has been done to help these women.

They become trapped in the UAE, charged with bogus claims of theft (and even sorcery), charged obscene amounts of money for ‘recruitment fees’, charged for absconding and breaking their contracts, and some are even imprisoned.

I hope to raise funds to release these women so they can return to their home countries and reunite with their families. The prevention of physical and sexual violence is the cause that has meant the most to me, not just in the Gulf but on a global scale.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?

1. Don’t spend money! I cannot stress this enough. Filmmaking can be expensive, and if you don’t have access to private or public funding, it can be disheartening to watch fellow filmmakers be able to spend thousands on their films. It is unfair that short films made for less than $100 are competing with short films made for more than $50,000 at festivals. Money can certainly get you a lot, but it can’t buy imagination, artistry, hard work and perseverance (remember that money can sometimes be used to mask poor filmmaking). Use this financial constraint to your advantage. Be resourceful and learn to make something out of nothing. I have made my films with tiny, humble budgets, and they have played side by side with big-budget films at some of the most prestigious festivals in the world.

2. Wake up early and make your bed. It does wonders for your efficiency, energy, and motivation. If you wake up before you need to wake up, you’re waking up for yourself — not for work, not for class, not for a meeting, not for anyone else. Use that extra time in the morning to write. Also, make your bed as soon as you wake up. It’s such a simple thing that takes less than a minute, but it freshens you up, neatens your room and readies you for the day.

3. Confusion is wisdom. Don’t be so certain about everything. I feel my generation are too certain about their politics, principles, and ideologies. This makes you unwilling to negotiate, cooperate, and appreciate opinions other than your own. I despise conformity, compliance, and groupthink. These are barriers to your imagination. Allow yourself to be confused. It’s okay to be confused. We should be confused. The world is confusing. I believe confusion is wiser than certainty. Question everything. Diversify your life. Open your mind.

4. Put your money where your mouth is. It seems that all people have to do to show that they are moral and compassionate is to say that they are moral and compassionate. It’s not enough to say it. Your actions matter. If there is a cause that you deeply care about then make films that address it. But remember that film is not your only instrument to raise awareness and affect people’s lives. Volunteer, fundraise, donate, protest — do anything you can to make the world a better place.

5. Fuel for your spaceship. Every time someone underestimates you, undervalues you, treats you unfairly, tries to control you, tries to suppress you, just remember that it’s ‘fuel for your spaceship’. That’s what my brother used to say to me every time a teacher at school told me that I’d amount to nothing! Turn their intolerance and condescension into something strong. Work harder and prove them wrong. Use their words as fuel for your spaceship.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is from Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. In her play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, she writes –

“I am a fool who believes that death is waste and love is sweet and that the earth turns and men change every day and that rivers run and that people wanna be better than they are and that flowers smell good and that I hurt terribly today and that hurt is desperation and desperation is energy and energy can move things”.

She ends the play with the line: “Tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow”.

I believe that even the most heartbreaking and difficult experiences can be made into something strong.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My family. I owe everything to my parents. They have been kind, generous, and unwavering in their support. If I told my mom that I wanted to move halfway across the planet to be a sugar cane farmer, she’d be looking up flights and visa requirements in a heartbeat. A hundred lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to show them my gratitude.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Monica Lewinsky.

She speaks so powerfully about our culture of shame and the ‘conspiracies of silence’, about trauma, survival, and forgiveness. She was introduced to the world so young and so unfairly, treated unforgivably, scapegoated, slut-shamed, silenced and isolated for no fault of her own. But she changed her narrative, reclaimed her agency and turned her history into a mission of compassion and hope to help others.

She did exactly what Lorraine Hansberry said — she made something strong of her sorrow.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can find me on my website — www.shaktibhagchandani.com

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