Leena Pendharkar: Meet the filmmaker changing the game with ‘Awaken’
The fear of losing our parents or guardians who raised us is something everyone faces. But when our loved ones are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, we lose them twice: once when they forget us and twice once they finally pass on. Leena Pendharkar knows this struggle herself, and wanted to bring it to life in her latest film, Awaken.
Directed and written by Pendharker, Awaken explores Rakhi Singh (Parminder Nagra) as she tries to cope with her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. But as she struggles to properly care for her mother, a moment between the two helps Rakhi find solace. You can watch Awaken starting May 13th on Shorted and Retrospective of Jupiter.
Pendharker is still riding high after the success of her previous film 20 Weeks, and it looks like Awaken could be another success for the director. We spoke with her about her projects and where she draws inspiration from.
How did you get started in the film industry? Tell us about your journey.
As a kid, I did dance, and was always making up plays. I thought I wanted to act and auditioned for all the high school plays and never really got very far, ha! But I was always a big reader, and a teacher asked me to write for the newspaper. From there, I started writing for all sorts of publications, then went on to experiment with video, graphics and design.
I was always experimenting and making videos, and really loved the process. Then I started working as a PA on indie movies while writing and making more ambitious short films. Some of them started playing in festivals, and I really got the filmmaking bug. I just fell in love with the process and really wanted to keep making things.
I ended up connecting with a producer who helped me make my first feature, Raspberry Magic. It was a long, insane process, but we made the film and it did get out into the world.
Who are the filmmakers that you’re most inspired by?
Andrea Arnold, Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, Nikki Cairo, Agnes Varda, Chloe Zhao, Akira Kurosawa.
I was blown away by Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and still am. I think she is really able to show a female-centered story that is very unique and done so beautifully. Chloe Zhao’s movies as well have such a raw, unfiltered reality to them but also are just beautiful. I thought Nomadland was stunning.
What’s your favorite part of the filmmaking process?
I love every part of the filmmaking process, but I’d say that the parts that I really love are writing the script and directing the actors. They can sometimes go hand in hand but I love coming up with new stories ideas, fleshing them out and experimenting with the ideas on the page. Working with actors is also lovely because you get to see the words come to life, and I enjoy that collaboration.
What was it like having one of your films presented at the Los Angeles Film Festival?
Playing 20 Weeks at the LA Film Festival was one of the high points of my career. It was a beautifully organized screening, and having come up through many of FINDS’s (Film Independent’s) programs like Project Involve and the Screenwriting Labs, it was truly an honor to play in the LA Film Festival. We played to a packed house, and received a good amount of press.
If you could give one word to describe your film 20 Weeks. What would it be?
I’d say “decision.” The film is about a very tough decision that a couple must make after their baby is diagnosed with a serious health condition in utero.
As a writer, what was your inspiration behind 20 Weeks?
It was based on a very challenging and difficult decision my husband and I had to make in my second pregnancy. My husband and I really went through a number of ups and downs as we had to really navigate some difficulties. We had conversations that I never imagined we’d have, and dealt with things that we never imagined.
What was it like working with actors Richard Riehle & Amir Arison?
Amir is a meticulous and brilliant actor. He and I spent many hours going through the script and discussing every detail of who his character was and why he made the choices he made. We talked at length and wanted him to be a real, raw and honest character but never black and white.
Richard Riehle is a genius in both drama and comedy. He brought some moments of humor to 20 Weeks that really made the emotions of that sequence even more intense.
Are there any actors you wish to collaborate with one day?
So many… Poorna Jaganath, Sandra Oh, Naomi Watts, Riz Ahmed.
You are a multi-faceted filmmaker. Do you prefer writing or directing?
I truly love both. I enjoy quieter periods where I am writing, but I love directing. Definitely love all of the visual, creative and collaborative aspects of directing. Also, the joy of working with actors is really wonderful.
You’ve directed many short films, which one would you say is your favorite and why?
In these challenging times, I am proud of what we were able to say/do with Awaken. It’s a subtle piece and Parminder played it so beautifully.
What has been your greatest success?
20 Weeks was distributed theatrically and on Hulu, which felt like a big feat. It’s also a victory to keep moving forward, and really push ahead when it seems impossible.
Tell us about your new film Awaken. What was the inspiration behind the story?
I have a family member with Alzheimer’s. It’s such a tough disease, that person you once knew and loved is completely gone at some point. In my film, I wanted to explore what it was like for a woman to have lost her main support system – her mom. Many people with Alzheimer’s remember random things, at will, and I wanted Rakhi to have this one tiny moment with her mother amidst really having no one else.
Why do you think Parminder Nagra was a perfect fit for the role of Rakhi Singh?
Parminder is a brilliant actress and was able to show so much depth and range in the piece. She added so many subtle things that really embodied this perfect modern South Asian woman – a woman who is outwardly very accomplished but inwardly falling apart.
What do you want the audience to take from the film?
That the challenges of caregiving aren’t black and white. I think in the Asian community in particular, there is a lot of fear and resistance toward getting help. There is also this loss of one’s support system when a parent gets ill. I think in many ways that is even more poignant for someone from an immigrant community. I also wanted to explore a main character who is outwardly successful but is feeling more alone than ever.
In your opinion, do you believe the film industry has grown in terms of representation? Or do they still have a long way to go?
Things are definitely opening up and getting a little better, but I do believe we have a long way to go, especially in terms of opportunities for women filmmakers. I think more women need to be hired, and more female writer/director’s stories have to be told. In recent years more and more women have broken into television, which is promising.
As a storyteller, what has been your biggest motivation?
To tell stories that push boundaries and really explore ideas of the American experience, especially coming from an immigrant family.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned working with big entertainment companies like Warner Bros.?
I was in the Warner Brothers Television Directing program. It’s a 10-day directing intensive with trailblazing women Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli. You go deep into working with actors and really honing your craft. The thing I’ve learned is to focus on craft and really making the work be the best it can be over anything else.
Do you have any advice for upcoming directors?
Just keep making work, whether it’s on your phone or with a fancy camera. At the end of the day, it’s 100% about the work. Push yourself to try new things and show your films to people.
What’s been your biggest challenge during lockdown?
Staying inspired and happy. That has felt hard but I’m lucky to be surrounded by good people.
If you could watch one film for the rest of your life, what film would it be?
This is a hard question! I did recently show my girls who are 11 and 6 Bend it Like Beckham and they loved it ☺