Par Parekh’s directorial debut ‘The Happy’ highlights breakout year
LA is a beast of its own. The center of the U.S. entertainment industry, a plethora of voices from different backgrounds find their home within city limits, and with that comes mashing of different cultures. Par Parekh knows this well thanks to his time in LA.
In his directorial debut The Happy, Parekh tells the story of Par, a heartbroken man new to LA with some spiritual issues as well. But when Par gets a sign from above, he ends up finding himself in the hands of a woman who needs spiritual guidance and sees Par, a bearded Indian American, as a great guru. While a simple concept, there’s plenty to love with Parekh’s first comedic short film.
A story with real-life touches
The Happy may not directly be Parekh’s journey to LA, but a lot of Par is in this film. Born in Texas to Indian immigrants, the Parekh family moved around until landing in New Jersey by the time he was in high school. While in college, Parekh studied philosophy, film, and biology.
After graduating, Parekh used his scientific knowledge in the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Behavior at The Rockefeller University in NYC. But Parekh didn’t stay away from film for long, as he got an opportunity to write for Film Journal International. With a reinvigorated love of film, Parekh began splitting his time between LA and Brooklyn to follow his passion.
What makes The Happy work
While The Happy isn’t his first project, as Parekh has worn many hats, it is his first time directing a narrative comedy piece. Naturally, he stuck to familiar territory bringing to life an accentuated version of his own life. But with such an honest and personal charm, The Happy shines for the first time director.
There’s so much to love about The Happy. Sherra Lasley’s Astrid and the spiritual journey she goes through in nine minutes, the entire sequence with Par trying to throw his bag with the meat out the door, or the moment where Par and Astrid both get what they were looking for. The Happy is a good laugh for anyone who’s lost, showing that life has unexpected ways of bringing people together.
Parekh spent 2019 running the festival circuit with The Happy to great acclaim and is coasting off that high into his next big project. You can catch Parekh next with his feature documentary directorial debut Sister Una Lived a Good Death, currently in post-production.
Par Parekh doesn’t hold back
We were so lucky to be able to learn all about Par Parekh’s breakout year from the man himself. “Happy” to generously share all of his insight and knowledge, Par Parekh gave us a dream interview. Read on for his journey from Neurobiology to filmmaking, the brilliance of Babe, Pig in the City and the inspiration found in sea shanties.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
As a kid, music, and movies were everything — I lived and breathed them and treated each screening as a special kind of Christmas. They were the greatest magic tricks I’d ever seen — Hollywood classics like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Muppet Movie, or Bollywood hits like Mr. India and everything starring Amitabh Bachchan.
But, in my Gujarati family, arts were seen as a hobby or something that looks good on a college application — not something to devote your life to. You grew up, became a docto-law-gineer, got married, had kids. Like everyone else. So how could I even know that being a filmmaker was a life?
Thankfully, I had incredibly supportive parents —not a given in South Asian communities, and something that wasn’t without its struggles. They didn’t protest when I chose to attend Wesleyan University, a liberal arts school in New England where I studied all the things: Philosophy, Biology, and Film Studies. That’s where my cinematic world opened up, and my love of the arts solidified. You can actually make these things? It was the perfect center of my life’s Venn diagram: adventure, technology, music, stories. Oh my.
I still played the good Indian after school by working in a Neurobiology Lab, but by chance fell back into movies within a year. I’ve played many roles—director, writer, producer, editor, cinematographer—on many varied projects: from documentaries to narratives, shorts to features, art films to commercials, industrials for nation-states to promos for large media corporations, gritty run-and-gun to high-end fashion. Somewhere in there I was a producer on Benh Zeitlin’s short film Glory at Sea and filmed a documentary in the Himalayas for a few months. But it wasn’t until 2015 that I decided to move to LA and tell my own stories again.
Who are your current influences?
Well, there are classic stalwarts who always offer so much: the mad world-building of George Miller, the magic of Orson Welles, the visual wit of Ernst Lubitsch, the folkloric myth-making of Bob Dylan, the insight of Patricia Highsmith, and the myth and grandeur of The Mahabharata.
But then there’s a new crop of people that are seeping into my creative unconscious in marvelous ways. Leland de la Durantaye wrote one of my favorite novels of the past 5 years, Hannah Versus the Tree. It’s burrowed its way into my soul, and I’d love to find a way to translate his beautiful mythic prose into cinematic language. Nimisha Bhanot’s pinup paintings sync up with my desire to create new iconic characters. Soderbergh’s ability to be a total filmmaker always inspires me to keep creating. Robert Eggers, with his exacting eye, mad sense of rhythm, and obsession with texture, really knows how to create precise worlds within a small frame. Donald Glover–especially his work with Hiro Murai–was a huge influence on The Happy. His particular angle on the American experience, told with absurd wit and sharp cultural criticism, is something that I think about every day.
But mostly I’m influenced by old sea shanties.
What five TV shows do you think everyone should watch this year?
Fleabag, Chernobyl, Watchmen, Pen 15, Atlanta
Cat or dog?
Dog. Definitely dog. They’re loving companions that’ll explore with you on all your epic adventures.
What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?
I have to pick one?! Well, I suppose I’d say The Red Shoes. I watched it twice in a row when I was 19, and had the same reaction to the colors, the rhythm, the music, that people like Scorsese had. But it was the emotional exposure to such conviction and devotion to art that blew my mind. It had never been put into such stark terms for me. And suddenly I saw it as my duty to become a filmmaker — I had no other choice! Which is crazy when you think about my family and upbringing.
There’s something that The Red Shoes sparked in me, and I think about it every day: How I’m the only person in the entire history of my Indian family that was allowed to express themselves fully—and make a living — as an artist. Which is crazy, because it clearly came from somewhere in my past. I know I must have had a great-great-great-grandmother out there with the same crazy artist’s soul who was never allowed to express it because she was married off at 14 or because that talent wasn’t nurtured. Oh, how lucky I am.
How was working on The Happy? What did you learn from the experience?
The shoot was marvelous — because of the top-shelf cast and crew, and the amount of preparation that went into it beforehand. I storyboarded and shotlisted everything. We only had a ten-hour window on the 2 days that we were shooting the interiors since my friend generously offered the use of her apartment while she was at work. But that meant completely changing the location with art direction and then making sure we had enough time to get everything back to normal by the time my friend got home. Not an easy task! But thankfully our brilliant Production Designer Emmy Eves and her team were able to manage all that.
Aside from reaffirming everything I believe about pre-production and preparation (there’s no such thing as too much), the shoot taught me quite a bit about acting and directing at the same time. Thank goodness for Rebecca Feldman, the co-director.
Tell us about your career before you found film.
I’ve kind of been doing this my whole life — I worked in a Neurobiology Lab for about a year, but I was only 21 years old so I can hardly call that a career.
Where did the concept come from for The Happy?
As a brown man new to Los Angeles, I was struck by the regularity with which I experienced a casual, non-oppressive type of racism, especially in a state which actively prides itself on racial sensitivity. The assumptions people made about me would be offensive if I didn’t have such an absurdist sense of humor. I’d get asked, “What’s it like to be raised Hindu, so much closer to spirituality than the rest of us?” They’d assume that I was a divine being with all the answers because I was brown and bearded. They didn’t even want to hear that I was born in Texas and raised in New Jersey.
With The Happy, I wanted to explore the idea of what it means being other people’s mirror. Setting it in LA not only exposes the hypocrisy of that world’s cultural shortcomings but allows us to explore the complicated landscape of narcissism and spiritual materialism through a very different lens. But I wanted to avoid total condescension—the show is a humanistic and empathetic portrayal of those hungry lost souls. The Par character is just as lost and weird as everyone else (he’s going to Hug Therapy based on a flier that falls from a tree!).
What music inspires you to create?
Music is my first love. It’s always playing and inspiring everything I make and is often the genesis of many ideas. In fact, I treat filmmaking as music-making. There’s a rhythm, a flow, a dynamic range of emotion that you’re shepherding the audience through.
In terms of what I listen to, if it stirs my heart and soul or makes me put on my dancing shoes, I’m in. Everything from a Schubert aria to 1960s Tanzanian rock and roll, from Elvis Presley to Fat Tony, from Led Zeppelin to Lorde, from Mohammed Rafi to Bruce Springsteen. And sea shanties.
Talk us through your creative process.
There’s really some sort of sorcery or witchcraft involved in filmmaking, isn’t there. Ultimately, it’s my job to cast a spell on an audience for a given period of time and make them buy into this crazy universe that’s unfurling before their eyes. It helps that I’m an editor, so I see the world in shots — in points, out points, beats and moments. I pay attention to where the eye is drawn, and what minuscule gestures lead to large emotions.
Of course, the process involves lots of procrastination and head-smashing. There’s pacing, and cooking, email-checking, the occasional dance-break.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Don’t let striving for absolute perfection prevent you from starting a project. And once you’ve started, use that momentum to barrel through all the hardships that inevitably arise.
Take that cue to start the process from anywhere you can — The Happy would never have gotten off the ground if my producer Kelsey McManus hadn’t insisted we could pull this off in a short amount of time. That was the little kick I needed.
We live in a truly revolutionary period, where you can make a feature film on your iPhone. The technological barrier is gone. The only thing you need is the will, the vision, and the taste. And that comes from watching everything, listening to everything, reading everything.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
I truly do love it all — but my brain lights up thinking of interesting ways to tell a story visually. How can I use the cinematic medium to say as much as possible without dialogue?
Aside from that, I love the collaboration. It’s an art form that requires it, and I embrace it. I make sure to surround myself with incredibly talented people, and I love listening to people’s ideas. While I do think that I ultimately have to be the final decision maker, I don’t believe in running the production as an authoritarian. I got very lucky with all the talent on The Happy. I mean, look at Sherra Lasley, who plays Astrid. The show lives and dies on her performance, and all of her choices are so hilarious. Favienne Howsepian, the insanely talented DP, helped design the perfect look and every one of her touches gave this episode that magical feeling. I genuinely get excited working with others — it’s the same feeling I have when cooking a feast with a bunch of friends. Everyone has a part to play, everyone has their own ideas, and everyone is excited for the delicious end product!
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
I don’t know how to do it any other way! So it’s not a matter of being difficult—it’s just the only way to do it! Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to know how things work — I’d disassemble and reassemble countless VCRs, much to my parents’ dismay. Knowing how all the parts work makes me be able to articulate my ideas to collaborators much more clearly.
But really, wearing lots of hats makes me understand my limitations, and what people with more talent can bring. Take Adrianne Born’s magical work on the opening animation. I had comped together a sequence using some of her inspiring illustrations, but she really gave it a depth of detail and life that elevates the whole piece. And it’s so fun!
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I’d have to say Babe: Pig in the City. George Miller’s incredibly dark but soulful kids movie has more heart and nuance in it than most grown-up movies I see today. It’s a massive technological achievement, has some of the best production design I’ve ever seen, some exquisite action sequences, and a very sweet talking pig.
What’s your next project?
I have a longer-form version of The Happy, where the Par character gets wrapped up in a conspiracy theory involving a global wellness conglomerate and a healing crystal corporation. Imagine him in some cross between Big Lebowski and The Life of Brian.
I’m putting the finishing touches on a really fun script that taps into my Indian American teenage years—but with really strange characters, lots of adventure, and sea shanties.
I’m also in post-production on my first documentary feature called Sister Úna Lived A Good Death. It’s about one of my favorite people of all time — a smoking, cursing, wisecracking Catholic nun who dedicated her life to social justice and inspiring teenagers to do good by embracing their individuality. Given months to live after a terminal cancer diagnosis, she chooses to face death in her own iconoclastic way—by living as she’s dying. I hope it’ll help people start to have honest conversations about death and dying, something we don’t do in our culture.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Alas, I don’t think I’ve had proper mentors since my college professors, but I really do wish I had had one. Because of that, I try to go out of my way to mentor as many people as possible. Especially young weirdos who don’t feel like they belong — I didn’t have someone like me growing up.
What has been your biggest failure?
You know, I’ve learned to not look at success and failure in terms of “biggest” or “smallest.” Living the creative life—especially in this industry—is full of so many constant highs and lows that not dwelling in either is the only way to maintain any kind of emotional stability.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
On a grand scale, I’d like the audience to re-evaluate what they already thought they knew — I love embracing the contradictions and absurdities of this strange and wondrous world. But on a more immediate level, I’d like to show a more robust range of brown characters on screen, without calling attention to their brownness. It’s really important that we’re finally having conversations about diversity and representation in cinema, and now I feel like it’s time to widen its scope.
I go into meetings in LA and people assume that I must be like the other South Asian talents they’re aware of, or that I must have the same story being trapped between two cultures. But I don’t relate to every brown character on screen just because they have the same skin color as me. I relate more to Lindsay Weir from Freaks and Geeks. I didn’t struggle so much with two cultures growing up — I was too busy struggling with angst, neurosis, and being a repressed artist. We need more diversity of diversity — my identity is more than my race or gender, and I want to tell stories that reflect that.
I want to be part of this new wave of South Asian artists who demonstrate a diversity of storytelling. You’d never say Spielberg and Lynch are similar because they’re white men. There’s a range with everyone from Ridley Scott to Leo Carax — and countless styles within. I want to see more brown characters in the vein of Fleabag, Travis Bickle, Mad Max and Furiosa, and the mother from Babadook — but not the “South Asian” Fleabag, or the “South Asian” Taxi Driver. Let’s make truly original shows that have stylized, interesting, complex characters who happen to be brown.
What has been your biggest success?
Being alive, making art, and thriving within strong, varied, and connected communities all over the world — these are no small things that I never take for granted.
That and having avoided becoming a docto-law-gineer.
Can we expect to see any more episodic television from you anytime soon?
With amazing film festivals like SeriesFest that really embrace and champion episodic content, it’s an exciting time for digital series and television. I loved making The Happy and it’s definitely led to me developing more serialized shows, and even a mini-series.
What’s your five-year plan?
When you talk to me in five years, I probably still won’t have gotten around to shaving. I’ll hopefully have a feature film under my belt, and one of these shows on the air. And with any luck, I’ll be well on my way to launching my production company and incubator. Our mission: to find and nurture ideas that push the limits of human curiosity. I’m a firm believer in storytelling and its cross-discipline power—so I’d work with artists, scientists, journalists, filmmakers, musicians to create a community to develop the NEXT generation of interdisciplinary storytellers.
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
There are so many great documentary filmmakers right now, it’s very inspiring. Brett Story is making some really amazing work. Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss’ Lovmobil is one of the great documentaries I saw this year — she and her team have created a gem. Alexandria Bombach’s On Her Shoulders is an achievement of such directorial discipline and focus that I can’t wait to see whatever she does next.
Narrative-wise, I saw Patrick Wimp’s digital series Brothers From the Suburbs at Austin Film Festival and fell over laughing, especially at the third episode, a split-screen masterclass set in a barbershop.
Who would compose the soundtrack of your life?
It’d be a strange orchestra with Tom Waits, Mavis Staples, Goran Bregović, Jarvis Cocker, Franz Schubert, Sam Cooke, Mica Levi, and a bunch of salty sailors singing shanties. Wow, I’d like to be in that room.