CAAM Fellowship Behind the Scenes: Fellow Pulkit Datta on Dealing with Rejection and Gatekeepers as a Filmmaker of Color

Pulkit discussing a scene for a commercial shoot he directed, featuring actor Wanjiku Kairu.
"While I could write this blog post littering it with milestones from my career and my projects, I decided that writing about rejection and failure might be a far more entertaining read."

Editor’s note: We are launching a blog series, “CAAM Fellowship Behind the Scenes,” featuring voices from our first cohort of the New CAAM Fellowship Program, including our mentors and fellows. We kicked off the series off with a reflection from Mentor Karin Chien, a producer, educator and distributor committed to championing independent voices. The second post is from CAAM Fellow Anuradha Rana, whose film, Language of Opportunity, follows Indian families on opposite ends of the globe as they navigate the complexities of choosing what languages to teach their children. Below, we are sharing Pulkit Datta’s illuminating reflection on dealing with failure and rejection as a filmmaker of color.

I’ve been a professional filmmaker and producer for 10 years so far. My trajectory has been very different from what I thought it would be, and there’s a lot I’m proud of. But what I’ve never talked about publicly are the realities of being a filmmaker of color in North America. There are a lot of additional obstacles most of us have to deal with. I want to talk about them more openly in the hope that it will help others. 

While I could write this blog post littering it with milestones from my career and my projects, I decided that writing about rejection and failure might be a far more entertaining read. 

Nobody warns you about how many times you’ll have to hear the word ‘no.’ They say you need a thick skin to survive in the media business. But I didn’t understand what that meant exactly, until I realized that the majority of my efforts would be met with rejection, skepticism, and doubt. Most people only see, and remember, the tiny fraction of my labor that ends up being successful. 

The truth is, this is amplified even more if you’re a person of color. We have bigger walls to scale. Extra hurdles. Wider oceans to cross. More treacherous mountains to climb. Pick your metaphor.  

Compounded with this is a cultural disposition that comes with being Asian American. At the risk of generalizing all Asian cultures, we all have something in commonwe’re socially conditioned to not speak about our failures and disappointments. As the first person in my family to go into the film industry, I’ve felt compelled to only share my achievements with my family and friends. All those times when I fail, I’m rejected, struggle to finish something, told I’m not good enough, or have thought about giving up this careerI’ve internalized all of them. And that can take its tollpsychologically, emotionally, and even physically. 

As a filmmaker of color, I’ve primarily had to deal with three harsh truths of the film industry (and, I suppose, the world at large):

1) I have to work much harder and smarter, than a typical white male filmmaker, to impress the gatekeepers. And to get even a fraction of the access or resources.

2) Speaking out about inequity or double standards gets labeled as complaining or rocking the boat, which in turn makes it even harder to get access. 

3) I’m socially conditioned to keep my head down and just work, and not talk openly about rejections or failures. A lot of Asian cultures have a deeply ingrained level of competitiveness, so sharing failures is seen as being weak or accepting that others are better. 

If you go by my social media presence, you’d think that everything is great. I’ve been traveling a lot, attending film festivals, sharing achievements for my projects. I realize I’m perpetuating the social media myths of everything being perfect. Frankly, it’s exhausting. What I don’t share, is that the positive/successful stuff I post about is a small fraction of what I’m trying to get done. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. We rarely share the rest of the iceberg that lies under the surface (Overused metaphor, I know, but it works).I haven’t shared, for example, that for every fellowship I’ve been accepted to, I’ve been rejected from at least twenty others. My scripts have been rejected by the Sundance labs four or five times, as well as by several other labs and workshops. I’ve been rejected by every major filmmaking grant and pitch forum you can think of. I’ve had exciting projects come my way, and then slip through my fingers. I’ve come so close to my projects being picked up by major platforms and production companies, only to be ghosted. Yes, there’s such a thing as professional ghosting. And going by my submission histories on WithoutABox and FilmFreeway, my films have been turned down by over 500 film festivals around the world. This could also be true of any filmmaker, and I acknowledge that.   

I try for so many things, that I get at least two or three rejection emails every week. 

Then there are the special things I have to deal with as a filmmaker of color. I’ve been told by a Hollywood producer that they will work with me when they have “an India-related project,” as if my skin color and ethnicity makes me incapable of making films about anyone who isn’t Indian. For the record, it’s perfectly okay for this to go the other way (*cough Slumdog Millionaire cough*). It’s been suggested to me that I alter my name to have an “easier” screen name. Or “can we give you a nickname?,” because they just won’t be able to remember my real name. And I’ve been asked to be on panels as a “diverse filmmaker,” but not just as a filmmaker. There is a difference.  

I’ve found myself bending over backwards and jumping through hoops to get the approval of white (often male) gatekeepers of funding. They tease me that what I’m doing is important and they care about “diversity.” But when the time comes for sealing the deal, the door is closed in my face at the last minute. I’ve come so close to being hired to produce shows by TV networks, or to write for national media campaigns, and eventually given an arbitrary reason at the last stage for why I’m not a fit. But, I do my research. I always do my research. And when I go back to check on who eventually got those gigs, it’s no surprise at all which demographic gets favored all the time. The salt on the wound? It’s usually people who have far less experience than I do.

There’s also a financial side to this. Being made to feel less than, meant I also valued myself less when negotiating compensation for gigs. There was a sense of guilt I felt in asking for compensation appropriate for my level of experience and skills. I fully realize that I’m still in a slightly better situation than women of color in this industry.

So, what am I doing about all this? 

I’ve spent the better part of my 10-year career so far trying to impress the gatekeepers. I realized that I’d had enough of contorting myself, and my work, to be noticed or to get access. Then I wondered, what if we change the gatekeepers? What if we establish new institutions of support, new pathways to funding, new pools of resources? There isn’t a finite number of opportunities. It’s just that a small group of people are controlling most of the access. 

For all the talk about increasing diversity in the film industry, there’s actually very little action taking place. Most of it is superficial. Hearing the term “diversity hire” has become a pet peeve. Ultimately, it’s the decision makersthe gatekeepersthat need to “diversify” for there to be any real change. What if the solution is simply to go around the existing ones and change the system from the outside? 

Producer Tyler Perry, the highest paid man in entertainment and one of the most successful filmmakers of all time, still says that Hollywood ignores him. He decided to go around the existing system and build his own studio to give opportunities to more filmmakers of color. The new Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta is larger than the Los Angeles studio lots owned by Warner Brothers, Walt Disney Studios, and Paramount, combined. 

Writer-Producer-Actor Mindy Kaling recently revealed that the Television Academy once tried to strip her of her producer credits on NBC’s The Office. She also happened to be the only woman of color on the producing team. She was made to prove her contributions to the show, including getting letters from the other male, white producers attesting to her work. Now, Kaling has built a formidable brand for herself as a creator that champions artists of color, producing network TV shows, feature films, and shows for Netflix. 

It’s inspiring to see such creators of color chart their own paths, and make what they’ve wanted to make anyway. That’s the approach I decided to take in recent years. If the existing gatekeepers won’t let me have access to opportunities, then I will create opportunities for myself and other filmmakers of color. I started working closely with some film festivals and organizations to add special programming and events that elevate the work of a wide range of filmmaking voices. I co-founded a South Asian film collective called Kalakars, with the goal of workshopping material by South Asian writers and directors, and to build a community of support for each other. I’m strategizing out-of-the-box ways of getting projects made, to circumvent the need for approval from the existing gatekeepers. And I make myself available to other filmmakers of color who need guidance or support to get their projects off the ground, even if I’m not directly involved. I want to be the support for others that I didn’t have for myself when I was starting out.

As for dealing with rejections and failures, I’ve had to look inward. Each time I receive a rejection, it hurts a little. I allow myself a few minutes to be upset about it (privately), and then brush it aside and move on. As I began having more honest conversations with other filmmakers of color, I realized I wasn’t alone. There is strength in that. (There is a mental health aspect to this, which is a topic for its own blog post.)

When I was selected as a CAAM Fellow at the beginning of this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect from it, except that this was an organization that has championed and supported Asian American filmmakers and stories for many years. CAAM, and their partnering organization A-Doc, quickly became a family of sorts for me. People were genuinely interested in each other’s work, we shared our struggles, solved each other’s concerns, and sometimes, made themselves available to just listen. On top of that, to have a mentor like Karin Chien, who has overcome similar challenges to build a successful career in film, and is so genuinely supportive and helpful, has been incredibly empowering. I am forever grateful to her for that. 

One of the most powerful moments for me this year was at CAAMFest, when, during a panel session, I found myself in a room full of Asian American and other filmmakers of color, talking about how the existing systems of the film industry don’t work for us. They weren’t designed to work for us. And in this gathering, people spontaneously began offering various forms of support to one another – their time, their skills, introductions, resources, even money. It was hard to believe at first, but it became a watershed moment for me. Here was a room full of people that simply ignored the existing systems and gatekeeping practices in place, and said: Let’s figure out a way to give each other what we need to keep moving ahead. 

From all of this, emerge my three biggest takeaways: 

– there is strength in sharing our struggles,

– there is tremendous value in uplifting one another as a community, and 

– we don’t have to wait for someone to give us permission to create what we want to create. 

There’s no one correct path to building a film career, despite what some might have us believe. We’re living in a time with so many possibilities, that we don’t need to wait for anyone to allow us to tell our stories. We’re already so used to being creative with limited access and resources. As long as we genuinely help lift each other up, there will be no stopping us.

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Raised in six countries across four continents, Pulkit Datta’s filmmaking interests are inherently cross-cultural. He started his career assisting director Mira Nair and has since worked on a wide range of international projects. He has worked on the creative development and production of narrative films, Sundance-backed documentaries, commercials, short films, and multimedia campaigns. His films have screened at festivals such as, Toronto, Tribeca, Atlanta, and New Filmmakers New York. He’s written and directed short films Jason and Wishful Whiskers and produced the feature documentary The Forgetting Game (IndiePix). He is a producer on Invisible, a feature documentary about fibromyalgia and most recently produced the award-winning short documentary Do We Belong?. Pulkit is also active in the filmmaking community, as co-founder of South Asian American collective Kalakars, and as guest curator of workshops and special programming at festivals such as Tasveer South Asian Film Festival in Seattle, Adirondack Film Festival, and more. 

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