Having played to sold out audiences at film festivals and in theaters, Brahmin Bulls stars Roshan Seth (Gandhi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen (The Help, Last Vegas), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes, Covert Affairs), and Justin Bartha (The Hangover, National Treasure).
Geetika Pathania Jain (GPJ) interviewed Mahesh Pailoor (MP) for this magazine.
GPJ: Can you tell me a little bit about your motivation in making a film where you keep the cultural context in the background?
MP: While the film is not completely biographical, it is a relationship that is fairly close to home. I grew up in a small town in Maine, and there weren’t a lot of Indians around when I was growing up. I didn’t see them on television, I didn’t see them in movies, so when I wanted to become a film-maker, part of the motivation was to create stories that I could relate to.
GPJ: The strained relationship between the son and the father reminded me ofThe Death of a Salesman, where there is an infidelity issue that breaks up the family. Your film similarly focuses on issues of familial differences rather than on cultural differences. Any comments?
MP: Although the lead characters are Indian American, their heritage adds a specificity to their respective characters, but it doesn’t define the central conflict.The Dad did have an arranged marriage, and ended up having an affair, and those are the things that are very specific to being Indian. When I was growing up, a lot of films were about being confused about identity. It’s changing, so you see Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, a Netflix TV show or Mindy Kaling and this movie is probably part of this conversation.
GPJ: There is a cat in the film that disappears and then reappears. I was reminded of the 1989 film War of the Roses, where the character played by Michael Douglas kills the cat of his estranged wife. I’m wondering if cats are especially imperiled when people divorce.
MP: Oh my goodness. Yes, the cat. We don’t own a cat, but we have a cat in the neighborhood, who hangs out at our house. But that was the story, it was how we knew we had a movie, because in the beginning he dumps the cat, the cat comes back, and then in the end, he gives the cat to his soon-to-be-ex-wife. And that little idea became the structure for the movie.
GPJ: It was a powerful opening scene, the cat being dropped off on the side of the highway, and the screeching of tires as the car takes off. What was the rationale behind the very provocative title?
MP: It’s sort of a play on words. A Brahmin as a character who is aloof. And the bulls refers to the father and son being at odds with each other.
GPJ: Any surprises?
MP: Anu and I met Roshan in India, and we convinced him to do the movie. Roshan’s best friend in the movie, Michael Lerner, was a friend from drama school, whom he hadn’t met in thirty or forty years. Roshan didn’t know that we were casting Michael Lerner, so that was a nice surprise. Roshan showed up on set and realized that his friend was there.
GPJ: Did your parents prefer that you not become a film-maker and go for a “safe profession?”
MP: I was lucky. My parents never forced me to do something I didn’t want to. I think we’re changing as a group. A lot of kids are going to film school, and making movies.
GPJ: Mahesh, you are from NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. What was your thesis film?
MP: I’ve done a lot of film school. I went to NYU and then I also went to film school here in LA, at American Film Institute (AFI), for graduate work. The film that I made there, my thesis film, it’s called Little India, and it starred Senthil. I’ve known him for a number of years, and we were always trying to work together. Brahmin Bulls was written with Senthil in mind.
GPJ: Who are your influences? MP: Peter Weir is on. Not a lot of people know his name, but they know his movies. Everyone has seen Dead Poets Society, orThe Truman Show. There’s Ang Lee who is a bit of a chameleon, and there’s Spike Lee.
Geetika Pathania Jain lives in the bay area. She is a regular contributor to India Currents. She was the managing editor of this magazine from March to June 2015.