Culture / Entertainment

Interview with Transparent’s Nisha Ganatra

Nisha Ganatra Nisha Ganatra, director of Transparent, gifted me with a fantastic conversation about my favorite subjects: media, feminism, parenthood, and Transparent (not necessarily in that order). We discussed how she came to work on what has been touted as the best show of 2014 by just about every news outlet that has reviewed it. Eventually, we talked about a whole bunch of other fun stuff because that’s what happens when queer parents get to chatting. So while we all wait with bated breath for Season 2 of Transparent, I bring to you excerpts from our due VillageQ interview series with Nisha Ganatra.

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Nisha Ganatra went to NYU film school, which was not the typical path of a young Indian woman. Her immigrant parents were not so thrilled with this creative venture and would have preferred that she pursue a career in medicine or law. But when Ganatra went to graduate school, they took pride in her advanced degree. “While I was getting my Masters, my mom introduced me and my brother and would say this is my son who works at Apple in computer science, and this is my daughter. She’s getting her PhD. I’d say ‘It’s not a PhD,’ and she’d say, ‘SHHHH! Be quiet!’”

Ganatra went on to direct independent films such as Chutney Popcorn, Cosmopolitan, and Cake, but she never thought she could or would want to work in television. The world of television is an established industry, difficult to infiltrate and rigid in its hierarchical construct. You may think of television production as creative, but there is very little creativity that goes into making television. Ganatra’s work in independent film allowed her to wear many hats and afforded her a creative control that she would not enjoy in the closed, male-dominated field of television.

Women in TV

Cut to Jill Soloway, a professional feminist creating television on her own terms. From comedy to plays to film, Soloway had established herself as a writer and director and she became the co-executive producer on Six Feet Under.

Ganatra and Soloway knew each other professionally. Nisha had followed Jill’s career closely since her work on Six Feet Under. “I’d see an episode that blew me away, I’d go back and see that she wrote it, so I started following her name before I ever knew her just because I thought she was a great writer.” Ganatra was also impressed by the fact that Soloway was (and is) an out feminist, especially now when feminism continues to be a word that men and women – pardon the phrase – skirt around.

Ganatra told me that Jill was really committed to hiring women. She only met with other women directors. In addition to the 25 trans people on the cast and crew of the first season, Soloway hired Lady J as a staff writer for season two after committing to hire a trans staff writer even if it meant training someone to do it.

When Soloway met with Ganatra to discuss potentially working on Transparent, Soloway told her that she had a really good feeling about working with Ganatra. Ganatra said, “It was her feeling and she trusted her feeling. She likes to do everything from the womb – from a very instinctual place.”

According to Ganatra, Soloway’s purpose behind making Transparent was to heal the broken feminine. “The whole mother-whore dichotomy is indicative of the divided parts of our selves. To be a part of healing that dichotomy is to heal the divide in our society. And, if we heal that in the world, then we will make everything a safer place. The goal of the entire series is to make the world a safer place.” It seems like quite a lofty goal, but Soloway is determined to do her part, and everyone else involved in the show has opted in to that vision. Maybe Transparent is a revolution in the making.

On a very personal level, Soloway wanted to make the world a safer place for her transgender mother, affectionately referred to as Moppa. On the show, the kids also refer to Maura as Moppa. The real life Moppa had originally asked that her story remain private, but along the way, she agreed to let Jill refer to her transition. Perhaps Moppa feels safer, already. It could be that Transparent is to transgender men and women as Will & Grace was to gay men and women.

When I asked Nisha if they expected all the attention and accolades, she said, “We had no idea. We were really just making this piece of art that we all just loved. We were this small group of people making this tiny piece of art saying, ‘Maybe somebody will connect to it,’ but I think everybody was really overwhelmed by the response. We all felt really good about doing something really special and important, and we honestly felt like we were trying to change the world. But you never know if anybody else is going to see it or respond to it.”

While it’s absolutely appropriate to praise Jill Soloway up and down for creating the brilliant series, the show’s success is the perfect example of collaboration at its best. Ganatra described Jill Soloway’s feminist approach to creating Transparent as an opportunity to “break down this very male system of how television has been made in the past.” Ganatra explained that television is very hierarchical. “The guest director just comes in for a couple of weeks, and then they’re gone, and then another comes in. Jill had this amazing theory that it’s all set up to keep the showrunner in power. But if we weren’t afraid of people taking away our power, and we just shared the experience, we wouldn’t have to create such a strict system. It ends up being pretty radical, female approach that kind of collaboration.”

Ganatra described how the two of them made boards for each episode and pinned collages together with pictures that were inspirational, sorting through colors, themes, and words that they thought were important moments in each episode. They talked about the scenes that spoke to them and which scenes they really wanted to direct. “We just shared, and it came naturally, and it was really beautiful,” Ganatra said.

Both Jill and Nisha are parents, and the commitment to feminism extended to their support of each other as mothers. Nisha described a partnership that allowed them to step in and direct whatever was at hand at any point. “So if she needed to do the millions of meetings for Amazon or go write or take care of the hundreds of things a showrunner has to take care of, I could step in and direct a scene from her, and she could come in and say I want to do this scene because this is really important to me. There was no ego or possessiveness. It took two mothers to know how to give each other a break. I don’t think that would have happened if we both weren’t parents.”

There have been few criticisms of the show, but one of them has to do with likeability of the characters. Much like in Six Feet Under, all the characters in Transparent are flawed, and sometimes it is painful to watch people making bad decisions or acting selfishly. Soloway has come to understand the root of their discomfort and what it means to have unlikeable characters. She asks herself, “Am I making a cisgender, straight, white man at home feel better? And if I’m not, then the character becomes unlikeable.” According to Ganatra, Soloway now takes pride in creating characters that are unlikeable given the likeability standards in mainstream television.

Ganatra recalls a fantastic rant of Gaby Hoffman’s, who plays Maura’s daughter Ali. She compared Transparent to other popular shows on cable and said “We watch Mad Men, and this guy is an alcoholic and cheats on his wife and fucks everybody in sight and then Tony Soprano is a murderer, and I can’t even watch Breaking Bad, and so we’re a little whiny! What is the problem??”Transparent family shot

Others have raised the issue that Jeffrey Tambor is a cisgender man playing a trans woman. Nisha points out that Maura’s character is, in fact, living through the early stages of transition. It should be said that he is a tremendous actor who is playing the role with dignity and professionalism. Interesting that no one has objected to the fact that Sarah’s partner Tammy is played by heterosexual Melora Hardin or that Kathryn Hahn is a gentile playing a rabbi. Many of the cast members are parents, however, which facilitates a universal language on set and a shared understanding of family dynamics.

I asked Nisha if being a parent is a strike against anyone working in television, and she confessed that she never mentions that she has a child. “I’m always afraid it’s going to be held against me in some way. And it is. Somebody told me that when you’re a woman and you say you have kids, they assume you want to be home with kids. But when you’re a man and you say you have kids, they say oh we have to get him a job because he has a family to support.”

Of course, she doesn’t regret a minute since she became a parent. “I know it’s so cliché,” she admitted, “but it’s been the best thing and the most amazing experience. He’s my favorite person in the world.”

It is at this point in the conversation, I wanted to know what the secret to good parenting is. Now that I am a parent, I always look at the happy and successful people around me and ask them whether they accomplished all they did because of or in spite of their parents. I want to know what their parents did or didn’t do that I should be considering when raising my own children. So I asked Nisha to tell me a little bit about her own upbringing to possibly reveal any tips her own parents might offer.

Nisha told me that her parents exposed her and her brother to as much as possible and tried to encourage them to be fearless in their choices. Her parents also gave their children a significant amount of independence and left them to entertain themselves or pursue hobbies and sports on their own. “My parents really did the opposite of what I’m doing. I only have one son, so I kind of tend to do way too much for him. It’s really hard for me to sit back and just watch him.”

She added that she and her brother had a lot of time on their hands. “We were just bored! We’d have to go to temple every week and we’d sit in temple for a really long time, and someone was speaking an ancient language that we did not understand. Learning how to sit still for 2 to 3 hours a week and figure out how to entertain yourself? That was a valuable thing.” So there you have it. Ignore your children, and they’ll turn out great! I kid. Ultimately, her parents encouraged both of their children to pursue their own happiness – even if that meant going into television.

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Question #1: How would you spend a weekend alone without any children?

Nisha: I have the forced weekend alone, being divorced. On the weekends, I do all the boring stuff. The errands. It’s awful.

Deborah: Should I leave that question out?

Nisha: No, don’t skip it. When I watched Louie, I saw that episode when Louie’s kids go to his ex. He eats so much ice cream that he makes himself sick. He passes out, and then he just cries. And I was like, “Uch, that’s me.” Married friends think it sounds great to have a break from your kids. But the truth is, it’s awful. It’s the worst. One of the few things I think our parents’ generation did right is divorce, but I don’t think kids should be shuffled between homes in the name of equality. If anyone should be inconvenienced – it’s the parents. Not the kids.

Aside: Nisha and I talked about the fact that in the first season of the show Sarah quickly bounces from her first marriage to Len to life with Tammy and how unsatisfying that might be for anyone who has gone through a painful divorce. Nisha indicated that there will be more marriage unpacking in Season 2.

Question #2: What would your dream job and nightmare job be for your child?

Nisha: A nightmare job would be an office job where he just punched in and where it didn’t involve any passion or joy. A dream job would be inventing something that we all didn’t know we needed.

Question #3: As a mother, how are you like your own parents?

Nisha: The thing my mom did was really made us her priority. My son understands that he’s super important to me and that’s what my mom managed to do. Even with all of her failings or drama, we never doubted that she loved us and that we were really important to her. If you can accomplish that, that’s pretty amazing.

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  1. Such great insights. Thanks so much for the interview Nisha and Deborah!

    • Deborah Goldstein says:

      We had a great conversation, and I’m really looking forward to whatever comes next for Nisha – on Transparent and beyond!

  2. OMG, fangirling out over here! I am so impressed with the work folks have done on this show. Thanks so much for the interview. I can’t wait for season 2!!!!!

  3. Really enjoyed this wonderfully insiteful article! Thank you

    • Deborah Goldstein says:

      You’re welcome! Many thanks to Nisha who took me behind the scenes and taught me so much about the show and the television industry.

  4. Loved reading this. I had no idea the show was connected to Six Feet Under, my other MOST FAVORITE SHOW. I love the depth the characters have and the dedication to art I see in each episode (of both shows). Refreshing.

  5. Pingback: Success and setbacks for women in Hollywood today

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