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Q&A: Duke alum Prashanth Kamalakanthan on creating his first feature film

After graduating from Duke, Prashanth Kamalakanthan, Trinity ‘14, went on to pursue a career as a journalist and filmmaker. Over the past few years, he has been working on his first feature film “Have a Nice Life,” of which he is writer, director and editor.

The film, mostly shot in Durham — Kamalakanthan’s hometown — is a fresh take on the archetypes of the stoner comedy and the road film, bringing together the odd couple of Sophie, an unemployed artist played by Lucy Kaminsky and Jyothi, an Indian housewife played by Kamalakanthan’s mother, Jagathi Kamalakanthan. It will premiere for North American audiences at the 2021 Maryland Film Festival on May 23 at 4 p.m. EST. 

The Chronicle corresponded with Kamalakanthan over email to discuss the origins of the film, filmmaking during a pandemic and working with your family. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: How did the idea for “Have a Nice Life” come to be?

Prashanth Kamalakanthan: I’ve always loved road movies, because for me the open road is such a powerful symbol of the American experience. America is a land of highways; Americans spend more time driving than any other people in the world. But speaking personally, too, my family immigrated from India, and we moved around a lot when I was younger. So I spent a lot of time in the back of our ’97 Honda Accord, watching this new country whiz by in flashes.

More than anything, what I love most about a great road movie, especially ones set in America, is how they lay bare the true journey of their characters’ lives. In the end, it’s never about the literal mileage traveled — the real journey is inside, spiritual and metaphysical.

So these were elements I naturally gravitated toward when I started developing this film as my first feature. I knew — given the time and resources we had as graduate students at NYU — that we’d have to keep the production relatively small in scope, and at that level what distinguishes a film most for me is its directness, honesty, and specificity of perspective.

As an Indian-American mining my own dualistic, paradoxical experience, of being first-generation in the American South; of making art and creatively resisting the hostile economic conditions all young Americans live under; the road movie form seemed like a perfect vehicle, if you’ll forgive the pun. We built the story around two characters from opposite poles of this experience. One, Jyothi, is an Indian housewife trapped in the suburbs in search of escape, while another, Sophie, is a stoner musician drifting although without any support or structure. I understand the tension between these perspectives, because I’ve tried to resolve them my whole life. I knew intuitively that there would be potent and sometimes explosive reactions if they were stuck on a road trip together.

From there, we took it as far as we could go, pushing and challenging the old road movie and buddy-comedy forms we love. Above all, we tried to dial in on the metaphysical dimension of their journey, pushing their interior experience out to the forefront. We hope not to just show these underseen and underrepresented characters, but to actually see and hear as audience members through their particular perspectives on life. So that we’re not making our audience passive consumers, but rather creative participants, there on the road trip, too: not just watching, but behind the wheel, driving. (Metaphysically speaking, of course.)

TC: Was [the film] something you were planning prior to the pandemic? Were any aspects of it born from the pandemic or the circumstances of the past year?

PK: We got lucky — we managed to get the whole movie in the can in 12 hot, action-packed days, the summer before the pandemic hit. But that left us to finish the film during the pandemic, which was definitely weird.

Our first test screening in New York actually got canceled as part of the first wave of COVID closures last March. We were eventually able to move that online, like we did with most of the sound and color, which was an interesting learning curve. Mainly, it just slowed everything down, which was frustrating at times, but also gave us the luxury of really polishing and reworking the edit. We ended up discovering a number of amazing moments and devices through our long quarantine post-production period, so in the end it all kind of worked out.  

TC: What was your favorite part of creating “Have a Nice Life”?

PK: This was my first feature as a writer-director, and I couldn’t be happier that we made it the way we did: back home, based out of the house I grew up in, shooting with family and friends I’ve known since grade school, in the shops and alleys I used to haunt.

There are too many surprising, bizarre and absolutely hilarious moments during the production to really rank, but day-to-day, my favorite part of the job was just coming home with the team and eating dinner at my parents’ table. Usually with a cold beer on the side, we’d relax, joke, gorge ourselves and review the day’s shoot, forming plans for the next day. 

It’s such a beautiful and special feeling, having your people around you like that while you’re working so intensively. And I think you can feel this spirit in the film when you’re watching. You can sense all those different handprints in the clay.

TC: What was it like working with your family on this? What do they think of the final product?

PK: To answer your second question first — we’ll see at the premiere! They still haven’t seen anything or even read the whole script, because this was a big part of my method for working with first-timers on this project.

My mom only ever received her scenes — and only her scenes — the morning of each day’s shoot. This was mainly to keep her from “acting” as a nonprofessional. I just wanted her to be herself, the way she acts and responds naturally, which I know from experience is incredibly interesting to watch.

In fact, that’s why I modeled the character so closely after her — I knew someone like my mom would make an extremely compelling, funny lead for a film, but I actually never believed that she could do it when I was still writing. The screenplay had so much emotional range and some clearly demanding scenes, so I’d initially intended to cast a professional for the role.

But when it came time to make our fundraising video, I needed to cast someone quickly in North Carolina, and my mom was the only person available. All of a sudden, people started asking me when I’d shoot the movie starring my mom, complimenting the heck out of her performance and so on.

This got me thinking, for the first time, that it could seriously work. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it, too, despite the obvious difficulties. I’d never seen someone that looked like her play a substantive role in a film, anywhere —  apart from, say, trying to coerce our hero into an arranged marriage — let alone as the lead.

So we ended up casting my mom alongside a great actor from New York, Lucy Kaminsky. And as with every first-time actor, you just have to develop a working method that’s very specific to who that person is. I withheld the script as much as I could, so she’d stay in the moment and not anticipate her story arc. Beyond that, we worked together to find a kind of private language (references, moments, similes), to ground every action in her real life, so she could simply be and react.

Apart from the occasional heat exhaustion … it was an extremely pleasant collaboration. My mom sincerely seems to enjoy the actor’s process. She has an incredible memory and intense focus, which become important when you’re on set, trying to tune out 20 strangers with boom mics and lighting equipment all staring at you.

TC: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

PK: See, if you get the right angle on it, life doesn’t have to be a drag, and it’s certainly never a dead end. What our heroines discover, and kind of what we proved making this film, is that life is literally created by you; it is a creative act structured around all sorts of invisible models. In our case, it was a literal script, but in real life sometimes there’s God, for others political conviction, sometimes simple revenge or all three. Regardless of your conditions — which are often undeniably cruel and subhuman in today’s world — there is a freedom that’s available if you embrace this essentially creative aspect of existence.

But that’s only the first step. Both Sophie and Jyothi understand this when they take off and go. What it takes longer to realize is that this creative impulse, to seize your life and rewrite it — is meaningless without submission to some ideal that’s bigger than just you. To get there, you need love, which is at the same time a self-identification as well as a kind of giving, through sacrifice and self-negation.

This is what all the old religions taught, and what they meant by “self-realization,” which is really an expansion of the self to include others, your community, the world. Today however in the age of the individual, with the decline of institutions and collectivities of all kinds, this is a much more chaotic and personal problem to solve.

This film, in a way, is really us working all this out together. Our collective response is what you see up there on the screen.

Tickets for the premiere can be purchased for $15 through Eventive, and more info on the film can be found on its website

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