LA-based Filmmaker and Producer, Sonali Sundararaj on Hollywood, fight for inclusivity and filmmaking during pandemic

Gayatri Vinayak
·6 min read
Chennai-born, LA-based filmmaker and Producer, Sonali Sundararaj
Chennai-born, LA-based filmmaker and Producer, Sonali Sundararaj

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted professions and industries across the world, including the entertainment industry, which has been racked with uncertainties, shutdowns and budget surges. In the United States alone, location production has gone down by 54 per cent.

Shoots have resumed, though production costs have shot up due to precautionary measures mandated by authorities. These include daily COVID-19 tests for artists and filming crew, weekly tests for production staff, constraints on the number of people permitted on sets, plexiglass separations and more.

However, it has not stopped the TV and film industry from finding innovative ways to continue functioning. With shows back on track as restrictions slowly lift, the entertainment industry is adapting to the new normal.

Filmmaker and producer Sonali Sundararaj, who is among the few Indian women working in network studio production in the United States, is optimistic that the industry will bounce back. “I see this as a phase where many rules may be rewritten,” she says. “We’ve learned that remote filming and directing is possible and found new ways to keep things going.”

Hence, short-form content such as interviews or ‘how-to videos’, etc, are being shot over the phone or laptop, which, while not as convenient, ensures production does not stop. “Rather than have an entire crew go over to film someone, we send equipment such as lights, cameras and everything else, to their house and instruct them remotely on aspects such as how to set up.”

The cast and crew of the romantic comedy television miniseries, ‘Love in the Time of Corona,’ for example, filmed their entire series consisting of four episodes during the pandemic by using actors who lived or were quarantining with other actors, their houses, families and a seven-member filming crew.

Production during the pandemic
Production during the pandemic

A former state and school-national level track and field athlete turned producer, Sundararaj started her career at Star Vijay TV, where she was involved in producing shows such as Kalyanam Mudhal Kadhal Varai, Olli Belly, Oru Varthai Oru Latcham among others.

While she gained tremendous experience in production in India, there was no platform for the type of content she wanted to make. “This was before the streaming giants came in and changed the game. I was watching shows like Breaking Bad, Sherlock, Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy and witnessing the rise of female powerhouses like the producer, screenwriter and author, Shonda Rhimes; I knew it was time to expand my horizons,” she says.

She then decided to take a leap of faith and flew across the world to Los Angeles, where the magic happens. “In Hollywood, I found order in the chaos that is filmmaking,” she says. Production is streamlined with everybody, from actors to grips, adhering to strict codes of conduct. Content is also king here and a tremendous amount of work goes into making a project shine.

Breaking barriers of gender and race

On being a woman in a male-dominated industry, Sundararaj says it’s an uphill battle and the prejudices run deep. She, however, believes that change is on the horizon. “We have a long way to go before the playing field is levelled, but it’s inspiring to see the incredible things women are doing to get us there.”

With discussions over racism and inclusiveness also taking centre stage in the United States, the American entertainment industry is witnessing a slow shift to greater diversity. Many South Asians are now helming their own projects; YouTuber, comedian, talk show host and actress Lily Singh, comedian, writer, producer, political analyst and actor Hasan Minhaj and actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas are all household names in the United States. What is heartening is that people from diverse backgrounds in the industry have introduced fellowships, mentorships and labs that aim to identify and support promising talent within their communities.

“Racism is a reaction of fear, which is a result of lack of education,” says Sundararaj. “You fear what you don’t know and that’s what we are trying to change by telling diverse stories and fighting for an inclusive industry. The key is education through representation.”

Through her role as a filmmaker and producer, Sundararaj hopes to challenge racial inequities. “While the focus is on fighting for representation on screen, it’s equally important to take conscious steps to ensure diversity in our crews as well. There are shows that claim to be inclusive because they have people of colour in front of the screen, but show no diversity behind it, even in key crew positions.”

Stories that spark conversations

The 29-year-old, Chennai-born Sundararaj has been part of production teams for numerous Hollywood shows like Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-winning American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Mayans M.C. for Disney/FX, For All Mankind for AppleTV+ and the upcoming musical The Prom for Netflix. Sundararaj, who came to Los Angeles six years ago, has graduated with a Certificate in Producing from UCLAx in 2016.

Sundararaj has also produced multiple short films, some of which have won awards and accolades. Her short, Third Time Lucky premiered at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, while other films like HIS Period, The Upside to the End and Music Therapy have been screened at festivals such as UCLAx Film Festival, Houston Comedy Film Festival, Festigious International Film Festival, California Women’s Film Festival, Miami Independent Film Festival and many more. The young producer also worked on the American segment of the Rajnikanth-Akshay Kumar starrer 2.0.

Sundararaj’s passion for producing stems from her love for putting things together and giving a project life. “It’s the magic of finding a script or idea that you believe in, matching it with the right people and resources and watching it come to life,” she says, adding that while being a producer is not easy and is often a thankless job, it is also the most rewarding. She admires the work of Guneet Monga, the Oscar-winning veteran Indian producer who is known for her visionary films. “The kinds of films she makes are bold and impactful and her journey as a producer is truly inspiring,” she points out.

The pandemic has not put a dampener on her future plans and Sundararaj is eager to get going on projects. “My focus is on producing scripts that are innovative and also full of heart… stories that spark conversations,” she says. Sundararaj is particularly passionate about stories that revolve around women, people of colour and immigrants. “I've wanted to tell my expat story since my first semester at UCLA, and that need has grown to want to tell multiple stories about different experiences.”

Sundararaj is currently working with Film Independent for the 2021 Spirit Awards and is excited about an Indo-American production that she will be producing soon. “Cinema is an international language that has the power to influence and change lives and as a filmmaker, I feel it is my responsibility to use this wisely,” says Sundararaj. “As a woman and person of colour, I want to do my part so I can hold the door open for others like me.”