Senain Kheshgi's life of working with cameras started early on. A few years after her family emigrated from Pakistan to New York in the late 1960s, Senain found herself auditioning for a US kids television show. It turned out to be Sesame Street and Senain became the first South Asian American to be cast as a regular on American television, starring on the show from 1971 to 1977. What's more, before her parents moved to the States, her father was the first TV game show host on Pakistan Television.
Eventually Senain migrated from in front of the camera to behind it. She is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and has directed several feature and short films, including the three-time Emmy-nominated feature documentary, The Diplomat (ESPN), and the award-winning Project Kashmir (PBS/Independent Lens). She created, wrote and directed the comedic docu-web series, Divas of Karachi (PBS) and directed virtual reality films with Here Be Dragons (formerly Vrse) for Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, and Save the Children. Her films have premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (NY and London) as well as other film festivals around the world.
She is also partner and managing director of MAJORITY, a production company and community of collaborators dedicated to cultivating the careers of women in commercial and independent film. The production company is also part of the M&C Saatchi Group. It represents a roster of women directors who are working in the commercial, music video and branded spaces while continuing as independent filmmakers working on their own projects. The core mission for Senain and MAJORITY is to address gender disparity within the commercial industry while creating new opportunities for talented and driven filmmakers looking to expand the scope of their work in the commercial space.
LBB's Addison Capper was thrilled to get the opportunity to chat to her.
LBB> I was spying on your Wikipedia, and your early life sounds interesting. Your father was the first TV game show host on Pakistan Television. After your parents emigrated to New York, you were cast on Sesame Street! What can you tell us about those experiences?
Senain> My father was a TV game show host on television before there were many programmes on so he was quite well known in the country. He was a very charming man who loved to be the centre of attention. It was before my time but it was always something that he talked about and would tell me stories about and I was interested in. And then my parents moved to New York City when I was a child.
One day the casting directors came to our little child nursery group and chose a couple of children to be on a new programme that was just a year or two old at the time. They said they were looking for new voices and were looking at diversity, and in the States at that time, there wasn't really much programming like it. They chose me to come for a screen test. Nobody really knew the show at that point, but it was Sesame Street.
I remember as a child being quite precocious and curious and not shy. I wasn't afraid of the cameras, I was more curious than anything else. But I remember Big Bird walking onto the set and I looked up at my mother sitting in the stands and going, "Mom, Mom, it's Big Bird. It's Big Bird!" But I made the cut, I was on the show for four years as one of the child regulars and I learned how to speak English on that show.
LBB> That’s incredible...
Senain> Yeah but then my parents decided to move to a small town in the south which was a big shock for me - I was really happy living on Sesame Street and in the Upper West Side in New York. But we moved to a very small town called Athens, Georgia which some people may know because it had quite a thriving music scene in the '80s with REM and the B-52's.
My parents owned a little boutique clothing store there. My dad had owned one on the Upper West Side that was very fashionable at the time because it was the '70s and so a lot of people were wearing hippie clothing. Being from India and Pakistan, we would sell all those kinds of batiks and long dresses.
When we moved to the south, he bought the store 'Sight Unseen' and it turned out to be a head shop. So I grew up going from Sesame Street to a very small town selling bongs and pipes as a 15-year-old Muslim Pakistani girl. There was no drinking in our house but I was selling pipes. It was kind of a crazy childhood.
Being in the south at the time was interesting. Athens was a very small town but it also was a university town, so there were lots of very smart and interesting people. But the local newspaper did a story about my family and they wrote "they're not black and they're not white. So what are they?" But that was their welcoming way. Because there weren't many people like us in that town. So it was quite an interesting place to be always wearing different hats and seeing the world from different perspectives. I think that's what encouraged me to become a filmmaker because I lived in separate worlds all the time.
LBB> In your role on Sesame Street you were the first South Asian American to be cast as a ‘regular’ on American television and Sesame Street was, looking back, a trailblazer when it came to representation on screen. And all the more important as it was for children. You've spoken a bit about it already but what do you make of its cultural impact, and how has it influenced you as a director?
Senain> Very much so. I was a child but growing up in New York City you could see people from all over the world, everywhere and you fit in really easily. And then we moved to a small town that writes an article like that; where they're just not exposed. And there is a history that we can't deny of the South but I didn’t experience a lot of that, because I think we were kind of considered different. We were ‘exotic.’ They didn't know much about us. I remember someone asking me in third or fourth grade, "where are you from?" And I said "Pakistan" and they're like, "Oh, is that near Iowa?" But it intrigued me and I ended up studying anthropology, film and Global Studies because I knew what made us different as people, but I was really interested in understanding what makes us similar. And so that's why I was interested in journalism, documentary film and storytelling. I looked at the world as the outsider, so finding those voices that have been underrepresented or have been systemically left out of the conversation have always been the most interesting thing to me.
LBB> That really ties into your films like Project Kashmiri and The Diplomat - you seemed to be drawn towards personal stories rooted in conflict and division. Would you agree with that? What are your thoughts on that?
Senain> Absolutely. As a society, we tend to otherise, right? And so if you look at a person from a very humanistic point of view, even if you do it in a 30-second commercial. In advertising or in long form cinema, we're all just trying to find our humanity. And so if you look at someone who you think is very, very different than you, but you tell the story from a point of view that feels familiar and universal, there is empathy that grows and can create real connection.
LBB> You touched upon it there but how did you actually become a director? You had a passion for journalism and documentary filmmaking but what was your pathway to making that a career?
Senain> My dad was adamant. He was like, "you're not going to become an actor," which I always wanted to go back to. At the time I really wished we'd never left New York, but I'm really glad we did. But after studying, I was given a fellowship at the Smithsonian, one of the biggest museums and institutions in the United States.
I was working in their Human Studies Film Archives at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. My job was to watch, log and catalogue parts of their archival footage collection. They house an incredibly important collection there, where the families of explorers from around the world and from the beginning of film would donate their film for history. My job was to look at footage all day long and log it. But when I was watching it, I realised how observing beautifully captured, simple moments of connection had such emotional impact and I knew that I wanted to use film to tell stories.
From a very early age - because of my father and his love for film and television - I wanted to be working in cinema. I was writing scripts as a young kid, I was directing high school theatre and acting, so I was always absorbing and reflecting. But I never really saw myself as a director because I didn't see many other people who look like me - women in particular - who were directing. So I was just doing all of these things and not realising that I was giving myself a real film-school education through my experiences and training.
Then I ended up getting an offer to work on a news programme for ABC News. I started going out in the field and doing interviews and filming, thinking about the story in a very visual way and then coming back and very quickly turning it around into a story. I loved that experience because it gave me a sense of how to be a journalist, and how to tell stories and how to ask questions to get rich and nuanced responses. But what I didn't get was the aesthetic pleasure. There was a very set way of doing things so I knew that it wasn't a long thing for me.
LBB> How did you eventually grasp that ‘aesthetically pleasurable’ side of filmmaking then?
Senain> I was brought on by CNN to work with them and they brought me out to LA with my husband. And from there, I started really getting involved in meeting a lot more of the film community. I was very active in the indie film community in New York previously, but now I was seeing the more commercial aspects of it.
And then I was asked to come on board to work with a director named Davis Guggenheim, who then went on to direct 'Inconvenient Truth' which he won an Academy Award for, as well as several other major documentaries. But at that point, this was his first feature doc. I was brought on to be his story producer.
I was literally in the field with him every single day, or out in the field by myself with our team. I learned how to really manage a crew from beginning to end, not only as producer, but like literally having those conversations of cameras and lenses and lighting and concepting and storyboarding. We made a film, which we filmed over a year and had several crews going at the same time, and as film editing goes with 100s of hours of footage, the editing took another year. So I learned a tremendous amount and learned so much about how to tell important stories in a visual and cinematic style. With that film, I said to myself, "I want to do this, I know how to do this - now it's my turn."
I think everybody who directs or anyone in the creative field has these doubts about themselves. You know, "what am I doing here?" when you are directing a major production with loads of crew or a car chase about to go off and hundreds of people are looking at you. But I realised that this feeling was the case with many of the filmmakers that I was meeting - they also felt these things. So that's why I thought, "well, why not just try?" I jumped in and wrote a proposal with another friend of mine and we started getting a lot of traction with Sundance and Tribeca and other prestigious funders for our film, ‘Project 'Kashmir'. Then PBS, the American broadcaster [like BBC] fully financed it.
I remember standing on the Lincoln Centre stage at the premiere in New York and somebody asked me the question, "what does it feel like to be a woman who's directed a film in a warzone?" Honestly, it was such a strange question to me at the time, because I never thought about being a woman or being a person of colour. I thought of myself as a director. I was naïve and young. I didn’t realise the extent to which the stakes were against me.
When it really hits you is when you're trying to make your second film; when you try to make something again. And I was seeing incredible women directors who were writing screenplays and making beautiful award-winning films and they were struggling to make their next film. I knew I wanted to do something to change the systemic pressure women directors face.
LBB> That feels like a good time to talk about MAJORITY. How did it come to be that you ran that and as part of the M&C Saatchi Group.
Senain> I was making documentaries and I began my career as a commercial director working with brands such as Facebook, Johnson & Johnson and Save the Children. I was starting to meet more people in the commercial world and started seeing that the advertising and brand world were interested in different ways in which they told stories. They were looking not only for that 60-, 30-, 15- or six-second piece, but were looking for long-form stories or webseries – different ways in which to engage an audience.
M&C Saatchi has a history of supporting new business ventures. So, when they asked me if I'd come in and speak to them about being a woman director, I didn't realise that they were interested in hearing my perspective because they wanted to support a company that raised up diverse women’s voices in advertising. There was a lot of conversation and support for women directors in independent film with organisations like Sundance and Women in Film that were making strides to support and launch new voices. I wasn't seeing that happening in the advertising world. I was looking at commercial production companies and there would not be a single woman on a roster. In my indie film circles, we would all talk about the barriers and how would it be possible that so many women directors had such a hard time breaking into this space? What does it take? What do we need?
M&C Saatchi asked me if I'd be interested in starting a boutique studio because of the deep relationships I had with directors and filmmakers. I was passionate about raising the profile of these incredibly talented yet marginalised women filmmakers into the changing landscape of advertising. I decided to take them up on the offer to create a place for diverse women directors to have a home and where agencies and brands looking for unique voices could come and develop stories with us. After all, women make up 90% of the buying power but at that time only made up 3% of the commercial creative directors in the industry. This happened in late 2017 and in October that year was when the Harvey Weinstein story broke. We were right there at the beginning of that.
LBB> It sounds like a real story of fate and something that you or them couldn't pass up!
Senain> It's very interesting because I come from a completely different world as a producer and a director and a writer. It was a big learning curve for me to move into the world of advertising. But at the same time, I realised that the world of advertising was also moving closer to the world of filmmaking. It already had been, but it was accelerating. And then you add to that this perfect moment with the conversation that was happening with diverse voices and inclusion and the launch of Free the Bid and the 3% Conference. There was a lot of interest in bringing women's voices into the commercial space.
I wanted to start a company that didn’t just ‘femme-wash’ productions but instead was truly rooted in mission with a double-bottom line. We can make great commercial work while opening opportunities for women and diverse voices if led with intention.
There's a lot for a filmmaker to learn about the cinematic language of short form storytelling of commercials. Yet, there is a lot for an agency producer or brand to learn about how to work with a filmmaker. As a result, there's sometimes a lot of anxiety on both sides. I think what MAJORITY is really good at and what makes us different is that we can bridge those worlds. We make the agency feel really comfortable because we have commercial and executive producers working with us. And we have experienced, award-winning artists and filmmakers who bring their worldview and expertise in storytelling to the table and work closely with the creatives to develop and enhance a brand’s message.
LBB> Can you speak a bit more about what you feel an independent feature / doc director can bring to a branded project?
Senain> There is a process that an independent filmmaker goes through that is very similar to what a creative director would go through, because you're thinking about how to tell a story in a way that is concise and beautiful and multi-layered. You want to tell the story through the visual style, but also through the characters that you choose and the way you present them. So what you're getting when you hire an independent filmmaker is somebody who's really excited about working with the creative or the brand in a very early stage of development. You're not looking at just hiring somebody off of a reel with MAJORITY. Our directors reels are very different - sometimes the reels consist of little brand work but instead pieces that reflect a point-of-view – the director’s doc film from Sundance or their Academy-Award nominated short film or a television food series she created – all of which reveal their expertise. MAJORITY brings that added extra creative layer.
A very respected agency once reached out to me and they were working on some anti-gun violence work. I think the creative director was just way ahead of his time - a real genius - he came to me and said "we know we're trying to reach this space, we've got a client who wants to do this work. But we know that we're not the experts. Can you help us find a documentarian who's worked in this field? Who can tell us where we're going wrong and what we're doing right? And how to elevate that story?" This is a really specific example but what I thought was really smart about that is that when you bring in a documentarian or somebody who's lived in this experience as a filmmaker of whatever the topic is that you're working on, it's like you're hiring an expert in the field and not just somebody who's done a lot of research and read a few articles. So we brought in three or four women directors, some of whom were even Academy Award-nominated filmmakers, to look at their creative and say "what do you think? Do you think this is going in the right direction? Do you think it'll be effective?" So it's like you're getting a built-in group who can then use their networks to help enhance the creative. It's a really cool process that we've been excited to explore with a few really bold brands.
LBB> Obviously, you are a director and I imagine you don't get as much time to direct as you used to. How do you find the challenge of running a company and nurturing new talent within it?
Senain> I think what's always been my driving force is working with people with intention, bringing up those voices and mentoring. So I do a lot of that. I work with Sundance and I work with PBS. I go to a lot of film festivals and watch a lot of films and talk to a lot of filmmakers from different stages of their work. Sometimes it's to support them and help them make their film but also just looking for those voices and helping them with their questions on how to break into the commercial industry. There's not that many spaces where the filmmakers get to speak to the advertising world. So MAJORITY does a lot of workshops and mentoring. I do direct and I'm also writing which is good. Right now, I'm actually writing a television series based on that story of my parents owning a head shop. And I'm continuing to direct occasionally more longer-form films. The key word is occasionally. Our reps keep saying "let us send out your reel" and I keep saying "no, I don't have time." I do love it but the feeling of being on set supporting diverse women directors is second to none.
LBB> Which recent project from MAJORITY are you most proud of and why?
Senain> During the pandemic we had a little bit of a break, but we did do a really beautiful film for Patagonia - which I always look at as another brand that's really forward thinking. MAJORITY is perfect for a brand who really understands their ethos and where they're coming from and what they want to say. You know exactly what Patagonia stands for and I think people wear it for that reason. They know their customer really well. They reached out to us with one of our directors, Anjali Nayar and asked us if we'd be interested in creating a short doc film with them, which they then showed at all of their stores and which continues to play at film festivals and actually has changed legislation.
The film is about one of the grantees of their foundation. It was a group of young Latinx women - high school and college age girls - who were fighting against the big oil refinery that was building oil wells right up against their homes. They were fighting at City Hall and we filmed them over several months and made a short half-an-hour film. Patagonia very smartly utilizes the power of documentary filmmaking and impact campaigns to reach their core audience with topics they care about. The company put up billboards around with an active impact campaign messaging and reached out to their loyal customers to support the women in the film. That's the other answer to the question of "why work with a filmmaker?" It's because filmmakers know how to get their film seen. So partnering an indie woman filmmaker with a brand that uses hybrid film techniques with strong brand messaging is a perfect partnership.
LBB> That's a problem that I feel hasn't really been addressed as brands and agencies look to make more longer form entertainment work - how to actually get that work seen. What are your thoughts on that?
Senain> I've had brands call me and say, "we want to make a film. We need it cheap and fast and we need it to be on Netflix." That’s just not how to make a good film nor how to get distribution. But then you have these really smart brands who say, "let's make a film and let's hire a filmmaker to collaborate with a client on a topic that matters to them." Those films usually turn out special and have a totally different feeling for an audience. You could end up playing at Cannes or another prestigious festival. We've seen that happen. Those companies are the ones who are forward thinking. They support filmmakers and work closely with them throughout the process of making the film all the while working on impact distribution along the way. They know who their audiences are while they're making the film.
LBB> When you're not making films and running MAJORITY, what do you get up to stay happy and relaxed?
Senain> I am a total film nerd. I think for me, the saddest part of this last year is not being able to go to the movies and I'm really happy to see life coming back to theatres again. I'm writing my script and that is great fun and exercises a different part of my brain. And then of course I live in California so we have the blessing of being outside all the time. A lot of swimming and walking the dog with the family and spending time communing with friends. What more does one need in life?
Additional reporting by Josh Neufeldt