Disney releases first original movie with an Indian American lead, Spin

In an interview, director Manjari Makijany shares the collaborative creative process behind Spin to tell a story that was authentic to its roots.

An interview with director Manjari Makijany about Disney Channel’s Spin

Spin is Disney Channel’s first original TV film featuring an Indian American protagonist whose passions lie in music.

Rhea (Avantika, Diary of A Future President) is a hardworking high schooler who juggles challenging classes, multiple extracurriculars, and nightly shifts at Spirit of India, her widowed father Arvind’s (Bollywood star Abhay Deol) successful Indian restaurant. She works and lives alongside her spirited maternal grandmother Asha (celebrated U.K comedian/actress/screenwriter Meera Syal) and her opinionated little brother Rohan (Aryan Simhadri). 

Rhea strikes up a friendship with her new classmate/crush Max (Michael Bishop) after she learns that he is an aspiring DJ. He starts teaching her the ropes, and Rhea soon discovers she has real potential and talent as a DJ. However, she is unsure how to reconcile her new passion with her friends’ and family’s expectations.

Cold Tea Collective sat down with director Manjari Makijany to discuss the collaborative creative process behind Spin, and the details that went into ensuring the film was authentic to its roots.

The struggles of depicting a second generation Indian American’s experiences

Western films featuring Indian characters often include typical visual signifiers, such as a Holi festival, the arbitrary donning of traditional costumes, or a random Bollywood dance. Unfortunately, although the actors all bring a wonderful authenticity to their performances in Disney Channel’s Spin, this film includes every single one of these tropes. 

While there’s nothing wrong with showcasing recognizable elements of South Asian culture in a film meant for broader (and younger) audiences, it does feel like a missed opportunity to tell a different kind of story across the board. Especially in the way a show like Netflix’s Never Have I Ever subverts expectations about second generation Indian American stories. 

That said, authenticity is a thorny road to navigate, especially when our stories are still too often written by creators who are not South Asian (including Spin). 

It’s clear from the conversation with Makijany that a lot of effort went into the production of the film. No stone was left unturned in trying to make sure the story was authentic to its roots. Makijany cares deeply about telling stories about artists and dreamers — whether they ride skateboards or spin tracks.

How director Manjari Makijany brings authenticity to Spin

Zanne Devine and Manjari Makijany
Manjari Makijany with executive producer Zanne Devine. Photo credit: Disney/John Medland

You recently directed Skater Girl, your directorial debut, and this is your second time directing a feature. How did you get involved in this project? What drew you to this story? 

It happened straight after Skater Girl. Once I finished post-production, I thought I would have some time off because as stats go between your first and second film, especially if you’re a female filmmaker, the gap is really long. I was mentally preparing to take a little bit of a breather, but [as] I was reading scripts my agent sent me, this is the one that sprung out. I could see the film [as] I was reading the script. 

Fortunately for me, they loved the vision I pitched to them. For me, it was very exciting that this was Disney’s first Indian American protagonist. It was a fabulous opportunity to present both my world and Indian culture to mainstream audiences. 

See also: Working through grief and regret as an immigrant filmmaker

Though Spin centers around a second generation Indian American female lead, the screenplay was written by non-Indian screenwriters and the main music team was also non-Indian. As the director, what was your process to ensure that the story was authentically Indian American without resorting to stereotypes?

I was amazed when I read the script and saw the writers’ names because they did such a great job researching every little subtle thing. Of course when I came in, I had my own spin on it, infusing a lot of subtle details and nuances. I communicated to every department that it was important to have that representation done authentically. 

We had an Indian costume consultant do all the saris and jewelry and actually ship it from India. A lot of detailing went into production design too — some of the fabrics, swatches, and knick knacks in the house were also shipped from India. 

For the music team, we had an amazing legendary composer, Marius De Vries (La La Land), team up with the Bollywood duo Salim-Sulaiman for an original track. [Salim-Sulaiman are a famous sibling composer duo behind many popular Bollywood songs.] And for the Spirit of India restaurant, I sat with an Indian chef and said, “Okay, what’s going to be on the menu? What is the food we’re going to see?” 

It was a really fun process because I was in a space of authority and responsibility to make sure I got it right. We hired Indians where we could — the head of makeup was Indian Canadian, and our cast is from all over. We have Abhay from Mumbai, Meera from the UK, and Avantika from the USA. So it’s really a true representation of how widespread the Indian diaspora is. 

Finding the right cast

I’d love to hear what it was like to work with the cast, and how they brought their personal perspectives to their characters. 

It was so important to cast the right person for the role. Rhea’s dad is an immigrant who moved to the United States. So it was [key] to open up the casting to India to get somebody who naturally has an Indian accent, and doesn’t have to put on a stereotypical caricatured accent. That’s how we got Abhay, and he’s done a phenomenal job. He’s so natural and plays it so cool. 

It’s the same with Meera — she’s such an incredible Nani (grandmother), and the relationship [she shares with Rhea] is beautiful. I think the whole eclectic ensemble beautifully fit together not just on-screen, but even off-screen. They’re all friends, and click so well. We’re even all on a Whatsapp group together — and that all translated very naturally on screen.

Abhay Deol, Manjari Makijany, Avantika
Abhay Deol, Manjari Makijany, and Avantika on set. Photo credit: Disney/John Medland

Mixing together the right sounds for Spin

How did you work with the music team to bring Rhea’s final DJ set to life? And who was the artist who sang Rhea’s mother’s music? 

Pratibha Singh Baghel, she’s such a beautiful singer — we recorded her in Mumbai. [Some of the Indian instrumental elements] were done by Salim-Sulaiman, and Marius De Vries put together this beautiful track that Rhea makes, encompassing who she is as a person. It’s got a little sargam that gives a nod to Indian classical music, a little Bollywood element, and a fusion eclectic mix with it. It really brings together and celebrates who Rhea is as a character. 

Marius and I sat down and discussed what really makes her song unique, and how to differentiate Max’s fun and awesome sound [from] her super soulful sound. It was exciting making that trajectory for her: when she’s starting, what kind of music you hear in the restaurant, what sort of playlists she’s making, and then how she puts this beautiful track together.

See also: Gathe Raho: South Asian A Capella in the Midwest

What was your favorite part about directing this film

It has to be the music, the big dance numbers, and the final DJ battle sequence where Max is spinning “Feeling Good” and Rhea’s spinning “It’s All Music.”

There were so many fun moments — including shooting the Holi festival. It was also super challenging shooting during the pandemic. We were in [full body PPE] suits shooting with all these people and colors, making sure everybody was safe and that we were following protocols. 

I think one of the sweetest, most heartwarming scenes was the one with the grandma, when she encourages [Rhea to enter the DJ Battle competition] and says, “Go get it and do what you’ve gotta do.” That was also one of my favorite scenes. 

Makijany’s thoughts on the future for South Asians in filmmaking

Manjari Makijany
Manjari Makijany behind the camera. Photo credit: Disney/John Medland

What do you hope to make in the future as a filmmaker? What kind of stories do you want to tell?

It’s really the stories that excite me. I don’t know what that will be yet: a coming-of-age story, or an action thriller, or animation. It’s really open — what gets me excited, what will be fun and challenging, and different, and not something that puts me in a box like, “Oh, this is the go-to filmmaker for that!” 

For young South Asian American creatives who want to tell their own authentic stories: get your work out there. People are hungry for content. Diversity and representation is a serious conversation at leadership positions in studios. The more you can submit to labs, to an agent, or just get the material out there to get leverage, I think [that] is the first step to putting your work out there. It’s a vulnerable process, but I think it pays off if you keep at it and just create more work.

See also: Writer, actress Sujata Day on her new film and telling Bengali American stories

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

I hope they take a little slice of life of India, and they get to taste the flavor and spirit of India in a very accessible and contemporary way. I hope we can also enjoy some of the fun, cultural things we celebrate — whether it’s Holi, or the food or family relationships, or the respect we have for elders. 

But above all, I hope it inspires people to go after their talent. It doesn’t matter if it’s unconventional, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not your stereotypical doctor or engineer kind of job. I hope it even opens up the minds of some parents to [think], “Oh yeah, this is pretty cool. Yeah, my kid is excited about something unconventional. Let me support that and see where it takes them.”

Spin will debut on the Disney Channel on August 13. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Featured image: Still from Disney Channel’s Spin, featuring Avantika

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