Writer Kahlil Maskati and director Andrew Carter aren’t new to taking intimate slices of life and turning them into emotionally charged yet relatable short films. They are the minds behind “Uncle”, a film about the Indian-American diaspora experience that screened at the 2020 New York Indian Film Festival and will reappear at the 2021 Los Angeles Indian Film Festival.
Cinema Escapist sat down with Carter and Maskati to talk about “Revenge Tour”, a TV series pilot about Derek “Milkshake” Qamar — a young man who finds solace in rapping when he’s at his bottom. “Revenge Tour” debuted at the 2018 LA Film Festival, and they’ve just released it publicly.
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“Revenge Tour” is about a guy who’s been beaten down by life and his relationships, and finds an outlet in rapping. Was the making of this film a similar outlet for you?
Kahlil Maskati (KM): It’s funny you say “outlet”, because I went through a breakup, and I actually did rap. I made a track and sent it to my friends. It was a dorky thing, but it was also really cool because of how much they ended up liking it. It was an amazing experience to take this breakup, which at the time was very stressful and disappointing, and channel it into this creative outlet.
Andrew Carter (AC): When I first read the script, it immediately resonated with me. The character, Derek, was really angry at himself, but he was angry at himself for being angry. I had been broken up with a year ago, and I was looking for a way to not be angry, looking for a way to process my emotions and move on. Reading “Revenge Tour” felt like it was okay to just be angry for as long as I needed to be, and would have helped me if I’d read it a year ago. It’s also a story about how people aren’t black and white; you can’t sum up someone just looking at them. Some people might look at Kahlil and say “he’s not a rapper”. People will look at me and say “he’s a goofy guy, he can just do funny stuff.”
KM: Yeah, it’s about not fitting the mold people make for you. Similarly, it’s about breaking the molds stories like this often fit. There’s a tendency for break up films to always be one-sided. It’s either from a female POV where it’s devastating and she has to start her life over, or it’s from a male POV where it’s comedic where he’s sitting in his sweatpants eating donuts. Striking this middle ground really connected with audiences, which we were happy about. It’s both that it’s extremely depressing for this character, but it’s also funny and real that this rapping is the only way he can process it.
Speaking of rap, rap culture is becoming more prevalent in cinema worldwide. There’s a French film called West Coast where schoolkids carve out their own group through rap, indigenous people in Brazil making a rap video about the pandemic, and of course Gully Boy. What about rap transcends borders more easily than other music genres?
KM: I think its increase in prevalence is primarily a factor of when it started and how old its fans are. When hip-hop first started in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was focused in the urban areas of America. So it’s kind of like video games now, where the people that grew up with it now are at the age where they’re making film and art. It definitely gives people an outlet and a chance to be themselves in a different way.
AC: Also, rap was born out of fighting back against oppression, which I think that everyone at some point in their lives feels. Whether it’s really serious or just a kid not wanting to do his homework, everyone can relate to that. It was also illicit to listen to rap as a kid growing up in the early 2000s, and knowing you weren’t allowed to listen to it made it more popular. In countries outside the US, it was even harder to get, even more “out there” and rebellious. Not being able to get something just makes you want it more.
KM: I’d also like to add that rap has evolved so much. For example, now rap can be lighter and more nuanced, which is why we’ve seen so many more people doing it and bringing new things to it.
AC: Yeah, I remember going to my first rap show in 2008, and it was just Lil Wayne and a DJ. A couple years ago, it was Kendrick [Lamar] and a full band. It’s crazy to see how much rap has evolved musically and lyrically. There are so many more stories we see in it now.
So we can’t talk rap films without talking about the Bollywood film Gully Boy. How do you compare the themes between the two? Did it feel validating to see a similar idea gain so much critical acclaim?
KM: Even though Gully Boy followed the rap trope of starting at the bottom, it felt fresh to me. It was highlighting his love story, his friends, and it made relatable characters that made us want to cheer for them. The main overlap [with “Revenge Tour”] is definitely that there’s a brown main character who can be universal, which is refreshing to see on-screen. Both movies are certainly about self-realization over others’ realization, but their character arcs are different. Derek’s goal isn’t to perform on a stage, it’s just to feel better.
AC: Yeah, there are a lot of inherent themes that are similar. My favorite part of Gully Boy is when Murad’s (the main character) father tells him to make his dream match his reality, and Murad responds with “no, I’ll make my reality match my dream.” The idea of following your own path and not giving in to whatever people expect of you was amazing. It’s a lot harder to tell when you’re right than when you’re wrong, which I really relate to. The place where I feel “Revenge Tour” differs is that Derek doesn’t really have a choice, he’s not rapping for this big dream. He’s had this terrible breakup, and he’s tried therapy and antidepressants; nothing else works. It’s not about giving him a dream or a voice; he just doesn’t have a choice. Revenge Tour isn’t a story about wish-fulfillment, it’s about a man learning to heal and accept responsibility for his mistakes. That honestly made it harder to sell to executives, I think.
Aside from “Revenge Tour,” you also made “Uncle.” That looks at a completely different topic: the breakdown of communication within Indian-American diaspora families. Tell us a bit about your ideation process, how do you plug in the different cultures you’ve seen and been a part of into your filmmaking?
KM: Before Andrew and I make anything, we always check whether we’ve seen this story, this character before. If we have seen it a bunch of times, then why should we make it? The character, the culture, or whatever theme we’re exploring in that film has to be unique and specific, because the more specific, ironically the more universal the story is. “Uncle” is an Indian-American father-son story that looks at mental health, communication between family, and a lot of small details. “Revenge Tour” is about heartbreak, but it’s also about being mixed-race and in a tough spot in life. As far as the ideation process goes, it’s constantly inspired by my real life. I don’t see the cultures and lessons I’ve learned in life explored much in cinema yet. It’s a little frustrating when it comes to marketability of the material, but portraying these issues correctly is the reason why we make films in the first place.
AC: Sometimes it’s also about seeing issues that aren’t represented, or aren’t represented well. And we look at that and say “we can do better.” Our new short, “Marvin’s Never Had Coffee Before”, is the story about a thirty-something year old guy who’s never had coffee. It sounds like a silly premise, but it’s about a guy who wants to fit in and connect. It just goes to show that showing a unique perspective can be on any scale, and people will inherently connect to the humanity that you can show on screen.
Much like characters in your films, the stories you tell have the power to transcend borders. What’s next for you, and how do you hope to continue connecting people across the globe?
AC: We obviously want to create stuff that excites us. But there’s a bigger goal than that. While shopping around “Revenge Tour,” and our current short “Marvin’s Never Had Coffee Before,” we realized how focused the major industry is on specific kinds of stories. Even though we were award-winning filmmakers at the last iteration of a film festival, people wouldn’t even let us pitch our new film, or ignore our submissions. So many executives told us “‘Revenge Tour’ is undeniable”, and it won so many awards. Yet, it still wasn’t picked up as a show. The unchanging age-old thought process for mainstream media companies creates a situation where new ideas that can resonate with new people never really get a chance.
KM: Right, for example, people expect a schtick when they see a brown person on screen. They’ve got to be comic relief, or the nerd or something. Creating films where people break those tropes helps change that. We’re working on a feature film that we’re shooting this summer that’s also in the same vein, so be on the lookout for that!
AC: A big part of it is also listening to each other. Kahlil and I have different passions and experiences, and different thinking about story-building, but we always make sure to listen to each other. If we can feed each other’s passions and try to understand one another, it creates a better film where maybe the audience can understand a group that they didn’t before. There are parts of humanity that are underrepresented film, in more than the ways people usually assume. For example, learning differences like ADHD, which I have. That’s why I really love Cinema Escapist’s mission of connecting people with ideas from around the world they haven’t even heard of before. To any aspiring filmmakers trying to figure it out, the film industry’s made up of people who haven’t given up. It’s rough, but the world needs your stories.
KM: Right, to quote Gully Boy here, we want to make the film industry work for our dreams, and not the other way around. [Laughs]
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“Revenge Tour” premiered at the 2018 LA Film Festival, and is currently streaming on its website. Carter and Maskati are currently working on their upcoming film Camcorders, launching next year. This interview was edited for clarity and length.