From Bollywood to Cleverman, Mithila Gupta is a screenwriter bringing truth, passion and make-believe to our screens.
Mithila Gupta (Cleverman, Winners and Losers, Home and Away,) is an Indian-born, Aussie-bred screenwriter who started her career in the story room at Neighbours - where she introduced an Indian family to the regular cast of Ramsay Street. We caught up with Mithila to learn more about her career and what’s on the horizon.
What motivated you to want to get involved in the screen business in first place?
Fame and fortune. Obviously. No, no. I’ve grown up with Bollywood as my main portal into my Indian culture. So, the screen business has formed a massive part of my identity. I’ve consumed stories to feel a part of something bigger. And I’ve looked to Bollywood stars to be my inspiration. Working in the industry has always been a dream of mine and my parents have always taught me to strive for my dreams, which I now realise is the most beautiful thing considering how hard they worked to make a life for us here. Really, I had no choice but to give it a crack.
You started out in the art department back in 2009 - did you always want to be a writer?
Always. But I put writers on a massive pedestal and didn’t think I could earn a living doing it. I loved my time in the art department, but it didn’t always feel like the right fit for me. I saw others being much more passionate about their work, while I gazed longingly at the script department. I don’t know if I would’ve ever had the guts to make the leap. But while on a big art department job I had a massive car accident and broke my right arm. It was the Universe making it impossible for me to be on set and carry heavy things around! The timeout forced me to confront the longing in my heart, so I finally sucked it up and enrolled into studying screenwriting. And I’ve never looked back!
You’ve recently written the pilot for The Unlisted, which ABC have commissioned, and Aquarius Films is producing. Can you tell us about the project? When can we see it?
It’s a gem of a project. It’s about 12-year-old identical twins, Dru and Kal and their discovery about a creepy worldwide movement to mind-control kids. Creator Justine Flynn was determined to focus a story on an Indian-Aussie family within an exciting sci-fi/ adventure genre. It’s been so fun to work with two such fresh elements. And dig deep into my upbringing to bring the characters to life. I’m so stoked to see it come together. And even more stoked to show it to my (currently non-existent) kids one day. I wish something like this was around when I was growing up in Australia!
“Everyone knows who the diversity writer is. You’re the one who’s the only one.” True or False (please elaborate)?
True, sadly. However, I have to say, this is changing. We’ve had several Indian filmmakers in the room for The Unlisted (Bali Padda, Sheila Jayadev, Nicholas Brown). And wow, that was fabulous. We’re all from different parts of India and have had massively varied experiences of the Motherland. It was so fantastic to riff off each other and learn from each other. And argue the ‘right’ way to celebrate Diwali, which was one of my favourite conversations ever. I’m also creating a comedy with Majhid Heath and Sticky Pictures. Every conversation we’ve had about our writer’s room has focussed on employing a multiply diverse team. We need more of this for more truthful and interesting storytelling. There’s no choice in the matter. We must keep up with the rest of the world.
Also, I have to say, while I’ve often been the only brown chick in the story room, it hasn’t always been as lonely as it might sound. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with absolute legends. And the diversity agenda has burnt strong in them. They’ve encouraged me to be open and honest. And they’ve fought to help shift the landscape of our industry. Sure, this hasn’t always been the case.
While I am very proud of my heritage I don’t see myself solely as the “diversity” writer. Yes, I currently own it as my most vital role. Because it fulfils me. But I also like cracking jokes, swooning over love stories, surprising people, entertaining them… There’s a lot more to it that’s important to me.
Recently you worked as assistant script editor on Cleverman. What was it like writing for such a unique series and genre?
It was amazing. Cleverman is such an ambitious series. Having written within much more domestic story worlds, it was freeing to work on such a grand scale. I felt privileged to be part of the story process. Even when it got tough it was deeply fulfilling to know that we were telling important kick-arse stories about the state of the world – from the perspective of a group of people who are rarely given the right to have a perspective. Outside the excitement of working with an 80% Indigenous cast, it was so cool to work in the sci-fi drama world. The imagination was allowed to go on over-drive. Bring on more of that.
Other thoughts on the movie business do you want to get off your mind?
I think we can all agree it’s a tough business. But I love it. To earn a living by playing make-believe, and venting our experience of this crazy life, is such a privilege. We definitely have a long way to go before we can be proud of how inclusive and truthful we are in terms of representing the reality of what society is. But we’ll get there, slowly, surely. I spent a long time questioning whether I deserve to be a part of the process. My request to other kids out there like me would be drop the hesitation and go for it. Yes, barriers still exist. And yes, it will be hard. But the industry needs you.
Who is a woman in the industry that inspires you?
This is such a cliché, being an Indian chick, but it’s got to be Mindy Kaling. I relate to her on so many levels. And I love that she’s broken through to tell stories she loves – and do it in her own voice. Living the dream! Despite the billions of things that would’ve stood in her way.