Wearing a headscarf and a smile, Muslim movie director and writer Lena Khan stands out when she walks in Hollywood circles.
“It’s very hard to be a female filmmaker in Hollywood, that is for sure,” she said. “I think they feel like you don’t have as much authority, or you can’t command a set as much. And for the Muslim thing, I think they are still trying to process that.”
Khan is a child of immigrants from India. Born in Canada, she moved to the United States with her family when she was 2 years old and settled in a neighborhood east of Los Angeles. In school, she explored several career options before deciding on filmmaking.
“I had wanted to become a teacher. You look around and you’re like, ‘Nobody learns from teachers anymore,’” Khan joked. “Sometimes it feels like it,” she added. “And at least people learn so much from movies and films, about people, about social issues, about everything.”
However, Khan’s decision to pursue a career of writing and filmmaking sparked some criticism.
“When I was starting out, people in the community, South Asians most of all, they’re like, ‘Why are you entering such a stupid career?’”
Stories have value
But Khan persisted. Her first success was a movie she co-wrote and directed called “The Tiger Hunter.” The 2017 comedy is about the immigrant experience of a man from India in the U.S. Khan said the movie’s success surprised people in her community.
“People who are South Asian or Muslim can’t seem to believe that our stories have really real value. And so, the moment you start talking about, ‘Oh, you know such and such person from this company’ — aka white person — ’said this movie is good.’ That’s when their eyebrows raise. That’s when they feel like, ‘Oh, OK, somebody else validated this brown person’s story, and thus it has something to say.’”
Khan said the film’s universal themes and the coincidental timing of its release helped draw attention to it.
“The Muslim ban happened right when the movie came out,” she said, referring to President Donald Trump’s executive order that temporarily barred people from seven countries, most with a predominantly Muslim population, from entering the U.S. “That was never intended. It’s not a good thing, but it became very, very relevant.”
Her own path
“The Tiger Hunter” opened doors to opportunities that Khan never had. She is now working on a TV comedy and directing a movie for Disney. She said she surprised many people during Hollywood meetings.
“The first thing when you walk into a room in a lot of places is them kind of looking at your head — sort of just a quick eye-glance over there. And then, when you say things like how I play the drums, and they were just very shocked,” she said. “They want people who they feel like they can hang out with that are part of their club. And you really don’t look like you’re a part of their club.”
But Khan said she will not compromise who she is. She just creates her own path.
“I’m not going to hang out in a bar until 2 a.m., which sometimes a lot of business gets done that way, and sometimes meeting those people on TV that you need to meet. So, you kind of have to make up for it in other ways,” she said. “For me, I’ve always had to make up for it, part of it. That’s how I started making my own movies.”
What keeps her going, even with obstacles from Hollywood and within her own community?
“I like what I’m doing,” she said. “I like it. I feel like it has some value. It’s incredibly fun. Then, I’m also a faithful person, whereas it’s always for me, it’s about sort of like how you went about your day, and kind of what you tried, and the results are up to God.”