Award winning director, writer and Emmy nominated cinematographer Maninder “Indy” Saini grew up straddling two worlds, her American home base in rural Pennsylvania, and her dad’s homeland in Punjab, India. With her first passport at the age of 3, a passion for travel and a desire to understand different perspectives was planted, inspiring her creative journey as a filmmaker.
Her drive for stories with deep female friendships and finding hope in unexpected places sparked Indy’s directorial debut “The Lesson,” a short film garnering international awards including Best US Narrative at the Women’s International Film Festival in Miami. Indy’s documentary work as cinematographer took her to the arctic to film “Ice Bear,” a National Geographic Wild special for which she received an Emmy Nomination.
Combining her creative mission and her passion for motorcycle riding, Indy directed and produced the documentary “Women in the Front Seat.” WITFS toured the festival circuit winning numerous Best Doc and Audience Awards. The film was distributed by Indie Rights Studios and is available on Amazon Prime. AWD recently spoke with Indy about this powerful documentary and the role AWD’s Works in Progress program played in its development, her career milestones and aspirations, and upcoming projects.
AWD: You’re an award-winning director, writer and Emmy nominated cinematographer – and a long time member of AWD! What has being an AWD member meant to you personally and professionally over the years? Why are you passionate about AWD’s mission and community?
IS: AWD has been a great resource in many different ways over the years. First and foremost, I love being a part of a community of powerful creative women. Exchanging ideas, sharing resources and recommendations, getting project feedback. But also the sheer camaraderie of being in this together. We all have the same mountain to climb, and it’s just better doing it arm and arm! Plus, I’ve met some wonderful humans who have become longtime friends. Then I’ve also appreciated what AWD has offered with workshops like the pitching and storyboarding sessions. I’ve gained a lot of good info, useful tools, tips and skill building. There is always more to learn, and it’s great to have it curated to our community.
You have a variety of completed projects ranging from shorts and scripted TV to documentary films. How does your process and directing style change between such different formats? Is there a format that excites you more than the others?
I have always been more drawn to narrative work than non-fiction because I love working with actors, telling the story through the characters’ emotional arcs. I like being able to plan it out and prepare and have some level of control over what’s happening, making shot lists in advance, choosing how to shoot it and then executing those shots. It is very satisfying. So it was uncomfortable at first making my recent documentary. I was constantly pivoting in terms of what I was shooting, when and why.
The story was ever evolving, and being prepared meant staying open to whatever was unfolding. I had general ideas about how the film would be captured, but then it came down to just responding to the moment. But I grew to love that process. And it’s not so scary now. When I talk about my new doc, I can honestly say ‘I don’t know’. But I know it will reveal itself over time if I just pay attention to the stories as they come to me and let it evolve organically. It’s completely different, but also creatively exciting. I am looking forward to my next narrative venture though!
You have an especially extensive background as a cinematographer and digital imaging technician. What inspired you to get into directing? What were your takeaways from directing your first project? How does your background in cinematography impact your directing style?
I was directing before I ever had a camera in my hands. I started out in the theatre, directing my first show in high school. Then after college I co-founded a theatre company in NYC, DreamWeaver Productions, which went for 5 years. But I always wanted to direct films and eventually did a one year film program. I took some cinematography courses, loved it and ended up shooting all 12 of my fellow directors’ short films. So those two loves have been running in parallel for a long time.
I fell into working as a DIT originally to get my foot in the door of the film business. But it has given me the opportunity to learn how a lot of different directors work, creatively, logistically and as a leader, on all kinds of levels of production. When I directed my first short film I thought, once I have a real budget all these issues will be gone. But now I’ve worked on a 300 million dollar film, and all those same issues are there, just on a bigger scale!
Directors never get all they want, there will always be compromises, the budget is always too small, and the unexpected always happens. I am grateful for all my time behind the camera. It has definitely informed my directing. It has honed my skills to see and set up quickly what I want from a scene visually, and to use that visual language in my storytelling.
Your documentary “Women in the Front Seat” had a fantastic festival run and recently got picked up for distribution – congratulations! What drew you to this story? Can you talk about the themes in the film and what you hope audiences will draw from watching it?
I’ve been a motorcycle rider since my early twenties, but before making this film I had only ever ridden with men. About a decade ago I started seeing the statistics of women riders growing exponentially, especially for women over 40. I got really excited by this and pitched a few different versions of the project, none of which got green lit. Or at least not for the version I wanted to make which was to tell the stories of the vast diversity of women riders. Representation matters, and a big part of my desire for the film was to break down the stereotypes of women riders, and also present the gorgeous complexity of women in a different landscape.
So eventually I decided to go out and tell the story I wanted to; which also included delving into the universal themes everyone experiences, such as the fear of taking on something new and challenging, and going for it anyway. So though the film is centered around motorcycle riding, it’s a call to live your best life on your own terms. And I think that’s why it’s resonating with people, even beyond the motorcycle world. I recently had someone reach out to me and comment that she was inspired by the film and that she keeps asking herself “Am I facing my fears and living the life I really want?” I love that. It is the best take away I could ask for.
The film went through AWD’s Works in Progress (WIP) program. Can you tell us how your participation in WIP influenced your process and final cut of the film?
The WIP process was huge in the development of “Women in the Front Seat.” I screened it when I was at a crossroads. It was a really really messy rough cut of about 45 minutes. And I’m so grateful to the audience (there were 35 women there that day) that sat through it, thought about it, and gave truly constructive feedback despite the state it was in at the time. One of the questions I asked was about which participants really resonated, and from those answers I went out and did more filming. Utilizing some feedback, I restructured the sections and it helped build a more dramatic arc. I was also bordering on whether to include myself in the film, and based on the feedback my story became the central pillar that the rest of the movie revolves around.
Even a last minute conversation I had in the parking lot about including BTS footage worked its way into the film. I love how the WIP structure encourages positive constructive feedback and not negative commentary. At the point I did the screening I really needed encouragement, to know whether the film was even interesting. And the honest supportive feedback I got encouraged me to keep going, with a strong sense of what was working and what wasn’t working. Basically everything that came from that screening made the film stronger.
What are your goals for the next phase of your career? Can you share with us what you have coming up next?
I have several projects in the works and in development. I just started filming the next documentary recently at the United Nations in NYC, centered around human trafficking in the US. It features a couple of young women’s stories as they rebuild their lives and find their sense of agency despite the previous trauma. But the film will also dive into gender injustices and the criminalization of victims. This summer I will be shooting my next short film, a hopeful look at coming to terms with grief and loss. And I have a feature script I wrote prior to making my doc that had gotten some traction and interest, which I am now rewriting.