Have a Nice Life
Though it’s been a while since he lived in the Triangle, writer/director Prashanth Kamalakanthan didn’t have to look too far for material for his first feature film, Have a Nice Life. Not only did the 28-year-old shoot it in locations in Raleigh and Durham, where he grew up, he also cast one of the lead roles with a Triangle resident he knew only too well—his mother, Jagathi Kamalakanthan.
Have a Nice Life, which premieres May 23 at the Maryland Film Festival in a live online screening that also features Q&A, is an offbeat road comedy about two very different Durham women. Jyothi (Jagathi Kamalakanthan), a middle-aged Pacific Asian Indian woman awaiting her citizenship test, is experiencing marital problems. Meanwhile, Sophie (Lucy Kaminsky), is a 20-something musician with a fondness for pot and making bad situations worse. Most recently, this has resulted in her music equipment being taken to a pawn shop; here, her path collides with Jyothi’s.
The situation quickly escalates in a (possibly unnecessary) flight from the law toward Canada that has trouble just getting out of town. Along the way, in this Thelma and Louise-esque flick, there are confrontations, recriminations, and an actual Bollywood-style musical number.
For the younger Kamalakanthan, the film—described in the press kit as “the road movie America needs in 2021”—started as his graduate thesis in film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“I realized that I needed to write something that I could actually make,” says Kamalakanthan, an alumnus of Duke University. “So, I was immediately thinking of stories from back home, stories from around where I grew up—characters from my world.”
That world was Raleigh-Durham, to which the Kamalakanthan family moved in the late 1990s.
“It was kind of a strange place to grow up, as a young Indian boy,” Kamalakanthan recalls. “I remember seeing some Bollywood films at the Madstone (later the Galaxy) over in Cary. We’d get samosas at the concession stand, and there’d be dancing in the aisles during the song and dance breaks. That was a little taste and a little reminder of a very different world that I had access to and would see and catch glimpses of in those films.”
Later, as a student at Duke, Kamalakanthan found himself living a “very separate life” from the other students.
“I would go to school and most of my friends were white [and] didn’t look like me,” he says. “I had this really kind of traumatic experience around 9/11. I wrote about it in the Duke student newspaper [in 2013]—this paradoxical duality that kind of defines my Indian-dash-American hyphenated existence.”
“I think that this film is kind of about that tension,” he continues. “It follows two characters coming from both poles of that experience. But also, we put it together in a way that would flex a sense of duality and paradox.”
When trying to figure out where the film could be shot, Kamalakanthan decided to not only shoot in the Triangle, but to also use real locations from his own life.
“The house where Jyothi lives, that’s my parents’ house,” he says. “The other major house where Sophie lives, we [found when we] went around the old neighborhood that I lived in, off of Duke’s East Campus.”
Other locals helped out, including the North Carolina-born filmmaker Onur Tukel, who appears in a supporting role as Sophie’s bandmate.
And while he’d based the character of Jyothi on his mother, Kamalakanthan hadn’t intended to cast her until he featured her in a fundraising video, in which he explained the concept of the film to her over a phone call.
“People just loved and responded really well to her,” he says. Though she hadn’t acted a day in her life, the elder Kamalakanthan took to the role well, delivering a deadpan performance, at once vulnerable and resilient, as a woman who finds herself bewildered at the bizarre circumstances she finds herself in.
For Jagathi Kamalakanthan, helping out her son was no problem, even though her acting experience was, as she matter-of-factly puts it, “none whatsoever.” For her son, though, she was willing to take the plunge.
“He is a hard worker and so success comes to him,” she says. “I believe in him.”
In her off time—she works as an agronomist in the Soils Lab at the NC Department of Agriculture—Kamalakanthan filmed scenes she was given, a few pages at a time, for a movie she still hasn’t seen in its entirety.
“I’ll be seeing it on May 23 with everyone else,” she says cheerfully, stating that she’s especially excited that several of her coworkers have bought tickets; when it’s suggested that the film could play a local theater like the Crossroads in Cary, which occasionally screens Bollywood films, she pauses: “Wouldn’t that be something!”
As for her son (and director), he’s planning the rollout for Have a Nice Life while working on his next projects and teaching film at Virginia Commonwealth University. But the Triangle remains a powerful part of his life and his filmmaking.
“The beauty of working in a place like North Carolina is that it’s the kind of place that is not captured on film that often anymore,” he says. “I had to have the places back home in the movie because they’re such a part of me, of my experience. I couldn’t have that anywhere else.”
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