A Surprise Career Turn as a Screenwriter

In the 1980s, when I first moved to the United States for graduate legal studies, if anyone had told me that I would be writing a screenplay, and winning awards for it, I would have never believed it! This was not a goal then, but I’m happy with the way life has turned out.

I came to this country after completing my undergraduate and legal education in Mumbai, India. I could only come if I received a fellowship, so I applied for one at the school of my dreams and was fortunate to receive it.

My experience in the master’s program was challenging yet exhilarating, so I decided to pursue the doctorate, admission to which, in my year, was intensely competitive. However, it remains one of the best experiences of my life. Like most Ph.D. programs, the J.S.D.  at Yale Law School is a program where you are quite independent with minimum monitoring, thereby forcing you to be self-focused and self-disciplined. The reward is tremendous intellectual stimulation and the freedom to formulate one’s own thoughts, which I think has served me well my entire life. Ironically, before my screenplay, my legal dissertation was the closest I came to writing a substantial piece, of course not including countless corporate legal documents.

Never having stepped out of India before, one of my fears was that of assimilation. Luckily, the student body at Yale Law School was the most interesting group of people I had, and still have, ever met. One of those JD students was my husband. The students are the true resource and treasure of that school, and I thoroughly enjoyed my interactions with them. To this day, some of them remain my closest friends.

I do believe I did not even recognize some of the first few instances of discrimination, not having grown up with that radar inside me.

I will address one issue that tends to get swept under the carpet and most avoid mentioning. There were some eye openers, both in the school and outside, to someone like me, an immigrant from a country where everyone looked like me and where I had grown up with privileges. When looking forward to coming to America, especially in the 80s, you anticipate all that you may face and prepare yourself for it. When coming as a student, the focus is mostly on academics and making the most of this fantastic opportunity. But sadly, other things rear their ugly heads. There is always that first time when someone looks at you in your newly adopted country, and does not treat you well because you have a different skin tone or accent.  I do believe I did not even recognize some of the first few instances of discrimination, not having grown up with that radar inside me. But with time, you learn to recognize and cope with such situations, although learning to ignore and brush them off as deeds or words of an ignorant person is one of the hardest lessons ever, especially as they usually came out of the blue and catch you off guard. I write this as it has meant working harder and meeting a higher standard in many instances than those around you realize.

Although I had aimed to work at international agencies such as the UN or the World Bank, my Indian citizenship at the time stood in my way. So my next move was to New York City to work in a Wall Street law firm doing corporate securities, mergers and acquisitions work. What a different experience that was! The level of competitiveness there was the most I had ever experienced. I recall one long night before an IPO at the printers, I looked around the room full of those from the company, their investment bankers and lawyers from both sides, and not only was I the only female among 28 men, but also the only person of color!

When my husband and I eventually got married, we lived in California, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where I practiced law and taught at law school. We also moved to Mumbai for a couple of years for work. That was a great experience – living in a hotel, dual income and no kids! It was certainly interesting to live in India as a professional representing an American law firm.

Madhu Powar Garg
Family Wedding

We returned to the US when I was pregnant with my first child. I was quite advanced in my career by the time and soon found out how trying to balance a career and motherhood was so unforgiving and difficult. Being a transactional attorney, I did not have a part time option, and there was no way to conduct a merger or acquisition without putting in the long hours. To my own surprise, and my mother’s dismay, I chose motherhood, viewing my son, and soon my daughter, as the best gifts God had given me. I put all the energy, hard work and discipline that my years of corporate law training had given me to raising my children to be smart and, more importantly, good human beings. I was so devoted to my kids that there were times when I would be the only parent at Gymboree with my children, surrounded by babysitters!  I did eventually start my own independent legal practice when my younger child turned two, which I then continued for over 15 years.

Act 2 – Starting a Nonprofit

Madhu Powar Garg
New York City Children’s Holiday Party: 2004

My husband Raj always loved Christmas and took delight in buying perhaps too many presents!  My overwhelmed son who just wanted to sit down and play with the first couple of toys, asked, “Can I please give the rest of these presents to someone else?” Having grown up with a mother who did social work in India and who would pick me up protesting from my private girl’s school, and take me to the slums in Mumbai to read to the children there, I realized that this may be a teaching opportunity for my own children of helping others.  I called the NYC Department of Homeless Services for a couple of years in a row regarding volunteering. The conversation with Antonio Rodriguez, at the Department of Homeless Services would go the same way each year.  “You know, lady, I’ve spoken to you before, go to your church and volunteer.” I would reply “I don’t have a church, I’m Hindu!” Eventually we met and he told me the department had a need for an event during the holidays specifically for the homeless children of New York City.

NYCCHP at King Kong 2018

The following year, in 2003, The New York City Children’s Holiday Party for children experiencing homelessness was born. We are a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization and 100% volunteer-run and our mission is to share the joys of the holidays with children living in shelters and to alleviate the sadness and depression experienced by those children during the holidays. Over 30 volunteers joined that first year in December to treat with 300 children from 15 shelters to the most festive party possible, filled with live performances, food, gifts, and, of course, Santa. Since then for 17 years, with the sad exception of this past December, we have taken the children to the Big Apple Circus and to the best shows Broadway has to offer. And showered them with gifts, educational supplies and dinner. We have a roster of almost 200 volunteers, who range from high school students to professionals to parents and grandparents, who ensure that the event runs smoothly. And each year it is successful all because of the good cheer, giving spirit and full cooperation with which, each person participates. Our take away is the sheer joy and unjaded gratitude expressed by the children- what can be a better holiday present for us each year? 

Act 3 – On to Screenwriting

Despite going the traditional route of having a professional career, I have always been attracted to the arts. One of my passions that I have indulged in on the side has been painting. In addition to always going to art galleries regularly, I have painted for many years, doing portraiture in oils, and more recently abstracts in acrylics.

My brothers always described me as a “leap with both feet before you think” kind of person.

My brothers always described me as a “leap with both feet before you think” kind of person. If an idea clicks, I just go for it and then do the research needed to do it along the way! My family were big Bollywood fans. Growing up, every Friday night, my father made the entire family go see a movie, usually Hindi and sometimes English, in a movie theater. It was a family tradition. As a result, I had always had a dormant interest in film production and planned to do NYU ‘s intensive 3-month summer film program once my children had grown up. Unfortunately, the intensive was later cancelled. Nonetheless, about 10 years ago, when a story line came to my mind, I tried writing a novel but after two chapters, I said to myself, “no one is going to read this” and I stopped.

Another idea for a story came to me about two years ago. This time though, I was an empty nester, and it was so vivid in my imagination, just like a movie, that I decided I should write it as a screenplay. I enrolled in a screenwriting class in New York, that was filled with 20 year olds! The class wasn’t for me, but after some help in basic how to’s, I wrote the screenplay.  The title is “Indian Summer” and it is a multi-racial, multi-cultural, coming of age romantic comedy. Although the first draft took me just three weeks, I have edited it over and over again for a year. I found out that competitions and festivals give you extensive feedback. As a first-time writer, this was extremely important to me. I took their input seriously; editing, challenging myself and making drastic changes and  learning more and more about writing.  After resubmitting the finished work to festivals, I actually ended up winning 21 awards/finalist positions/selections! These include the Los Angeles Film Awards, The London Independent Film Awards, Paris International Film Festival, The Global Film Festival, Screencraft, and the Austin Film Festival! Each festival and competition has a different focus, and winning at such a varied array of them shows to me that Indian Summer has universal appeal.

My next step is to get “Indian Summer” into production. Any producers reading this, please get in touch…!

Future Plans and Advice

In short, I have fallen in love with writing. It’s an indulgence, a process in which you disappear into a world of your creation, where your characters become so real to you that you think their thoughts. I make it my priority and am happy to even give up social engagements if my thoughts are rolling. Honestly, post rearing children and professional career, I am thoroughly enjoying writing.

Madhu Powar Garg
Madhu with Raj, Arjun, and Surya

Encouraged by the success of “Indian Summer,” I decided to pick-up the novel I had begun ten years ago and finish it. Writing a novel is however very different from writing a screenplay. Again, if there are any book editors reading this, I would love your help! Later, I plan to turn that too into a screenplay.  I have also written the introductory pages of a third screenplay!  My protagonist in everything I am writing is female and Indian. It’s natural to borrow from your own experiences, even though the story itself is pure fiction.

My advice to those who dream of writing is to never hold yourself back. Do it because you enjoy it. Do it because you have nothing to lose. The same goes for any other talent you may be interested in trying out. Although I actually enjoyed the practice of law, going forward I will restrict it to just occasionally advising my long-term existing clients. But I will always continue my work with the homeless shelters and the children residing there. That’s an integral part of me and my family system. And I will continue to write as it gives me true joy and satisfaction!



Learn more about how to help homeless children during the holidays at the NYCCHP

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