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If you want to change the world, what are the best tools available to you? Ask Rajal Pitroda MBA2013 and she’ll tell you there’s nothing as powerful as a good story well told.
Giving voice to the underrepresented and the marginalised is the passion that drives the career of the San-Francisco-based movie producer. Her vision is to “change the narrative”; to tell stories by those who have historically not been at the centre of creating and producing content, with the goal of bolstering understanding and shifting the status quo.
Pitroda’s documentaries explore critical social-justice issues of our time. She currently has two projects in various stages of production. The first addresses issues of race in the criminal justice system, while the second examines gender, relationships and ‘hook-up’ culture.
“I am driven by a desire to shift the narrative around issues that I feel are important, especially given our current cultural moment. I believe that storytelling has immense power in its capacity to fill your mind and move your perspective,” she says. “But a big part of shifting these narratives is changing who it is that is telling the story.
“One of my films addresses the legacy of injustice in the US by giving voice directly to communities of colour who have lived these experiences. Similarly, with gender, we hear straight from the protagonists; in this case young women inside the US college system who are navigating the complexities of relationships, sex and hook-ups.”
Pitroda is fascinated by power structures. Through her film-making she seeks to examine our perceptions of what power is, who has it and how power systems are set up to keep the powerful in place.
She cites examples from recent news and world events as issues she is keen to explore: “Within the Trump administration and with cases like the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, there is a lot of opportunity to look at how power systems are built, evolve and resist outside change or challenge. Film, and story in particular, has an extraordinary power to create space within all the noise.
“And it gives us an opportunity to rethink what we hear from the media, the press and elsewhere and listen to new perspectives.
“For me, the really interesting thing is empowering people whose stories have not been told, then working together on how we can shift the existing power structures that have been in place.”
Although her career has been played out in the entertainment industry since graduating in economics from the University of Michigan, film production was not always Pitroda’s focus. She started out in marketing and distribution, working in the movie industry in Mumbai: “My early career was very much focused on the business side, looking at how to build a better global brand for Indian films.
“The really interesting thing is empowering people whose stories have not been told, then working together on how to shift existing power structures”
“After a few years I moved back to the US and worked with boutique marketing agencies, developing and executing movie release campaigns in Los Angeles.”
The experience gave her an appetite for entrepreneurship and in 2007 she founded her own independent film-marketing business, focusing on creating and managing marketing campaigns for movies. The transition to starting her own business, she says, felt “natural”.
“In LA, I built up a network of interesting contacts who needed help marketing and distributing the movies they’d made. This was back in the pre-streaming days, when options were far more limited than they are now. There was a legitimate market that dovetailed with my own desire to create something of my own – something that intimately explored the goals of the film-maker.”
After a few years, a desire to consolidate this experience with her background, growing up between Chicago and New Delhi, took her to London Business School, where she was looking to broaden her perspective outside the movie business.
“I certainly was not the typical MBA,” she laughs. “Though, to be honest, I’m not sure you can say there is a typical MBA. I found that, although I had business experience, my background was actually quite different from that of my cohort. Business school was full of twists and turns, but the experience of being a fish out of water, of being in Europe and being exposed to so many new perspectives and ways of thinking, helped define who I was then and who I am today. LBS offered me a truly global perspective that I bring to my work and my way of thinking. And it helped me solidify what it is I want to do and where I saw myself having the most impact.”
“LBS helped me solidify what it is I want to do and where I saw myself having the most impact.”
Graduating from LBS in 2013, Pitroda knew she wanted to move into the creative side of film. Besides developing and producing narrative films and documentaries, she is writing screenplays and books that explore the themes that interest her and that draw on her film-making research.
There has never been a more interesting time to be working in this space: “Exciting things are happening. There is more awareness in the film business around who is behind the camera and how we can change the narrative by centering on the stories of people who have not historically had this power. I really believe film and story are unique tools that can make a difference in our world, especially when we open up how they are created.”
The climate is also right for this shift, she says: “In the US there’s a palpable sense that people feel emboldened. We want to see change. We’re ready to make change happen. And we’re hopeful.”
Hope, Pitroda says, centres on the ability to effect change. She is optimistic about the future and the human capacity to redress imbalance: “I have to believe we’re willing and capable of holding onto change. Certainly, this has been what has motivated me throughout my career.
“I have always felt I needed to make an impact and I’ve been fortunate to be able to work on the issues that I feel passionate about and contribute toward moving the needle, in whatever way I can.”