When it comes to screenwriting contests, the Final Draft, Inc. Big Break™ screenwriting competition, unlike others, puts its winners face-to-face with Hollywood’s most elite dealmakers. “It’s definitely given my career a jump start, and it’s definitely given me a lot of great meetings,” says first-place winner Tejal Desai, the 40-year-old pharmacist from Austin, Texas. Desai’s script, Cowboys and Hindus, is about a traditional Hindu woman who discovers the meaning of true American grit when she becomes a cattle rancher. Script sat down with the writer see how Big Break™ changed his life.
SCRIPT: Where did you get the idea for Cowboys and Hindus?
TEJAL DESAI: I got it from looking at my extended family, from observing them and asking questions. Indian society is very patriarchal and I used to think, looking at my mother and my aunts, where did they come from and what kind of dreams did they have? I made an assumption that they were just content being housewives. But really, they were architects and engineers and they had their own aspirations. But when they got married, those dreams faded away. I always wondered what it would be like for a woman like that to get a second chance at life. And, I always loved cattle culture. So, I thought — a woman who wants to become a cowboy. It morphed into something that became a cross-cultural film. It’s kind of like My Big Fat Greek Wedding but with a little bit of Bend It Like Beckham.
SCRIPT: How did you get into screenwriting?
TEJAL DESAI: I won the Nicholl Fellowship in 2003 with a script I co-wrote with my writing partner called Linda and Henry. It’s a modern day version of Paper Moon, where a high-strung female bank robber gets saddled with a ten-year-old hypochondriac boy. Shortly after, I moved to L.A. working for Disney developing and writing Pinocchio 2. I was flying back and forth to my home in Connecticut. I have two kids and a wife and it was tough, L.A. was too expensive. Austin became a great alternative. A great place to raise a family and it was a film savvy community with the Austin Film Festival and South By Southwest. Even though I’m not in L.A., it’s a stone’s throw away from Austin. I have the best of both worlds, and I’m very happy here.
SCRIPT: How did it feel to win Big Break™?
TEJAL DESAI: It was amazing, absolutely surreal. When you get that letter that you’re in the top 25 and then, you’re in the top 10… Each time, it became more and more exciting. I kept thinking someone really likes this script and believes in this story. An Indian woman becoming a cattle rancher, this is really resonating with people. And the award ceremony was amazing. Flying out there and meeting with Aaron Sorkin. Having screenwriting guru, Syd Field, come over and tell you how interesting he finds your script. Being in that presence, in that room and to be recognized, it was overwhelming, and I was extremely touched.
SCRIPT: Did Big Break™ give you a big break?
TEJAL DESAI: It definitely gave me a big break. This industry is so tough; you need things like this to give you the fuel to keep going. I’ve gotten lots of publicity, press and a lot of people interested in the script. At the Nicholl’s dinner, people said, “Hey, I heard about the Final Draft win.” It’s definitely given my career a jump start, and it’s definitely given me great meetings. I signed with Jewerl Ross at Silent R Management. It’s good to have someone behind you that believes in your work. Things are happening and I’m getting that big boost of creativity again.
SCRIPT: Where are things with Cowboys and Hindus as of now?
TEJAL DESAI: Right now, we’re trying to get it to financiers. My goal is to get an Indian lead from Bollywood and then a strong American actress attached. I always pictured Frances McDormand or Holly Hunter playing opposite a Bollywood actress, like Aishwarya Rai, and the two women finding themselves on the plains of the American Southwest. It’s a feel good movie about finding out who we are. When it comes down to it, we all have the same goals. You want to be happy, and you want to find love.
SCRIPT: What’s next for you?
TEJAL DESAI: I like family-driven movies with heart. I like movies with character and comedy. I believe laughter is an integral part of life. I’m working on several screenplays right now. My writing partner and I finished Safety Patrol, a comedy about a Zach Galifianakis-type of crossing guard who gets into a turf war with the local school kids when they try to replace him. I have another film called Daddy Caddy, about a father who caddy’s for his reckless Tiger Woods-like son, but when his son fires him, the father decides to go back on the PGA tour to set his son straight. Those are the kinds of films I like to write. Films about redemption, about reconnecting. Family is the core of everything. Deep down inside every adult out there is that kid that wants to show that trophy to their mom or dad. Even though we have all these layers of guilt, that’s what is at the center of all of us… family.