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His satirical film Bodied will premiere opening night at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 7, The Hollywood Reporter has learned exclusively. It’s got quite a pedigree, as he produced the film with Eminem and music manager Paul Rosenberg. Famed music video director Joseph Kahn is at the helm, and its sprawling cast including actors (Anthony Michael Hall, Debra Wilson, Jackie Long and Calum Worthy) as well as seasoned battle rappers (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park and Dizaster). It focuses on race relations as a graduate student writing his thesis on battle-rap culture becomes embroiled in that world.
For Shankar, tackling satire is in the fabric of all of his work, even if it’s not obvious to everyone.
“People think I’m blowing stuff up, but it’s satire. All of it. Castlevania, all of it,” he says, giving a nod to his well-received animated video game adaptation for Netflix.
With work on Bodied, Shankar is once again finding a kindred spirit in Khan. (The pair previously teamed on Power/Rangers.)
The director, who co-wrote Bodied with battle rapper Alex “Kid Twist” Larsen, has been one of the biggest names in the music video world since the ‘90s, establishing the Backstreet Boys as “back” (all right!), color-coding Destiny’s Child for “Say My Name,” and winning his first Grammy for directing Eminem’s “Without Me.”
Shankar is a staunch defender of Khan’s feature film work, which has received a mixed response in the U.S. (2004’s Torque and 2011’s Detention were both critical busts). Shankar partially blames Kahn’s muted renown on a system that “very openly belittles Asian-Americans unless Vin Diesel is in your corner.” Both men are underrepresented minorities operating on the edges of the Hollywood system, factors that imbue their artistic output with an anti-establishment spirit. Shankar, who said he used to get called “Emo Night Shyamalan,” feels this in his core. Whether in fashion, language or his beloved pop culture, Shankar credits his unique perspective to his upbringing: “I’ve never been in the majority. Ever.
“As an immigrant to this country, before that spending most of my life between Hong Kong and Singapore, I have a different reference point,” Shankar says, describing his experiences at his “homogenous” Rhode Island high school in 2001. Two days after his arrival, the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.
It was at that school that he learned sharing his point of view wouldn’t necessarily win friends during football season. Case in point: After an early pep rally featured the burning of a rival’s mascot in effigy, he told classmates it reminded him of childhood stories about Communist rallies. Yet, he learned, if he used fictional characters to make the same point, it was more digestible for people.
“If I was like ‘No, no, I meant there were all these X-Men and there was this demon, and it’s Castlevania and the guy’s got a whip,’ then people nod their heads and say ‘Yeah, I’m down with that,'” Shankar says.
This attitude comes baked into everything he does, including his upcoming Assassin’s Creed animated series that he’s showrunning for Netflix. Details about the show during its development are scarce, but it’s clear Shankar understands the politics-heavy property that explores an ongoing war between the freedom-advocating Assassins and the control-oriented Knights Templar.
For Shankar, video games like Assassin’s Creed and Castlevania are the next step in the evolution of storytelling.
“Movies are fake memories,” he says. “It’s the reason why if David Schwimmer were to walk through my front door right now — I’ve never met David Schwimmer, I’ve never been in the same room as David Schwimmer — my mind, my eyes, my body, everything would react like an old friend from childhood walked in.”
The power of video games, in his eyes, is that they bring us even closer to another global storytelling language.
“Take emojis, for instance,” Shankar says, “My grandmother who has spent her whole life living in Kolkata, India, sends me the same emojis as James Van Der Beek sends me.”
His cynical view of the future lives in his work, especially his bootleg series of short films, showing a world where we are exploited by the properties we once enjoyed.
“If you love something, you are a candidate to be exploited by it. Today they call it ‘engagement,'” Shankar says. “George Clooney has a ton of integrity, he won’t just spew the corporate agenda. But Mr. Potato Head or Buzz Lightyear are characters. They’ll say whatever you want them to say.”
Bodied will debut Sept. 7 at the Toronto Film Festival.
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