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Disney Introduces Its First Indian-American Lead In 'Spin'

NOEL KING, HOST:

Movies aimed at, say, 12- to 17-year-olds for a long time have been kind of predictable. "Sixteen Candles," "Clueless," "Can't Hardly Wait," "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" - these are great movies. But there is a formula. A girl wants a boy to like her. Or a boy wants a girl to like him. These are often white suburban kids, upper-middle class, with a few exceptions.

A new Disney movie called "Spin" offers something different. The teenage lead is an Indian American girl. And she's not that invested in getting the boy, Max. She's way more interested in learning from him. She wants to be a professional DJ. And he knows how to help her get there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIN")

MICHAEL BISHOP: (As Max) Oh, beat matching - very important - we are going to match these two records together.

AVANTIKA: (As Rhea) How?

BISHOP: (As Max) Aha. See this? This is the pitch control. It can speed up or slow down the record to change the BPM.

KING: "Spin" is directed by the Indian-born filmmaker Manjari Makijany. She rose to prominence with the movie "Skater Girl." And I asked her how she first got interested in making movies.

MANJARI MAKIJANY: I think it was really early on when I was watching stage plays with the family at Prithvi Theatre. It's this sort of really well-known theatre in Mumbai. And it was sort of watching these beautiful plays take place and transform - that same stage would transform into a completely different, you know, space and time. And that was very fascinating for me, as a kid, to experience.

KING: And what was it about - or what is it about directing? There are so many roles in the film industry that a person can take on. And I wonder, is there something about the kind of control of directing or the fact that it's your vision? What about it appeals to you?

MAKIJANY: I think it's just the fact that I was always curious at how things would happened the way they would. And I was always interested in, oh, you know, how did they move from here to there? Or why did they do this at this point? And, you know, even while watching plays, sometimes it would (laughter) take me out of the experience. But I'd been looking in the wings...

KING: (Laughter).

MAKIJANY: ...To see, what's happening there, (laughter) you know?

(LAUGHTER)

MAKIJANY: So yeah - so, I think, very naturally, even before I knew what a director does, I think I had an inclination towards storytelling.

KING: All right. Let's talk a little bit about "Spin." This is a movie about an Indian American teenager who really wants to be a DJ. Tell me a little bit about this character and her world and why they appeal to you so much.

MAKIJANY: So when I read the script for "Spin," I was really excited because I hadn't come across a script that was like that. It was a coming-of-age of an Indian American girl. And I mean, I pretty much saw - after reading the script, I pretty much saw the film in my head. And I was like, I have to be the person to tell this story. I mean, it's Disney's first Indian American lead. And it was sort of - all the nuances that were written in were so beautiful.

Here was a character who was proud of the Indian culture. She wasn't having an identity crisis or fighting the fact that she's Indian or feeling like the odd one out. And I thought it was, you know, about time a story was told like that, that normalized seeing seeing a South Asian character in the lead and also somebody who takes pride in that.

KING: Then there's her grandmother, who's a very big part of the film, who talks to her granddaughter - who talks to Rhea a lot about not necessarily needing to do everything the way her dad has done it and about having a little bit of fun and being artistic.

MAKIJANY: Yeah. And I think the grandma's role is such an integral one to her sort of coming-of-age because she is the nudge that she needs to sort of go after her dreams. And that's a character who sees everything and everyone for what they truly are. And she's sort of the voice of reason, which was amazing 'cause, you know, I had such a beautiful relationship with my nani.

And it's almost magical the way they see through everything and they just get straight to the point - and that beautiful scene between Rhea and her grandma where she tells her that, you know, it's all music. And you have it in you. It's not just one song. You make so many other songs. And your talent is not limited. It's abundant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIN")

AVANTIKA: (As Rhea) For me?

MEERA SYAL: (As Asha) You are your father's daughter and your mother's daughter. And your mother always said, it's all music. So go - find it. Let it out.

KING: There's been a real evolution in this coming-of-age stories since I was, you know, 16 or 17. It used to be that the high drama in all of these movies was about whether or not the boy would end up liking the girl, if it was told from the girl's point of view. And in this movie, it's not the main drama at all. The main drama is, will this teenage girl become an artist? And who's going to stand in her way along the way? Things really have changed.

MAKIJANY: I think that moment of realization that I need to do what I need to do and take it into my own hands is what's beautiful about sort of her journey and her coming-of-age because she's not relying on the boy's validation or an outside sort of source validating her.

KING: She has a very diverse group of friends. Everyone at school and around her is very diverse. And yet this is very clearly rooted in Indian American culture. This is an Indian American family. And I can't remember another one recently, of this type, where there's an Indian American girl at the center.

And I wondered, as you were making it, were there things you were conscious of where you said, I think there is a way that Americans tend to think about Indian Americans, and I want to upset that balance a little bit?

MAKIJANY: Yeah. I think - it is Disney's first Indian American protagonist story. There hasn't been one before where you have an Indian American right at the lead, at the center. And that is what was really fascinating for me. It's like, this is a beautiful story. And I want to be the one to tell it because I understand both these worlds. And I want to bring in that authenticity to this.

I wanted to break a lot of these sort of stereotypical notions, especially with the accents, and also show a little bit of a slice of life for - of an Indian American family because it's a family that everyone can relate to, in a way, because the relationships are similar. It's sort of this beautiful family that takes pride in the culture. It's celebrating it. It's everything that I wanted to sort of introduce in a movie.

KING: That was Manjari Makijany. Her new movie, "Spin," is out on Disney today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIUS DE VRIES, PRATIBHA SINGH BAGHEL, RAJ PANDIT, LAUREN EVANS' "IT'S ALL MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.