Ria Tobaccowala AB '10 is an Indian-American writer-director based in New York City. Her short film, Shadows, was selected for the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is now streaming on HBO Max.
Q. What parts of your upbringing in Chicago led you to becoming a filmmaker? Can you speak about any thread between childhood and now?
A. My love for storytelling and filmmaking started in my early years. Instinctually, I would gravitate towards my father’s camcorders. In our home movies, I’d be jumping in front of the lens, begging him to let me use it. I remember my childhood home being full of cameras, books, and music. My parents love the arts and gave me access to different art forms throughout my childhood. They are the single most influential force in my journey as a filmmaker.
At my high school in Chicago, I had a wonderful photography teacher who inspired me. I spent the majority of my time in the school’s dark room. I also shot my first short film with a Super 8 camera. By then, I was hooked on the power of images to tell a story. In many ways, as a teenager and now as an adult, I’ve simply been nurturing the young girl within me who was born keen to film stories about life.
Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story?
A. At Harvard, I varied my creative interests. I was a photographer for the Harvard Crimson as well as produced and danced in cultural shows, such as Ghungroo. My blockmates would lovingly laugh whenever I edited promo videos for campus events in a baseball cap. They called it my director’s hat. Little did we all know, a decade later I’d be keeping up the tradition of wearing baseball caps while editing my films. Harvard was the beginning of an important detour from pursuing filmmaking as a career. I spent college filling my mind with new subjects and filling my heart with amazing life experiences and friendships.
Q. Can you speak about your time at Google, staying creative in a corporate setting, and maintaining your goals?
A. Google surprisingly brought me back to the world of storytelling. Google is an intrinsically creative place where storytelling is required when imagining future technologies. I joined their rotational marketing program after graduation. One product I worked on was Google+. Our team’s mandate was to encourage content development on the platform with some of the most influential thought leaders and creators, as well as elevate underrepresented voices to the mainstream through social and video platforms.
I developed content partnerships with the New York Times, ESPN, NBC as well as produced interviews with President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, the Dalai Lama, and many others around major cultural, social, and public events. For example, I produced State of the Union interviews with President Obama, inviting Americans to be the first to converse with the President before the media. To use technology, such as social and video platforms, to democratize storytelling was a central mission for me at Google. I’ve carried with me, as a filmmaker, the same mission to elevate unrepresented voices in my work.Read more