Filmmaker highlights WO’s cultural diversity

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Shilpa Mankikar spent a year shooting and editing her film “Diwal’Oween,” which went on to win nine international awards from 2017 to 2018. The 40-minute flick, which follows a family celebrating Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, and Halloween at the same time, will have screenings coming up in May at the Apulia Webfest in Terlizzi, Italy, and the Cannes Film Market.

Mankikar is trying to develop her film, which she made in West Orange around the South Mountain Reservation and Walker Road, into a longer film or a television show, all while keeping in mind the town where it takes place.

“I grew up in West Orange in a really diverse community and it wasn’t a big deal to have all of these different holidays,” the director, writer and producer said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on April 5. “Our neighbors would come over for Diwali and we would celebrate Purim with them. Then I realized later that that’s really rare, and a lot of people didn’t grow up like that.”

There are three storylines in “Diwal’Oween,” and Mankikar said that some are based on real events. In one part of the story, characters Neenu and Bobby want to introduce their parents to each other, but Neenu’s nephew wants to celebrate Halloween. Eventually a dog runs away and the children get lost in the woods, creating chaos.

“Some of it is inspired by real things that happened, like the dog running away. We would play around the reservation and scare ourselves in the woods and as long as we were home by dinner, our parents didn’t care,” Mankikar joked.

She wanted to shoot the film in the location that inspired it at the same time of year. So Mankikar waited until the fall for the leaves to turn red and yellow to provide the spooky backdrop. Actors play the main characters, but the extras and background actors were played by children from the area.

“We did a casting call and had actors come out, but all the others are locals and friends from the area,” Mankikar said. “You get this extra flavor from that.”

Meetu Chilana plays Neenu, Swann Gruen plays Bobby and Abeer Khan plays Neenu’s nephew Jai.

After spending so long working on “Diwal’Oween,” Mankikar said it’s gratifying to finally share the film and see the audience reaction. Many of the screenings have been at independent film festivals in other countries and the response has been positive.

“That’s been fulfilling to see the worldwide audience,” she said. “But it’s hit or miss, you really don’t know what will work and what won’t.”

It worked at home, though. When Mankikar screened the film in nearby Maplewood, it sold out. The audience recognized the featured locations, which garnered a lot of applause. And without giving away the ending, Mankikar said it’s a happy one.

“People can relate to happy endings,” she said. “I’m hoping to turn it into a series of TV movies, kind of like the Charlie Brown specials. Those are classics, and there’s one for every holiday. And holiday movies are really popular.”

Mankikar lives in Los Angeles now, and has other scripts in development, in addition to pitching “Diwal’Oween” to networks and producers. But there is a reason she chose her hometown to be the setting of the film.

“It’s a special place to grow up and I’m glad I got to show that,” Mankikar said. “Especially now, because there’s a lot of hatred going around in the world and it’s nice to show people who are different getting along.”

Photos Courtesy of Marina Piedade and Michel Ann O’Malley