Thought Box



by Vinta Nanda October 21 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 12 mins, 49 secs

“Powerful words of two stellar artists, Zen Dot and Dini Parayitam, have stitched together this fabulous interview, which clearly mirrors the future of South Asian cinema,” writes Vinta Nanda.

Zen and Dini met during the development of a different short film and what started as a professional relationship turned into a friendship and power alliance. When Zen presented the idea of making a rom-com based on the backdrop of a strained mother-daughter relationship set in a fertility clinic, Dini wrote the screenplay for it. Without waiting for any permission, they decided to produce the film themselves in November, 2022.  

Zen Dot is an NYC based actor and producer. Recently, Zen has played lead roles in short films “Love in All The Wrong Places”, “Salman’s Nursery”  (both currently in post-production), and “How Do You Like Your Eggs?” which has been selected for screening at the Iowa Independent Film Festival, Chicago South Asian Film Festival, New York Women in Film and TV’s iWomanTV festival (where it also won the award for Best Cast) and the Oscar-Qualifying Tasveer South Asian Film Festival. 

Previously, Zen played a recurring role on the series ‘Ms/Manage’ (Urban World, New Fest) created by Emmy nominated director Caralene Robinson (220th street productions), currently streaming on Black Oak TV. In early 2022, Zen worked with Kathryn Bigelow on a commercial for Amazon Prime. Zen trains with coach Van Hansis at the Matt Newton Acting Studio. Additionally, Zen is a dance teacher and choreographer. 

Dini Parayitam is an award-winning Indian-American screenwriter and filmmaker based in NYC. She graduated with an MFA in Fiction from the  Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has been published in The Iowa Review, Boston Review, Joyland Magazine among other places. Her first short film “All Your Yesterdays” was awarded the Best Indie short film award by Triloka International Filmfare Awards. Her second short film  “How Do You Like Your Eggs?” (2023) won the award for best cast and has been accepted at several film festivals. Her third short film “Love in All the Wrong Places” is currently in post-production. She co-wrote the screenplay feature A Silent Wave with Jerika Marchan (to be directed by Sachin Dheeraj Mudigonda). The team has been awarded the prestigious Austin Film Society Features-in-Development grant. She is currently developing three separate feature scripts with directors and producers based in India, Canada, and the UK. 

And, I get to have this stellar conversation with both of them. Over to Zen and Dini then…

Tell me a little more about your personal lives - where you grew up and what it was like? How are you in the US? 

Zen: I grew up in Mumbai, India. Growing up there was an interesting mix of feeling like I belong, and I am meant to be somewhere else. I always wanted to be a dance teacher and an actor. I did start training in dance while I was in India, but acting would have to wait. I came to the US in 2008, first to Chicago to get my Master’s degree and then to New York in 2011, when I got my first corporate job. I also started teaching dance when I moved to New York, and it was a very fulfilling journey. I still teach. Acting had to continue waiting until I was able to secure my green card, but now I am developing a fulfilling career as an actor and filmmaker. I feel that the US, and specifically, NYC is my chosen home.

Dini: I’m a 33-year-old Indian American writer, currently living in Brooklyn with my husband. I spent my childhood in Oklahoma, where I was hellbent on making sure everyone knew the difference between Indian from India and Native American. Ten-year-old Dini was on a mission to reclaim the word Indian for the diasporic generation.

But I quickly gave up that dream when we moved to Louisiana. As an awkward, anti-social teen, I found my identity as an Indian to be a great excuse to explain away why I didn’t fit in with my peers. It was only in college and then later in grad school that I would come to understand who I am had nothing to do with where I was born or even where I grew up, and everything to do with the fact that I’m an artist.

It was like the best coming-of-age story I could’ve ever lived through - discovering I’m a writer first and foremost, beyond anything else that might’ve identified me before.

What does it mean to you both to be at Tasveer? Amid South Asian filmmakers, does it feel good to be counted? And, why? 

Zen: Being a part of Tasveer, especially this year as the first and only Oscar Qualifying South Asian Film Festival, feels like an honour and a moment of pride. It feels like a fulfilling reward for believing in myself, drowning out the ‘noise’, and being relentless about my calling. No matter how high my career soars, this is something that I will never forget.

It feels wonderful to be a part of this world of South Asian filmmakers, to be inspired, to make connections with like-minded artists, and to just feel less alone on this journey. This is also a motivating combination of feeling like I have arrived, I have made it, and looking up to individuals further along in their journey so that I continue to fuel mine. Most importantly, it holds a special place in my heart because I am achieving this with my friend, fellow artist, and spectacular writer Dini.

Dini: Every part of my life has been in the service of telling stories. Sometimes in prose with short stories and novels; other times, in screenplays.

I’ve been fortunate to have had a chance to make a couple of short films this last year. My husband has been an incredible partner in this respect, supporting my dreams both financially and with his time. Then, there’s the undeniable Zen Dot, friend and collaborator, the embodiment of sheer determination, who plunges heart-first into a project with contagious fervour. It’s through their hard work and the blessing of friends, family, and well-wishers that we’re at film festivals at all.

For me, it is the height of privilege to see the work come alive. While everyone else is watching the film unfold on the big screen, I savour every moment I get to sit in the dark room of a theatre and listen to an audience’s reaction to what we’ve made. Being accepted to Tasveer, a South Asian space in its first year as an Oscar-qualifying festival, is the thing that makes all the sleepless nights, the seemingly endless edits, the doubts, the risks, and dealing with the inevitable drama and chaos of an indie production all worth it.  

I remember being with Zen when she received the email about Tasveer. We were walking down 42nd street after scouting a location for our next short film. We stopped dead in our tracks and yelped in glee. “Tasveer! Tasveer!” we shouted at each other. “Wow! They want us! They want us!”

If I were to revise that moment in a screenplay, I might say “They hear us” instead because that’s what it really feels like - like we’re being heard.

Your thoughts about cinema in the near and far future - is it bringing the world closer or otherwise?

Zen: I have always felt that cinema has brought people closer. Everyone loves movies. That love connects us all, and then everything grows on top of that. Whether its Wes Anderson’s admiration for India and Satyajit Ray that comes across in his films, or whether it’s a Bollywood musical against a backdrop of family drama that everyone in the world can relate to, cinema shows us how similar we all are as human beings in our pursuits and desires, and how our differences are beautiful gifts of life that can be shared and celebrated.

The cinema of the past has done it; the cinema of the future is going to be doing it on an even larger scale. With the advent of casting diverse actors, diverse accents, and platforms like Netflix where someone in the middle of the country in the US can have access to high quality Korean shows, we are only moving towards bringing the world closer.

Dini: Closer or otherwise…it’s not really for me to say. All I know is that cinema – and perhaps this extends to art in general – can remind us of how vast and unknowable the world is and has always been. If anything, I believe it ought to make us humble about what we don’t know. I hope we continue making space for innovative work, and encouraging diversity of thought, aesthetics, philosophies. In the near and far future, I hope filmmakers won’t be required to compromise their integrity for mass-appeal, or required to apply some other utilitarian value to their stories.

Zen, you're an actor as well as producer, Dini, you're a writer and producer - what made you both decide to produce films along with pursuing your respective arts? 

Zen: To be very honest, my first motivation was to create an opportunity for myself. The job of an actor is to audition, but there was this feeling inside me that was bursting to take more charge and move my career forward in a more autonomous way. That feeling perfectly coincided with a seed of inspiration of an idea. Our first production together, How Do You Like Your Eggs?, came about when I was having a conversation about egg freezing with my mom. Her reaction to it was quite funny and I thought that if my mom is reacting this way, I am sure there are others who can relate.

When I narrated the idea to Dini, she wrote an incredible script for it. Something inside me and I believe inside both of us, told us to just go ahead and not wait for permission. So, becoming a producer was a decision I/we took to make sure our work becomes a film on screen and not wait for anyone else to make that happen for us/me. That is what made me make Eggs. What is making me make more films is the people who have come up to us and told us how much they related to our film. Making people feel seen through art is a motivator I did not know I needed, and I am so glad I have it now.

Dini: I’m a reluctant producer. I’m a reluctant director. I’m actually reluctant about everything except for being a writer. For me, I’ve always seen film as a collaborative space. After a decade of writing and editing prose, I started writing screenplays with the explicit desire to work with other artists - another writer, director, cinematographer, actors, creative producers, the gaffer, etc. It’s only to continue working with others that I took on the role of producer.

Now with three short productions behind me, I have to admit that the experience has reframed my approach to the screenplay. My screenwriting has changed after spending time on set. I can see more clearly how a project might be executed from the syntax of a sentence to the syntax of a cinematic frame. I’m most grateful that being involved in these productions as a producer has given me access and opportunity to learn how to improve my craft as a writer.

Zen what is your dream as an actor? Dini, your dream as a writer? 

Zen: I want to be the vessel for as many stories as possible in my lifetime. I want to do it all - drama, action, comedy, plays, musicals. I want to challenge myself and keep growing and getting better. I want to be the lead of a rom-com falling in love, and I want to be the lead detective of a murder mystery. I want to play a powerful villain, and I want to play a hopeless victim. I want to be a series regular. I want to entertain people and I want to make them feel their emotions. I want to be a steady working actor who gets paid well enough to have a full and wholesome life.

Dini: I do feel like I have a dreamy life already. I read, write, have a wonderful husband, family, and friends that support me reading and writing… “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” (Zadie Smith, NW). 

If there is a dream, it would be that I learn to balance my writing life with my personal life. I have a world full of friends and family that I love more than writing itself. I hope I express that to them as much as I spend my time obsessing over the page.

What's next on both your plates? 

Zen: We are awaiting a few more festival responses for our film. We are about to finish the development of the feature script of ‘How Do You Like Your Eggs?’, and are so excited about that. We also co-produced another short film in August 2022 titled Love in All the Wrong Places, which is currently in post-production.

Dini: I’m finishing a novel at the moment.

But several screenwriting projects I’ve already worked on are in various stages of development and pre-production:

-       Zen and I have been writing a rom-com feature that extends the story of “How Do You Like Your Eggs?”

-       An LGBQT-feature, A SILENT WAVE (dir. Sachin Dheeraj) that I’ve co-written the screenplay for has just been awarded the 2023 AFS Grant for feature films. The film is about a housewife in post-Roe Texas and her unlikely friendship with an outspoken Muslim-American woman.

-       I’m writing a feature screenplay for producer Virinderpaul Singh, set in the mid-1980s Edmonton, Canada.

-       I have also co-written the TV-pilot for EVERGREEN, a high-concept sci-fi family hour-long drama with series creator Maryan Nagy Captan. Our script is doing quite well in the competition circuit.

-       This along with a few short films and another TV-series are in the works…

Writing it all down in a list makes me seem like a workaholic - but really, I’m just enthusiastic because I get this chance to work with some great individuals and am looking forward to these projects taking off.

The website for Eggs has the trailer and even more information on the crew, and the story.

Zen’s website:

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.