Hollywood writer Pavan Grover: We shouldn’t be limited by our race or our identity

Rashaana Shah-

Pavan Grover is one of the Indian American trailblazers in Hollywood. He has worked with the Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated Dennis Hopper, Oscar-nominated and Emmy winner Alec Baldwin, and Golden Globe winner Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

In an exclusive conversation with indica’s writer, Rashaana Shah Grover spoke of how his parents’ desire made him a spine surgeon while his passion for cinema saw him get into Hollywood and direct Baldwin in his upcoming movie 97 Minutes.


How did the film bug bite you?

I was born in India and raised in a Punjabi family. Though I came to the US when I was six, I grew up on Bollywood films. When I expressed to my mother that I wanted to be an actor, my mom like all typical parents said ‘Heck No’. You know immigrant families want their kids in respectable jobs, either doctors or engineers. I had an inclination for medicine, I mean we have doctors in the family. But I kept my creative fire kindled by writing scripts. It just so happened I wrote a role for Dennis Hopper. He loved the script. It got ballooned into this Hollywood movie Unspeakable. I got to star in it as well, kind of kill two birds with one stone.

So, in your very first Hollywood stint, you wrote the script, acted in it and produced it? That’s like wearing three hats and extremely difficult to balance.

It was my education in producing. I got heavily invested with the post-production, editing, sound design, background score etc. It was like going to a film school. Eventually, that film was picked up by MGM for domestic and Twentieth Century Fox for International distribution. That launched my side career in films. Over the years I have progressed on the medical side as well, it has been a great opportunity for me to be able to explore both sides of my right brain and left brain.

As a child, was there a trigger moment or a person or an incident that kindled a passion for films?

As long as I remember, I loved films and escaped into it. I grew up on Amitabh Bachchan films, and then classics like the Godfather, I was very attracted to these epic films. As kids, my younger brother and I used to shoot these home videos for the family. I think it’s been part of my DNA since I was born. It’s not like I had any contacts or connections with the film industry living in Texas. Basically, I started from scratch. Taught myself how to write, wrote things that excited me. It’s interesting, now my nephew, he is 13 and wants to be an actor and I find myself turning into my mother and saying, ‘Heck No, get an education first’.

Now I cannot see myself doing one or the other. The good karma I get from taking care of my patients in ‘real life’, has kind of paid off in my ‘reel life’.

What was the most crucial, difficult lesson to learn on your first film?

Making a film, someone told me, is like laying train tracks in front of a speeding train. It was a completely new experience for me. Acting in movies is so different than theatre, so that was a great learning experience. But I learned the most from the post-production process. Dennis Hopper was fantastic, he knew it was my first film, he was a cool cat and was very supportive. Hopper gave me acting tips and helped me with the editing. How priceless is that, Hopper, the winner of best director awards for ‘Easy Rider’ giving me editing advice.  Another important lesson I learned from the post-production process was that as a writer I don’t really need to write that much dialogue, because sometimes just a look from an actor is enough. The whole process was better than going to a film school, sometimes the best way to learn is by throwing yourself in the fire.

Do you find a commonality between your two professions? You are a full-time spine surgeon and you write, act and produce some amazing films.

Oh yes, I take the same approach as I do to medicine. You have to work hard, you have to learn, you have to constantly evolve. I approach films the same way. I mean you have to have some skills in whatever you pursue in your life. But I think it’s how passionate you are to learn that makes the difference, especially with creative stuff.

Let’s talk about your most recent film 97 minutes, a plane-heist action thriller. How did that idea take birth? What was your inspiration for the script?

I write on subjects that excite me. 97 minutes came about as I was trying to figure out how to construct an intense thriller that would keep you on the edge of your seat, on a low budget and yet, make it look like a 100-million-dollar block buster film like Air Force One with Harrison Ford. When Alec Baldwin agreed to play the lead, it ballooned into a much bigger project. So, it’s an American blockbuster that was shot on just two sets, which kind of worked out perfectly in the COVID-age. We finished the film in eighteen days. But at the heart of the story is a Mahatma Gandhi quote that stays with me, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’  I was able to wrap that theme of the futility of violence and revenge into 97 minutes.

You basically had a Producer’s cap on while scripting 97 Minutes. That’s a huge advantage. But you also need a good team/crew to shoot a mainstream big budget Hollywood film in 18 days.

We have a fantastic director Timo Vuorensola and cinematographer Konstantin Freyer. It was like going to war with collaborators that shared the vision for the film. And we put really good actors in this budget scale. Alec Baldwin and Emmy-winner Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the lead actress from The Witcher. And when you see the film, it looks like a 100-million-dollar movie.

How did you manage to retain Alec Baldwin post the Rust tragedy? Was he your original choice to play the NSA chief?

With Alec, he was attached to the project for a year and a half. I had tailored the role for him. He has been a favorite actor of mine, starring in some iconic films like The Hunt for Red October, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Cooler—I mean the list in endless. Then all hell broke loose. With COVID and the unfortunate accident on Rust, it was tragic at all levels. But I didn’t want to drop Alec. I called him and told him that we are standing behind him. You don’t leave friends, especially in their most tragic moments. He appreciated that. We stuck by him.

It’s interesting. Was it the doctor side of you that understood the complexity of the situation when most established and successful Hollywood producers shied away from Alec in his difficult time? You managed to offer him not only support but shoot with him against all odds.

All businesses go through their ups and downs but you don’t abandon your friends. I mean, we had paparazzi that broke into set, they were by the hotel, jumping out of the bushes. But the cast and crew stuck together like a family, we supported each other. It was therapeutic for Alec as well. This might be one of Alec’s best performances.

I believe you are in post-production. Is there a schedule for release?

Yes, we are actually ahead of schedule. We are looking at a theatrical Feb/March 2023 release.

What is your next film? Is there something in the pipeline?

My next project, which I am very excited about, is The Collaborator based on an award-winning bestseller by ex-BBC journalist Mirza Waheed, which I’m producing with Mulberry Films. We have a visionary director from Europe, Konstantin Bojanov. But most of all, I was drawn to this project for the opportunity to work with you, Rashanna Shah – you’re a visionary producer, bringing compelling literary works to mainstream Hollywood. You’re extremely talented and it’s been wonderful working with you.  This story also resonated deeply with me.

What is ‘The Collaborator’ about? Is it different from the movies you have done so far?

It’s a coming-of-age story set in Kashmir in the 1990s. It’s very relevant to what’s going on in the world right now, in Ukraine and Afghanistan. The conflict of being stuck in a war zone seen from a 17-year-old boy’s perspective and how this conflict is ripping apart his family and his friends. The heart of the story is about the consequences of war and conflict for someone who is growing up in it, which gets lost in all the propaganda perpetuated by media.

You have only written and produced Hollywood films, was identifying with the Kashmir conflict a challenge, an alien subject for you?

There is a personal connection. In 2005, a devastating earthquake hit Pakistan. At the time I was working as a medical correspondent for CNN and Fox News. Some of the doctors who were involved with the disaster reliefhttps://www.linkedin.com/in/rashaana-shah-2543a471/ weren’t able to get international aid, they wanted my help. CNN and Fox News refused, so I decided to make the trip on my own, up in the mountains on the Pakistan-side of Kashmir. We finally did manage to get a full special on CNN and I was able to get the international aid they needed . But it was heart-breaking to witness the arduous survivor struggles. It changed me; it puts a lot of things in perspective. Makes you realize how small our first-world problems are. That experience instantly drew me to The Collaborator.

You are a spine-surgeon who is a writer and you’re a producer and actor. Which of these roles do you enjoy the most? Are you a better actor than a writer? A better surgeon than a producer? 

I don’t know if you know this, my brother died in my arms when I was attending at the ER. This gave me a unique perspective as a doctor, having experienced what patients and families go through. Ironically being able to connect with my patients, being empathetic and seeing suffering through their eyes makes me a better doctor and a better writer.

Thanks to the huge hype about inclusivity in mainstream Hollywood, you see more Asian-Americans in Hollywood now than twenty years ago. All your projects are mainstream commercial Hollywood. You are one of the few Indians who has not fallen for the stereotype. You don’t restrict yourself with Indian content as a writer or producer and despite your very Indian good looks, you have never played an Indian character. What is your opinion about the stereotypes, you think the inclusivity is feeding into the stereotype, or will it help break it?

Like I said, I write and produce what excites me and sparks my imagination. Inclusivity is still a box. You are identified as Korean or Indian or Persian. We shouldn’t be limited by our race or our identity. In 97 Minutes I play a Persian/European character. But somewhere down the line I would love to write a Bollywood dance number for myself.

You are also working on a fantastic TV show based on one of America’s most watched movies The Wizard of Oz. Please tell us why and how are you reinventing The Wizard of Oz.

OZ, is a science fiction reimagining of The Wizard of Oz. I am doing a spin on it, a TV series for global audience with a modern twist. There are two core aspects of my personality. Being from India, I’m raised with eastern spiritualty, and as a doctor, I’m constantly looking for scientific evidence for things. I found in this project a way to fuse my spiritual side with my medical side.  An exploration of the nature of reality and our role in it from a spiritual as well as a quantum perspective. As Buddha says ‘We are what we think, all that are arises from our thoughts, with our thoughts, we make the world’.

Before we end, any words of inspiration that you would like to share with upcoming writers?

As a writer, it is very difficult to break-in. Don’t let your passion die. Don’t go by trends, write what you really love. In that process, find the joy of writing. These days, you can self-publish, you can write novels. You have so many resources that you can take advantage of and push yourself to get better.


[Rashaana Shah is the Managing Director of Mulberry films specializing in books-to-films adaptations. She has produced several feature films and music videos in Hollywood.]