I hate being late.

I was over 45 minutes late meeting Hillman Grad CEO and producer Rishi Rajani because I thought I would be able to make it from Brentwood to Hollywood in 30 minutes.

I was delusional.

I walked into Original Hoy-Ka Thai Noodle and apologized profusely for being late and Rajani was definitely more forgiving than me. Normally, I’m on time every time. I’m the friend that arrives 15 minutes before we are supposed to meet. Nonetheless, I was just glad Rajani didn’t just straight up chew me out for making him wait.

I over-ordered food and paid for all of it. I mean, it was the least I could do.

Hillman Grad, the production banner founded by Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe. Rajani served as producer on the recent A.V. Rockwell-directed drama A Thousand and One featuring Teyana Taylor in an incredible performance. The film received the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Rajani also signed on as producer of the Sundance-winning documentary Kokomo City, which puts an unfiltered and honest look at the lives of Black trans sex workers in New York. The docu marks the feature directorial debut of D. Smith and also starred the late Koko Da Doll.

The producer’s roster of projects under the Hillman Grad shingle is quite robust including the documentaries Black & Gifted and Being Mary Tyler Moore as well as Radha Blank’s Netflix feature The Forty Year-Old Version. On the TV side, he has worked with Waithe on The ChiTwenties and  Boomerang.

Waithe told Rajani when they started to work together: “We got to teach you how to show your teeth.”

“I think I stepped in [as an] Asian happy to have a seat at the table —  happy to be here,” Rajani said in regards to when he first started working. He appreciated Waithe’s leadership and confidence which helped put on his own CEO hat and do the work.

“The way Lena moves through the world – she can’t hide,” Rajani pointed out. “She is a masculine-presenting queer Black woman who walks around and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re different’, right? So I think she had to get that kind of self-assuredness at a much earlier age.”

At Hillman Grad, Rajani not only produced all the aforementioned projects, but he had a hand in Indeed’s Rising Voices short film program and serves as an Executive Mentor for the Hillman Grad Mentorship lab. In addition, he worked with Reena Singh, Nik Dodani, Bash Naran, and Vinny Chhibber to launch a South Asian mentorship program under “The Salon.”

Prior to leading the charge at Hillman Grad, Rajani worked in development at Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8. He was not only grateful for the opportunity, but he also recognized he was entering a space that was lacking in representation.

“I was grappling with being a studio executive versus being a producer,” Rajani explained in between bites of pad see ew. “What I love about being a producer is that I get to be really in there with the creative [and] understand them. I think when you’re a senior executive, you’re one step removed from the creative process.” Rajani added his favorite part of the job is working with artists and helping them achieve their vision.

He first met Waithe when he was working at Studio 8 when she came in to pitch a project based on the graphic novel Black. This was shortly after her big Emmy win for Master of None and her take on the material was bold and resonated with Rajani. The pair kept in touch and years later, Waithe ended up hiring him for Hillman Grad.

“We really wanted to build something that could be this antithesis to the bullshit Hollywood diversity, renaissance monolithic storytelling stuff,” he bluntly said. “I was tired of getting arranged marriage stories. Lena was tired of getting coming-out stories and we wanted to do stories that are just human stories from people who actually should be telling those stories.”

Born in the United Kingdom, Rajani’s mom was from Uganda while his father was born in Malawi. His grandmother was born in Kenya.

Let me let him explain.

“It was during the whole ‘British moving around the people throughout the colonies thing’,” he started. “A lot of Indian people went over to East Africa and then Idi Amin, President of Uganda, basically had a dream that he thought that South Asians shouldn’t be in Africa and ended up just rounding up people, putting my family with soldiers, and putting them on planes… and they ended up in the UK.”

Rajani enjoyed this cool, specific UK community, an intersection of the South Asian diaspora that has an African influence. Rajani said ,“It’s really cool because I will run into other brown people in Hollywood across a lot of spectrums and jobs and we’ll connect over that.” This includes songwriter Savan Kotecha and Now Apocalypse and  Zombieland: Double Tap actor Avan Jogia, who also appears in the upcoming Orphan Black: Echoes.

He family ended up moving to New York and then later to Portland at the age of 11, where he would spend his formative high school years before heading back east to attend NYU. He then moved to Los Angeles in 2013 and has been doing the work since.

Rajani and I have been in L.A. for about the same amount of time and we share our Hollywood horror stories which shall remain between us – actually I just told him all my horror stories. More than that, we talked about growing up in predominantly white spaces throughout our lives. I spent my formative years in Texas while Rajani grew up in upstate New York and Portland.

“In Oregon, I had more of a brown community – especially in speech and debate. It was like my big high school activity,” he said. Even so, we agreed that many Asian Americans of a certain generation were taught that the objective was to be the “cool Asian”. In other words, “there can only be one”.

There always seems to be this chronic “Highlander syndrome” when it comes to pressure to be “the only” and represent something that isn’t a monolith. However, when there is scarcity and no clear vision on what equitable representation looks like, the conversation of who gets to represent and what is done with that representation becomes complex, nuanced and, let’s be honest, a bit chaotic.

“We get into this problem where it’s one organization or one movie or one show and there’s so much pressure on that one thing like in a very real way,” he said, adding that he hopes that we get to a point where there are tons of organizations, films and shows representing marginalized communities. He also hopes this includes allowance to create mediocre content.

What is not mediocre is the mindful work that Rajani has produced including the aforementioned A Thousand and One – which I cannot stop praising (it’s currently on Peacock!). More recently, he released the Disney+ film Chang Can Dunk, a very unexpected film that takes a different approach to the typical “identity” narrative.

Written and Directed by Jingyi Shao, Chang Can Dunk follows the titular Asian American 16-year-old in a coming-of-age story where he, as the title suggests, dunks a basketball.

Played with a tangible earnestness by newcomer Bloom Li, Chang is a marching band member (same) who makes a bet with the school’s big time basketball star that he can dunk by Homecoming. He wants to dunk for his pride, but also to impress his crush Kristy (Zoe Renee) and finally be validated and accepted by his peers. All of this becomes a mess and he basically has the teenage version of a midlife crisis… which I guess would be puberty.

The collaboration between Rajani and Shao was another result of his Studio 8 days. The pair met before with Shao and Henry Chen about their script Salvage. ”I couldn’t really work with them at Studio 8 but we kept in touch,” said Rajani. “When I got the job with Lena in 2018, she was really cool about empowering me to hire people on our projects that I really believed in.”

The first thing Rajani produced at Hillman Grad was BET’s Boomerang and he used that as an opportunity to hire Shao and Chen to be in the writers’ room. That’s when Chang Can Dunk entered the conversation. “I was really excited about it because I’m a sucker for a high school movie,” he admitted. “I have never seen a high school movie that was an image from my experience.”

The pair continued to collaborate on projects including a music video and Shao even directed a couple of episodes of Twenties. Rajani says they “kind of grew up together” in their journeys – his as a producer and Shao’s as a feature filmmaker.

When they really started to talk about making Chang Can Dunk, Brad Weston and Makeready came through with the financing. However, it wasn’t exactly the movie we are enjoying on Disney+ right now.

Chang Can Dunk made The Black List in 2020. As one of the “best unproduced scripts” of the year, Shao constructed the movie to be more of an R-rated Superbad type of film. When it was time to take it out, Disney was the most supportive of the project and they wanted to do it.

That said, they had to “Disney-fy it” a bit. “We were like, okay, what does a PG created version of this look like? Are we excited about that? Are we interested in that?” Rajani and Shao had a lot of questions on what to do with this project that was almost like a child to them at this point.

Rajani explained. “It’s interesting because we fit the Disney model but also don’t entirely fit the Disney model – it’s for Disney audiences but we would also want to be outside of the Disney audiences.”

He continued, “To their credit, they were open to us shooting in a different way. They were open to us probably going a little bit like darker… and even to have a lead that lies and isn’t totally, morally upright at all times.” Chang Can Dunk is following in this recent trend of Asian-led films not hingeing on the “bring honor to our family” identity trope and being human and making mistakes, combating the idea of the model minority myth. We’ve seen it in recent films like the forthcoming movies Shortcomings, Joy Ride and even Everything Everywhere All At Once as well as TV series like Netflix’s Beef. 

Being on Disney+ was an opportunity for Chang Can Dunk, an Asian-led high school feature directed and written by an Asian American, to have a far reach to communities and towns that wouldn’t normally have access to a movie like this otherwise.

“We made script revisions and they super fast tracked us under what felt like a bit of an experimental low budget for Disney kind of model and we were shooting in Connecticut within a year of script,” said Rajani.

Chang Can Dunk received a great ovation and currently at 95% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang said of the film: “Chang Can Dunk gets that the pursuit of fun, seemingly frivolous goals can be meaningful in itself, especially when undertaken with the loving encouragement of friends and family” while The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck said: “The filmmaker demonstrates considerable talent with both his writing and directing, providing amusing dialogue that rings true and complex characterizations defying easy stereotypes.”

That said, Chang Can Dunk gravitates away from what Hollywood would brand a “Asian film”.

“It’s really cool because what I really appreciate what [Shao] was trying to do with the movie, which I think he accomplished in a really incredible way…t’s a movie about a kid trying to learn how to dunk basketball… but it’s also not about a kid trying to learn to dunk a basketball. There’s a lot more in there about identity and wanting to be seen and that’s me. That was my hustle.” Then Rajani hit me with a truth when he said “All I wanted to be was white, you know… especially with the model minority of it all.”

As I sat there inhaling spring rolls, I realized in Chang Can Dunk, dunking was a metaphor for whiteness. The Asian proximity to whiteness is a attached to the model minority myth and in the movie, Chang is determined to dunk. Why? Because a white man challenged him to do so.

I admitted to Rajani that I felt that this movie was missing some dark nuances that would make it more of an R-rated journey that I would enjoy because I am a sociopath. However,  it is wildly impressive what Shao, Rajani and the Chang Can Dunk team did to transform a Superbad-type film into a Disney+ movie that dissects the psyche of a male teen and his struggle to navigate his hyper-hormonal teen ego and identity all while going through high school hell.

Yes, there were some culturally relevant Asian moments in Chang Can Dunk, but Chang’s story isn’t totally hinged on his cultural identity. Instead, it really leaned into this examination of masculinity – mainly Asian masculinity, a topic that comes up in our conversation.

I tell Rajani that I think there is this interesting conversation to be had when it comes to immigrant and first generation cis, hetero Asian men and their relationship with masculinity. In fact, speaking from experience, many Asian men are never really taught how to be a “man” by Western hetero-normative standards.

However, many of us were constantly told to “not act like a girl!” or  “only gay people do that!”.  Being queer was heresy and the gender lines were boldly drawn.  On top of all that, the Asian male has until recently, been desexualized and infantilized.

That said, the Asian male psyche has been through a journey when it comes to its relationship with masculinity and Chang Can Dunk is one of a few films that help interrogate that. It’s as if men are always trying to prove themselves.

“The truth is that straight Asian men, which I put myself in this category, have a shit ton of privilege,” Rajani said without hesitation. We talk about how there can be some Asian males — from heads of companies to actors to musicians to your everyday uncle — who have this huge chip on their shoulder because there has been this feeling of not belonging and having to constantly fight for and protecting the space they occupy.

Before we yearned to assimilate, but now, we are seeing less and less of that need for white validation and more about doing good work and bringing light to our stories and existence. Even so, this struggle is still real.

“I think that I’ve been grappling with that myself,” said Rajani. “I also grew up very frustrated and feeling like I didn’t belong but at the same time I can contextualize and realize the level of privilege that I do have.”

Rajani said that Waithe did not have to give him this amazing opportunity at Hillman Grad at the age of 26. “Honestly being embraced in a lot of ways by the Black community and the Black queer community and getting to understand what inclusion means in that space and what acceptance means in that space has allowed me to accept myself.”

Rajani strives each day to be a better manager and more thoughtful about the direction of Hillman Grad which is cut from the same cloth as production companies like Spring Hill, ARRAY, LuckyChap, Proximity, Hello Sunshine, Rideback, MACRO and other companies expanding the scope of inclusive storytelling landscape.

As Rajani comes off Chang Can Dunk and as the WGA strike continues to push ahead, he moves forward with Hillman Grad as the company has expanded its brand beyond film and TV with a record label under Def Jam, a book publishing imprint under Zando Books and even a fashion merch.

He sees Hillman Grad as a branded company that have an audience they can appeal to. “It becomes like an identity, more than just a film/TV production company,” said Rajani, saying that he wants to put systems into place where they able to leverage the Hillman Grad identity.

Rajani painted me a picture: “The dream is where you can be wearing a Hillman Grad sweatshirt while watching a Hillman Grad show and then listening to a Hillman Grad record while reading a Hillman Grad book.”

“I’m excited for that kind of shift – probably because I think we’re seeing it with studio system too,” he said. “I’m just saying that we need to have power in our audience and own that.”