Indian American Baidwan, a writer and producer on ABC’s The Good Doctor, speaks about her experiences as a desi writer in Hollywood.
LOS ANGELES: It’s a Monday morning, and I’m on my way to meet Simran Baidwan. In Los Angeles, a meeting at 11 am means leaving your house at least by 9 in the morning, even if you only live 30 minutes away because of the never-ending, but especially tough morning traffic. On the way, it’s a mixture of excitement and going over questions to ask Baidwan about her experiences as a desi writer in Hollywood.
I had been following Baidwan both on social media and through her work long enough to know there’s an ease in the way she communicates and is someone more people should get to know.
Baidwan’s voice both on Twitter and in the show she’s been able to write for is compelling. On Twitter, it’s a voice that’s direct, certainly has a point of view, and one that comes from a woman who works in a field that’s not typical for desis.
After arriving, a white building and red umbrellas greet me immediately. Baidwan’s office isn’t hard to find. I introduce myself, notice her navy blue shirt with bold yellow letters that reads “Rise, Wise, Eyes Up.” She gives me a quick tour and points out the other writers for The Good Doctor.
It’s outside, where we settle in a cute shaded courtyard to start her interview and learn more about her journey.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose specifically. I grew up in San Jose and Fremont. I remember, when we first moved to Fremont I was the only brown kid in my class. Fremont now is such a big hub for desis and Asians, but back then it was kind of like going to the Wild West.
My parents are both Punjabi and emigrated from India. My dad came in 1959 from a town just outside of Chandigarh, and then my mom came over after they got married, in 1972. Her dad was a brigadier in the army so they lived wherever they were stationed. My parents did have an arranged marriage. It’s interesting being the product of desi immigrants coming here with their hopes and dreams for you and for their family.
Do you have siblings?
I do, I have an older half-brother who lives in Colorado, and then I have a younger brother and sister. My older half-brother is quite a bit older, so you kind of feel like you have two components to your family.
What brought you to LA?
I went to UC San Diego for undergraduate. I was a double major in communications with an emphasis in film and television as well as political science with an emphasis in pre-law. Then I went to the University of San Diego for law school. My parents strongly encouraged it over film school. If I wasn’t going to be a doctor or an engineer, a lawyer would do!
But, I came to LA for a job in Hollywood. I was working as a prosecutor for about four years, and it was one of those things where I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had just been newly married for about a year, and my husband was super supportive. He was like “I don’t want you to resent me or us for not going and trying to do it.” So I moved to LA.
Tell me a little bit about your work background?
It was through the help of a friend who helped pass my resume to someone that I became their assistant. So, I really started at the bottom and worked my way up. I was an assistant for an Executive Producer for a show called Judging Amy. It was eye opening and really informative because as an Executive Producer everything ran through his office. I got to see all the worlds – the writers, production, post – I saw what everyone did, and I understood what I was attracted to and what I wanted to do in this industry.
What about your journey to becoming a writer?
Writing is interesting because when I studied it in undergraduate, we would put together little short films and projects. I wrote a lot of short stories but I never thought of myself as someone who could write film and TV. I mean, I loved it growing up, and watched then and now compulsively. But I didn’t think of it as something I was supposed to do, partly because of my background. As a desi, there are things you are supposed to do. For all intents and purposes, I was the eldest child, and my dad was an engineer and my mom studied English, but they were like, “Go be a doctor, be an engineer, go to law school.” I didn’t have any examples or mentors, I didn’t have anyone to look up to that said, “Hey you can do this [writing] too.”
So I went to law school, and I enjoyed it. But even as I was doing that, I would still write short stories on my own. When I was still practicing law, I would wake up in the middle of the night and be like, “Oh I have a great idea for a short story! But no one is going to want to read that, no one is gonna wanna see that.” But as I became secure in who I was as a person, as I got a little older, I realized I was good at my job as a lawyer, but it wasn’t fulfilling me creatively. At that point, I knew I could support myself in whatever I wanted to do.
Is your family supportive of what you do, how so?
My parents were very supportive when I wanted to move to L.A. They were like, “Okay, you have a law degree to fall back on.” I mean, I think there was some safety in thinking that myself. But I also thought, “I have good story sense, and I think I know what I’m talking about.” When I came to L.A. and got to see how the “sausage was made”, I knew I wanted to be the person who develops the characters, creates the narrative, and really builds worlds. That was the most fascinating and most interesting aspect of television to me.
You had mentioned your parents and husband had been supportive. Do you have children? Are they also supportive?
My husband is great. We have been together since undergraduate and he’s the one who probably understands, most intrinsically, who I am. I have two kids, a three-year-old and an eight-year-old. They were born into this world where mom has always been a writer. They’ve never not known me as that. So as crazy as this world might seem when explaining it to some people – because it is like talking about outer space to them – my kids don’t known any different.
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For them, mom is a writer and she goes to work. Sometimes I’m working crazy hours and I have to fly away to be on location. And sometimes I’m on hiatus and I get to be home… I get to volunteer at the school, be at the library, pick them up and take them to soccer. This is their normal. But they do get excited when we’re driving around town and see billboards for a show I’m working on. “Mama, look! The Good Doctor!” They understand I write for that show, but they are too young to watch it, so they don’t really “see” what I do. Right now, it’s much cooler that someone’s dad is a fireman!
Everyone overall has been very supportive. They understand that if I want to try something I have a lot of determination and will pursue it full course.
You had mentioned The Good Doctor, what are a few highlights of your career?
One of the biggest shows I was an assistant on was House. It was an incredible opportunity – I call it the best paid graduate program I ever had. I was an assistant to a director (Dan Sackheim), and then to a writing team (Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner) who really helped David Shore, the creator. All of these people were really inclusive – I got to see how stories were broken, I went to set, attended production meetings… it was really fundamental to my education in television writing. House was such a big hit, and it was great to see the writers being rewarded for their work.
David Shore is also the creator of The Good Doctor. He’s one of these showrunners who is on every writer’s wish list to work for, so I feel very fortunate to be a part of the show. He’s assembled a diverse group of men and women who are really smart, thoughtful and have really interesting backgrounds. I think with any television show it’s really important to have a multitude of voices from people of different ages, sexes, races and cultures, who can help tell stories. There are a lot of desi, Asian, Latin, Indigenous American and African American writers out there. Find them and employ them.
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Folks always say, “People keep repeating stories on TV!” To that I say, we have so many stories yet to be told. If you bring these people into your writers’ rooms, it will translate to the screen. And I do believe there’s a direct correlation between directors and writers working behind the camera that will translate to people of color on the screen.
How do you explain your transition from lawyer to writer, and being a writer to people?
Yeah… some people think it’s crazy. I have aunts who are like, “Okay, are you done now? Are you gonna come back?” Like I went on vacation. I’ve been here for 13 years, this is my career now. This is what I do for a living. It’s not just a hobby.
What’s your favorite thing about being a writer?
My favorite thing about writing is creating complex characters. Putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Finding the humanity in people. Discovering that we have more in common than we don’t. I get to play “make believe” every day – it’s an adult playground. When people ask what I do, I tell them that I sit in a room and create stories. I think of anything I want to write and I get to pitch that. And David Shore is really great about giving his writers authorship – he really helps to shepherd your vision of what you are trying to execute.
Can you explain the process after you write and explain something people don’t know about putting a show together?
It’s sometimes difficult for people to understand the long process it takes to think about the different characters and plot lines, break the stories, write the scripts and shoot the episodes. After you write the scripts, you go to shoot them. We fly to a location or stay here in Los Angeles, wherever the set is, and we work very intimately with the actors and the director to help facilitate the correct mood and tone for the episode.
People don’t realize how long it takes to shoot television. They are amazed when they realize it can take up to 2 weeks to shoot 42 minutes of television. We work 12-14 hour days and we’re shooting all day and night. Sometimes one scene will take 3 hours and it will translate to 30 seconds on television. It’s also difficult for people to understand that there are so many different shots and that you have to spend a lot of time setting up and lighting each one in a different way. There are a lot of people that it takes to put a project together. People think making television is very glamorous, but it’s a lot of work. Television has a very quick turn around compared to films, so we have to get the job done quickly and get it out.
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Are there many desi writers in Hollywood? If not, do you feel like you’re a pioneer and why/how?
Everyone has heard of Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling. I had to really think about it though. I know a few writers like Stephanie SenGupta and Y. Shireen Razack, but I really can’t think of any other desi writers I know personally. I’ve been the only person of color in a writer’s room before. As my career has evolved and writers’ rooms have evolved, it’s nice to not feel like a unicorn… but the change is still very slow. That’s shameful. Not only should there be a lot more desi writers, there should be more writers of color in general. It’s with these voices in the room that you can bring a different perspective to shows. We can spin stories and think of things in a different way. We bring our own cultural identity and unique perspective to the narrative. The more diverse people you have in a writers’ room, the more dynamic a show you can create.
Do you do anything else besides writing?
I love to travel as much as I can but it’s hard with kids. Going to the movies is still something I love to do, but it’s difficult to do timewise. I do like showing my kids new places, even if it’s a museum, and seeing things through their eyes. They are a constant source of inspiration. It’s fun to go exploring with them. If my husband and I get to go out, we like to try new restaurants and do new things. For us, it’s about making the most of our city and where we are. As an adult, it’s also important to do things as an individual. For example, tonight I’m going to dinner with some other writer friends. And it’s important to have alone time too. At the end of the day, if you don’t fulfill yourself, you can’t be present for other people.
How do you use your social media? Because you’re outspoken in both politics and your work, do you have a plan for the way you use it?
I like to use it in a bunch of different ways whether it’s about a restaurant I liked or about Planned Parenthood. I also like to see different voices and perspectives from around the world. There’s a lot of news that I get from activists that I admire, and I like hearing different perspectives on social/political issues. I think that any time you can use your platform to help do better and raise awareness for stuff, why not?
It’s really easy to get bogged down with all the negativity, especially in our current political climate, but social media does a lot of good and raises a lot of awareness. After the election, instead of feeling helpless I wondered, “What can I do?” So, every month on the anniversary of Election Day, I donate to charities that I feel are being underfunded or cut or need support.
Do you feel that your shows and the work you do is important in this current political climate?
People say this is the golden age of television, because we have so many different platforms: network television, basic cable, paid cable, streaming services, and because of that, I think there’s a great opportunity to have so many different stories/voices/people. I’m working on The Good Doctor right now, and the thing that really attracted me to this show was showing a perspective that really embraces the differences in people. We’re not doing the After School Special about “the autistic guy” — the lead character is a surgical resident who happens to have autism. It’s a show about drawing people from different communities, different walks of life, and folding them into our daily conversation. I think about diversity in characters all the time, especially with desi characters. I always think, “Please don’t make them a cab driver or a terrorist or make them run a 7/11!” It’s my job and the job of every writer to broaden the scope of how diverse people are portrayed.
What’s one thing about you that most people don’t know about you?
I’m a massive 80’s British pop music fan. So, in my book, there’s no band better than Duran Duran. I try to go see them in concert any and every time they are in town.
What’s some advice that you can give people aspiring to be in this industry?
Every friend I’ve talked to had a different journey as to how they got to Hollywood, and I find that hopeful. Someone else’s path may not be right for you. It’s a lot of work – you have to have a strong work ethic and a lot of hustle. You have to be okay being told “No!” over and over again. It’s about what you can learn from that and how you bounce back. It’s about your resilience.
Another thing that is especially important for diverse writers are these writing workshops/programs that are run by a lot of studios and networks in town. I was very fortunate to be a part of the CBS Writers’ Mentoring Program which was incredible. It is run by Carole Kirschner and Jeanne Mau, who are both strong advocates for diverse voices. Once you’re in a program like that, their job is to help you land a writing job and move forward. They also introduce you to agents, managers, executives and showrunners. I don’t know if enough people know about them. All of the programs are free once you are accepted, and some even pay you which is amazing. Once you get into one of those programs, it can open a lot of doors for you in Hollywood.