By Amit Roy
KRISHNENDU MAJUMDAR is an Emmy-winning producer and director, but he has made it his mission to bring about real diversity in the film, TV and gaming industries as the new chairman of Bafta.
Some of the clues lie in his own background. “Growing up, there was no one from the Bengali community with connections in the film or television industries,” he tells Eastern Eye, emphasising, “Representation really matters.”
Now 45, he was born in Church Village in Wales, 10 miles north-west of Cardiff where he went to school before graduating in English and drama at Bristol University.
He says he was “more into theatre in those days” and thought he might become a theatre director, but eventually he moved into television.
“With Bengalis, you know your parents want you to have a safe job,” he recalls.
The last time he visited India was in the autumn of 2018 when he took his father’s ashes to the holy city of Varanasi, before going to Kolkata to meet relatives.
In 1962, his father, Dr Rupendra Kumar Majumdar, arrived from Calcutta [now Kolkata] on a boat that docked in Liverpool.
“He went back in 1966 and married my mum and returned to the UK,” his son says. “He was a GP in the South Wales area and worked for the NHS for 40 years.”
His father passed away, aged 86, on February 15, 2017. His mother, Jharna, who had been a community link worker among Bengalis from India and Bangladeshis, still lives in South Wales and Majumdar and his elder brother, Saumendra, take it in turns to visit her. The cultural committee their parents helped to set up in 1973 to celebrate the festival of Durga Puja is still going strong.
Inevitably, friends and work colleagues have shortened Majumdar’s first name to “Krish”. He tells them it is “never Chris” but when he gets a film credit, he makes sure it is written out in full.
After university he travelled around India for nearly a year, and he has had family holidays there with his parents over the years.
Although he has now lived in London for 20 years, Majumdar feels a strong sense of kinship with Wales. “I feel like I have Bengali roots entwined with a Welsh upbringing. People ask, where you from? I say I am Welsh with Bengali heritage. I support India in the cricket, Wales in the rugby.”
Recently he did a Zoom call with his parents’ Bengali friends in Wales who had seen him grow up. “They are really proud. I was just talking about my life and my career.”
These days his reading is restricted mainly to scripts, but if he were marooned on a mythical desert island, the five books he would take are: You People by Nikita Lalwani; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; and Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems.
The five favourite movies he could watch again and again would be: Goodfellas; Sholay; 2001: A Space Odyssey; There Will Be Blood; and Parasite.
Majumdar’s route into becoming a TV producer and director was circuitous. After Bristol University, he did a postgraduate degree in journalism at Cardiff.
“Then, I was an ITN news trainee. And I worked at Channel Four news, Channel Five news, ITV News, and then I was a BBC production trainee. I think I’m the only person in the history of broadcasting to have done both graduate schemes.”
He started in television making hard-hitting documentaries and current affairs films, including the Bafta nominated Who You Callin’ a N***er? (C4) and Michael Howard: No More Mr Nasty (BBC2). He and a friend, Richard Yee, then set up their own independent production company, Me+You Productions.
He won an Emmy for co-creating Hoff The Record, a British TV comedy show starring Baywatch star David Hasselhoff. It follows a mockumentary, fly-on-the-wall format with Hasselhoff playing a fictionalised version of himself in the autumn of his career, relocating to the UK to seek new opportunities.
Majumdar has just been finishing a second series of the Bafta-nominated drama series, I Am, with award-winning writer-director Dominic Savage for Channel 4.
Majumdar’s espousal of the cause of diversity is not recent or triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement, and his association with Bafta, where he has “risen up the ranks”, goes back 15 years. He has been chair of the learning and new talent committee (2006-2010), chair of the television committee (2015-2019), deputy chair last year and a member of the board of trustees for nine years. He has been a long-time supporter of greater diversity on and off screen throughout his career, and has also been on the Board of Directors UK as well as on the PACT (Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television) council.
He is also chairing Bafta’s awards review, convened in response to the lack of diversity in this year’s nominations. This earned a rebuke from Prince William, Bafta’s president for 10 years, who said: “Yet in 2020, and not for the first time in the last few years, we find ourselves talking again about the need to do more to ensure diversity in the sector and in the awards process. That simply cannot be right in this day and age.”
“What I’m trying to do is make sure Bafta has cleaned up its own side of the street. I want to get our own house in order,” declares Majumdar.
“Yes, I’m the chair,” he goes. “And I also led the steering group driving through the changes. And yes, you could say I am the face of change, but there’s a huge amount of people in the whole organisation is behind me. We realise that it’s Bafta’s value system that needs to be addressed as well.”
He explains: “Bafta alone can’t solve the problem of diversity in this industry, but what we can do is drive change. When we’ve given an award to someone, we are putting value on that person or that film or TV programme and therefore they get more funding, more investment, more kudos. It’s a virtuous circle. Certain people in the past have been ignored, whether that’s actors of colour or female directors.”
After consulting widely, Bafta has decided not to have categories restricted to the ethnic minorities or women.
“What I do think is important is that producers of colour don’t get expected to do just Indian stories or black stories. They can do Pride and Prejudice. Ang Lee did Sense and Sensibility. He brought his aesthetic to it, a fresh perspective.”
Majumdar is the first non-white chairman of Bafta and one of the youngest since it was set up in 1947 by a group that included David Lean and Laurence Olivier.
“I want to see that our academy is open for all and supports members regardless of their background, race, sexuality, disability or gender,” he says. “I’m really optimistic about this moment – something big is happening. And I feel we can really change the whole game. What I’m going to do is to call on the industry to step up.”