Maureen Bharoocha and Rita Moreno during filming of 'The Prank.'
Director Maureen Bharoocha and actress Rita Moreno during filming of 'The Prank.' Credit: Contributed photo

Growing up in Santa Barbara, Director Maureen Bharoocha recalls attending the Santa Barbara International Film Festival as a child.

“It’s actually probably one of the reasons that I got into filmmaking,” Bharoocha said. “I have vivid, vivid memories of my dad taking me and my brother to an animated short sequence.”

Now returning to Santa Barbara with her own film, Bharoocha is finishing the tour of her second feature film, “The Prank,” which will screen at the festival Thursday and Friday.

“It just feels really full circle and beautiful,” Bharoocha said “The fact that my parents can come, and all the people that have supported me over my life — many of them still live here.”

‘The Prank” premieres at the film festival as part of the Santa Barbara Features film collection with showtimes on Thursday at 1:20 p.m. and Friday at 8:20 p.m. Both showings will be followed by a Q&A with Bharoocha and members of the cast and crew.

“The Prank” is a dark comedy starring Rita Moreno about two high school students who falsely accuse their physics teacher of murder after she fails them on a test.

“It’s kind of a modern day morality tale, kind of like the boy who cried wolf,” Bharoocha said. “You kind of never know what you’re going to uncover when you kind of play this kind of prank on somebody.”

A scene from 'The Prank' which is premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this week.
A scene from ‘The Prank’ which is premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this week. Credit: Contributed photo

The film straddles the line between thriller and comedy, and subverts the typical expectations of a high school movie, Bharoocha said.

“I kind of gravitate toward people stuck in between two worlds, or I like to straddle two different tones and movies,” she said. “I like characters that are conflicted about who they are, about their morality, and I think that does come from being raised in a mixed religious and ethnic and cultural home.”

Bharoocha’s mother is Irish Catholic, American. Her father is Indian, Pakistani, Burmese Muslim. Coming from a diverse background herself, Bharoocha said she aims to make movies that show the world as she sees it. 

“I think it’s really important to show the world and show audiences kind of the complexity of our culture and that that shows up on screen in every way it can for me.”

The cast itself features a diverse roundup of stars including Ramona Young, Connor Kalopsis, Keith David Meredith Salinger, and Kate Flannery.

A scene from 'The Prank' which is premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this week.
A scene from ‘The Prank’ which is premiering at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this week. Credit: Contributed photo

Growing up, Bharoocha was always passionate about theater and film. As a student, Bharoocha played Yenta in Bishop Diego High School’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

She originally wanted to be an actor. However, it was at Santa Barbara City College where she first discovered her passion for working behind the scenes. 

“I soon realized in my film studies class, that ‘oh,’ all of the things that I had loved my whole life — whether it was acting and music, painting, and photography — were all of the things that I needed to learn to be a great filmmaker,” Bharoocha said. 

“In those first classes at Santa Barbara City College, watching movies and writing papers and analyzing them, I quickly learned that I still loved acting and I loved theater and I love performing. But truly, what I love about that is telling a story.”

Maureen Bharoocha
Maureen Bharoocha

After completing her masters in film studies at Boston University, Bharoocha worked as a manager at Sprinkles Cupcakes and was a production assistant on “The Simpsons.” She  eventually worked her way to Sprinkles’ corporate offices, creating promotional films for the company before moving to “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” as a segment director for three years.

Working in the industry for 10 years, Bharoocha has witnessed a lack of representation. She said she alternates in identifying as a “South-Asian-mixed-race-female director,” and just a director, saying that those identifiers are reductive.

“I actually do not like the hyphens,” Bharoocha said. “But I think when you tell your story, it’s good to let people know what informs you.

“I don’t think of myself as a female director, I think of myself as a director,” Bharoocha said.

“I don’t think of myself as a South Asian director per se, or a mixed person, per say directing. But when I tell my story, I think it’s important to acknowledge where I came from and what informs my creativity and my vision.”

All of the things that Bharoocha has created as a filmmaker, which have guided her through her career, are because of her upbringing.

Something else that has guided through her career is the motto “make cool s—” which is the title card of her director’s reel. Bharoocha drunkenly came up with the mantra while giving a speech after screening one of her short films to family and friends.

“I had had a little bit too much to drink,” Bharoocha said. “So by the end of the screening, I was totally three sheets to the wind and I got up and for my whole speech, all I kept saying was ‘I just want to make cool s—. I don’t care about getting paid.’”

“It was like 20 minutes, I think of just saying this phrase,” Bharoocha said. “So it kind of stuck. And now, it has become my mantra.”

Bharoocha said she’s used the phrase to make sure what she’s creating is still true to herself.

“It’s making sure that you’re being authentically yourself and what you’re putting into the world is authentically you,” Bharoocha said.

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘is this cool shit?’ and if the answer’s no then I know I shouldn’t do it.”

‘The Prank” premieres at 1:20 p.m. Thursday at the Fiesta 5 Theater, auditorium 4, and Friday, Feb. 17, at 8:20 p.m. at the Metro 4 Theater, auditorium 2. Both showings will be followed by a Q&A with Bharoocha, and members of the cast and crew. Rita Moreno will be at Friday’s Q&A.

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Grace Kitayama, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Grace Kitayama is a Noozhawk staff writer.