Shonali Bhowmik‘s first short film, Sardines Out of a Can, starts out following several popular comedy tropes about young adults, Brooklyn, dwindling finances, gay best friends, and the hopelessness of finding Mr. Right. By the time the film ends 22 minutes later, parents have been mauled by grizzly bears, eczema has been the central topic of three separate conversations, and a freeze-dried cat has shot lasers–which every character inexplicably refers to as tasers–out of its supposedly dead eyes.
Sardines Out of a Can is a meet-cute from hell, and Bhowmik’s lead character Puja deserves a new term for the opposite of a manic pixie dream girl (and her suitor, actor Adam Wade as Chester, is no typical rom com hero). The film is now available online after a year of touring internationally to festivals, during which it won best romantic comedy short at Oklahoma’s Bare Bones International Film Festival. The soundtrack features music by beloved artists Ted Leo, Shannon Wright, Marcellus Hall, and more, all of which Bhowmik got for free based on her own success as a musician and relationships in the indie rock community.
But even with Sardines‘ short run time and low budget, it’s impressive the film got made; Bhowmik wrote, directed and produced the film while also hosting the popular Variety SHAC comedy show at Upright Citizens Brigade, running the Little Lamb Recordings record label, writing and recording her own music, co-hosting the We Don’t Even Know podcast, producing the web series Shayla Hates Celebrities, and practicing contract law.
Fast Company asked Bhowmik how she channels her creative energy to make compelling works across such a variety of mediums, and to explain just how, exactly, she juggles it all.
Bhowmik graduated from law school with the intention of doing public defense work, which pays far less than a corporate job. At the same time, she was leading Atlanta band Ultrababyfat, which comedian David Cross took a liking to and invited on tour.
“It was crazy in that we actually started making money playing music,” says Bhowmik. “I just remember thinking, you know if I can truly feel passion about being an artist, I will be selfish and take that route.” Bhowmik also had no specific comedic ambitions early on, but her relationship with Cross and the comedy community drew her in, and soon after she moved to New York in the early 2000s, she was writing her own material and producing “Tinkle,” Cross’s live show with Jon Benjamin and Todd Barry. “I developed this amazing circle of friends that are comedians, so comedy has always been a constant since I’ve been in New York,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing because I don’t think I had any of these expectations other than I know I’m a creative person.”
At the same time, Bhowmik has leveraged her law degree on the side to support her creative work. “It has been a crazy gift in that I have been able to do contract work the entire time I’ve been here,” she says. “So, on and off, in between all my creative endeavors, I do work on antitrust, the whole credit driven mortgage swap, doc review for big cases, pretrial litigation and discovery, that kind of stuff.”
“I didn’t study film,” says Bhowmik about the creative risks she took to make Sardines. “Then you get to a place where you really realize you should just go for it. Fail if you have to, but it’s the only way you will learn and actually figure out if you are able to do it.”
Until recently, Bhowmik hosted Variety SHAC, a monthly comedy and music show at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, which she developed with comedians Heather Lawless, Andrea Rosen, and Chelsea Peretti. The troupe has worked with stars including Ed Helms and Fred Armisen, and has only stopped performing regularly because Lawless, Rosen, and Peretti (the H, A, and C) are all working on projects in Los Angeles (and several years ago, Variety SHAC itself was asked to produce a pilot for IFC). But the project began in order to address a specific opportunity gap in New York’s comedy circles.
Variety SHAC “was based on friendship but also that we didn’t see any women [at most comedy nights],” says Bhowmik. “Every show just had one woman at the most and we wanted to have a show where we could all perform together–because usually the quota was at the most one woman on a show.”
Bhowmik says that with as many projects as she has going on at once, it’s important to keep them organized separately, as well as document every task–not only to stay on top of them, but to show yourself what you’ve accomplished.
“I have a notebook that I break down into what my projects are,” says Bhowmik. “Since I do have so much going on, I will write the tiniest event on a list so that the momentum of getting things done is there–I can see it and check them off. I have project by project goals within that notebook. To not get too overwhelmed, I focus on one thing at a time. I will say, ‘Right now I’m going to finish this thing, even though I know what’s coming up in three months is my record, which means on the sidelines I might write a song.’ But I don’t put too much pressure on myself. Slow and steady. I always say that to my nieces when they’re eating dinner–they’re six and seven–slow and steady. At the end of the year I will do an assessment of what I’ve done, because I think we all get bogged down in what we haven’t done. That’s really helpful in seeing where you’ve come from because it’s hard to really acknowledge what you’ve accomplished.”
“As a comedian and writer, I’m always writing down funny things that inspire me on a daily basis,” says Bhowmik. “I do that with music too, like I’ll wake up and sing into my phone.”
The initial inspiration for Sardines Out of a Can, for example, was not a story or experience, but the website PerpetualPet.net, a service that freeze dries your fluffy loved ones for eternal companionship. Bhowmik’s first idea was to think about what kind of person would do that, and build a story around it. “On the site you can see hundreds of pets freeze-dried on couches, in baskets, sleeping on a pillow,” she says. “That is instant inspiration.”
Even with comedy and filmmaking currently at the forefront, Bhowmik has continued to work as a musician, fronting the band Tigers and Monkeys, releasing her own album of solo material, and composing music for TV. Music, she says, is the one thing that doesn’t stress her out, and will always be her creative outlet if all else fails.
“I have a long-term goal of making music when I’m 85,” she says. “I’ve had this since I was a kid, with a friend of mine I grew up with, and we’ve said this probably since we were eight years old. We just thought it would be so awesome to make a rock record when we were 85.”