Academy script award opens new doors for Aurora-raised writer


AURORA | As a young rabble-rouser running around Aurora’s Peoria Park neighborhood, Geeta Malik was known for one thing: trouble.

“I was a really, really naughty kid,” says Malik, who is now a Los Angeles-based screenwriter. “I’m kind of the black sheep in my family for that.”

Malik’s antics earned her the nickname “little shetan,” which is Hindi for little devil, or troublemaker.

“It’s what they call a mischievous kid,” she says with a chuckle.

And although the Cherry Creek School District graduate has largely outgrown her more devious habits, Malik’s rascally Aurora upbringing lives on in her production company, Shetani Films. With a logo that sports a piercing pair of the Beezlebub’s horns, the moniker is attached to just about all of Malik’s work.

And the Shetani name, which directly translates to “devilish” in Hindi, could very well become more visible in the coming months and years thanks to a recent boost in exposure Malik earned at the end of September.

Along with three other American screenwriters and one writing team from Balgowlah, Australia, Malik was one of the annual winners of the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowships, a respected writing prize that has been disbursed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1986.

Malik, who received her undergraduate degree in writing from the University of California-Irvine and master’s degree in directing and production from UCLA, won for her roughly 100-page feature script, “Dinner With Friends.” Although the action is set in southern California, the story is based on Malik’s experiences attending dinner parties and other gatherings in the Indian-American community in Aurora.

“When I was growing up there weren’t a lot of Indian families around, (there were) maybe 30 families, and everyone would get together on the weekends and have dinner,” she said. “‘Dinner With Friends’ is based on that world.”

Indeed, while Aurora is often billed as a multicultural bastion that thousands of immigrants call home, it is rarely mentioned as a hub for Indians or Indian-Americans. Still, there are currently about 975 Indian-born residents currently living in Aurora, according to the city’s 2016 demographic report, which uses data from the American Community Survey. Almost 20 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born, according to the report.

On top of a $35,000 cash prize, the Nicholl fellowship comes with the clout that is often so elusive for aspiring authors and screenwriters, according to Malik.

“Before the Nicholl, people had no idea who I was and the script just went to the bottom of the pile — that’s just how it is out there,” she said. “The Nicholl makes a huge difference — it just makes you legitimate.”

The fellowship lasts for one year and is intended to help writers create an entirely new work, according to Malik. She said she has several ideas for new features — including a story that could center on a high school student running a marathon on the Overland track — as well as a television series.              

“Winning a Nicholl Fellowship opens industry doors, allowing the writer to have her script read throughout Hollywood,” Greg Beal, director of the Nicholl Fellowships, said in an email. “If not already represented by an agent or manager, winning a Nicholl almost always leads the writer to reps. In 17 cases thus far, Nicholl-winning screenplays have been produced, and many more have sold or been optioned.”

A slew of notable authors and screenwriters have been awarded the Nicholl fellowship since the program was founded 30 years ago by Gee Nicholl, in coordination with the Academy. According to the Academy, notable Nicholl entries that were later produced into films include “Short Term 12,” submitted in 2012 by Destin Cretton; “Akeelah and the Bee,” submitted in 2000 by Doug Atchison; and “Finding Forrester,” submitted in 1998 by Michael Rich.

Always interested in writing but never as a career, Malik said she developed a passion for scriptwriting while taking a class with former Overland drama teacher Shari Van Haselen, who now serves as the school’s activities director.

“We wrote four plays over the course of the year and I loved it, but I didn’t do much after that,” said Malik, who also attended Ponderosa Elementary School and Prairie Middle School. “I was never one of those kids who had a camera in her hands all the time and wanted to make films. It came much later.”

Malik, whose parents moved to Aurora so her father could begin training to become a pilot for United Airlines, entered college as an electrical engineering major, but switched to English her junior year.

Going forward, Malik said she is talking to various agents and is aiming to start taking on additional paid writing work in 2017.

“Getting the Nicholl means a lot to me,” she said. “It pretty much changed my life overnight.”