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Reshma Gajjar: The Girl Who Welcomes You To La La Land

The Indian-American talks about dancing atop cars on a hot sunny day in LA for Damien Chazelle’s Golden Globes winner

Mohini ChaudhuriMohini Chaudhuri

January 10, 2017 | 01:01 AM

La La Land, Reshma Gajjar, Hollywood Movie Review, Golden Globes, Damien Chazelle, Justin Hurwitz

When audiences sit down to watch La La Land, the movie that had a record-breaking moment at the Golden Globes on Monday, one of the first faces that greets them is Reshma Gajjar. Gajjar, whom the New York Times reviewer A O Scott called “the ingénue in the yellow dress”, sets off the film’s much-discussed and beloved opening musical number ‘Another Day of Sun’. A first generation American-Indian, Gajjar is an actress and dancer. In the past, she’s appeared in movies like 500 Days of Summer and American Beauty, and toured with Madonna.

That introductory musical extravaganza, a throwback to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly era, took time to perfect, Gajjar tells us. In an email interview, she also talks of filming that pivotal scene and why La La Land resonates with artists everywhere. 

What was the brief given by Damien Chazelle and choreographer Mandy Moore for that opening sequence?

It is exciting to see what an impact that first scene made on the audience. Damien and Mandy knew what they wanted, and were specific, which I find helpful. They wanted us to ride the balance between existing in total fantasy while remaining grounded in the real world.

This meant executing a performance that was simultaneously pedestrian and extraordinary. My character represented the quintessential dreamer in all of us.

The choreography required tremendous coordination amongst several dancers. What was the process of filming like?

The process was as epic as the final product. I was a part of the skeleton crew which maps out the choreography in the film. We rehearsed with our own (and a few reinforced prop cars), in a parking lot, so Damien could get an idea of what it would look like on the freeway. For three days they closed the 105 freeway overpass in Los Angeles. In order to capture each of the long shots, we did 20 plus takes. Timing was essential and there was no room for error; if one person messed up we had to start over. There was a heatwave that weekend and the overpass was raked at an angle, all of which added to the challenge of dancing atop a car on concrete high above the ground. It was rigorous, intense and satisfying.

The most iconic shot from the sequence is that of the dancers flying in the air above the cars. Can you tell us a little about how that was created?

The set photographer captured that moment while we were dancing Mandy’s brilliant choreography. From atop the wobbly cars where we were dancing, we could see a rush of traffic stories below.

Jumping with our knees tucked high into our chests was incredibly nerve-racking. Normally we may have had our faces lifted, but we all naturally looked down to see where we would land. This added to the appearance that we were hovering, soaring above the freeway where we were dancing.

What has been your experience of trying to make it in entertainment?

I relate to La La Land’s sentiment. The amount of sacrifice, uncertainty and vulnerability expressed in that film is real. To me it is not a love story between two artists, but a love story between artists and their art.

Living with rejection is a part of my every day. I am encouraged to be clear about what I want: committing to the love of what I do and the process of creation. I’m so grateful I realized early in my career that without love, it is pointless.