"Once I find what I am looking for, I will send for you and we will be a family again."-Fatakra
If you are in music festival withdrawal, then let me introduce you to the benefits of the film festival. There's no mud, you get to eat popcorn, your venue is typically air conditioned-- all the while viewing the brilliance of talented film makers. You can later appear cool and intellectual when you mention said films to your friends and brag that you heard of them first.
One such brag-worthy film is Fatakra (which translates to firecracker in English) directed and co-written by Soham Mehta. The University of Texas film grad is a recognized name in the Texas South Asian arts community. He co-wrote the Kal Penn starrer Where's the Party, Yaar? and founded Shunya, a non-profit theatre troupe in Houston. The troupe can boast of alum including actress Tiya Sircar (featured on PR in 2009) and NBC's Outsourced actor Guru Singh. Soham's latest film, Fatakra, is receiving wonderful reviews as it plays at film festivals around the country including scoring spots at the illustrious South by Southwest along with the Dallas International Film Festival and Aspen Film Festival. This past weekend it played at the Sarasota Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for Best Short.
The short film tells the story of a family reunited after three years. Naveen (Samrat Chakrabarti) leaves behind his wife (Meena Serendib) and young son in India in hopes for a better life in the U.S., promising to bring them over to join him in a few months. He arrives during the recession and his promise of months turns into years. The short begins with the first day they are back together. The film brilliantly explores the often harsh reality of the immigrant experience, a brutal economy but also the beauty of hope and love all cleverly interwoven with a story from the Mahabharata. Intrigued? Pink Rickshaw had the pleasure of speaking to Soham Mehta to learn more about him and Fatakra.
PR: How did it feel when you got the news that Fatakra was selected to be in SXSW?
SM: I was ecstatic. Every time I got a phone call with an Austin area code, I was wondering, is this it? In many ways, it was like taking the film home. I went to school in Austin, much of the crew was from Austin and we filmed around Austin. SXSW is such a prestigious film festival but because it's right in our backyard you often take for granted just what a big deal it is. I had peers on the East coast remind me that it's probably the most important American film festival next to Sundance.
PR: Each actor provided phenomenal performances in the film. What was it about Samrat Chakrabarti that made you know he was right for the film?
SM: When I showed people the script, some of them commented that they couldn't believe certain things the characters did, just on the page. I always felt like it would work, but I knew that I needed an actor that could pull it off because Naveen makes such an incredible journey. He's such an average person, but he goes through a heroic journey. I knew I needed an actor that could make that believable. And there are a lot of subtle things that Samrat did that make it work.
Samrat, a New York based actor who starred in Kissing Cousins and recently did a guest appearance on Outsourced also did the music for the film. Soham who prefers to edit his films without music (he states that it often hides problems in the story during editing since "music makes everything seem better"), so he didn't look for a composer until he had a rough cut. He asked Samrat for suggestions for a composer.
SM: Samrat said, "Maybe I could do it" and it worked out wonderfully. Not a lot of people have that sound. It's kind of an unique sound, in that it's very organic. There's a lot of people that do East-West fusion stuff, but that tends to be very loungy. It's rare to have this more earthy fusion sound.
Fatakra's youngest cast member was Ritik Goyal who plays Naveen and Pauravi's son, Aakash. Ritik has been receiving his own critical praise for his performance. Soham opted to use a local child actor, in hopes of not disrupting his life too much during the shooting schedule. He turned to local Indian organizations for suggestions and found Ritik who had participated in cultural performances in the Austin area.
PR: What was it like working with a child actor? (Especially one who spends most of his time locked in a car during the July heat)
SM: Ritik is so incredibly bright. He understood what was happening and understood why he was upset. And he was able to do it all and act with an accent. He was just a showman.
PR: You had less than 20 minutes to make the audience care about the family in this film and you do it very well. What are the challenges of creating a short?
SM: Some shorts are basically one moment or one gag. This was not that kind of short. This was a short with a full story with characters with a back story to then. One of the challenges was if that would work in a short format? Would people stick with it? The other thing I was always concerned about was how I was going to treat the magical realism aspects of the film. There's just not a lot of time to build that up.
PR: My absolute favorite scene is when the Dancer/Pauravi appears to Naveen during the climax. Is there a scene you're especially proud of or is your favorite?
SM: I love the series of shots that is the transition from the motel to the hill. The motel is this very real place and and the hill is a very magical place. One of those shots is when Naveen is pushing the car over the bridge and the train goes underneath it. And then the shot where Pauravi is coming out of the motel room and looking over the balcony and the camera rises to meet her. Samrat's music for that is amazing as well. I always get energized when I see that moment.
PR: You draw this interesting parallel with story of Arjuna from the Mahabharata. Why was it important to introduce that level?
SM: I didn't really start out wanting to do something magical or something with the Mahabharata. It was more about, what is the connection between these two characters (Naveen and Aakash)? When my adviser at UT reviewed this story, he asked me a really great question. Children at Aakash's age grow and change so quickly, what has Naveen lost in these three years of separation from his son? What's the disconnect? That was a really great question and it got me thinking. What I came to was what they shared were these stories from the Mahabharata and this is how they connected. This is the fantasy world that they created together. During the gap, in many ways, their relationship has shifted in that Naveen is a child-like person who is infinitely hopeful and still believes in the magic of these stories. In the three year gap, it's his son that's lost his hope. His son stopped believing in the most magical person he knows--his father. And because of that, he stopped believing in these stories. Now Naveen is using that to reconnect with him.
PR: Classical Indian dance also seems to be a recurring element in Shunya plays and in this film. Why do you gravitate towards this?
SM: Growing up, I always had friends who did classical Indian dance. It's one of those things where many people can't just relate to or appreciate it. I was always fascinated by it. There are very few dance forms that are so tied to narrative as classical Indian dance, specifically Bharat Natyam. I love stories. That's what I get excited about, so if you can tell me a story through dance, I'm going to be into it. So, if I can make the audience more aware of how this dance is telling a story, they can appreciate the dance more. Once I built the Mahabharata story into the film, then the obvious question was how are we going to visualize this? Using dance became an immediate choice. Both American and Bollywood films have used dance before so I wanted to show dance in a way no one has seen. I hope some of the images that are created by the dancer on the street are images you haven't seen before.
PR: I read that you're inspired by the works of Satyajit Ray. Who are some of your other favorite directors or other influences?
SM: I don't really consider myself an art filmmaker. I grew up in America and like anybody else, I watched Back to the Future and loved The Karate Kid and was a big fan of Nightmare on Elm Street. I grew up just watching a lot of fun movies. As a kid I also got to see a lot of award winning films like the Godfather series. I don't think my parents cared too much about the rating system, so if it was an award winning film I got to see it, even though I probably shouldn't have been able to. That gave me an appreciation for good films very early on. I do love Satyajit Ray films. And I saw them at a pivotal time in my life. I saw the Apu Trilogy at the age of 18, so it really impacted me. It was when I was leaving home to go to college, so it impacted me not as a filmmaker, but as a person, a kid growing up. I want to give that to other people when they watch my films.
PR: What advice do you have other young, creative South Asians who are wanting to pursue writing or filmmaking? Any nuggets of wisdom?
SM: One obvious thing to say is to just do it. I meet a lot of people that say they are interested in writing a script or working in a film. It's hard for you to really know until you do it. Until you're in the actual nuts and bolts of writing or making something, it's hard to know if you actually enjoy it. If you start doing it, and it's all you want to do and you don't want to hang out with your friends anymore, you may have just found your passion.
Soham currently resides in New York City where he is editing for television and film and is also working on his next project, a full length feature film. More information about Soham's other projects and future screening dates for Fatakra can be found on his website.
image source: film stills and photo of soham on set from sohammehta.com