Storytelling Without a Script: Interview with Smriti Mundhra

Smriti Mundhra is a film producer and director who specializes in observational documentaries. She won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival for “A Suitable Girl” (2018), a nuanced dive into the lives of three young women in India, and received an Academy Awards nomination for “St. Louis Superman” (2019), which follows the story of Bruce Franks Jr., a local activist, battle rapper, and former Missouri politician. Smriti is set to release her latest Netflix series “Indian Matchmaking” on July 16, 2020.

 

Harvard Political Review: How has your upbringing inspired you to explore the filmmaking space?

Smriti Mundhra: I was born in Los Angeles and raised in my formative years in Mumbai, India. My father was a lower-middle class Indian man from Kolkata who received a scholarship to complete his PhD in engineering in Michigan. After his PhD, he took a job as a professor at California State University, Northridge, trying to stay in the country and doing what he had to do as an immigrant with a young family. On the side, he pursued his dream of filmmaking in whatever way he could.

Before I was born, my parents rented a single screen in Culver City, Los Angeles, and became the first exhibitors of Bollywood films in the United States. The theater was a huge cultural milestone for the South Asian American community. My father, who initially did not have any luck making inroads in the film industry, got on the radar of studios, producers, and actors. In 1980, the year I was born, he made his first film, which he started filming the day after his father unexpectedly passed away.

Naturally, a big part of my childhood was watching films with my dad and it became my obsession to want to make films.

HPR: What was it like to take your first steps in the film industry?

SM: I interned for film companies and worked for studios when I was 16. Right out of college, I became an independent producer for 10 years, and I continued to produce films while juggling day jobs in journalism and attending grad school in New York.

When I graduated from Columbia University’s film school in 2009, the bottom had fallen out of the economy. But I decided to use the last of my student loan money and start making a documentary. The wonderful thing about the documentary is that you don’t need anyone’s permission or green light to start making it.

While I was making my first film, called “A Suitable Girl,” I really just found my calling. I was both directing and producing it, and I felt more creatively alive than I ever had at any point previously in my life. Sadly, full circle, my father passed away right at the start of that journey of my debut as a film director.

HPR: Tell me more about your early independent films that you produced right out of college in your early 20s. How did exposure to those creative forms eventually contribute to your own passion for directing?

SM: I first made a film that premiered in 2004 called “Bomb the System,” a story about graffiti artists in New York City. In 2005, I produced a film called “Waterborne,” which premiered at South by Southwest and won the Audience Award. It was the first feature film to be released digitally in the United States, the first to be released on Google Video, which is now YouTube. 

Throughout that time, I realized that it’s very hard to gain leverage as an independent producer and as a woman in the film world. The directors that I’ve worked with — their careers took off as they should have — but I was only looked at as someone who coordinates transportation and manages the budget, not as a true creative partner. Part of the reason that I never considered directing during that time was because I was conditioned to think that nobody would care what I had to say.

I wanted a change, so I enrolled in film school and focused on writing, cultivating my own creative voice. Making the documentary “A Suitable Girl” allowed me to ease into that transition to directing, as I found my footing and gained confidence as a director.

HPR: What was the most challenging aspect of making that creative transition?

SM: “A Suitable Girl” was the most difficult creative endeavor of my life, as it was my first documentary and my first time directing. We filmed for four years. In total, I had to carry that film on my back for seven years. I had an amazing directing partner named Sarita Khurana, another South Asian woman who I met in graduate school. I had an amazing producer and editor named Jennifer Tiexiera. The three of us did everything together.

The main challenge was that I had to learn how to balance my dual roles as a producer and a director. A director can push a creative vision forward and a producer can enable good instincts and temper bad instincts. Producers are like the banks of a river, keeping everything flowing in one direction. When you’re the same person in both roles, you have to learn when to push something creatively and when the tempering has to kick in. It’s part of the reason why the film took as long as it did, but it was important to me that every cut, frame, and creative decision in that film had my DNA in it.

HPR: As you held onto “A Suitable Girl” for seven years, how did you know when to wrap up the project?

SM: At the six-year mark, we were invited to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, thanks to a programmer there who was a big champion of our project. But that was a time when I didn’t feel ready. We decided to decline the invitation, take more time to finish the film, and make it what we felt like it needed to be.

That was a really tough decision to make — to finally see some validation of the lonely work you’ve done for six years and to hit the brakes. Empirically, you might compare the 2016 cut to the 2017 cut and notice that there were only five minutes worth of changes, but for us, those five minutes made all the difference. It was the best decision we made.

When we locked that picture, I felt good about every decision. We didn’t leave any stone unturned — every music cue, every edit, every title, every scene — we had done the work. I’m thankful that in my first experience making a film, I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I got to take the time and do it exactly the way I wanted to.

HPR: Once you put that film to bed, how did you pick up your next features?

SM: After making my first film, my creative engine started firing on all fronts. I felt creatively energized after “A Suitable Girl” premiered. I started on a film about hip-hop artists in the slums of India, which I’m still working on. I pursued a project in Flint, Michigan, about a remarkable family there. One day, as I was scrolling through my daily digest, I was captivated by a profile about Bruce Franks Jr. which chronicled his journey from activism to politics and elected office.

The polite thing to say is that awards shouldn’t be a reflection of your quality of work, and you shouldn’t let them validate your work. But when I was used to struggling under the radar, an award like the Best New Documentary Director at the Tribeca Film Festival did so much to boost my psyche and confidence. The prize recognized that I am a director with something to say. Once my mind was cleared of insecurity about my own skills, I felt freer to pursue my ideas.

HPR: Could you also tell us more about the origin of “St. Louis Superman”? What parts about Bruce’s story stuck out to you?

SM: I worked for the last 10 years in Black media, so I was attuned to the nuances of Bruce’s story. The year was 2017, a time when a lot of us were feeling post-election despair. I was becoming allergic to the rhetoric of national politics and strict partisan lines. I wanted to learn more about local politics where decisions are more closely connected to communities.

Even though the article that I read was retrospective and about Bruce’s amazing journey into elected office, the first thing I thought was that he is a 34-year-old black man in an overwhelmingly white legislature in Missouri, the last state in the Union to abolish slavery. There’s got to be a personal toll that comes to have to stand up every day and defend your existence. Are you for your people in the face of others who probably don’t care about your community at best?

HPR: How do you think the message of “St. Louis Superman” resonates in today’s times?

SM: It’s funny because a lot of times we do Q&A panels, and some people say, “Oh, your film has become more relevant now.” I always say that, respectfully, the film has always been relevant. It was relevant last year. It’s just that a larger, more vocal swath of the population is awakening to these issues in the last few weeks.

As Bruce always says, “I’m never gonna fault anyone for coming into their consciousness when they do. Some people come to it later than others, and that’s fine as long as they’re here now.” I’m glad that the film is available for people who are coming into that consciousness. I hope that it will help deepen peoples’ understanding of what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for. 

The movement is not just about posting black squares on Instagram or taking selfies at a protest march. The work takes a toll, particularly on young Black people who are on the front lines, risking their safety and their lives. We have to start recognizing the ways in which we ourselves enable the forces against these movements and find ways that we can truly support these moments with longevity.

HPR: While shooting your unscripted films, have you had any turns of events that came up on the fly?

SM: There are way too many stories to count! But what’s most important is that you allow yourself to be surprised. Tying yourself down to preconceptions is dangerous because confirmation bias kicks in, and you’re just pursuing what’s already been in your mind. The greatest moments are when I realize that the film I thought I was making is totally different from where the film is going, and I have to throw the playbook out the window. That’s when I know I’m onto something because I’m expanding my perception.

It’s extremely unsettling because you realize that you don’t know what you’re doing, but the more you do it, you learn how to trust your instinct and allow a story to emerge as you learn to observe. This requires humility and for you to be checking yourself constantly. The most magical films are made when you embed yourself in a world with participants that you feel are compelling and allow the story to come to you as opposed to chasing your own version of the story.

The scariest part about observational filmmaking is that there are no guarantees. No matter whatever release or documentation you have, you can’t force somebody to let you turn a camera on them. People have previously bailed and ghosted me in the middle of a project. With all of my films, I have to hope that I built a foundation of trust where I could talk to people about their concerns and adapt to accommodate their fears.

HPR: Your latest TV series in which you are the executive producer, “Indian Matchmaking,” is coming up on Netflix later this week (07/16). If you had to summarize the series in one catchphrase what would that be?

SM: It’s a “frothy” — that’s the word Netflix used to describe it — unscripted, fun, crazy, light look on the surface of the Indian marriage industrial complex. The show is about an elite Indian matchmaker and her clients around the world.

Packaged as a fun dating show, I hope “Indian Matchmaking” will be more accessible to a wider range of people. It’s important for people to not only associate Indian traditions with forced marriage or child brides or oppression and patriarchy. Though all of those things exist, I want to show people swimming across the diaspora in all the different ways that we relate to this central cultural institution. As people of color, particularly from ethnographic communities, we don’t need shows only to be about the trauma and the stereotypes that our communities are known for.

HPR: How would you describe your style as a filmmaker?

SM: This is something I think about a lot. It’s important to identify — though I hate the word “brand” because it feels limiting — what moves you as a filmmaker. For some people, that’s controversy. For other people, it’s explaining complicated concepts in simple and compelling ways. Maybe it’s about chasing things that are extremely lyrical or poetic, or maybe it’s about putting yourself in your films and having a strong voice in the narrative like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock.

My style of filmmaking harbors empathy, earnestness, and nuance. I’m an artistic filmmaker. There are some projects that are clearly not for me — I could never imagine myself making “Tiger King.” I can only make shows about people that I love, care deeply about, and want to understand their layers. There are no absolutes in my work. There are no perfect heroes or perfect villains. I want to look at things through a nuanced lens and let the audience figure out what they want to feel from it themselves.

HPR: Any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers in the industry?

SM: Identify what it is that you’re dying to say. Everything else can be taught. You can learn filmmaking skills, editing, and cinematography. Your storytelling instincts can be honed, but your perspective on the world has to be yours. …  What is it that makes you angry? What is it that makes you uncomfortable? What is it that makes you agitated? Don’t run away [from] that. Don’t pursue trends about what the industry wants. Pursue what it is that makes your blood pressure rise.

The best advice that I’ve ever gotten as a filmmaker is that you have to find yourself in every story you tell. It doesn’t mean that every story has to be autobiographical. If you see yourself in the other’s reflection, then any story can be personal.

Image Source: Andre Lyon

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