September 1, 2023
Alumni Spotlight: Anant Mehra '22
By Olivia Kuhn
Anant Mehra '22 is an Indian writer-director based in Los Angeles who recently graduated from SCA’s MFA Film & Television production program. He earned early acclaim on the festival circuit in 2022 – including Best Drama at the New York Tri-State International Film Festival and Tokyo International Short Film Festival – for his three short films, Providence, Where The Truth Lies, and Waves. Anant’s original scripts explore identity and existential dilemmas, ranging from common anxieties to fantastical crises. Anant joins us to dicuss what inspired him to move to Los Angeles to attend film school, the multicultural ideas and concepts that inspire his filmmaking, and his takeaways from his experiences in the festival circuit.
When you were younger, what kinds of home movies did you make? Were there any specific films that you emulated?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved movies – be it classic Hindi treasures like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro or Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
I attended an international school in New Delhi and grew up with three generations of my family under one roof, including my brother and four cousins. Delhi isn’t really known for its affiliation with movies. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. So it was only when an elder cousin would visit us from Mumbai, the film capital of India, that we would turn on our creativity and make original home movies. We never finished them because we didn’t know what editing was. We didn’t really know anything. The films would usually follow a murderer on the loose, or a robbery, inspired by classic suspense films.
At this stage, emulating a film I had seen was too far from reach. The goal was simple – make our parents watch the screen with a serious face.
What prompted you to move to Los Angeles to attend film school? What kinds of emotions did you experience in making this decision?
By the time I was 18, a self-conscious and cynical mindset came over me. I always knew I was a creative person, but I think I had a fear of humiliation. Pursuing a business degree as a kid from a business family felt like the right choice. I left home for the University of Exeter in the UK to study management and finance. But, soon enough, I realized I was spending more time reviewing movies than on my coursework. I was bursting with ideas for stories and characters. I was away from my family, my friends, and the bubble that I grew up in. Even though this was daunting, there was a freedom to being alone in a new place. I suppose the loneliness sparked the flame to give filmmaking a shot.
I took a month-long course in New York City where I made a three-minute short film. It was a month of some much needed conversation, collaboration and, above all, expressing what I had in my mind onto a screen. I left the program fulfilled not thinking anything more of it. The same summer, I went on to do a finance internship and met an extremely important person who essentially changed the course of my life. She was an assistant at the firm and, at what I thought was a mundane lunch, ended up convincing me to apply to film school – my love for movies was obviously apparent in conversation. I hadn’t considered it because of my lack of experience, but she encouraged me to try. Over the next few months, I applied to film programs across the US, expecting not to get in anywhere. I just knew the corporate world wasn’t for me, and, if nothing else, I would go back home and make my way to Mumbai.
I was in a nightclub in London when I got the email from USC and rushed into a bathroom stall to open it. Even though it was a long shot, all I wanted for those ten seconds was to be accepted. And there it was…
While at SCA, were there any classes, professors, or experiences that impacted you?
Being at SCA impacted me right away and in a big way. Writer-director Paul Kowalski was my lead professor for CTPR 507 and I was immediately determined to win his approval. Here was my chance to show everyone my ‘genius.’ When the time came for us to show the class our projects, I proudly showcased my magnum opus, expecting Paul to give me a standing ovation.
Nothing remotely close to that happened. He proceeded to rip my work to shreds. Until that point, I had been overconfident and immature. That experience taught me that “yes, filmmaking is fun” and “yes, it’s a luxury”, but it’s also a brutal art form that deserves respect and hard work. I remember Paul telling me that his intention was to help me bridge the gap between my vision and execution. It’s something I’m still striving for.
Thank you, Paul!
As far as my favourite class, it has to be Advanced Directing with Everett Lewis. Everett has been the single most impactful professor for me at SCA. He nurtured my voice and helped me to trust my gut when it came to directing. That class is a must for any student as SCA, no matter what you want to do. It’s an exercise in perseverance, creativity, and instinct. By the end, I felt like I had years of set experience in a matter of months.
What is your approach to beginning a script?
Visualization. My scripts always start with visualization. Abstract concepts. The impetus rarely makes it to the final cut, but it serves as the basis for all other ideas to flow. For me, a movie is an emotional journey and these visualizations lay the foundation for that. As soon as I can grasp the emotions enough to articulate them, I start writing.
For you, how does meshing elements of both Eastern and Western cultures present new creative opportunities?
It’s really just who I am to be honest. I grew up in a very spiritual home, immersed in teachings from the Mahabharat and the Ramayan, always curious about the nature of reality and enlightenment, but I would end the day listening to rap and playing Call of Duty.
I think that sentence pretty much sums it up. Straddling cultures and ideas is always where I’ve felt most comfortable.
You have stated that you are influenced by the concepts of fate, magical realism, and Eastern philosophies. Where does this fascination stem from?
I’m not really sure. My earliest memory is looking at my hands, my feet, and the ceiling of my room and questioning what everything was at four years old.
This curiosity was pushed by my maternal grandfather who told me stories of Vrindavan and Lord Krishna, a major deity in Hinduism. Perhaps it was the epic stories of Krishna that piqued my interest.
I’m fascinated with the concept of the search of the Self, which is reflected in my films. That being said, I also love entertaining a mass audience, so I tend to blend fun, urban stories with this spiritual plane.
For you, how does the fantasy genre correlate to psychology and existentialism? How do these narrative and/or visual elements aid your exploration of these themes?
I think psychology and existentialism can be explored through any genre, it just depends on how one crafts their characters and story. Personally, I like the idea of blending genres as much as possible and almost everything I write dabbles in the fantastic. I’ve been the most engrossed and inspired by movies that have done justice to fantastical thoughts and worlds. Through elements of the genre, I tackle some of my own existential questions by realizing them as three dimensional stories.
What has been your biggest takeaway from your experiences in the festival circuit?
Invest more in production design, and make the time to apply for more grants. Don’t sell yourself short.
What long-term goals do you hope to achieve?
To make successful feature films that explore spiritual questions in an urban reality. It’s an ambitious goal, but it becomes much less daunting as I meet both new and experienced people in the industry who I can’t wait to collaborate with.
What advice would you offer to aspiring writers and directors?
I’m too early in my career to be giving advice to other aspiring writers and directors but if I had to say one thing, it would be to trust their gut.
And invest in sound…