Two Texan Filmmakers Contend for Oscar's Little Brother

Hopefully, the Student Academy Awards will unlock a bright future for Fatakra.
Hopefully, the Student Academy Awards will unlock a bright future for Fatakra.

A short film by two Texans that's played on the festival circuit from San Francisco to Sarasota, including South by Southwest and Dallas International Film Festival, is a finalist for Oscar's little brother, the Student Academy Awards.

Fatakra (Firecracker in Gujarati), the brainchild of writer/director Soham Mehta and producer Ninaad Vaidya, conveys regret, redemption and reconciliation in a too-brief 19 minutes. Fatakra injects magical realism -- think Gabriel Garcia Marquez lite -- into the drab reality lived by a struggling immigrant family divided by emotional and physical distance. The protagonist left India for better job prospects, but fails to advance in the recession. It's a familiar enough story, these days.

The film, shot outside of Austin a couple of summers ago as a student project, has wildly exceeded the expectations of both Mehta and Vaidya. Both grew up in Houston; Vaidya lives in Dallas and recently finished business school at SMU. Mehta lives in New York City, by way of the University of Texas at Austin's film program.

They'll learn if they won first, second or third place at a June 11 ceremony in Los Angeles. If Fatakra places first in its category, the film will be eligible for an Academy Award. Heady stuff for two guys from Texas. They sat down for a chat -- Vaidya over a beer, and Mehta via phone.

Describe Fatakra in three words. Mehta: A family reunites. Vaidya: Family, relationships, reconciliation.

Why'd you chose those words? Vaidya: Because it is essentially a family drama that transcends race or ethnicity that most people can relate to, whether it's the actual separation you saw in the film, or whether there's a rift between two family members. The physical separation or if that emotional connection is broken, it's difficult to build it back. I think the film explores that in the form of physical reconciliation, and essentially it transcends family as well. It relates to all relationships whether friendship or familial stuff. Reconciliation is what it's all about, being able to get past whatever those differences are and trusting again.

What was the inspiration behind the story? Mehta: I was getting married, and my wife and I were in a relationship that was long distance for four years. I was getting ready to get married knowing that we would be getting married and living in the same place when we had been long distance for so long. There was a great deal of excitement about finally being in the same place; there's also a level of anxiety. I started thinking that I wanted to work on a story that would allow me to explore those emotions. That was the initial kernel of an idea: what kind of story would allow me to have a family that's been separated, and now they're going to come together? My parents and many of my friends' parents are immigrants, so they experienced these sorts of things where one person would come and the rest of the family would join them later. In a way it was an opportunity for me to pay homage to my parents and their experience while also making it something I was also emotionally attached to because of what was happening in my own relationship.

Two Texan Filmmakers Contend for Oscar's Little Brother
Viraj Mane

Myth and storytelling are integral to Fatakra's narrative. Talk about the importance of storytelling in our day to day lives. Vaidya: A lot of times people don't realize they have a compelling story to tell. In my opinion, every story's compelling. It's just a matter of understanding what that story is. As far as storytelling goes in relation to film-making, I think what's been going on recently in film is the art of storytelling is kind of being pushed to the wayside for the art of production. Studios are becoming a little bit more formulaic because they know it's going to work. To a certain extent, it completely makes sense because at the end of the day they have to make money back for what they put into a project. But in the goal of making money, the story has been lost. That's what we wanted to start with. We wanted to make sure there was a story. That's all we cared about. Mehta: When we watch a film, or read a story, read a novel, you're relating to the main character, you're placing yourself in the film. Maybe the exact narrative is not familiar to our life but there are choices and specific moments that we can relate to and that apply to our lives. We're heroes of our own films. I think it's something that gives us inspiration, motivation, catharsis, whatever it may be. I think storytelling is very important just being able to face the day.

If you could do something differently, what would it be? Vaidya: I would have convinced Soham to make it a feature instead of a short. Mehta: There are a couple moments in the film where I had to make a work-around in editing, or maybe I feel like it could have had more a little bit more poignancy if I'd shot it slightly differently. I look at each film as a learning process.

How do short films fit into the movie industry? Vaidya: Film lovers love short films. If you can tell a story in 10 or 20 minutes, that's a skill many people don't have. Filmmakers will use that as a gauge on whether or not they want you on their project. From a long-term standpoint -- how do short films fit into the industry -- earlier we had talked about how there's no money in short films. I think that's changing, because a lot of the more independent media companies are starting to buy rights to short films to put them on, like Netflix. People like watching shorter things rather than long. People just don't have time. Mehta: Unfortunately they have a pretty small market. In America, traditionally short films are referred to as a "calling card" project, so it's building your portfolio. It's also a place to learn. You don't finish learning until you watch a project with an audience. If you try to make a feature, you may spend three years, four years, five years before you actually get to see the project with an audience. You've spent all this money and so many years before you learn anything from it. In that way it's better to make a bunch of shorts and you can speed up the learning process before you make a feature.

What's next for you? New projects? Vaidya: Those guys are working on a feature script. They've [Soham and two other writers] already structured the three acts that they want for the story. They're debating over where they want it to go. They realize the pressure's on because this first project was good. So the bar's been raised. Mehta: We're developing a couple different feature script ideas. I feel like I've gotten a lot out of making Fatakra, so I'm setting my sights on making a feature as a next project.

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