A few hours before she made her way to the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, Smriti Mundhra donned a Kutchi embroidered jacket over the Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla gold-and-red brocade gown and pinned a small badge that said “Black Lives Matter” on the label. She carefully adjusted her mother’s kundan maang tika in the centre of her forehead. There was one last item left to wear — her father, the late filmmaker Jagmohan Mundhra’s Titan Edge watch. When she stood on the red carpet at the 92nd Academy Awards, held on February 9, she was joined by her co-director, Sami Khan, who wore a black sherwani. Her producer, Poh Si Teng, wore a Chinese-Malay dress in magenta; Mundhra’s co-producer Cheyenne Tan’s gown featured fabric from Tan’s grandmother’s sarong. Last but not the least, as the subject of St Louis Superman, the Oscar-nominated film for Best Documentary Short Subject, rapper and activist Bruce Franks Jr stood tall and proud in an all-red suit — they were all there because of him. And each other.
It doesn’t matter to Mundhra, 39, that their film lost out to Carol Dysinger’s Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl); all the photographs of her culturally, the ethnically diverse crew are for keeps. “We wanted to make sure people saw us and know that we deserved to be there,” she says. And to think that none of it would have happened if a single phone call had stayed ignored.
In 2017, Mundhra wrapped up the festival run of her first documentary, A Suitable Girl, a sharp yet tender look at the “marriage industrial complex” that is the arranged marriage tradition in India. She was looking to get started on a new project when Teng, who’d watched the documentary, called. “She’s the commissioning producer for Al Jazeera’s Witness documentary series; she asked if we could work together. I’d been wanting to make a film about a man I’d read about in a newspaper article, whose story I thought really spoke of the political climate in America,” says Mundhra. She pitched the story of Franks Jr, a 34-year-old Black Lives Matter activist and battle rapper who was elected to the House of Representatives in Missouri. “When he was six, his nine-year-old brother was shot dead in front of him. The circumstances he came from are the things we read statistics about and get desensitised. But what is it like for somebody who comes from a marginalised community to want to change the world they live in? That’s the story I wanted to tell,” says Mundhra. Teng and Al Jazeera came on board but there was one problem — Franks Jr wasn’t returning any of her calls.
It took him four months to respond to Mundhra, and only because she’d left a voice mail for him at his office at the House of Representatives. “The law states that they have to return every call,” says Mundhra, who pushed for a meeting with Franks Jr. He was sceptical, she says. “I didn’t know what the film was going to be, but I wanted him to tell his story. I had a camera and we began shooting the first afternoon we met.” She reached out to Khan, her friend from film school at Columbia, and asked him to co-direct.
St Louis Superman opens with Franks Jr sitting on the front stoop of his house with his five-year-old son, King, talking about the original Ghostbusters and singing We Ready by Archie Eversole. The boy’s birthday is on August 9, 2019 is exactly five years after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American man who was shot dead by a White police officer in Ferguson, a St Louis suburb. The killing ignited protests and a nationwide debate on the use of deadly force by the police, especially against Black men. It spurred Franks Jr to not only use his craft as a rapper to speak out, but also gave him fuel to run for office in 2016, and win. “Last year, Bruce was trying to pass a bill in the Senate about declaring gun violence as a public health epidemic, to get more funding to address the root cause of that kind of violence,” says Mundhra. Pushing forward this personal piece of legislation was taking a toll on Franks Jr: it opened old wounds every day, and his mental health was suffering. The film ends with a coda — after experiencing severe depression and anxiety in the run-up to getting the bill passed, Franks Jr chose to resign from office to recover his health.
“Sami and I don’t believe in convenient narratives. At the outset, it’s such an inspiring story of a young Black man who rises to make a difference. But heroes suffer, too, and we don’t want people to look away from that and just celebrate their achievements,” says Mundhra, adding, “We called it St Louis Superman because that’s what everybody calls Bruce, but also to recognise that a hero’s journey doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to be.”
When the film was ready, Khan, Mundhra and Teng sent it off to the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the special jury mention, and, more importantly, caught the eye of Sheila Nevins, one of America’s most influential documentary producers, who currently heads MTV’s documentary films division. “She sent me an email: ‘Call me, I want to talk about your beautiful film.’ I thought I was being trolled,” says Mundhra. Nevins really did write the email and MTV bought the film right before its dream run kicked off. In addition to Tribeca, St Louis Superman won the top prize at the Big Sky Documentary Festival, Indy Short Film Festival, Audience Awards at AFI Docs and Traverse City Film Festival.
Mundhra received the news about being shortlisted for the Oscar right before Christmas. “Out of 100 films, 10 are picked. When that happened, I thought this is it, I can put that in my CV for the rest of my life,” she says. That the film was nominated for an Oscar, is something that is yet to sink in. “As a woman of colour, a documentary filmmaker, there are spaces that have been out of reach. No matter how hard you work and how talented you are, we are taught to tame our ambitions, curb our enthusiasm. I still have my day job because I feel that this may all disappear one day,” says Mundhra, who works as an editorial consultant for a digital media company in California.
With the Oscar nomination under her belt, it appears that she and Khan now have a seat at the table — but Mundhra won’t allow it to distort her purpose as a filmmaker. “It’s so easy to be swayed by the recognition one receives during the awards campaign; people start treating you differently. But what we had to constantly remember is that our films are not for ourselves. Who else can we bring into the fold? Whose stories can I champion? We made a promise that whatever doors the Oscar recognition opens, we’re going to hold it open for other people,” she says.
Last year was stupendous for her — apart from the success of the film, Mundhra also welcomed her second child, a son. In Mumbai with her five-year-old daughter, she is flitting from one shoot to another, with barely any room to breathe. “A lot of things worked out last year. Among them are two documentary series, one each for Amazon and Netflix. They’re both about Bollywood and while I am happy to explore that world in a documentary, it’s not the kind of genre I see myself working in,” says Mundhra.
During the course of our conversation, she speaks about her father, who died in 2011 and whose notable films include social dramas like Kamla (1984), Bawandar (2000) and Provoked (2006). “We made very different kinds of films but he taught me how to think, he taught me empathy. He gave me the tools to be a filmmaker but also to be a good human being. I have a responsibility to be that person and pay it forward. There’s this idea of the filmmaker as an auteur, who does everything by themselves. That’s not true. I collaborate because every single person, the editor, the producer, the music composers, make a film together. I am a better filmmaker because I collaborate with people who want the story to speak. Because the story must always speak,” says Mundhra.
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