Dreams don’t have to die
How a Silicon Valley techie became a filmmaker
I was in a professional blackhole when a friend first introduced me to Archita Mandal a couple years ago. Here I was, in a great personal space — I was pregnant with my second — but inextricably ensnared in the routine of a stay-at-home with a Masters. And here was Ms. Mandal, barely six months after delivering her second, putting in place a creative team to brainstorm an online show she was creating, while wrapping up a music video Diva Mom, which was an ode to unsung mom-heroes.
I was inspired, intrigued, incredulous, all at once. You see, Mandal made films, but that wasn’t even her day job; she worked at a cloud security firm in California’s Silicon Valley, and wrote, produced and directed films on the side, simply because she loved doing it. We talked work, but went our ways for a while.
When we reconnected recently, I was still making panic-driven plans to reboot my career, while Mandal was finishing another short film The Nair House, a 35-minute reflection on a couple’s marriage. Since our first meeting barely two years back, she had also plowed through an executive program for corporate innovation at Stanford and became her company’s first ever speaker at the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest conference for women in computing.
To put things in perspective, Mandal is an autodidact; she didn’t go to film school, so she taught herself to make them. As she walked me through her kaleidoscopic life criss-crossing continents, I learnt that this 43-year-old intrepid go-getter — who discovered her calling early in life — didn’t get to pursue her passion right away. Like so many young South Asians, Mandal’s Indian parents, though highly artistically inclined, didn’t think much of filmmaking as a career. So Mandal dutifully collected her degrees in management information systems and business and pursued a career in Silicon Valley.
Yet, her own parents’ work ethic and love of the arts remain her deepest influences. Over the years, Mandal taught herself to make films. “I had so much fire burning inside me, I had to do something about it,” she says.
Her very first film in 2015, Untread, a 15-minute Sci-Fi thriller, found an Honorable mention for Best Visual Effects at the Los Angeles Film Review. Her company, Tapping Wand Productions, which she started with her husband, has showcased four short films and a music video at several film festivals.
A month ago I watched her latest, The Nair House, at a well-attended private screening. I marveled at Mandal’s growth as a filmmaker; her crew was professional, her story-telling on point, making so many of her audience wish it were a full-length feature. More impressive was how she inspired so many talented people, many of whom had other full-time jobs, to come aboard her projects for no pay.
At the screening, I recall a member of the audience humorously remarking on Mandal’s work life, “I feel I need a second profession, one isn’t cutting it.”
Mandal has finally stepped away from her day job and into the uncertain and demanding world of full-time filmmaking. A tech show and a documentary about DIPG cancer are already on the anvil.
The world is full of overachievers. So why did Mandal move me so? Because what she pulls off is hard. Because something’s gotta give, but she seems to stay afloat and flourish. For so many women and men, simply maintaining a work-life balance can be a tall order. I have watched friends set aside their passions in pursuit of paychecks, never really daring to live their dreams. Many of us live guilt-ridden lives, afraid that we may not be doing justice to one facet or our lives or the other.
So how does she do it? “ I don’t take life so seriously,” says Mandal. “I don’t regret my decisions. Happiness is a fleeting emotion but inner peace is permanent. I am content with my life.”
Wholly cognizant of her talents yet disarmingly humble, Mandal let me pick her brains about how she nourished her dream for over a decade, while earning a paycheck and raising a family.
Here’s the lowdown on self-launching your passion.
A Method to the Madness
It did not happen overnight. It’s been in the making for over a decade. I did it bit by bit. Since I was not going to attend film school and I had no mentors, I developed my own curriculum. I looked at filmmaking 101 classes and tried to map them to whatever I could do on my own.
I joined forums for independent filmmakers and started showing up at their shoots and eventually contributed to their productions. I tagged along independent filmmakers and I learnt from them; lot of them were not professionals but you learn the basics on the job. I was constantly reading up and watching and studying movies, lots of them. I also took a class in scriptwriting, which is fundamental to filmmaking. In the past decade, I have had the advantage of the Internet. There’s a lot of literature about films online.
Balancing Work, Life and more Work
I was very methodical. I had a 9–5 job. After the kids went to bed, I would work on my films or study about them until midnight, at least four days a week. I volunteered on sets on the weekends. When I started making my own films, I always shot through the summer when the kids were out of school. I would finish pre-production February through May and post production in the Fall. I worked weekends and after work. It never felt like work, because I was doing something that I loved. Also, I was never in a hurry to get anywhere. I was learning every step of the way.
My job and my passion were not exactly aligned. But you can transfer skills from one field to the other; they are not lost. For instance, I worked with agile technologies and I used some of that knowledge in my production work. I broke down work and data day by day. I had virtual stand-ups with my team every day. Instead of weekly milestones, I had daily ones and prioritized what needed to be done first. I used the experience from my tech life to get my film projects wrapped up on time. Film direction, on the other hand, needed me to be enterprising, to be a leader. I took those qualities to my tech job; I am not afraid to take on new initiatives.
I have four! First, is my keen sense of intuition. I know right away what and who will work for my project. For instance, about 25 percent of my crew do not have a film background. I see talent and I groom them. I have a pretty good intuition about who will fit in well with my team.
Second, I have a high level of confidence in my own abilities and ideas. I am very thick-skinned in general. I take feedback easily and don’t take things to heart. And I know how to tune out dead-weight feedback as well.
Third, is a razor-sharp focus on what needs to be done. I break my complex tasks into small tasks and accomplish them one by one.
Fourth, is my vision about how my products will look. Nobody else gets a say in it. I have full confidence in my own vision and I do not seek approvals.
That’s where the tech pay check came in. I funded my own projects, but I wouldn’t advise it. You can get yourself in a hole. It’s like gambling; you never know if and when you will recover your costs. I would encourage upcoming filmmakers to apply for grants and contests. There are plenty out there. Let somebody else see your story and let somebody else help develop your story.
On the flip side, the time I saved not foraging for funds, I invested in enhancing my product. What I would’ve spent on a film school, I spent on my films. Also, I could experiment with my own money. I have a better understanding now of how to make high-quality productions on small budgets. It’s a double-edged sword.
Preparing for Failure
The first time was hard. I cried. I had worked so hard but my work simply didn’t get the kind of traction I thought it would. Now I set my expectations at ground zero. I expect no rewards. I have realized that in this field there are more failures than successes. There will be an avalanche of failure before I see any success. My love of cinema and story telling is what keeps me going. Failures and rejections tell you if your passion is for real. In spite of rejections and no rewards in sight, I still keep doing it. There have been times when I have hit rock bottom and I have wanted to quit. I told myself that this was too much work, it was draining my finances, maybe I wasn’t even good at it and I would never make a film again. But it’s the passion for story telling that brings me back. It’s what puts you in that hole and then pulls you right back up. If I am passionate about something and I have faith in it, I will never let it go.