Tribeca Talks — Bringing the North Star to Sparkle: An Interview with Filmmaker and Ephron Prize Recipient, Meera Menon
As a newcomer to any profession, standing shoulder to shoulder with the masters of your chosen field can be awe-inspiring. But when Hollywood’s proverbial red carpet is rolled out for your first full-feature debut, well, it can be hallucinatory. Such was the experience of Meera Menon, director and co-writer of Farah Goes Bang, when she heard her name announced as the inaugural recipient of the Norah Ephron Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2013.
Selected out of eight contenders, Farah Goes Bang — a neon fusion of youthful tenderness and naïveté — is a refreshing portrayal of three female 20-somethings road tripping through America’s heartland while campaigning for John Kerry in 2004. Along the way, Roopa (Kiran Deol) and KJ (Kandis Erickson) also hope to help their best friend, Farah (Nikohl Boosheri), finally join their non-virgin sisterhood, a club to which they’ve been seemingly long-time members. Menon co-wrote the script with novelist and poet, Laura Goode — a close friend from their undergraduate days at Columbia University. Their understanding of female friendship pops off the silver screen with a storyline and dialogue that are quick witted, pithy and amusing — the sine qua non of Ephron’s classics.
Despite her youthful spirit, Menon is no stranger to the world of Lights, Camera, Action! A child of immigrant parents, her favorite pastime was shooting videos of friends in her New Jersey backyard with the cameras of her father, Vijayan Menon, a renowned South Indian film producer and founder of Tara Arts. At the age of 18, Meera Menon won a national Indian television award for her performance in the hit television show, American Dreams. And that’s not all. She’s also curated contemporary film and video arts festivals in New York, Paris and Miami and, most recently, cofounded a filmmaker’s collective, Spacebaby, with four cohorts from film school.
GALO was fortunate to spend an hour with Menon, just days after she received the prestigious $25,000 cash prize. Still humbled and giddy, Meenon talked of Nora Ephron, the challenges of directing Farah and the political and feminist underpinnings of her film. At times she was passionate and charming, other times, reflective and subtle — and still others, animated and charged; a patchwork of her sassy characters coming to life once more.
GALO: Congratulations on receiving the inaugural Norah Ephron Prize. Have you had time to process how you feel about being chosen?
Meera Menon: Thank you so much! I think being at that brunch with all those powerful women like Jane Rosenthal, Sally Singer, Anna Wintour, Sandra Bernhard, Glenn Close, etc., — just being there –was sort of out of a dream or a mild hallucination for me. And then to get a prize in the name of one of my (and every woman’s) personal heroes, well, it was amazing. Nora Ephron’s work is an example of how women can take issues that feel shameful, and find the humor and heart in them. That is more than inspiring — it is almost revolutionary. The spirit of her in that room was overwhelming to feel. I came back to L.A. last night and re-watched You’ve Got Mail for the one millionth time as I tried to fall asleep. I watched the whole thing on the verge of tears. I don’t know if I had even put two and two together before — how much the way I experience myself as a woman is directly related to how she wrote women.
GALO: Your first full-length feature is replete with hilarity, human tenderness and the unexpected — signature traits of Ephron’s oeuvre — and yet your film also addresses charged issues such as war, the woman’s body, bigotry and xenophobia in America. As a filmmaker, how do you negotiate between these emotional counterparts?
MM: That was the challenge — balancing the two stories with one another. We had fun with the more comic aspects of the election story, but the challenge was anchoring the film in the heavier reality of that political moment. The war looms in the background and comes up periodically — particularly when the girls encounter people who’ve actually been to Iraq — and serves as a reminder that there is a difference between the idea of a country at war and the reality of a country at war. For Roopa, the reason they’re on the campaign trail is the theoretical concept of a country engaged in a war. But how does that belief system take root when you meet people who have served our country? We became a country at war. And that is not something to laugh about — it’s perhaps the most serious thing you can imagine.
GALO: Is that what you were trying to portray — the dichotomy of youthful fancy and the violence of war that haunts so many young generations across the globe?
MM: Yes. In the case of our movie, I think that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But I also think that the reality of how we’ve experienced ourselves as young people in this last decade — that dual consciousness of wanting to be young and have fun and wanting to realize that the world is a complicated place in a complicated conflict — is itself complicated.
GALO: Both Farah and Roopa struggle, in different ways, with their respective Persian and Indian heritages while embracing American culture. On separate occasions, each is the target of ethnic hate speech. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 30 percent of hate crimes committed between 2007-2011 were because of a person’s ethnicity or national origin. As a first generation Indian American, what advice would you offer to someone struggling to straddle two cultures?
MM: That’s a really tough question, because it’s always going to be confusing to identify as two things at the same time. The priority for us, and me personally, was to really integrate these girls and their identity fixtures into a totally American identity. As American storytellers of a first generation background, I think we have a responsibility to bring people to understand that even though we are from different countries or our families are from different countries, we are just as American as anybody else. I do think there is room to be both. As storytellers, we have to show people there’s a way to be both.
GALO: Do you see that happening today in the entertainment industry more so than when you were growing up? I think of screenwriter and director Shonda Rhimes and her ability to integrate people of color and ethnic diversity into her storylines seamlessly, whether it be Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice or her latest hit, Scandal.
MM: Yes, Shonda Rhimes is a goddess! When I was growing up, I didn’t have The Mindy Project, for example, and I think about that all the time. It is so moving to see Mindy Kaling on TV being a totally American girl, just like any romantic comedy I would have seen growing up. If I had [seen] her face on television, it would have affected how I saw myself. I didn’t have that barometer — that North Star in the sky — telling me to just be. I felt like I had to be two different things.
(Interview continued on next page)