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UT graduate and Student Academy Award winner Soham Mehta finds his way in the film world

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Anne Hathaway didn't jitter and joke from the stage. Billy Crystal didn't regale the audience with a musical montage. And hungry agents were not scratching and clawing for extra invites to the Vanity Fair after-party.

The Student Academy Awards might not have sparkled with the glitz and glamour associated with the Oscars, but the filled-to-capacity event held last month in Los Angeles still celebrated the art of filmmaking. And members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still determined the winners.

University of Texas graduate Soham Mehta was one of the 15 filmmakers honored at the ceremony held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, winning a bronze medal in the narrative category for his short film, "Fatakra" ("Firecracker"). Mehta's achievement follows on the heels of fellow UT alumnus Ruth Fertig's gold medal in the documentary category last year for her film "Yizkor" ("Remembrance") and marks the fourth win for graduates of UT's Department of Radio-Television-Film since 2002.

"Fatakra" tells the story of Naveen (Samrat Chakrabarti), a recent Indian immigrant to Texas, who struggles to reunite his family after having spent three years alone in the United States trying to build a foundation for his wife and young son. The 17-minute short serves as a modern allegory of the Sanskrit epic "Mahabharata."

The movie served as India native Mehta's thesis project at UT, and the 33-year-old says it held personal significance, as he made it amid a long-distance relationship with his now-fiancée.

"I was looking for stories about relationships that had a separation and were now coming together," Mehta said recently by phone from New York, where he currently lives. "I went through different story ideas, and this was the most obvious choice, because in a way it is the experience of my parents and many people like them. So in a way it allowed me to pay tribute to their experience but not just make a tribute film because it had an emotional core that I could relate to."

His father's career as a chemical engineer took the family to Houston in 1981, but, Mehta says, his father never actually enjoyed the work. And when the chemical engineering field suffered a hit in the mid-'80s, Mehta's father seized the opportunity to explore new interests, which included college teaching, heading a Montessori school and, eventually, working as a family therapist.

"Personality preceded the career," Mehta said of his father. "I kind of had a counselor as a father in many ways. We were always exploring different interests and choices and always talking about these sorts of things. There was a lot of communication. So as I became interested in theater. He was always very supportive of it."

A voracious reader and studious child, Mehta began acting in elementary school, but realized his true passion when he directed his first play in his junior year at Houston's Mayde Creek High School. Directing captivated Mehta's various interests of leadership, management and storytelling, and he found himself more adept behind the scenes than in the spotlight.

"I realized I could maybe make a living as a mediocre actor, but I'm not really adding anything artistic to the world," Mehta says. "Whereas I felt I was a better writer and a director and felt like I had something to say."

Inspired in part by legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray's "Apu Trilogy," the young thespian entered UT to study film. After a short time at the university, Mehta says, he felt that the film department focused too much on the technical craft, so the Plan II student entered the theater department to develop his storytelling skills while also making the pragmatic decision to study computer science.

After graduating in 2000, Mehta returned to Houston, where he used money from his day job in the tech world to start the Shunya Theatre, which allowed him to produce his own work and also offered many South Asians a chance to play meatier roles in mostly non-Western work.

After several years in Houston, Mehta decided he wanted to go "all in" on his directorial ambitions and returned to UT for graduate film studies.

"The way UT works is it's a pretty small grad program, but it's a very large undergrad program," Mehta says. "What's great about that is the undergrads will crew up on the grad films. It's their chance to kind of see a bigger machine at work and get more experience. So you get a pretty sizeable skilled crew if you want it filled with both grad and undergrad students."

Although Mehta says that the debt incurred from his graduate education does pose a heavy burden during a time when building a film career is harder than ever before, he appreciates the opportunities film school afforded him.

"Film school has served me well in the sense that I got what I expected and then some," he said. "I learned more than I would have just working on films over that same time period; I made several films and having the resources of school definitely helped with that, and I left with a network that has already helped me get work."

With graduation looming, Mehta decided to move to New York in 2010, where he works as a freelance editor and develops his own projects. Mehta says he has received increased industry attention during the past couple of months thanks to the shine from the Student Academy Award honor.

"The biggest takeaway (from the Student Academy Awards experience) for me, going to film school in Texas and being somebody who grew up in Texas and being a Texas filmmaker, I think sometimes we don't get the credit that we deserve as Texas filmmakers," Mehta says. "When I made this film, I never thought about having it recognized in this way."

As he continues to write his own scripts in New York while taking calls from producers interested in hiring him to direct, Mehta says that Texas is never far from his mind, consciously or not.

"I'm living in New York but I still dream in Texas," Mehta says. "The scripts that I'm writing right now, they're both set in Texas. It's not necessarily a conscious effort, it's just that's what comes to me. I grew up in Texas. I still very much approach life with that mentality and that pace."

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Texas Filmmakers Showcase featuring Soham Mehta’s 'Fatakra’ and six other short films

Where: Austin Studios Screening Room (1901 E. 51st St.)

When: Wednesday, July 20 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Tickets: $5 for Austin Film Society members and students with valid ID, $8 for public. All proceeds benefit the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund

Information:austinfilm.org

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986