Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, studying at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Andrews Ganj, Anu Menon never thought she would be a filmmaker. “Films were something we watched and had an opinion on,” she says, “but never made.” Well, 30 years later, here she is, having just directed an intricate mystery, Neeyat, starring Vidya Balan; having wrapped up two episodes of a forthcoming prestige show, a historical fantasy The Winter King, and just getting into directing another she cannot yet name in September. And yes, all this after having shot two episodes for the final season of the international BBC hit, Killing Eve.
If she sounds breathless, it is because she is. After years spent wondering if she could get a film made, she is working on three continents, making movies and series in India, and doing TV work in London and Los Angeles. All from her Victorian home in Highgate, Northwest London, which she shares with her financier husband and 16-year-old daughter Rhea.
So, what is a graduate of Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS), Pilani, doing in show business? It took a small dream and a whole lot of courage. She completed an engineering degree, did strategy planning for advertising agencies, Lintas and then JWT, got head-hunted and sent to Singapore for three years with Bates Consulting. That’s when she had a mid-life crisis and realised she did not want to do that for the rest of her life.
It wasn’t easy to quit her job where she was earning a “fair amount of money” to be a student, but she says when you take a leap of faith, sometimes the universe rewards you. “Those were young, crazy days,” she says. “I was married by then and my husband was living in Paris. I felt what I was doing was meaningless. I wanted to do something drastic. That was my wake-up call. There was no one there I wanted to be like in ten years. And that was sad. But it takes a bit of courage to have no income for a while.”
At London Film School (LFS), she was years older than the other students but spent three glorious years learning filmmaking. “I think when you get into education after a break, you value it a lot more,” she says. “I missed education, I felt the need to find out who I am, I had experienced the world by then. It was so immersive, it allowed me to figure who I was. It was full of 21- and 22-year-old boys who wanted to be David Lynch and here I was wanting to make a rom com.” She was there just to study. “I was not distracted. I got a distinction and I thought, ‘That’s it man, I’ve made it.’ A bunch of us were identified as trailblazers. But then reality struck.”
“I don’t ever remember a career not being an option. My job is not my identity but without it I’m nothing,” says Anu Menon, filmmaker
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Life outside of LFS wasn’t easy. It was a struggle to get her first film—London, Paris, New York (2012), starring Ali Zafar and Aditi Rao Hydari— off the ground. It was a romance across three countries, shot at three different stages of a couple’s life, and refreshing in its articulation of what a woman wants. Zafar loved working with her but thought the film was ahead of its time. He says now, “Anu is one of the first true feminists in the industry, I would say. If you read into the lines of London, Paris, New York you could tell. When I read the script, that’s what really struck me. I thought she was an inspiring and empowered woman who knew what she wanted.”
She followed it with Waiting (2015), a film that dealt with grief. Two strangers, an elderly man (Shiv, played by Naseeruddin Shah) and a young woman (Tara, Kalki Koechlin), are waiting for their significant others to wake up from a coma in a Kochi hospital. Like all her films, she wrote it herself, putting her distinctive humour and deep emotion into it. Apurva Asrani was the editor on the film. He says, “Anu is deeply passionate about her characters and has a lot of empathy for the human condition. But her magic trick is in taking sad and bitter realities and finding joy and optimism in them. I remember I was in the middle of editing Aligarh when I worked on Waiting, and felt very strongly that we needed to give Naseer Saab’s character in Waiting, more pause, more melancholy. But Anu insisted that she wanted to find the light in these stories and show that life still goes on. She pushed me to edit differently. The result was a crisp film that refused to brood.”
Menon wears her laurels lightly. She no longer suffers from imposter syndrome, with seven films/series under her belt. Having signed up for the first season of Prime Video’s Four More Shots Please! (2019), she had the difficult task of making the intimate lives and complicated loves of four single women light, but not lightweight. It needed her understanding of human nature, which she ponders over in what she calls her “quiet life” as a school mum and working woman. “I don’t ever remember a career not being
an option,” she says, describing her generation of post-liberalisation women. “My job is not my identity but without it I’m nothing,” she says, adding she is completely focused on writing, creating, directing.
Rangita Pritish Nandy, who worked with her on Four More Shots Please!, calls her a “storm”. She adds, “Anu and I had met many, many years before Four More Shots Please! courtesy Rahul Bose, for a feature that didn’t work out. We then tried to collaborate on another film, but as luck would have it, that didn’t pan out either. When Four More Shots Please! was greenlit into production, Anu was the first name on Ishita (Nandy) and my list. If you’ve met Anu, you’d know why.” She calls her a strong cinematic voice, and an even stronger female narrative champion.
Driven by a world vision, she remains true to her Indian roots. Add to that her humour. “Everything was a perfect match for Four More Shots Please! It was a no-brainer, really. She saw our written word and just got it. And season one brought home an international Emmy nomination, no less,” adds Nandy.
That led to Shakuntala Devi (2020), her first collaboration with producer Vikram Malhotra of Abundantia Entertainment and with Vidya Balan, a story which she felt needed to be told and had been hidden by history. She didn’t write Shakuntala Devi without her flaws, and that is typical of Menon, who refuses to iron the creases and mask the warts women can and do have. Says Nandy, “She’s driven by telling a unique story and she never fails her characters.”
The struggle now is no longer whether she will do another film. “Now it is what can I do that will push the boundary, that will be different,” says Menon. She is not afraid of ambition and it is a good time for such confidence given the importance being accorded to diversity and inclusion in the entertainment world. “It’s no longer a white man’s world,” she says, which it was even five years ago. “The pandemic changed everything for me,” she says. “Suddenly I was on a plane not to Mumbai and I got an opportunity to interview for Killing Eve and got the job. It was an amazing experience. That opened doors to other international prestige television shows and I did the last two episodes of The Winter King. I’m reaching the stage where I have one foot in both these worlds.”
She grew up in middle-class Delhi, the daughter of an executive with the Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. “It was not very Bollywood-driven. We saw a lot of international cinema. It was actually more cosmopolitan in a very different way from Mumbai,” she says. She doesn’t feel burnt out, she still has the hunger to do more. “I love it when I step into these shows where you’re working with the unknown. They don’t know you, you don’t know them. You have to prove yourself every time. That’s what is driving me now. I love writing but I also like the idea of just landing there with my instrument and playing the music and not composing it myself,” she says.
Now the question is; “Am I doing something I am terrified of or am I doing something genuinely unique or has something to say? There’s such an explosion of content around us, I am privileged to be in this position.” She wants to embrace everything, like Greta Gerwig redefining Barbie and how it relates to the new generation. “She is not doing yet another Marvel movie. I love that. You need to feel that. It’s a luxury to have that, to be given that opportunity.”
Everything she’s done so far is very different from everything else. Neeyat, for instance, is her homage to murder mysteries, of which she is a fan. But it says something beyond it too, with the lead character being modelled on a rogue, runaway businessman like Vijay Mallya.
“I live in multiple worlds,” she says, and Neeyat, with its mix of Scottish castles and CBI officers, Indian actors and English newcomers, spirit-reading healers and brittle mistresses captures the essence of just that.