Ms. Kannokada: Seeta from Stanford
By Hitesh Shetty
While the booming IT industry in India has enabled many Techies to pursue their talents and passions, the yearning to do the same is equally strong for some who have migrated to USA. Meet Ivy League Stanford trained Engineer and Mayfield Fellow (given to study high-tech entrepreneurship) Melanie Kannokada who quit a lucrative job with McKinsey to pursue her dream of acting.
Techgoss (TG): Tell us about your academic and techie background?
Melanie Kannokada: I've always been a bit of a math and science geek. When I was a young girl, I would forego playing with Barbies for building helicopters out of Lego Technic kits. In school I took part in all the science and math Olympiads and academic clubs. I was so naturally intrigued to explore engineering that I ended up pursuing my Mechanical Engineering degree at Stanford University, where I was actively involved on campus, including serving as the Student Body President for one year. I topped off my undergraduate degree as a Mayfield Fellow. This selective fellowship is in fact available for 12 engineering students who are interested in high tech entrepreneurship.
TG: Tell us why you chose to do Mechanical Engineering at Stanford? What was the high tech fellowship program all about?
Melanie Kannokada: Stanford was my top choice in schools, because it had amazing academics and one of the nations best engineering programs, but more so because it had such diversity in student life, a gorgeous & happy campus, and an enthusiastic sports culture. At first, I wasn't exactly sure which type of engineering I wanted to pursue.
Fortunately, as undergrads, one doesn't have to declare their major degree until the end of their sophomore year, so that gave me some time to explore courses in several engineering disciplines namely Electrical, Computer, Environmental, even Product Design etc. Ultimately I ended up choosing Mechanical Engineering because it was the broadest of them all, providing a solid foundation to pick up other disciplines and also because I loved the design curriculum.
In my final year, I was really excited when I got accepted into The Mayfield Fellows Program. It's a nine month program, where you learn about venture formation, receive mentorship from some of the top venture capitalists in the Silicon Valley, and do an internship at an early-stage startup. It's an incredible program, and I’m so fortunate to have been a part of it!
TG: How and when did you get interested in acting? Was it easy for you to quit your lucrative job and take up acting full time?
Melanie Kannokada: I've been fascinated by the magic of acting since I saw my first movie on the big screen, but it wasn't until after college when I was working full time in the corporate world in New York City that I had the courage to pursue it 100%.
When I was growing up, I had dabbled with it, just for fun, by taking part in my school’s variety shows, often writing / acting / producing my own acts. But, I always assumed that the profession of a full time actress was out of the equation. My family and my upbringing were so far removed from the entertainment world, and didn’t know what other career options existed for me other than reputable positions as lawyers, doctors, or engineers.
Fortunately, my curiosity overtook me when I moved to NYC after school and was immersed in the arts scene. While I was at McKinsey, I decided to finally explore acting courses on the weekends. And I loved it. I began performing small works here and there, and it caught the attention of a top talent agency, who encouraged me to take it more seriously. I continued to build more supporters and momentum, and soon enough I found myself living two worlds - corporate consultant by day, budding actress by night. It wasn't easy trying to balance the two, so something had to give. After much self-reflection and the encouragement of my friends and co-workers, I decided to take the risk and pursue acting - my childhood dream - despite the uncertainties that lay ahead.
TG: How did the film 'Love Lies and Seeta' happen for you? Tell us more about the film?
Melanie Kannokada: The Writer / Director (Chandra Pemmaraju) of the project came to know of me through an actor friend of mine, Lavrenti Lopes. Lavrenti had recommended me for the lead in a short film of Chandra's. I was unable to do it at the time, but Chandra was keen on considering me as the lead of his upcoming feature film 'Love Lies and Seeta'. So, we met for a coffee in NYC to talk about it, and I instantly connected with the story and his vision. At the same time, he was convinced I was his vision of "Seeta” and that he would not do the film without me.
The film is an independent romantic comedy built around three distinctly different guy friends who all pine for the same girl (Seeta). The story envelopes these four characters and their friends as they explore different concepts of “love” during the course of one fun summer in New York City.
TG: What kind of responses has the film garnered from audiences at various events across the world? What accolades and recognition have come the 'Love Lies and Seeta' way till date?
Melanie Kannokada: The film has had strong reviews from filmmakers both in India and in the US. To date, it's been selected in over 10 national and international film festivals, with nominations in acting, cinematography, and directing. The audience that it seems to be resonating most with is our generation of young urban hipsters, though critics across all genres appreciate its unique take on narrative, style, tone, and music.
TG: Tell us about your links to India and the Indian community in USA?
Melanie Kannokada: Both my parents were born and raised in Kerala (India), before settling in the Chicago area, where my older brother and I were born and raised. We settled in a very non-diverse suburb of the city, and for much of our youth, we were at a disconnect with the Indian community in the USA outside of our annual holiday gatherings with relatives and family friends.
It wasn't until I went away to college that I reconnected with other kids of Indian origin and fell in love with my culture all over again. Since then, I've been quite involved in the Indian American community, through charitable, artistic, and professional organizations such as Nanubhai, Hospital for Hope, Sa Dance Company, NETIP, SAMMA, and the numerous Indian American film festivals that take place annually.
TG: Did you save up enough finance before leaving a secure financial job for the often hard financial world of acting?
Melanie Kannokada: The financially daunting aspect of my career switch was that I had significant student loans under my belt, so I had to really map things out before I quit my corporate job. I was able to save up some money (not too much, but just enough to get me by for 3 months), and I had few income streams in place from modeling and commercial work. Ultimately, I committed to a very lean lifestyle, as much as one can in New York City. I downgraded on my apartment space and rent, used only the Subway and the bus to get around (instead of taxis) and began cooking my own meals versus eating out at restaurants.
TG: What next? Any project in mind yet?
Melanie Kannokada: I've just completed shooting the lead female role in a feature film in India, produced by Raj Nidimuro and Krishna DK of 'Shor in the City' fame. It’s a crime comedy and will be releasing toward the end of this year. Now that I'm back in Los Angeles, I'm taking meetings and am in discussion on a few more projects, both in Hollywood and in the India Cinema market. I'll keep you posted!