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'I like intensity, emotion and heart...'

By Arthur J Pais
December 21, 2005 19:39 IST
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Tanuj Chopra, currently in the graduate film program at Columbia University, will have his first feature film Punching at the Sun premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival next month. Sundance is the best place in North America to showcase independently-made films.

Chopra began thinking of the film when he was a mentor for the South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) in Queens, over three years ago.

A gritty drama about a post-9/11 Queens family, it asks questions about what it means to be an American in troubled and confusing times. It is one of 24 films to be shown at Sundance's non-competitive section. "Punching at the Sun is a coming-of-age story about a young man struggling to find hope in the face of violent personal tragedy," says 28-year old Chopra. It follows Mameet Nayak, a 17-year-old with a passion for basketball and a hair-trigger temper.

When Mameet's older brother Sanjay is gunned down in the family convenience store, the neighbourhood loses a basketball legend, the family loses a dutiful first-born son, and Mameet loses a mentor and best friend. Six months later, Mameet is not just seething with grief; he has also got a bad reputation at school where his rage antagonizes many people. "We follow Mameet over the course of four days," Chopra says, "and what we have is the psychological unravelling of a young man."

Chopra, who earned a bachelor's degree in media and modern culture from Brown University, has made several short films, including a comedy Butterfly, about a blind Muslim man and his only daughter. When she falls ill, a doctor is summoned but he is only allowed to examine her through a hole cut in a curtain. Yet, the two fall in love after discovering they share a love of butterflies.

"Of course, my feature film is very different from Butterfly," he says, chuckling. He wrote the first draft of the script in 2003. "It was a very bad script," he continues. But, for some time, he was too proud to ask for anyone's help. "Finally, I called Hart Eddy, one of my closest friends and a good writer, to fix the script." The two spent several months, Chopra continues, "plugging away, draft after draft, grinding out the material until we felt we had something."

We ask him more about the film. Excerpts from an interview.

How did you start on this film?

I met a lot of very talented, unique teenagers with great stories to tell, at SAYA! A lot of these teens wouldn't get a shot to act in Bollywood or mainstream cinema – not immediately though. But, to me, they represented a story I wanted to tell. I met one kid in particular that I saw had enormous talent, Misu Khan, who would eventually act in my film.

What happened after you got the script ready?

We submitted it to the Tribeca All Access program in 2004 for emerging filmmakers. Of the 10 scripts chosen from 600 submissions, ours was one, and we handed about 30 copies to prospective producers. But we soon found out that no one was going to put money in a script without well-known actors attached to it, so we decided to produce it on our own.

How did you raise the money?

We held a number of fundraising campaigns over several months. And we were confident of shooting the film with very little money. The key to our production was rehearsal and preparation. We knew we had to be twice as organized and prepared as a typical film production because our schedule was tight and we were working with less. We had no margin for error. We shot the film over 17 days in August 2004. Everyone showed up every day and, although it was a war, we emerged with 110 scenes shot on the busy streets of Elmhurst, Queens.

If you can't make it as a filmmaker, what would you do?

I would get the first ticket to my parent's place and hide from debt collectors in the attic for a couple of years. Then, I would have to get a paper route.

Why should a non-desi see your film?

I think Punching at the Sun is a universal film that gives a voice to anyone who's experienced loss. I want all people to have access to my work, whether they are black, white, purple or plain. I also think it has a point of view that non-desis aren't often exposed to so perhaps it can broaden the perception of our community.

And why should a desi see it at all?

The film was made for desis. The question really is why shouldn't desis go see it? Because they don't want to see themselves on screen? Because they are happy with the way they are portrayed on TV and in Hollywood? Because they like Apu on The Simpsons? Because they are broke? These are all good reasons for desis not to see Punching at the Sun.

Why is showing the film at Sundance important?

I don't think there has been a second-generation desi feature film ever at Sundance, so it's another glass ceiling we've broken. It's important that our experience is given credibility at top festivals like Sundance. It's progress and I hope to see many more over the years.

What was your reaction when you heard your film had been accepted?

I got drunk, went to my high school reunion and ran my mouth off at non-desis the whole night.

If you were to get an offer to make an out and out commercial film in Hollywood some day, would you accept?

Hell yes. I have to pay back student loans. Does anybody have a gig out there for a desi in LA - LA land? Harold and Kumar Go to Iraq? Holla Back!

How about Bollywood... a wet sari film with half-a-dozen songs?

In a heartbeat. When can I start?

What are three of your favourite films?

Akira, the animated Japanese masterpiece (with the original dub) – the colors, the story, the soundtrack... I love it all, Fallen Angels by Wong Kar-Wai – explosive, risk-taking, the music, the style... just excellent. Pather Panchali – storytelling, acting, the human value. Satyajit Ray is the best.

What kind of Indian films have you enjoyed most?

All of Ray, the original Devdas, Mother India, Bandit Queen, The Terrorist...As far as Bollywood today – Sanjay Leela Bansali is a technical genius – his last three films are pristine. Dil Chahta Hai was great... And call me cheesy, but I still love Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. I like intensity, emotion and heart in movies and you don't have to look far for that in Indian cinema. I thought Khakee was as good as any action movie produced anywhere in the world in 2004. What a rush.

What are some lessons you have learned from your first film?

Process is a mystery. The things you plan can be boring. The best stuff is often sheer luck. Creativity is not a formula. Editing sucks. Bounce boards are horrible things to sleep on. Talking about your movie too much bores the hell out of people. Nobody really wants to hear anything.

What would you tell young filmmakers about making their first film?

I feel ridiculous giving this advice as I am still enrolled in school at Columbia – but I will. Pay attention at your producing classes. A script requires many re-writes, so spend your time writing. Your professors are smarter than you. Stop talking smack about them. Take regular showers. Pizza is not a food group.

How do you go about overcoming the stumbling blocks, as a filmmaker?

You need friends. You need people to talk to. You need a lot of heart and resilience. Sometimes you speak to God. Sometimes a plate of nachos can get you through the day. Sometimes the best thing to do is to go to bed.

What are some of the most important requirements for a first-time producer?

You have to be literate. There are a lot of papers you have to read. You also have to sign a lot of forms, contracts and checks so you should have a cool looking signature. You should have a phone plan that allows for at least 3,000 minutes a month. I never had a wireless headset, but those also look like they'd be helpful. Gadgets make you look more official.

What is your next project about?

That's a big secret right now... but I will say it involves technology and a "super-desi" army.

What would be the three new films you would recommend to your friends and our readers?

2046, because it's Wong Kar-Wai. Brokeback Mountain – although I haven't seen it, Ang Lee is a simply amazing director and it must be great. Operation Dreamland ---- My classmate Ian Olds did an amazing documentary while he was embedded in a military unit in Iraq. The film is a very rare and objective journal of what's happening on the frontlines. Paradise Now should also be mentioned -- it's great.

What are the three films you will not be seeing?

King Kong. Nothing about the marketing makes me want to see this. I'm over the gorilla. Also, The 40-Year-Old Virgin – a movie about a clueless white man. And Fun With Dick and Jane.

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Arthur J Pais