Tanuj Chopra: The director is making his first appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival. His full-length feature, Punching at the Sun, which won Best Narrative at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, follows a South Asian teenager living in Elmhurst, Queens, who must grapple with the fatal shooting of his brother.
Ajay Naidu: The actor, best known for his role as Samir in Office Space and Nazeer Choudhury in Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia, is currently preparing to shoot his first feature film, Ashes. The film concerns two inner-city brothers whose lives are unraveling because of mental illness and involvement in the underworld.
Naidu: So, Tanuj, man, I thought your movie was really beautiful. I was very moved. How did you get yourself into the place where you knew you had to make that?
Chopra: This film came from all parts of life. We didn’t have a full casting process. We didn’t have producers. We didn’t have a business plan. We just went with our lives [and wanted to] give kids a chance who wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to act. We didn’t want to portray a particular Punjabi family, or the stereotypical Rai one. We didn’t want the major revelation in the film to be, “Hey, I’m Indian and he’s American, and I don’t know what to do.” This is a movie about loss. It’s also about where South Asian-American media is today in this country. We’ve come a long way from Mississippi Masala.
Naidu: Well, I certainly hope so. I get so riled up by the fact that I have to first comment on the fact that I am South Asian before I’m allowed to even tell interesting stories. And I think you’re with that, man.
Naidu: I must compliment you on the fact that the squalor in the film definitely took a strong presence as something very Indian or very South Asian that no one really brings up. There’s a strong sense of miserablism to it.
Chopra: The film is about an anti-hero. There are moments in the film that are very Desi. There are moments in the film that are very universal. And there are moments where the characters are heroes, moments where he’s a villain, and moments where we want to show the complexity of not only Desi life, but everybody’s life— human life.
Naidu: Definitely, definitely. I’m just now getting ready to make my picture. I’m terrified; I know that we don’t have shit. I think I’m going in with similar obstacles that you must have met, so I wanted to ask all these questions like, “Jeez, man, we don’t have no fucking loot.” What can I do to, like, assuage some of my fear?
Chopra: There’s a lot of little tricks you can do in your production to speed things up. Try to use as much available light as you can. Keep your lights to a minimum.
Naidu: You mentioned that you had a very long and difficult editing process.
Chopra: We had one retake session, but really editing is where you’ll suffer. You do cut after cut. Our first cut was 110 minutes. I had to cut 30 minutes out. And it wasn’t because someone told me to. We loved it, but…the story’s not working. So we were editing in my apartment with Final Cut Pro. We were editing in Delhi.
Naidu: That is so dope that you edited in Delhi.
Chopra: Get to Delhi. It’s where it’s going on.
Naidu: Now that the movie is coming, you guys are obviously going to try to sell it.
Chopra: We didn’t even know we’d get screened. We didn’t know we’d finish. Now we’re sitting here at Tribeca [and] we did it our way, too, with our people, our friends.
Naidu: Did you find yourself, when you were working on it, ever deeply heartbroken, or did you find yourself in a place where you just thought it wasn’t going to keep going?
Chopra: We didn’t have money, but the battle for me was more personal, like holding together my personal life, while this long edit was going on. That’s really where the trouble starts. Because this thing is consuming you, and a lot of people and friends fall off. Because editing is dark. You’re just in there—cut for cut, cut for cut—for months. But I love filmmaking.
Naidu: I haven’t made much in terms of a filmmaker, but I’ve acted in lots of pictures. I know from the one short film I did [direct], that it’s all day, and it’s every day. I know that it can be so tough, because, you know, I’ve been going forever and ever on [Ashes]. It’s such a long road. I know that this process can really grind you down, but it must be sweet when you finally get to watch that stuff.
Chopra: It’s always hard because you’ve watched it so many times: You’re sitting there squirming. You’re like, “I wish I tweaked that.” But I still get emotional watching this movie. These kids are beautiful kids.
Naidu: The only other time that I’ve seen this kind of work is through the work of Barry John, an Indian director who runs the National School of Drama in Delhi. For many years he was working with children in the street, and he was largely responsible for a lot of Salaam Bombay! One of the things that really made me happy about this is that I saw a strong tradition of the non-actor being allowed to tell and be an instrument.
Chopra: Oh, man, I appreciate you seeing that. It comes from a long line of Indian filmmaking. There’s talent in these kids. Teenagers are just naturally in a place where…
Naidu: Their guards are down, and they’re up there.
Chopra:…They’re ready to act, you know.
Naidu: It’s gorgeous, man.