Smitha Radhakrishnan speaks to Punching at the Sun director Tanuj Chopra about his film's online premiere on Jaman.com.
Published: Friday, March 07, 2008
In 2006, the Sundance Film Festival premiered a crossover film that defied categorization: hip-hop and politics, inner city life and romance, violence and coming-of-age, with an occasional splash of Bollywood thrown in for good measure.
Tanuj Chopra's fiercely moving film, Punching at the Sun, earned props at the most prestigious venue for independent film in the world, and went on the festival circuits to be appreciated by, well, festival audiences in large cities. Today, Punching at the Sun has an afterlife. Online. Online film distribution is transforming the way in which independent filmmakers like Chopra see their product its potential audience. On Jaman.com, the established destination for offbeat, foreign, and independent films, movies like Punching at the Sun get beyond the film festival, to audiences in over sixty countries. A world premiere delivered to every person's laptop. What a concept!
I had the opportunity to speak to Tanuj Chopra about what Punching at the Sun accomplished as a film, and what it means for the film to have a world premiere online. So, on today's Desi Dilemmas, we take a look at this distinctly South Asian American film, the mind behind the production, and the wonders of online film distribution.
I had the privilege of watching Punching at the Sun in 2006 in Berkeley, when it was screened as a part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. The movie was unlike anything I'd seen before. It features the landscape of Queens, NY, with all its grit, diversity, violence, and possibility, and it focuses on the story of a teenage boy, post-9/11. Mameet's older brother and role model, Sanjay, was killed in a robbery of the family's convenience store, leaving Mameet lonely, angry, and nihilistic. The movie moves between moods in a flash, now dark, now funny, now depressing, now romantic. A distant echo of Raising Victor Vargas with a political, South Asian vibe at its core. When I watched it, all I knew was that it was fresh, that it "did" South Asian American in a way that was utterly free of cliché, in a way that looked completely different from my own experience, but something that nonetheless resonated deeply. So, how did this first-time director pull this off?
"Early on I made a decision," says Chopra. "I didn't want to have any rules. I didn't want to have one defining shooting style for the whole piece; I didn't want to have one methodology. I was always inspired by all kinds of media, not just the films I studied in film school, but you know, Bollywood films from the '70s, videos, all kinds. I wanted to gravitate towards risk-taking styles, shots and techniques that pushed the envelope. So for the visual style of the film I was trying to think of as many energetic gestures I could make with the camera and the editing. There was not one set form for how movies are supposed to work."
Chopra's tendency to flout the conventions of filmmaking are evident, in some ways, throughout the film. For me, one of the most interesting parts of the film was the unusual climax, a departure from the gritty realism of the rest of the movie -- a scene that melds the everyday with a supernatural realm.
"With this part in particular, I was trying to embrace the fantasy element of it, and the magic realism element of it," says Chopra, "because I think we've seen so many urban stories where there's no space for that allowed in any of the character's lives.... You never get the softer portion, the dream world or the magical world."
For me, this film felt new and fresh not only because of all these novel techniques and visions that were incorporated into the fabric of it, but also because this is no usual "oh, my vexed identity" type of South Asian American film. Indeed, identity crises are the least of Mameet's problems. And that felt real.
"We don't walk around, biting our hands, being thinking 'Am I Indian? Am I American?'" says Chopra. "We don't live in a constant state of mental crisis, 24 hours a day." Chopra gets that for most South Asian Americans, the proverbial identity crisis might very well be in the background.
So, why would a film that's been to Sundance, done major music festivals, choose to do its world premiere online? What does that mean, anyways? And why Jaman.com? The answer to that question tells us a lot about not only the rapidly shifting world of indie filmmaking, but about filmmaking more generally.
"Since the premiere, the internet world and the film world has changed tremendously. That's what the writers are striking about," says Chopra. "Really, for me, if I had dropped this film in, say, 2002, there would be no more options for this film. You go to Sundance, and the feeling is -- hey, you're going get this multi-million-dollar buyout. That's how it's portrayed often in the media, quite often, is that all the films get picked up. The truth it, there's only a small handful of films that get that big deal. You have to have a realistic look at it, with how much competition is out there, how many films get around, how many films make money, and how much do they have to put up? And even with theatrical release, and even with a shot, how futile it is. So, it changes your view.
"And then I met this great woman from Jaman, and truthfully, why I went with Jaman was because of her. She understood my film, she understood what the potential was in the market. And they created this great website with a huge user base, and it has this really nice South Asian film section. It's not necessarily that I would have signed with any online distributor, it's not necessarily that I would have signed on with any regular distributor. I just think relationships are important, I felt a really strong connection and trust, and I've been really happy with how they made it available."
"And when you think about it," Chopra adds. "If you haven't been to a festival, you haven't seen it. Now with our film, it's so great to be able to respond and say, 'Hey, go to Jaman and check it out.' It's really a third or fourth window, after TV after DVD, and also the internet. So we treated it as our world premiere. This is the first place that people can come see the film, online. This is our theatrical. Instead of people coming to some cities in SF and NY and LA, we think of it as a premiere on your laptop. Every laptop with an internet connection in the whole world."
So, where does a visionary young film director, immersed in the indie world, pioneering distribution techniques that are so new, go from here? Are the big budget movies of Hollywood passé to him? Would he prefer to revel in his niche success? If you think so, think again.
"Oh, I'm ready to sell out," Chopra laughs. "Give me a contract, show me the money, tell me what you want me to do. Show me the money!"
What was so interesting and original about Tanuj Chopra the person is the same thing that was fresh and interesting about Punching at the Sun. He refuses to be put into any kind of box -- indie, South Asian American, or otherwise. Punching at the Sun certainly reflects this eclectic sensibility. And until Hollywood stardom discovers Chopra's commercial potential, he's working on some interesting stuff of his own.
"One thing I'm really getting into is shooting music videos -- finding shorter forms of filmmaking," says Chopra. Next up, he's working on a short film; the Chinatown in New York is opening a museum, and they're commissioning people to do 5-6 minute films about Chinatown.
"Another thing I'm really looking at seriously is book adaptations," says Chopra. "That's something that the people I work with have been talking about. So that's also something I'm trying to work out."
So, delve into the world of online film distribution if you haven't done so already and bring the film festival to your laptop! Check out Punching at the Sun, now on Jaman.com. For trailers, stills, and bios for the movie, go to the official website.