The American: “Thank you–is this ‘prasad’?”
Krishna: “No, it’s idli!”
Two of my favorite lines from Stranger on a Train, a short film I conceived and directed about an American traveling through India while holding fixed expectations about the country and its people. Having the American ask the question would demonstrate the character’s rudimentary understanding of Indian culture, as well as his interest in spiritual things; prasad is the food offering that Hindus enjoy, after it has been blessed by the temple god for distribution in religious fellowship. Yet having the American mistake a simple idli for something with religious value would underscore the film’s comic tone, and show again the character’s almost cringe-worthy ignorance. To paraphrase Mark Twain, he would have the words right but not the tune.
Those two little lines did a lot of work for our little film, which clocked in at a brisk 10 minutes, 17 seconds. Every line of dialogue in a film should be advancing the storyline, and that goes doubly so in a short film, which needs to maximize its opportunities before it runs out of reel. That Stranger on a Train was generally well-received, I would credit largely to the strength of its dialogue—of which the brilliant call-and-response of those two lines above represent some of the most inspired.
And the reason I’m blogging about them now is because I didn’t write them.
The words were suggested as an addition to my original screenplay by Satchit Puranik, who began as my editor on the project and who grew into so much more. When I look back at Stranger, I see Satchit’s fingerprints all over the film, just as I see them all over Breakdown today. I’ve read interviews with several directors who have all said that when they look back on their films, what they see first are all the mistakes they made—and what they wish in retrospect they had done differently. Yet in my limited experience, what I always see first are the “stich points,” where the consciousness of one of my main collaborators intersected with my original idea to make it so much better than what I had first conceived.
In the case of Stranger, the script called only for the couple across from the American to offer to break bread with him, and draw him out in conversation about religion; Satchit’s suggested lines made the transition into something much more entertaining, which also revealed character. And Satchit continued to offer up those kinds of brilliant suggestions time and again, from pre-production through the whole of our three-day shoot in the studio, and of course, into the editing process. Those kinds of weavings create the magic of film, and over the past few years, I have been privy to some fantastic turns from many of the creative people working with me. But nobody has cast a greater spell on what I have tried to accomplish in India than Satchit Puranik.
That Satchit would have a great ear for dialogue would seem elementary to anyone who knew of his extensive background in the theater—which, stupidly, I did not when we first started working together. I had instead wanted to work with Satchit only because he seemed like an interesting dude around campus, about the same age as me, with whom I could communicate well. I was also partial to Satchit’s outside work experience in the film industry; I knew he had spent time as an AD (assistant director) on Bollywood features, and had even co-directed a feature film called Mr Ya Miss, a Hindi adaptation of Blake Edwards’ Switch. Finally, I had seen that Satchit understood how to navigate the Byzantine labyrinth that is the Film & Television Institute of India, as he had years earlier completed the one-year course in television direction before returning in December of 2007 to begin the course in film editing.
With all of that experience, I felt Satchit would be a great resource upon which to draw, and that we would be lucky to have his talents on the team for Stranger. But I had no idea how fortunate we would be, or that we would continue to benefit from his talents beyond that first project. As a respected actor and writer in the industry, Satchit knew performers all across Bombay, and so he was able to serve as the casting director for both Stranger on a Train and Breakdown, carefully lining up choices for me to vet, ever respectful of my position as the film’s director, always giving me the final call–which, of course, I would only make after consultation with him. Friends back home in the US have asked me how I went about picking out actors for a film in India, and the truth is–outside of Rob Tepper, of course–I would have had no idea how to choose the right performer without Satchit’s contacts, his input, and especially his outstanding ear. Aside from speaking and performing fluently in English, Hindi, and Gujarati, Sathchit also knows a good bit of Bengali as well as Marathi, which means he can basically communicate with anyone in northern, western, and eastern India in their mother tongue. As you might guess, Satchit is also a good musician who plays the harmonium and sarode, and loves to sing Hindi songs at parties. He’s a social animal who loves interaction with people.
What makes Satchit most invaluable to our team, though, is his ability to communicate story concepts to our Indian collaborators in ways that I simply cannot. In this case, I’m not necessarily talking about language barriers, though those sometimes do exist for me within the sprawling credits of an Indian film set. Rather, I’m talking about Satchit’s extensive reading into Indian philosophy, and his deep knowledge of Hindu mythology; his collection of Hindustani classical music, and the virtual library of Hindi films in his head; his references to Indian television serials, and his jokes about the country’s politicians past and present. Put simply, after a lifetime of growing up in and traveling around India, Satchit knows the audience. And as I posted earlier in this blog, the first rule of writing is to know your audience…and the first rule of writing is to write from what you know.
That’s why I gave Satchit co-writer credit on Stranger, and co-story credit on Breakdown. Satchit’s suggestions always enhance the initial structure, vision and concept that I first lay out for the team in my screenplay, director’s notes, treatment, and step-outline–and his experience allows him to make worthwhile suggestions from script to shoot to post. The only “knock” on Satchit is that his myriad outside projects–as an actor, editor, writer, casting director–often leave him unavailable and sometimes nigh impossible to get hold of, which can be frustrating for a director trying to keep to a certain timetable. Satchit would also be the first to admit that he’s a long way away from being a technical expert with the non-linear editing software that has become the industry standard over the years.
The way I see it, though, you can always hire technical expertise; what you can’t hire is imagination and inspiration, which Satchit has in spades. Those are the qualities that make the great ones in demand, and I’d rather have a guy that’s sometimes hard to get hold of because everybody wants him on their team than a guy who’s always available because nobody wants to call on him. Since that first project, I’ve never been able to refer to Satchit as my “editor”, (though he is that, too, and brings a more avant-garde sensibility than my own.) Satchit has simply been my chief collaborator, in every sense of the word. I don’t think I could have been as successful in India without him.
It was during the casting of Stranger that I gave him the nickname that’s the title of this blog post. He and I were on our way to pitch the project to Amar Talwar, an extremely well-known actor who would come to perform brilliantly in our little film as the main oppositional character to our clueless train-riding American. Satchit knew Amar from having acted opposite him, and the mutual respect they enjoyed allowed him to playfully refer to Amar as “India’s answer to Jack Nicholson.” After hearing that enough times, I realized that Satchit reminded me of an American film icon, too–every bit as brilliant, independent, and gifted as Mr. Welles himself.