Updated: Feb 3, 2020
There are a couple of rules to writing that vie for primacy in my head. The first is to write from what you know. And the first is to know your audience. Both of these firsts can set you back when working in a foreign culture--and set you further apart, too.
Sure, you can write about attending your first Indian wedding, and the folks back home will enjoy the photos of you pulsing your hands Bollywood-style while dancing in a saree. But the everyday Indians around you won't be interested in what is novel to you; they've already bought fresh mangoes off the back of a hand-pulled bullock cart and seen an elephant lumbering down the road. In fact, they have seen it every Tuesday since they were three years old.
How then does one make a film in a foreign culture, which could also feel authentic to that particular place and appeal to its people? Wong Kar-Wai tried crafting a bit of Americana with his first English-language feature, My Blueberry Nights, which fell fantastically flat. And while Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire might have swept the Oscars, it received a much different reception here in India, where it was released at the end of my first year in film school. "It didn't touch me personally," opined Aamir Khan, one of India's biggest stars and filmmakers. "While it's about India, I don't think it's an Indian film. I don't feel the point of view is Indian."
If film is a director's medium and point-of-view is the metric by which we assay a movie's artistic value, could a thirtysomething ex-Army guy from Hawai'i really direct an "Indian film?" Ang Lee pulled off this cultural balancing act with Brokeback Mountain, though by then Lee had long since become a naturalized American citizen, and he had Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories from which to draw more authenticity. I knew I wanted to craft a story that would appeal to both Indians here and Americans back home, but while I had been in India a few years, I knew I wouldn't get it right if I tried to tell it solely from an Indian's perspective. When I sat down to write the first draft of Breakdown in April of 2011, I still needed an American avatar to interact with the world of the film and help channel that primary point-of-view in my head.
And so I went calling on Hollywood...