Movies inspire a lot of passion. So do those who make them and star in them. And nothing illustrates this better than the success story of Indian American director Aneesh Chaganty.
Growing up in San Jose, Calif., a 27-year-old Chaganty dreamed a dream after seeing Indian American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s photo in India-West justbefore the release of his 1999 film, “Sixth Sense.”Almost 20 years later,Sony Pictures has put its weight behind Chaganty’s directorial debut, “Searching,” which released nationwide Aug. 31.
“My mom loves movies and got us into it at an early age, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker until one day when I saw an Indian guy behind a camera on a set of a movie in Philadelphia in India-West…M. Night Shyamalan… and it got me thinking, OMG! This guy looks so much like me and it clicked that I can make movies, too,” Chaganty told India-West. “Ever since then, I picked up a camera, started studying his career and trying to emulate the number of films he made as a kid, etc.”
Today, technology plays a big role in how we live, work and play. “Searching,” a cutting-edge thriller, raises the ultra-relevant concern of how technology remains both a boon and a bane, depending on how it’s used.
The unique film, which unfolds entirely through a series of computer screens and smartphones – read FaceTime videos, texts, pictures, Skype, social media pages, security cameras etc. – is at its heart a gripping narrative that is stirring, engaging, and thought provoking.
Starring John Cho as David Kim, whose 16-year-old daughter Margot Kim (Michelle La) goes missing, the film follows Kim’s journey as he launches his own search after the initial police investigation returns with zero leads. But his search begins at home – on his daughter’s laptop, where after trying to trace his daughter’s digital footprints he also comes to the realization that he may not know everything about his daughter.
Chaganty and Sev Ohanian penned the script for the film which also stars Debra Messing and Joseph Lee.
“This is a very conventional classic thriller just told in a very unconventional way,” Chaganty told India-West. “Hopefully it’ll feel like a film you’ve seen before as a thriller but told in a way you’ve never ever seen before. Creatively, what we wanted to do was to take these devices we use every day privately that are so mundane because of how often we use them, just very cold in their design, and turn them into big emotional cinematic and thrilling canvasses…Our challenge was, ‘Can we take these really small screens and turn them into something that is extremely unexpectedly cinematic?’”
Chaganty said “Searching” intended to look at technology from a holistic perspective.
“Technology in Hollywood, at least in the last ten years, has been very negatively represented. Every episode of ‘Black Mirror’ is about the death of people because of technology going too far or every Facebook PSA is about how we are addicted to our phones and articles are done about how we are obsessed with social media. I think it’s like looking at a small slice of pie and saying this is the whole pie,” Chaganty stated. “There is a bad slice here and there but on the outside of it there are slices that make you feel good, connect, love, laugh, that make the world a better place. That has been my honest experience with tech.”
Even though helming a taut thriller of this caliber at such a young age is no mean feat, this isn’t Chaganty’s first brush with fame. In 2014, the writer/director’s two-minute short film, a Google Glass spot called “Seeds,” became an internet sensation after garnering more than one million YouTube views in 24 hours. Following its success, Chaganty was invited to join the Google Creative Lab in New York City, where he spent two years developing, writing and directing Google commercials.
Quitting that job at Google that which millions aspire to was certainly not an easy decision, he confessed, but that was just the beginning of a somewhat long, bumpy road ahead.
“It was a very tough decision…I was giving up so much emotional and financial security…to move from New York to Los Angeles where everyone is doing this. Nothing really sets you apart,” Chaganty, whose roots are in Hyderabad, told India-West. “There were a lot of questions about how much I was giving up but ultimately this is what I wanted to do since I was seven.”
Chaganty acknowledged that the film was a tough sell to the potential backers since a bunch of 20-something-year-old University of California film grads were making a movie that many couldn’t wrap their head around.
“It was hard to talk about. We were selling something new,” he elaborated, “and when something is new you have very little precedent to say, ‘Oh! It’s going to be like this.’”
Another key sticking point that had to be resolved before the film saw the light of the day was its editing.
“We spent two years editing the film in a tiny room and asking ourselves if it was all worth it. And occasionally, we believed it was and occasionally we thought it wasn’t,” Chaganty recalled to India-West, adding that the film’s entry into the Sundance Film Festival was the biggest achievement of his life, then Sony picked up the film, and so on.
He said now it all seems very surreal, the travel, the interviews, and the fact that he was able to share his vision with the world.
“It has been an awesome and serendipitous series of events starting on this tiny project that no one thought could survive this far,” he remarked.
His conviction and his family’s support, he said, helped him reach his goal that once seemed so far off.
Hollywood is also beginning to embrace diversity, Chaganty, a recipient of the Future of Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to only five young creatives around the world, concurred.
“There has never been a better time to be a minority – whether its race, culture, sexuality, gender – filmmaker than right now,” Chaganty noted. “If you are able to stand out and make work (talking as a creator) that is seen, people really want to get behind you. I don’t think it’s easy to do that…But we are very vocal right now. No time in Hollywood history, the people that comprise of Hollywood been so vocal about things consistently looking the same way and are asking for change. Like Obama said about change, ‘You aim for yards but it happens in inches.’”
“Searching,” which won two awards at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is receiving glowing reviews, including a 91 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has opened more doors for Chaganty. In June, Lionsgate scooped up his next thriller, “Run,” which Chaganty said is a dark and twisted look at a parent and child relationship.
“That does not take place on screens and there is very little technological element to it,” Chaganty told India-West. “It’s about another parent-child relationship (mother-daughter), which tends to be the actual theme of what we do. This is going to be our first genuinely dark or negative look at that kind of relationship. So far, all of our work has been very positive towards parents and kids because that’s the kind of background I grew up in.”
Just as Shyamalan’s story served as an inspiration for him to chase his dreams, Chaganty added that he now hopes his story will inspire other Indian American talent to follow their heart.