Cinema Asian America: Tanuj Chopra on His Film ‘Punching at the Sun’

This month on XFINITY On Demand Cinema Asian America features the premiere of Tanuj Chopra’s acclaimed, award-winning debut feature film, “Punching At The Sun.” A stand-out at the Sundance and San Francisco Int’l Asian American Film Festivals, “Punching at the Sun” is a crackling, emotionally-charged dream ride through the streets of Elmhurst, Queens. A tale of rage and redemption as seen through the fiery eyes of Mameet Nayak, it explores the experiences of a headstrong Indian teen lost in the shadow of his brother’s death. Over the course of four sweltering days, “Punching” tracks the emotional unraveling of a young man who is struggling to muster a sense of hope in a violent world.

Watch “Punching at the Sun” on XFINITY On Demand.

Chopra, who is also director of numerous, highly-praised short films, is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and sat down recently to answer a few questions about “Punching.”

You’ve made story that bursts with detail and specificity, from its setting in Elmhurst, Queens, to four hot summer days in which the story unfolds, to the experiences of your protagonist, Mameet, a young South Asian man coming of age. Where did this story come from?

TC: It’s hard to answer this question – I wish I could say it’s 100 percent based on a true story or is adapted from a novel or it’s inspired by this film or that event but the truth is, we just plucked it out of the ether. I closed my index finger and thumb in the middle of the air and put it on my laptop. Even the title came that way.

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“Punching At The Sun” captures a raw, honest portrait of New York, one that often do not see represented in films. What did you model your vision of the city off of? Is it from your own personal experiences? Or from other films which have been made about the city?

TC: Obviously you have to credit films like “Manhattan,” “Mean Streets,” “Do the Right Thing” (and the list goes on) of seminal, regional movies from NYC that portray the city with a uniquely cinematic point of view. Those pictures set an attitude, a tone and style that provide a foundation for a film like Punching. We also felt very fresh on set because not many movies are set in Elmhurst or in this specific community – every moment and shot felt brand new. At some stage you have to throw all the film references and even your own script to the side and create with the things that are happening in front of your face. My personal experience and relationship to the city was always my first guide when making creative decisions on “Punching.”

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Almost all of your films feature South Asian stories and actors. One of your most recent short films, “PIA,” can be see online. Why is it important for you tell these kinds of stories?

TC: I can’t say it’s important to tell these stories. I’ve had fun making them and that’s good enough for me but I struggle with idea that telling South Asian stories is “important.” If people see a greater social value in it, then that’s for them to determine and I’m happy for that. Obviously we live in a place where Asian-American stories are not easy to green light in the mainstream industry so when these films get made, a small victory in the name of representation can be celebrated. However, good movies no matter what they are about are more important to me and good movies are not demographic specific. Good movies inspire or affect you on a personal level and go beyond ethnicity and the politics of representation. Good movies are rarer and more challenging to make. I’d rather see a mind blowing film about anything in the world before enduring another barfy South Asian-American story with a rinky-dink story and dumb dialogue.

What is exciting for you in the world of American independent filmmaking right now? There seems to be so much talk about micro-budget filmmaking, new cameras, new ways to allow audiences to see your films. What is inspiring your own filmmaking?

TC: Eh. I don’t know. I bet the next iPhone will turn everyone into a filmmaker. Built in supercameras and video editing software etc. and so on. Unfortunately, you still gotta feed your crew three meals a day, pay SAG and take out an insurance policy and those costs do not go anywhere no matter how much you’ve lowered your equipment costs. On the plus side, emerging technology has been democratizing film education along with many art forms – and that’s a great thing…but equipment alone can’t make a good film. Yes there are clever child monkeys out there who are gonna pre-sell a film online, tweet about the production every day, use no lights with a three person crew, Facebook it, Google+ it, blog about it then offer it to view online. Are we happy about how smart we are? We’ve digitized and streamlined production/exhibition but guess what: the film can still totally suck. For some people in some economic environments five mil is a micro budget. For some 10k is a micro budget. Micro-budget is a term that’s relative to the economy and scale of a film. Ultimately micro budget and new camera talk is neither exciting or cool to me. Cool is James Dean, Madhubala, classic cars, motorcycles, leather jackets and tattoos. Exciting is jumping out of airplanes, high speed chases, 4am parties and lightsabers. Nerdy ways to lower your budget are important to stay up with but ultimately boring. It’s just homework every filmmaker has to do and homework is not exciting. What excites me about American Independent filmmaking? The same things that always have. The space and freedom to tell your original story in your original voice with your original style. New tech is exciting only if you are a committed nerd-faced geek. Although we are all looking forward to using the Epic.

What are you working on now?

TC: The updates at usually have the latest. We have some fun films and videos in different phases of production – but mostly I’m working on new ways to decompress with my knucklehead friends at Antonio’s Nuthouse.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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