Initially, director Aneesh Chaganty was resistant to the idea of making a film where the entire story unfolds on a computer screen. “They were never more than a gimmick to me,” admits the Indian-American filmmaker. Until, he found a way to make the film emotional, engaging, thrilling as well as cinematic. “But most of all, make the audience forget that they are watching the story through computer screens,” says Chaganty. His feature film debut, Searching, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it picked up the NEXT Audience Award. It releases in India on August 31.
The movie is a hyper-modern thriller that follows David Kim (John Cho), whose 16-year-old daughter has gone missing. Following a local investigation, Kim decides to search his daughter’s laptop to trace her digital footsteps and is surprised to find things about her he never knew.
The writer-director says that working in this format places one in a box, as it comes with its own set of limitations. “You can be creative and work around the box but you are still inside the box,” he says.
Naturally, the challenges of writing a screenplay where all the scenes take place on the characters’ computer are different from a conventional screenplay. “It’s like writing a new language. We realised that writing a conventional screenplay for an unconventional movie like this will not work. It will be very confusing to anyone who reads the script. So, we made a ‘scriptment’, which is a script written along with the treatment. It was penned like a book, which made it easier to convey the story,” he recounts.
Although rare, the film is not the first of its kind. Timur Bekmambetov, the producer of Searching, previously produced a supernatural thriller, Unfriended, also entirely filmed on a computer screen. Chaganty talks about the possibility of this concept evolving into a whole new genre. “The mandate of the production company that backed Searching and Unfriended is to make movies that take place on screen. But they want to experiment with the genre every time; they want to do comedy, thrillers, romance and so on,” says Chaganty, 27.
Born to Indian parents in San Jose, California, Chaganty shot short films throughout his high school and college years in University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. In 2014, his two-and-a-half minute short film, Seeds, shot on Google Glass, gathered one million views on YouTube overnight. The viral short got him an offer from Google’s office in New York to write and direct commercials for them.
As a frequent visitor, Chaganty has constantly embraced his Indian roots, “Hyderabad has always felt like a second home. As a child, I would spend my vacations there. As an adult, I found a way to come here for work. It’s where I shot my first short film and two Google commercials,” he says. Having grown up watching Hindi, Telugu and English movies, he admires Mani Ratnam’s work.
Coming from a family of Indian immigrants, the director finds himself in an interestingly small web in Hollywood. “It’s a small community. I can count the number of Indian-origin people on my hand,” he says. Chaganty feels lucky to be a part of the community. “I plan to tell stories about Indians, Indian-Americans and other immigrants,” he adds. Bollywood is also under consideration. “Maybe not the next one or the one after that but surely there will be one Bollywood film,” he says.