An upcoming Hollywood production led by an Asian-American actor has an Indian connection. Searching, which opens in theatres globally on Friday, marks the feature filmmaking debut of 27-year-old Aneesh Chaganty. The Sony Pictures Entertainment production, starring John Cho, Debra Messing and Michelle La, had its world premiere at Sundance in January before touring several other festivals.

Born in the United States of America, Chaganty studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California before landing a job writing and directing commercials at Google’s Creative Lab in New York. It was a short film that opened the technology giant’s doors to him. Chaganty’s Seeds (2014), shot entirely on Google Glass, traced a man’s journey to India to deliver an envelope.

Chaganty brings that technological influence to Searching as well. The thriller follows a father’s attempt to find his missing daughter through her social media activity and digital footprint. Messing, of Will and Grace fame, plays the detective in the case. The film unfolds entirely on computer and phone screens.

Seeds (2014).

The premise is all the more pertinent given the global concerns about data protection and the prevalence of social media. “I don’t think this movie would have been possible two years ago or even one year ago,” the filmmaker told during a recent promotional visit to Mumbai. “I feel that technology as a whole has such a terrible reputation in media, despite the intentions of everyone who is involved in the making of technology.

Chaganty hopes to remind the world that there’s a good side to technology as well. “At Google, I met people whose goals and ambitions were so altruistic, who were creating tech that was trying to make the world a better place,” Chaganty said. “Yet you read about how tech will kill you, or this year has been all about tech-lash and data theft and now we are viewing tech from a negative lens.”

Chaganty credits his mother, who accompanied him on his India visit, for his love for movies. His exposure to Indian cinema gave Searching its emotional root. “As kids, we would be pulled out of class early every Friday and mom would take us to queue up for the latest release,” he explained. “I saw Mission: Impossible, The Da Vinci Code in theatres and at home, we watched Indian movies. I loved the action of Hollywood films, but I soaked in the strong emotion shown in Telugu and Hindi movies.”

Projects that have been filmed entirely from the computer or point of view of a phone screen have received mixed responses. Examples include the Canadian short Noah (2013), supernatural horror film Unfriended (2014) and a 2015 episode of the American sitcom Modern Family. What made Chaganty and his team pick this subgenre? “We did watch some of the others. They were neither thrilling nor emotional nor engaging,” he said. “But when we got hooked on to this idea, we realised it wasn’t that it couldn’t be done, but more like it had not been done right yet.”

Searching (2018).

The challenge was to use technology to achieve an emotional connection. The emotional core comes from the premise of connectivity, Chaganty said. “We live in a world of ultra connectivity and yet, wouldn’t it be interesting if at the heart of the story were two people who have all the means to be connected but find themselves disconnected?” he said. “The film is about how those wires can be reconnected before it is too late.”

The editing style also played a role. “Every single bubbling of a text, every single message coming in and every single backspace – the way we cut to it, the way we allow it in the pacing of the film – has dramatic weight,” he said.

Chaganty said he had never dreamed his film would get such a response, from winning an audience award at Sundance to getting a global theatrical release. “Nothing was part of the plan,” he said. “Five people made a movie working in a single editing room and they hoped five other people will watch it. We applied to the Sundance Film Festival, got accepted and then within 12 hours of the screening, we got bought by Sony Pictures. Within 12 hours, my life changed. It was unreal.”

Aneesh Chaganty.
Aneesh Chaganty.

Even before his debut feature hits the screens, Chaganty is deep into the pre-production of his next film, Run, which begins shooting this October. But Run won’t be technology driven. “Never again,” Chaganty said.

“I grew up watching Telugu, Bollywood and English movies. None of them took place on screens and I don’t want to do that forever,” he explained. “I have always been fascinated by new, original ways of storytelling, like Memento or 500 Days of Summer. But they can be done once. So I would not do a screen film again.”

Like Seeds and Searching, his next film too will explore a parent-child relationship, but with a dark undertone. “I will have to tell my parents this has nothing to do with them and reassure them that they did not mess me up,” he said.

As an Indian-American filmmaker in Hollywood, Chaganty knows that he is part of a very small group. “If you are a woman, or someone of colour, it is just harder to get your story out in Hollywood, and I find myself in an incredibly lucky position to have been able to tell a story on a large scale,” he said.

But the moment for people from ethnically diverse backgrounds is right now, he added. “The complaints, the noise, the anger about it is the loudest it has ever been in history,” Chaganty observed. “One example of the impact is the diverse slew of new members invited to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences this year. We are seeing the beginning of a new wave of inclusivity.”