Sudhanshu Saria on themes of his short film Knock Knock Knock, and how the setting of Darjeeling aids the narrative

Sudhanshu Saria's new short Knock Knock Knock, currently streaming on MUBI INDIA, has already become a festival favourite after the world premiere at Busan Film Festival last year.

Ragini Daliya September 16, 2020 15:37:00 IST
Sudhanshu Saria on themes of his short film Knock Knock Knock, and how the setting of Darjeeling aids the narrative

Filmmaker Sudhanshu Saria, who had cast an intimate, simple yet mature eye at gay love with his critically acclaimed film Loev, brings another chilling short, Knock Knock Knock.

The film has already become a festival favourite after having its world premiere at Busan Film Festival last year and a European premiere at Tallinn Black Nights. It also won Best Screenplay at the New York Indian Film Festival. And very recently was invited to screen at CoSaff, a coalition of seven film festivals in North America, who are uniting for an online fest this year.

Knock Knock Knock, starring Santilal Mukherjee and Phuden Sherpa, is a psychological thriller, follows a cat-and-mouse game between Dada, a Bengali man, a crossword designer, and a young Nepali boy. The film delicately explores the idiosyncrasies of old age, of young abandon, and of the carefully guarded seclusion.

As the film begins streaming on MUBI INDIA, Saria, in an interview to Firstpost, takes us through his love affair for his hometown Darjeeling, his writing process for the short, and why he thinks the mainstream industry does not hold a moral obligation to North-East representation.

Edited excepts below

Firstly, I want to know about the significance of the number 'three' in the film. Starting with the title, which includes three knocks, and then we find the young man who claims to buy everything in a batch of three. Was it a subconscious choice or did I miss out on something important?

(laughs) No no, you know what it could easily have been five or eight or twelve. It is not as much to do with the number three, as it has to do with the patterns in our lives. So with Knock Knock Knock, when you upset the pattern of the film, it begins to irritate. No one knocks thrice. It is usually two times, but because I make you say it three times, something about it is annoying. Hence, as you begin to watch this film, you start to notice these patterns, which is how the characters live as well. Moreover, three is an uncomfortable number. Two is fine, One is well, one, and no one likes to come third, right?  

Knock Knock Knock very deftly handles the themes of loneliness and the consequences of invading one's privacy. What triggered the idea for this short, and what was the writing process like?

The writing process was torturous. It was really awful because somehow, you feel the film will never get made. You see I am no visionary artist, living in Himalayas completely aware on what I have to write yet I choose to indulge in these subjects that are incredibly difficult to get made in this age and day. So for me, when I was in Darjeeling with my dad, I would watch, observe him. I always knew him as this fun, really extrovert and friendly guy but once I started spending time with him, without my mom there as a buffer, I started to realise, he is actually quite guarded. He’s not someone willing to be vulnerable or make any new friends, and it is due to the function of the age. It is something to do with growing up and moving forward in this world.

It often happens that with every disappointment, heartbreak, betrayal, we start to come up with new sets of rules for living. Hence, it started with a mediation on that thought and then of course, I am not a conformist, the world can be quite a brutal place because there is this desire to homogenise, to make everything the same but if you want to march to the rhythm to your drum, you have to develop a different tenacity.

Sudhanshu Saria on themes of his short film Knock Knock Knock and how the setting of Darjeeling aids the narrative

Santilal Mukherjee as Dada in Knock Knock Knock

The two characters in the short are in complete contrast to each another. While we see Dada as a stubborn ageing man, the young guy is a bubble of innocence struggling with his own demons. Yet they bond over certain similarities. How did you draw these roles, and is there anything you took away from them? 

I not of Dada’s age. I am halfway there but if some were to say startle and greet me, even my first temptation will be a bit cynical. The first thoughts are usually what do they want, why are they doing this, which I think is so disappointing. I feel the world is really unfair to unique people. I mean, we are right in the middle of a national conversation on that. And the way we are misbehaving and disengaging with that, it's quite pathetic. Hence, I wanted to put a young boy in there, who is experiencing the similar pain of being in shunned away but hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with it. And the older man, who has understood the ability to retain his identity. Honestly, it could have been the best of friendships, an amazing mentorship sorts, but insecurities got in the way. Those walls, those cynicisms, got in the way. And I often think of that, if my dad was to meet some young man or a friend like that, would he even engage? Would he allow someone like that? I feel a part of you dies, once you start developing such doubts. I don’t want to end up like Dada. I would rather stay open and experience all sorts of emotions.

Knock Knock Knock is set in Darjeeling, your hometown. How did it feel going back to your roots?

It was divine. It was a privilege. I felt so lucky and happy. Because you know the way our ‘industry’ is set up, it's not easy. It is not likely that you will have an opportunity to showcase a movie in that part of the country with characters who look like the way, my characters do because there’s no structure, no equipment or infrastructure for it. Now if you are Shah Rukh Khan making Main Hoon Na or Rajnikanth developing your next Rs 100 crore film, you can have anything happen in Darjeeling, but with a subject like mine, it’s is very tempting for people to say, "Yaar, just go to Mahableshwar na." However, with that, they tend to ignore the politics of my film, something which is extremely crucial to the story.

You see, in India, we all have these different communities stuck into each other, just think of it, Darjeeling and Calcutta (Kolkata) are in the same state, but Darjeeling has nothing to do with Calcutta. Hence, the idea of this Bengali man there, engaging with a young Nepali boy. Both are forced to speak in English because neither of them can talk in other’s language. So for me, if I am going to make a film in Darjeeling. I am going to take advantage of that city. I don’t want to just go shoot it because of its exotic location.

It's like I don’t know why was Main Hoon Na set in Darjeeling. Nothing about it speaks to the city other than the toy train. That’s not right, the city is not only a backdrop for you to exploit. If you are going to use it, use it well.

For me, it was not just about going back to my hometown, but the idea of engaging with it completely, showing people a side of Darjeeling that they may not be aware of, in a sense for normalising it, not exoticising or romanticising it.

How much do you think mainstream Hindi cinema needs to progress when it comes to the representation of North-East in their films?

I mean, I look at it in both ways. You see, I feel the mainstream Hindi cinema doesn’t owe anyone anything. The mainstream industry is a capitalistic enterprise, and the only thing that interests them is profits. So if I go to the mainstream out of some moral obligation to showcase North-Eastern representation, that’s stupid. Is there a moral obligation? Of course there is. But I don’t think capitalistic ventures respond well to moral obligations otherwise climate change would have been a thing of the past.

Hence, if I go to a studio or mainstream, and tell them there’s money in it, take it, and because they are underrepresented. I believe they will respond to that, but I don’t believe in that condescending moral high ground. And the flip is true too. If I have written a story like Knock Knock Knock, it is entirely incumbent upon me to get it made, the industry doesn’t owe me anything. You gotta fight for your stories to be heard.

Sudhanshu Saria on themes of his short film Knock Knock Knock and how the setting of Darjeeling aids the narrative

Sudhanshu Saria on the sets of Knock Knock Knock

I saw Loev very recently, and was in absolute awe of it. The film was clearly ahead of its time, raising appropriate questions on consent and boundaries within love and friendships. Do you feel India has come through over the years in terms of storytelling? Have filmmakers started to explore their horizons and choices?

I don’t think so. I mean I don’t want to shortsighted. I think we always have had bold filmmakers. Sometimes we tend to forget our history. We forget about Astitva, Arth, so much of Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta's films. We have had incredibly feminist filmmakers who have done some gorgeous work. Is there a room for more? Of course. Should more people be doing this? Yes. But at the same time, I am so proud to be in a city where Anubhav Sinha is making Thappad, where films like Titli are being produced. I think these problems with the system are deeply ingrained, and it will take a while for the modern consciousness to set in.

And with Loev, I was thinking of consent, long before #MeToo happened, and especially thinking of it in terms of masculinity and how much harder it is for a man to admit being assaulted. However, I always grateful for discussions setting in, taking charge no matter where they come from.

Are you writing something new? Where do you go from here?

Yes. So one wants to talk about stuff when it's ready and good to go because you know this business is so uncertain, things that are happening now can be scrapped tomorrow. I am in the middle of developing a wonderful young adult show for Amazon Prime Video. I am partnered on it with Nitya Mehra (Made in Heaven, Baar Baar Dekho). I am writing and directing it. Everything is going great. So once, the script's done, they will take a call on production whether they want to take it forward or not. Hence, I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch. There are a couple of other films too, including a feature for the International Financing Forum that's running at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Knock Knock Knock is currently streaming on MUBI INDIA.

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