By Tanuj Chopra
San Francisco, 2063. A service android brand-named PIA has replaced the majority of third tier labor in the United States. Hospital nurses, hotel workers and other maintenance driven industries all use the sleek, black-clad, human-organ powered machine to supplement their human workforce.
Syama and Rakesh Raval appear on the path to a bright future together. But before they can realize their dreams, Rakesh is struck down by a sudden heart failure. Overcome with grief, Syama agrees to donate Rakesh’s organs to future technology research.
Two years later, a load of unregistered PIA robots bound for the black market are discovered in the cargo hold of an abandoned truck by the San Francisco police department. The PIAs are left in the evidence room overnight, where one of the units flickers on. Distorted images appear and skitter across the robot’s memory screen. The android wanders out of the building and through the San Francisco night with a purpose, eventually ending up inside Syama’s apartment.
Startled by the intrusion, Syama grabs a weapon and intercepts the malfunctioning service android. In a tense standoff, Syama corners the PIA and interrogates it. Speaking with a fragmented memory and a fractured voice, the PIA android reveals the secret of her mysterious and sudden appearance.
PIA is a futuristic love story that challenges the viewer to reconsider the meaning of humanity, relationships, and family.
This story was discovered in a foggy corner of my brain, four coffees deep, and face down on a pillow in the middle of the day during a deep transcendental meditative vision quest I embarked on specifically to discover this story.
I don’t know the mechanics behind how film/narrative ideas come to people. In my case, some type of structure helps me begin the imagination process. The task seems simple: write a story about an issue in the American future that has a science fiction, fantasy, or magic realism element to it. That was the framework I needed; it had a little direction, but not much restriction.
About 13.4 ideas immediately hit me. End of the world, bombs, destruction, environmental deterioration, war between Islam and the West, nuclear explosion, massive disease that kills a race, space travel, scary Petri dish something-something, mutant giant Amazon sexy female aliens from outer space, India rules the world, flying cars, California separates and floats away, time-traveling monkeys, and a space wedding. My early ideas always suck. I had a two-week headache before falling on my bed face first (aforementioned) with my eyes closed. This is a special yoga pose that allows me to commune with a more authentic future landscape.
Instead, I communed with my inner nerd. I recalled issue #70 from the original Transformers comic book series where Ratchet and Megatron are simultaneously flung into the “space-bridge,” an unstable beaming device that transports robots instantly from planet to planet. When they emerged (at the same time) from the portal, the robots were fused together as this tormented skittering entity at war with itself. Ratchet was the most generous spirit of the Autobots (he was their medic and transformed into an ambulance, of course) and Megatron was the razorblade-gargling prince of destruction (who transforms into a gun), so the circumstance was loaded (no pun intended) with drama.
So obviously the “space bridge” Transformers storyline profoundly impacted me as a child. This half-Ratchet, half-Megatron mess of a lifeform kept flickering in my brain — the iconic cover where the words “help us” appeared in my mind’s eye. This idea of a fused being, a fused identity, shifting identity, the body as a vessel and the spirit as something that can be transplanted and even reincarnated … this idea stayed with me … it was more than met the eye.
The treatment and script for PIA flowed very naturally from that small kernel; I think once a main point of inspiration is unlocked, the story forms fairly fast and effortlessly from there. The rest of the details were grafted from bits and pieces of places and people I know. And of course I continued to shape the story to suit my cast and locations after those pieces were locked. But the spark for the story was simply a geeky comic book memory rediscovered in a highly meditative state.
— Tanuj Chopra, Director
You write a script about androids. You finish. You later realize you have no idea what an android is.
Then you get a chance to make the film.
What is an android? Android vs robot? Android vs humanoid? Clone? Replicant? Cyborg? Cylone? Ghost-hacked human? R2D2 and C3P0? AI? WTF.
You have to do some research.
You Google. You YouTube. You can’t believe how developed the androids in Japan are. You want one.
You throw in the classics. Blade Runner. Ghost in the Shell. These movies still bang.
You start sketching with ketchup on napkins at restaurants. You tell your friends you are making a film about sexy robots and instantly alienate them.
You put in Artificial Intelligence. You marvel at the vision, but fall asleep 40 minutes in. Twice.
You realize your research means nothing because your story is science fiction and you can make your android look and do whatever you want. That’s why it’s called fiction. You realize it’s your world and you make the rules. Duh.
Of course this revelation makes all your decisions harder. You have too many options and you are a monkey. You need reinforcements.
You need to find a dope production designer. You need to find a smart costume designer. You need more creative souls to help you solve the answer to that paralyzing question: What do you want your android to look like?
In walks the fabulous costume designer Diane Amato. She’s amazing. She’s fabulous. She has a fabulous studio in San Francisco. She has this fabulous mental archive of all styles from the years 1900 to 2000. She starts pulling futuristic clothing images from every decade in the last 100 years.
In walks Garrett Lowe, production designer. He is a rock star. He can turn a toaster into a spaceship. He’s down to ride. He starts pulling pictures of spiral staircases. Amazing!
You continue to scan through this fresh collection of cool images. Curves and circles. Lines. Textures from the ’70s. Hoods with giant eyeholes. Barcode tattoos. Pod-shaped cars. Dr. No, Star Trek … future/past/timeless/vintage.
You marvel how deep the rabbit hole is.
Diane shows you a picture of a one-of-a-kind, vintage, A-line cut shirt/skirt. It’s white with blue and red circles. Yellow accents. You love it. It’s available cheap through this specialty clothing salesman. Throw some tights on it and add some matte grey Star Wars boots and boom — you have a colorful, fresh take on a futuristic service android. Add a sparkling emerald green makeup shield on her forehead to set off the look. You are cooking.
Garrett shows you 20 original designs he’s made himself. PIA logos. Amazing! You can use these logos on any PIA-related item you see in the film. You can put in on a paper. You can put it on a building. You can put it on a car. You can put one on her face. YES! You decide that you must tattoo the PIA logo on her cheekbone.
You are excited that you’ve finally solved your mind-pinging question regarding the look of your android. You are excited and give the “it’s all coming together” speech to Ariel, your producer. You raise your status from excited to elated until you discover the clothing salesmen figured out that the shirt you want is for a film and extorts Diane for way too much cash. Your excitement is tamped down even more when you discover the PIA logo tattoo will not stencil on a face properly because it’s too intricate a design and the paint is too runny. Your camera tests reveal that the majority of face paint ideas you had look extremely stupid on the high-resolution Red camera.
Back to the drawing board (ketchup on napkin in your case). You have two more weeks.
— Tanuj Chopra, Director
Writer / Director
Chopra holds a BA in Arts Semiotics from Brown University and an MFA in film direction from Columbia University. He is a recipient of the Columbia School of the Arts Dean’s Fellowship and the Columbia FOCUS Film Fellowship. His first feature film, Punching at the Sun, premiered at Sundance and Tribeca and won the grand jury prize at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. Tanuj is currently working on the film Clap Clap, a noir tale of guns, love, and betrayal, starring Tillotama Shome, Sung Kang (Ninja Assassin, The Fast and the Furious, Live Free or Die Hard, The Motel), and Manu Narayan (Bombay Dreams, Wall Street 2). Tanuj is a contributor to Secret Identities, the Asian American comic book anthology with the piece “S.O.S.” (Superhero Outsourcing Services).
Tillotama Shome — “Syama”
Screen actress Tillotama Shome is best known for her acclaimed portrayal of Alice in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. She played a pivotal role as Deepa in director Florian Gallenberger’s epic Shadows of Time (Schatten der Zeit), and appeared as Lara in Meneka Das’s Little Box of Sweets; Jaya in Afia Nathaniel’s short film Long After; Miraal in Tanuj Chopra's Butterfly; and Leena in Tanuj Chopra’s Clap Clap.
Ajay Naidu — “Rakesh”
On screen, Naidu has appeared in the film Office Space, as well as K-Pax, π, Requiem for a Dream, Bad Santa, The War Within, American Chai, The Guru, Waterborne, and Loins of Punjab Presents among other films. He co-starred in the sitcom LateLine and had guest starring roles on the television dramas The Sopranos, in the episode entitled “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, as well as The West Wing. In 1997, Naidu was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his role in the independent film subUrbia. Naidu has been working extensively with musicians from the Asian underground music movement for may years and his vocals have appeared on many records most notably Talvin Singh’s Mercury Award-winner “OK.” In 2006, he directed his first feature film Ashes, which is slated for release in 2010. His most recent theater credits include a world tour of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with Simon McBurney’s Theatre Complicite, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui alongside Al Pacino, and The Little Flower of East Orange at New York’s Public Theater. He is currently engaged to actress Heather Burns.
Pia Shah — “PIA”
Pia was born in Chatham, New Jersey and attended The Johns Hopkins University. Trained at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Pia also studied The Meisner Technique at The William Esper Studio in Manhattan. Her short film, Canada, has played at festivals around the country. She worked on her first Bollywood project this year, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Tasveer (Eight by Ten).