Filmmaker Sudhanshu Saria on Knock Knock Knock, his love of lesser-known stories and why he works in cafés
One of the two lead characters in director Sudhanshu Saria’s film, Knock Knock Knock, is a creature of habit. He sits at a particular table in the café he visits on his vacations; he sits with his elbows perfectly aligned; and there’s also a curious pattern to his morning walks. This is something that Saria, who has also written and edited the film, is very familiar with. “I can’t write at home. I need to be in public spaces with my back to the wall. I believe every café has a certain energy and, when I end up having a good day of writing, I go back to the same café,”explains the 36-year-old filmmaker, whose film launched on Mubi India today.
A psychological thriller set in Darjeeling, Knock Knock Knock revolves around Dada (Shantilal Mukherjee), an older man who makes crossword puzzles as a hobby, and Keta (Phuden Sherpa), a young Nepali tattoo artist who finds patterns in everything. The film premièred as one of five shorts in the Shorts Showcase at the Busan International Film Festival last year and was screened at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in their Homecoming section, along with new films by Peter Strickland and Yorgos Lanthimos. “Dada and Keta are like yin and yang. Keta finds patterns in art and design while Dada does so in numbers and alphabets,” says Saria.
Much like his début feature in 2015, the tender gay love story Loev (on Netflix), this film was also triggered by personal experiences. “I always had this image of my father, who lives in Darjeeling, as a very social person. He is an extrovert who gets along with everyone. But when I spent about 10 days at home with him, without my mom present as a buffer, I felt like I really discovered him. I realised he was really lonely. He can chat with anyone but he’s not willing to be intimate and vulnerable with anyone,” he says, adding that the film, which started as a meditation on loneliness and heartbreak, goes on to explore more complex themes of human psychology.
Stories from the fringes
With a run-time of 40 minutes, Knock Knock Knock rests on the shoulders of its lead cast — one a veteran of Bengali theatre and cinema, and the other a young boy plucked from the streets of Darjeeling, who had never acted before. “It took a lot for me to convince Phuden to do this film. He didn’t believe that someone had cast him in a movie or that it’ll ever get made. He wouldn’t come on time for rehearsals or learn his lines, but something changed about four days before we were supposed to start shooting,” says Saria. “Shanti da, on the flip side, was harder to direct. I like to rehearse a lot before shooting stars but every time I broached the subject, he would shut down. He was coming from a space of ‘this is my job, don’t tell me how to do it’. So I had to back off.”
A huge believer in Mira Nair’s words — ‘if we don’t tell our stories, no one else will’ — Saria has come to realise the value and power of his perspective. “There are some stories like Loev that only I can tell. These are stories from disenfranchised communities or those that aren’t often told. I wanted Knock Knock Knock to be a film shot in Darjeeling because we don’t tell enough stories from that part of the country.”
Journey to cinema
A self-confessed ‘tea-estate baby’, the filmmaker grew up on a steady diet of masala Hindi films like Mr India and Lamhe. “I didn’t know anyone in the movies or how films were made. In my mind, films were made by fairies, with angel dust.” A chance encounter with film students at Ithaca College, in upstate New York, led him to studying filmmaking and subsequently working with film companies in the US. He returned to India only so he could tell the kind of stories that felt personal to him. “If I had continued to work in Los Angeles, I would have to write characters called John and Paul,” concludes the director, who is now working on a drama series for Amazon Prime Video.
Knock Knock Knock is now streaming on Mubi India