By: Andrew Lapin
Shekhar saw himself in the movies. He was a man with ambitions, prodigious writing talent, and a deep, abiding love of the art of cinema, and so it wasn’t a surprise, really, that he’d set his sights on breaking into the screenwriting world.
What was a surprise, speaking as someone who had the immense good fortune of reading the works he completed and getting to see the progression of his drafts, is that Shekhar (I defer to the name he used on his screenplays) also saw himself in the movies in a more literal sense. His characters are natural extensions of himself. They’re witty, rambunctious dreamers; they’re “restless and idealistic”; they speak at a mile a minute, their conversations overflowing with pop-culture references. They celebrate having a good time and they are always striving to find the best versions of themselves. They fight against unfair systems, but they do it with wide grins. They’re also generally Indian, and they have inserted themselves into places where Hollywood does not allow Indians to go. Because Shekhar saw all of himself in the movies.
Buried in my email archives is a trilogy of major creative works by Shekhar. One, a treatment of a feature-length comedy set at a Santa convention. Two, the script for “Brown And Out,” a short film about two down-on-their-luck Indian actors competing for the same part. And three, the script for “Drone Hunters,” a feature-length sci-fi comedy about a team of outlaws who shoot package-delivery drones out of the sky. Of these, the second two are the more developed works, and the most illustrative of his talents. He had intended to shoot “Brown And Out” as an independent short and a showcase for the acting talents of his cousin Eshan – and as for “Drone Hunters,” it was to be his true calling card into Hollywood, the script that would open doors and schedule meetings. He went through multiple drafts and brought it to the Sundance Film Festival with him on a networking trip in early 2016.
Would Shekhar have made it in Hollywood? Well, look, I understand I’m biased. But I also review movies for a living, so I have some authority in this matter. When I read his screenplays, in my mind’s eye I can see how they would have been made. And the man had true vision, the kind the movies need more of today. Other first-time screenwriters write very plain, dry treatments with no personality; it takes them time to find that elusive quality we call “voice.” Shekhar had a true voice from the get-go. But since we never got to see one of his visions fully realized, these scripts are all we have to go on.
Well, what are they like? Glad you asked…
Brown and Out (2013)
“If we leave now, we are all going to die!”
That thrillingly evocative snippet of dialogue both opens and closes “Brown and Out,” Shekhar’s short film (although at 40 pages, as he admitted, “short” is relative) about trying to make it as an Indian actor. In both cases, Shekhar’s hero, Eshan, is reading it for an audition – a bit part in a horror movie. But it’s also being spoken directly to us, the audience. After all, what would be a more appropriate way to open and close a story about people desperately trying to play a rigged game than with a warning that only the thrill of the game itself is keeping them alive?
But I’m making the script sound like a drag. It is literally the opposite. “Brown and Out” is a hilarious, offbeat comedy of rivals, with zippy dialogue, Bollywood references galore, and a romance where, as the author put it himself, the brown guy finally gets the girl. In short, it’s vintage Shekhar, and I also believe it’s the moment where his stylistic impulses found the perfect balance and he truly discovered his voice as a storyteller. (Obviously, he’d found his voice as a cultural critic long before this, in the pages of the Michigan Daily.)
Shekhar always valued taking the irreverent angle into serious topics. Here, when it becomes necessary for him to establish the broader, existential struggle that actors like his cousin Eshan face to avoid typecasting and tokenism, he does it with a “Highlander” reference: “There can only be one.” It’s the unwritten code of brown actors. It’s the reason why, in the film, Eshan so despises rival actor Kris Patel: that self-absorbed son-of-a-bitch scores every bit part specifically written for Indians. We see Kris’s filmography in a brilliant quick-hit montage of stereotypes: “7-Eleven Clerk”; “Clumsy Terrorist #2”; “Gay Indian Best Friend”; “Oversexed Dothraki Warrior” (“horses aren’t the only things I’m good at riding, Khaleesi”). But Kris is a total heel who’s let his success at booking one-line parts go to his head, and props himself up by composing vulgar raps about Eshan.
Desperate for his own big break, Eshan is pushed over the line when Kris scores this latest role over him: “This brown is taking you down,” he announces, and promptly launches a plan to ruin Kris’s public persona and permanently erase his adversary from the callsheet. The plan works, and Eshan snags the coveted part once Kris is out of the game – but the euphoria is short-lived, because in the final scene, he realizes the director wants him to deliver all his lines in a thick, stereotypical Indian accent. Roll credits.
It’s a dark thought to end on, but the script keeps things light. We all know Shekhar was an incurable, old-school romantic, and that sentiment comes in loud and clear through Eshan’s budding courtship of Charlotte, a struggling actress he gets paired with at his audition. Sparks fly between the two immediately – how could they not, when Charlotte casually tosses off a Pokemon reference in the waiting room? – and the two spend the rest of the film engaged in a near-constant, pop-culture-saturated banter that’s like “Bringing Up Baby” if Grant and Hepburn didn’t have to pretend they hated each other. My personal favorite quip: “I’m going to expand my Yelp search to two dollar signs, just for you.”
In late 2015, Netflix released its new Aziz Ansari show, “Master of None.” One of the episodes was also about two Indian actors fighting over the same stereotypical role. After I watched it, I became enraged: Aziz had gotten to the idea first, and now, because of Hollywood’s Quota of Talented Indians, Shekhar’s script wouldn’t be taken seriously. (“There can only be one.”) Shekhar, following the same reasoning of emotional attachment to TV shows he outlined in his farewell Daily column, told me he couldn’t bring himself to watch it.
But honestly? I think Aziz’s approach to the subject is a little preachy, like he just wanted to lecture his audience. For Shekhar, by contrast, movies were always first and foremost about having fun, and he applied that philosophy to his writing. The satire goes down smoother in his script, because you can sense his heroes are winking at us: Isn’t it so ridiculous we have to fight each other for this part? Isn’t it dumb that we’re caught in this system, just because Hollywood thinks all Indians should have big, honking accents and be limited to one line per film? That’s why his use of the “Highlander” quote is so perfect. There can only be one… well, why? Who says? Let’s just have an epic showdown because it’s fun.
You can find a copy of the script HERE.
Drone Hunters (2015)
You may ask yourself, “What is ‘Drone Hunters’?” But the answer won’t be very helpful. That’s because “Drone Hunters” is everything. It’s a sci-fi action-comedy neo-Western workplace gadget movie, and I think there’s some Indiana Jones buried in there, too. All the kinds of movies Shekhar liked, all his comic sensibilities, his hopes and visions for himself and his friends and the world: they’re all in there, in a script that was just supposed to be a simple calling card for Hollywood, something to sell quickly and forget about.
Let’s set the scene. It’s the not-too-distant future. Detroit is the most prosperous city in the world. (Of course.) And a tech mega-conglomerate named “Sequoia” has cornered the market on online package delivery by harnessing an army of drones, which flood the skies like the carrier pigeons of yore as they labor to fulfill our endless demand for diapers, iPads, and Hello Kitty lunchboxes. But there are pests buzzing around Sequoia’s multi-billion-dollar ear, quietly upending their automated empire with even less moral conviction: rogue squadrons of drone hunters, sharpshooters who knock the unarmed goody bags out of the sky, collect the prizes they’re carrying, and sell them on the black market. The details of this underground economy are impeccably fleshed out. Shekhar is gleefully messing with our American myths, creating a Jesse James-like band of outlaws who pull off the 21st-century equivalent of the Great Train Robbery.
So that’s one thing going on. But Shekhar didn’t stop with this concept, which on its own would have been enough to sell to some producer. He also constructs a business world satire straight out of “Office Space,” likely owing to his own frustrations at working a white-collar consulting job while he was writing this script. Shekhar channeled those frustrations into Theo, his crafty, snarky, rebellious, yet deeply outmatched protagonist. When we meet Theo, he’s working at a nondescript corporation in Detroit, daydreaming about leaving this world behind and joining the freewheeling, take-no-guff ranks of the Drone Hunters. In a wild fantasy sequence, Theo imagines himself jumping out of his office window, John McClane-style, and wrestling one of those infernal buzzing contraptions to the ground.
When he can’t take it any longer, Theo does indeed jump ship, following the destiny of his bloodline – his father was a drone hunter before he wound up in prison, and his uncle Garza still runs a hunting operation. So, feeling the call to adventure, Theo grabs his Ganesh statue from his desk (on loan from the Daily newsroom) and drives out to Garza’s warehouse headquarters in the desert, only to discover that the world of drone hunting can be just as corporate and maddeningly hierarchical as the world he left behind. So, starting once again on the bottom rung of the operation as Garza’s “intern,” Theo must perfect his shooting skills and win the respect of his uncle’s tight-knit, deeply distrusting crew – all while the greedy, deranged Sequoia CEO Rudy and his beautiful but deadly trained assassin Charlotte are devising extralegal, increasingly lethal methods of keeping their cargo safe. It all leads to a fit of double-crosses, with action-packed firefights on the great plains, and culminates in a bout of corporate espionage that lets Shekhar affirm, with a mischievous grin, the darkness and futility at the heart of our technocratic future world.
What’s interesting is, in the earlier drafts of “Drone Hunters” that Shekhar penned with his collaborator David Tao, the script was much more of a straight, serious action vehicle. Once Shekhar took more complete ownership of the project, with Tao’s blessing, he steered it more toward comedy, adding jokes about the business world and the sarcastic banter among the members of the drone squad, and expressing his wish for the drones themselves to be voiced by his beloved Bill Nighy. In the climax, the hunters stage a giant raid on the drones’ busiest night, Christmas Eve – called, naturally, Operation Grinch. Comedy was Shekhar’s home; it was where all of his writing gravitated to. This was the natural instinct of someone with as much charm and wit as he had in life. Shekhar’s characters love making pop-culture references and meta-humor, not to be lazy but because they were so delighted to be in a movie. Much as he was delighted to be writing one.
Both “Drone Hunters” and “Brown And Out” end in bittersweet combinations of victory and defeat. The hero celebrates a small personal achievement, yet he has failed to attack the true villain, the status quo. I think this demonstrates the complexities of Shekhar’s worldview, which spilled over into his artistic vision. He understood that life was difficult, that success didn’t greet determined dreamers overnight just because they wanted it. Yet at the same time he wholeheartedly believed in a broader concept of destiny, in the idea that, one way or another, we will reach the things we need in life: friendship, family, love, personal fulfillment. But we might have to hunt for them.
You can find a copy of the script HERE.