Ravi Kapoor and Venk Potula on Bringing Heat to “Four Samosas”

“Believe it or not, this is actually a love story… or maybe it’s just a story about saris,” Vinny (Venk Potula) tells you in the opening minutes of “Four Samosas,” where there seems to be much more demand for “sorrys” of the apology variety from him than the garments he sells out of a mini-mall in Los Angeles’ Little India. It’s been three years since he broke up with his girlfriend Rina (Summer Bishil) and his prospects in all facets of life appear relatively dim, working towards a rap career that seems far from taking off and telling anyone who will listen that he’s in “rehabilitation mode” though even his mother (Meera Simhan) who is as patient with him as she is in stitching the saris she knits for sale doesn’t appear to be buying it these days. His purchasing power is also on the wane and upon learning that Rina has recently gotten engaged to a manure magnate (Karan Soni), Vinny once again finds motivation, albeit in an unhealthy direction when he remembers some diamonds that are in the safe of the supermarket owned by Rina’s father, and corrals a gang from the community to help him break in, all with their own motives to pull off the job.

It’s fairly obvious from the start of Ravi Kapoor’s charming caper that the success or failure of the heist isn’t all that important to the writer/director, delighted more to see his eclectic ensemble steal scenes from one another than get their hands on the ill-gotten goods and envisioning the Southern California suburb of Artesia as an untapped wonderland where checkout counters can become sets for Bollywood-style musical numbers and lonely railroad tracks suddenly emerge as gateways to creativity. As it turns out opening up Vinny’s mind to the possibilities around him is key when working out the particulars of a robbery involves keeping his colorful crew in line, including Anjali (Sharmita Bhattacharya), the publisher of the local “The Great Little India Times,” Zak (Nirvan Patnaik), a disgruntled supermarket clerk, and Paru (Sonal Shah), a malcontent engineer, that together may not be convincing as a criminal operation but whose support gives their leader the confidence he seemed to lack when he couldn’t commit to Rina.

While there might not have been that question before with Kapoor, an always welcome present as an actor, his feature directorial debut is assured, unfolding with style to spare as he films Vinny and the other would-be thieves as if they were in the big action comedy they see themselves in and following a celebrated festival run that began at Tribeca and recently culminated at the Newport Beach Film Fest where the film took home the audience award for Best Narrative Feature, Patula and Kapoor generously took the time to talk about what it was like to pull off the crowdpleaser with the help of the South Asian community in Los Angeles, their own misfortune with a diamond – a baseball one, that is, and being able to see the world in more exciting ways than it looks on the surface.

Venk, from what I understand, your name was written on the very first page into the character description, but you were entirely unprepared for it. What’s it’s like to get a script like that?

Venk Potula: I mean, look the funny thing is I felt like we were friends. [laughs] I looked up to Ravi as a mentor because of his background as an actor and as a writer/director and his wife Meera Simhan, who is an incredibly accomplished actress in her own right. [They’ve been] pioneers in a lot of ways for South Asians in television, so I would send short films to him just to get feedback on scripts and I roped him into a podcast I created called “Masala Jones.” Then one day out of the blue, I get this e-mail with no context whatsoever and in my head, I was like, “Oh, it’s an e-mail from Ravi…” and he asked me at one point to read this short script, so I didn’t think [much of it], but yeah, I was certainly shocked to see that character was named Venk. Truly, I thought what a great name for a character. [laughs] I didn’t put anything together in my head and he just asked me, “What do you think?”

Ravi Kapoor: I thought it was obvious. [laughs] At that point that it was definitely written with him in mind. But clearly, I didn’t make it clear enough.

Venk Potula: No, I just didn’t want to be wrong and disappointed. [laughs]

Ravi Kapoor: When I’m writing scripts, I’ll often use the name of the actor that I’m really interested in or trying to write it towards and I’ll use them as an inspiration when I think about what their voice is like. Then eventually as I start moving onto later drafts, I will change the name so that people don’t know that they’re the particular actor, especially if they’re not the actor being offered the part. But I still wanted to keep it close to Venk, and then it became Vinny, so it wasn’t that far off.

Venk Potula: I just remember reading it and thinking, “If I have the chance to do this, I could really do this.” I love heist films and I love quirky stuff and I love “Napoleon Dynamite” and I love actors like Jim Carrey and Rowan Atkinson and that kind of ridiculousness [where] there’s also an innocence and a vulnerability to this guy. I was scared to try it, but doing bit parts in things and being the lead in my own projects, I thought this would be an amazing opportunity and I could do it, and I really wanted to. I didn’t want anyone else to do it. [laughs]

Ravi Kapoor: And you did do it! [laughs]

Venk Potula: We did it! [laughs] But what excited me about it was feeling like I could be a more confident version of myself afterwards if we did it.

Which relates so well to the actual themes of the film. Was striking that balance of vulnerability and ridiculousness tricky? I imagine you could go as big as you wanted with it, but it’s a sensitive performance ultimately.

Venk Potula: That really was the challenge — trying to balance the tone and the needs of the film in terms of people feeling like they’re invested in Vinny’s journey. If you’re not on board with Vinny, it’s tough to buy into everything else, so I wanted to make sure to let people in a little bit to see that core of what Vinny wants and his insecurities and maybe even see that in themselves because I think we’re all in some ways insecure at times, especially when it comes to the people that we love. Sometimes it’s easy to feel like sometimes it’s you versus the world and I think Vinny has to learn that there is a community there and it’s about looking around you and saying, “Wow, how grateful am I that we have a community and that you can build a community,” much like making this film was.

Ravi, what was it like to look around Pioneer Boulevard and see it as the cinematic wonderland that it is?

Ravi Kapoor: Yeah, I’d always been fascinated by Artesia and L.A.’s Little India and this abandoned railway track that cuts across the main strip on Pioneer. It always kind of exploded my imagination like, “Oh, what can I do with this?” Visually, I’m just always excited by walls and empty spaces and parking lots and abandoned industrial sites and in Artesia, you have all of that and then of course you also have all the wonderful stores there as well. Sometimes you have very empty streets because the action is happening inside, so I wanted to grab ahold of that Artesia that I knew and the heat and the sun of that place and elevate it and make it something fantastical almost.

Did you let the owners of the main supermarket know that people would be dancing on the checkout counters or was that something they had to find out watching the movie?

Ravi Kapoor: No, we did tell them. I have to say all the store owners in Artesia were incredible and so generous in terms of allowing us to film in these places. They were excited about the idea of Artesia being put up on the big screen as well, and we created a special platform that we could put on there [at the supermarket], so we didn’t ruin their checkout counter. But yeah, if you ever go down to Pioneer Cash and Carry and you shop, say, “Thank you on behalf of Four Samosas.”

Given how stylish this is, I thought you may have to do the same scene over and over to get the different angles of it. Were there ways you thought of getting the apparatus out of the way to let the actors do their thing?

Ravi Kapoor: It was interesting because we shot on a 4:3 aspect ratio, so it was a smaller frame and we were shooting on one lens as well and these were all intentional things to create a very defined style in the film. What it required from the actors was a lot of trust because we often had this lens that was right in front of their noses, like a couple inches this way. It wasn’t always pretty — or make them look pretty — and it also could confine them physically as well because we had a lot of people in a very tight frame [at times], so giving them the freedom to work, but also confining them at the same time was very challenging, but all of them were very game for it and all of them nailed it too.

Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?

Ravi Kapoor: Oh my God, when wasn’t there a crazy day of shooting? A fun and challenging one was when we had this whole diamond exchange scene that happens on a baseball field. That was exciting to do, but there were a lot of people that had to do a lot of things in a very precise way and there was a lot of screaming across the baseball fields because you know, we didn’t have any fancy bullhorns. So I remember we spent half of the day going, “Go to cone! Go to cone!” to try and get people to go in a straight line so they’d be in parallel to the camera lens…

Venk Potula: I was the worst because I don’t know if you’re ever ridden a bike on a baseball field, but it’s hard. And we only had one shot at this [because] it was at the end of the day and the whole [film] was shot on one lens, but for this one shot because we’re in this binoculars- style [shot], it was a super-long lens, so I had to bike in [one] direction to stay within the frame and I just remember Ravi going like, “Go like this!!!” And it was in the other direction. It wasn’t in frame and all hell broke loose, just trying to steer this bike. [laughs] I’m like, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t control the bike!” It was a crazy day, but so much fun, of course.

It sounds much like how the heist unfolds in the film.

Ravi Kapoor: We talked about the fact that making a film is like doing a heist in itself. You’re getting all of these people who come aboard to make this thing happen and there’s a really good chance it might crash and burn, but you have to be nuts enough or desperate enough, it depends on which one it is to make a film and to do a heist.

What’s it like to have pulled this off?

Ravi Kapoor: It’s fantastic. People have been so responsive to the film and they seem to be coming away feeling a little bit happier, so that’s always a nice kind of quality to put out into the world, so it’s been really gratifying.

Venk Potula: It’s been amazing to see. We went to so many different cities in the U.S. and internationally as well on the festival circuit and just to see different audiences to connect with the film and enjoy it, especially now, [when] I think a lot of independent movies are dealing with incredibly important issues, but can be difficult in terms of the morale of it all, we set out to try and make a feel good movie [because] I think we need a little bit of that. We need a little bit of laughter, a little bit of vulnerability, some singing, some dancing, some quirkiness and I hope audiences tap into that part of it, especially now because I think it is easy to feel like things are dreary and I hope this is a little bit of a breath of fresh air.

“Four Samosas” opens theatrically in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7 and the Quad Cinema in New York on December 2nd and will be available on demand and digital.

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