Openings are hardest. For you, anyway. Your endings, especially the last shots, the final bits of dialogue or wordless moves and camera angles, got you into NYU. Maybe kept you there. But beginnings, always a struggle. Careful, Ms. Varma, your documentary professor, the one with the yarmulke, said, back when all you’d ever been was Ms. Varma. Careful, Ms. Varma, not to fade us out with your Fade In’s.
So how to open this one? Last-scene-first? Interior, Suburban Kitchen—Dusk. She, whoever’s cast as you, steps in from the garage. Keys on the counter, softly. A palm to her hair. “Raj?” she says. Then, more loudly: “Rajan?” Silence. A few heel clicks past the table with its bowl of wax oranges and limes, past the chairs, the straight-back ones you chose together at that basement store in Soho.
Into the living room. This might be where she sniffs the air, wrinkles her nose. Or did you notice it first in the kitchen, the full, familiar odor? You can’t remember. But before she sees the light below the bedroom door, she sees the drops. Her eyes, the camera’s, follow the drops from where they start, on the kitchen tiles. On each floats a small mote of light, a moon for a tiny universe.
But last-scene-first is sort of gimmicky, a tired trick of action adventure thrillers that detonate in summer’s heat. This won’t be one of those.
Maybe two opening scenes. And you could intercut them. Cause and effect. Dialectic.
Start with the hotel in Patna, the turbaned guards, strings of lights between purple poles. The garden in back. Pan down from the trees to the guests beneath. Laughter and the pundit’s low voice rising to the sky. Close in on the outer rings of the crowd, where the talking is loudest, the beedi smoke most dense. Here, an old woman, not the toothless kind, but the Gucci-and-gossip kind, slurps chai from a gold-rimmed cup. She swallows, raises her too-threaded eyebrows to a fellow wraith, and says, “Nice that at least some of these American girls have respect for our customs” (subtitle the Hindi). Or maybe something shorter, punchier. You didn’t hear these words, but surely someone, among the hundreds you didn’t know there, spoke them. Or thought them.
Cut to the coffeehouse, the one in Greenwich. Maybe even match the old woman’s slurps to someone’s here. Slurps and Miles Davis. You don’t remember slurps, or Miles Davis’ trumpet, or whether there was any music at all. Close in on a table near the back—too near the bathrooms, you remember, so you do remember something—but keep the shot just to the backs of their heads. Or hands. That’s good. Palms flat on cherry wood. Actually, one set, the pale pair, occasionally curls, or rises into the air like a grotesque fleshy bird. The other hands are darker, closer to the shade of the table, the sides of which they grip now. One coffee, black. One latte, tall. Both untouched.
Pull back to their faces. His is long, thin. Dirt-brown stubble and full lips. Eyes that watched you, unblinking, from the start. Eyes with never-dull centers, even when floating on five-dollar cabernet. Eyes you hated that night.
The woman’s face is wider, heart-shaped. Proud, smooth shoulders, now hunched. Black pearl eyes now wet with love’s clear blood. Note: No dialogue in this scene. Maybe no sound—other than the curdling hiss of the espresso machines. Release.
In the Patna hotel garden: They’re knotted together now, his kurta’s hem to her sari. Behind them, flames from the square fire-pit. Smoke.
At the coffeehouse: steam over the counter. A pale hand stretches across the table. Into emptiness. Her hand is gone, swinging a chunky black purse over her shoulder. This is the moment you sometimes come back to. What if you’d sat? What if you’d stayed? What if you never had to say, What if?
In the garden: Two pairs of bare brown feet take seven steps around the fire.
On a Greenwich Village street: Black sandals slap wet pavement. She weeps with the sky.
In the hotel’s banquet hall: Speeches, under a SHALINI WEDS RAJAN banner. Brief new-mother-in-law speeches. Bloated, stultifying distant-uncle speeches. Drunken first-cousin speeches. Later, Rajan told you how his cousin, the second one who spoke, the one whose nostrils flared like a cobra’s hood, is a wife-beater. How do you know? you said. He shrugged. And grinned. Or maybe you imagined that part.
Across the street from a Brooklyn walk-up: a sunny day, good for staking out. She waits, crouched behind parked cars, under the awning of a drycleaner’s. Before long, she sees. He’s with a dishwater blonde.
After a moment you recognized her: a first-year, a ferret-faced first-year who probably thought Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman were married. Or father and daughter. Nice choice, Stephen.
Note: In Patna hotel scenes, focus on red. Red tablecloths, crimson saris and salwars, the line of sindoor in her hair. Red, the color of vengeance.
Maybe you could end with close-ups of hands. Hers, outside that Brooklyn walk-up, clenched and quivering in the sun. Hers again, still etched with henna from the pre-wedding night of songs, clasped in his, pushed into bedsheets at the Patna hotel.
That night, Rajan’s palm had felt worn and callused, as if furrowed by the future.
The book. How to work in the book? If you go with the intercut opening, you’ll have to use flashback for the book. Anathema to some. But it’s important. To explain, in part, their union.
You could start closer to the present. Start with the flat gray skyline, if you can even call it that, of the upstate suburb. The coffin of a building is the manufacturing company that hired him. Pan down to an empty street; move along the asphalt, past cloned homes with shuttered eyes. Into a window, the room where she sits, hunched over notes for the film-appreciation class she teaches at the small college here. It’s the only work she found.
She pinches at her wedding band—the henna flowers on her hands faded long ago. She removes the ring. A low drone over the house. She looks out the window. Above, a plane surfs invisible waves. She holds the ring to her eye, squints through it at the sky. Maybe superimpose Manhattan’s skyline on her iris. Or maybe not.
But her gaze shifts to the desk, to the short row of books at its back edge, against the wall. One spine tilts toward her, from between two film tomes she’s never read. A reminder. She slips on her ring, tugs the book out. Runs her fingers along its leather face, replaces it quickly, as if burned.
Flashback: Interior, Noisy Bar in Patna—Night. A den of fox-faced men in dark suits. They lift tumblers of scotch, metal cups of beer. Follow their not-at-all-discreet stares . . . to her. She sits at a corner table. Black bell-bottoms and white kameez. West meets East.
Just one meeting, Shalini, your mother had said, her fingers drumming a code against her sari: You-will-never-marry . . . You-will-never . . . Okay, you said, but it has to be alone.
So she sits alone, eyes on the door, sighs for each ghastly suitor who points at her drink and asks You would like one more?
Now follow her eyes, which have widened, to the door: to a light-colored suit—linen?—cloaking broad, upright shoulders, to a casually elegant curled lock of hair, to a dimpled grin and a confident wave.
Still a no, you thought, even as you half rose and smiled. Even as you willed your heart back into your chest.
“Shalini?” he says.
“Please call me Raj.”
“Hope you don’t mind doing this alone.”
“Are you kidding?” The dimples again. “So what are we having?” He points at her drink. Less of an accent than you’d imagined. Much less.
Still a no.
Soon, the test: “What do you like to read?” she says. The foxes’ din swallows his answer, which had more syllables than the Nothing much you expected. “Sorry?” she says.
“. . . by Kundera. You know it?”
A moment of silence. Then: “Yes.”
“My favorite, I would say.” Again, silence. “Is that strange?”
“Yes. I mean, no. No, of course not.” A nervous giggle. Her palms rub the tops of her thighs.
Title card: MONTHS LATER. The marble verandah of an oceanside restaurant. “For you,” he says. A shy smile and a white paper package.
Pale words float on a leather cover: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. From a Mumbai dealer. Special ordered.
The sun drowns in the sea, ochre arms flailing. The verandah glows red.
They say “montage” is French for “no story.” But the story is there, as it is in everything, a secular God.
In the settling-in: a crowd of boxes in the upstate home; foot-high grass in the small yard; the two of them bent over a new lawnmower in the garage, she holds a sindoor-red gas can while he puzzles over the tank’s cap; they arrange the Soho chairs, mute foster-children, around the dining table for a first meal, with white tapers licked by a long lighter’s tongue; after lovemaking, one pair of eyes blinks in the quiet dark.
In an East Side loft: red wine in wide goblets; he wears new glasses with half-moon frames, sits among the black-caped and leather-jacketed, the bereted and eternally bereft; she smiles at him, he raises his scotch.
In a suburban home’s TV room: beer in green bottles; gunshots and melodramatic notes and impeccably bad dialogue from the brown faces on the screen; she wears a blue salwar-kameez, leans back on the sofa with the electrical and mechanical and software engineers and their wisps of wives (many of whom are also electrical or mechanical or software); she points at the screen and says something; everyone laughs; he smiles from the kitchen.
Use establishing shots of Patna at night, the banyan-shrouded bungalow of his parents. On the TV screen, a news anchor’s grim face, her bindi a third, scarlet eye. Another immolation, in one of the nearby villages. “. . . reported that the burned girl was barren,” the television-woman says, as if a womb, however unyielding, and likely not even at fault, could be fairly described as a wasteland.
His mother looks past his wife, to him, and says, “When you are thinking of children?”
It was more subtle than that, more sly, as you recall. More of a hint than a question. And it wasn’t precisely on the heels of the news story. But close. Too close.
He smiles and shakes his head. He’s grown a beard by now, something between an engineer’s and a filmmaker’s, so the twist of his mouth is hidden. But he glances at his wife, to gauge her reaction.
You had none.
Show the passage of seasons, years: new homes in the neighborhood, the strollers on porches now tricycles. Underneath and around it all, suburban grass—thick, unnaturally green.
She, too, looks more suburban now, in the slight slump of her shoulders, the thin film on her eyes. When planes pass over the home now, she doesn’t look up. Most times.
Dinner. The straight-back chairs are still there. But pan up, over two bent and silent heads, to the top of the china cabinet. Stunted white tapers, their necks fringed with dust.
“Nothing?” he says. He’s on the bed’s edge, leaning forward. “Again?”
She stands in the bathroom’s doorway. She holds up the test, a pink magic wand, and shakes her head. “Just one line.” He frowns into his hands. She slides the medicine chest’s door. With its click, an inside view, an X-ray effect: a small plastic case in the clean white cavity. The camera moves into it, to reveal . . . a blister-pack of pills. Her pills.
Pills you coaxed from their cocoons and swallowed dry, each morning, every morning, after the garage door rumbled shut. You don’t remember making the decision. Only that Rajan, with his parents’ phone calls and sometimes moodiness and shrouded lips, seemed a child himself. Not a father.
Two quick sequences:
(1) Afternoon. She sips wine at a gallery or book-signing or screening, adrift in black and blue cravats and hair gel and air kisses. In a grass-stained tee-shirt, he walks from the garage to the backyard, the red gas can in one hand, its nozzle dripping. In the other hand, a beer.
(2) Night. He stands in a fluorescent kitchen, holding a glass of scotch, talking to a man in a turban. In the next room, the TV offers sari-clad dancers and whiny music to the glowing row of faces on the couch. Her face isn’t one of them. Alone, in their home, she reads. A magazine, or maybe a script or novel. Nothing by Kundera.
In bed, two pairs of eyes blink at the dark.
“Shali?” She hears the voice and knows. Close-up: her grip on the screening program tightens, curling the paper into a glossy baton. Only one person calls—called—her that. She doesn’t turn around, but walks toward the glass doors, toward the city in the rain.
“Shali, wait.” The voice sounds closer now.
She’s in the rain. Then he is, too. No umbrellas. A hand on her shoulder.
Pull back for this shot, like in those Chinese movies—you always forget the director’s name. Pull way back, to watch from the roofs of the buildings, their buildings.
Don’t fade or dissolve for at least a half-minute after they’ve left.
Sorry, Stephen had said over his coffee’s steam. (A different coffeehouse this time)
You should be.
You’re happy now?
Last shot: a pale hand clasps a ringed dark one, pushing it into bedsheets. Pull back, moving the focus to the wall, the ceiling. A cracked ceiling.
A cracked ceiling of a Brooklyn walk-up.
Avoid cliché. No hotel matchbooks or suspicious phone bills. No errant credit receipts or unfamiliar cologne.
A friend told me, Rajan had said. In the bedroom. Just before.
A friend? You imagined the programmer, his turban bobbing past the coffeehouse. Maybe he glanced inside, into the light and steam, then stopped, the 0’s and 1’s in his head coalesced into understanding.
Then, a quick call to Rajan—at work, of course—or a whispered, urgent conversation in a white-lighted kitchen, amid the gunshots and bad dialogue.
Interior, Suburban Kitchen—Dusk.
She steps in from the garage. Keys on the counter, softly. A palm to her hair. “Raj?” she says. Then, more loudly: “Rajan?” Silence. She sniffs the air, frowning. A few heel clicks past the table, the chairs.
Into the living room. Now the drops. Luminous spots on the hardwood. The camera follows the drops from the kitchen tiles to where she stands. Then to the bedroom’s closed door. Soft light under the door.
Stay with her point-of-view. She walks to the bedroom. A palm on the doorknob. “Raj?” Silence.
She opens the door. Slowly.
He sits on the bed’s edge, shirtless. His hair is slick, the lovely curl matted to his forehead. His beard glistens. As does the whorled hair of his chest. Beneath him, the bedcover is darkly damp, as if he showered then sat.
But the gas-can is here, too, on its side. And the full, familiar odor.
“Rajan,” you said, “what are you—”
He raised a palm. “Say nothing.” And for the first time you saw the book at his side. Its leather cover was wet. “I saw you,” Rajan said. “In Brooklyn.” He slurred. Later you found the empty scotch bottle. Under the bed. “A friend told me, and I saw you.” You pictured him crouched behind parked cars, shaded by the awning of a drycleaner’s. Which time?
You took a step toward the bed.
“Don’t,” he said. Again his hand rose. This time it held a narrow metal wand—which you’d last seen peeking from the china cabinet’s top, next to the tapers.
“Why?” Rajan said. He pressed the lighter’s trigger. You both blinked at the cheery orange flame.
You were wrong—for this one, anyway. The intercut opening may work. Even last-scene-first wouldn’t be so bad. This time, the ending will be your weak spot.
The camera will capture the drops, the gas-can, the lighter’s fire-tongue. His bent and tragic pose. Her realization. The horror.
What it will miss: the first, unbearably tender bloom of true love in your heart.