My name is Neeraj Katyal. I’m from Long Island and my parents are from India, which are two places that most people don’t want to be from. For what it’s worth, I’m quite proud of my roots.
I grew up in Smithtown, about 50 miles east of New York. (If you really want to get into it, I'm from St. James, which is part of Smithtown, but that's neither here nor there.)
In 2008, I sold a screenplay to Harvey Weinstein for $400,000 against $800,000. It never got made, as it faced a challenging landscape for independent films in the wake of the financial crisis. Given sustained interest in the project over fifteen years later,
I shouldn’t have sold it to anyone, much less Harvey Weinstein, The Devil's Only Son. Unfortunately-- sadly -- hindsight is 20/20. Also, at the time, I wasn’t keen on turning down the offer. It was worth a potential $800,000 in 2008 money (before residuals). Plus, Harvey Weinstein was a king whose Midas touch turned a writer's pages into Academy Awards. His films resulted in 81 Oscar wins and hundreds more in nominations. Before he read the script, I had my choice of roughly ten top producers to package the project with directors and actors, and then go out to potential buyers. I chose a former studio head who was previously named by Forbes as one of The World's 100 Most Powerful Women. She was running Disney as a woman, as a Jewish woman, as a gay, Jewish woman, and she was doing this all in her 30s.) Attaching talent would be easy, but stranger things have (and could have) happened. We closed the deal on April 14th, but the contracts weren't signed months later until August 11th -- shortly before
Lehman Brothers imploded and the economy collapsed. Financing for indie films dried up, and I wasn't going to be to be the guy at the end of the bar claiming that I could've had Meryl Streep as the second lead in my Oscar-quality screenplay. It didn't hurt that Mr. Weinstein thought the script was better than “Good Will Hunting,” which is one of my favorite films. (It was not better.)
You've seen “Good Will Hunting.” This is “Monogamous Duck.” No pun intended, but do the math.
Now, I'm no student of cinema, as I consider “Throw Momma from the Train” a masterpiece. My knowledge of drama stems from classic literature and team sports, as I root for the Mets, Jets, Knicks, and Islanders. Collectively, they’ve done nothing but cause me heartache and pain. In light of the crimes concerning Mr. Weinstein, I also choose men who cause other people pain, only with horrifying, real-world consequences. It seems male privilege knows few, if any limits. In contrast to our female peers, men are socialized to pursue and realize our ambitions. Literally and figuratively, our safe passage to Hollywood is only matched by our safe passage through Hollywood. While I explore this theme in various writings, I’d be remiss if I didn’t first mention it here.
Fast-forward to ~2024
I've been writing a book for years, and am finally finished with a draft. I'm so excited about life, which is saying a lot, as I'm always pretty excited about life. This is me, 41 years ago, on the day I finished writing my first book. (It was good, but not great.)
The manuscript I wrote at age five was about an Indian-American boy from Long Island. the current manuscript is about an Indian-American man from Queens. In terms of spirit and joyfulness, and I haven't strayed far from the kid I was in 1983. So with considerable editing and dogged revisions, I expect to have something well-crafted and heart-warming to put forth in the world.
If you need my writing help or would like to help with the draft, do reach out. It may take several days to respond, but I'm here.
Also, the button-down should be white, and the V-neck is absurd. Thankfully, I'm cuter now, and am able to dress myself in kind.
Update 1: I finished the manuscript. (A first draft, at least. See you in fifteen months.)
Update 2: I finalized the screenplay. (The ~80th draft, for now.)
Highly capable people in Hollywood loved the screenplay back in 2015, and the “Uppercut” title as well.
That said, I don't know whether to go with “Uppercut” or “Shiva the Destroyer.” Both have their merits. I prefer the former.
As expected, the manuscript is better than the screenplay, for all the expected reasons. The book is better than the script.
Update 3: I submitted the script to The Black List under a pseudonym. Here are some of their thoughts.
This is a boxing movie unlike any we’ve seen. It's packed with laughs and heart, and has broad appeal and a modern feel. It evades the overly-earnest machismo of traditional movies about fighters. It refuses to treat women as prizes or victims of male aggression. It also refuses to turn its Hindu protagonist into an over-Americanized rebel against his family’s culture. It’s funny at many points throughout. Welterweight Shiva fights with his heart, his wisdom, and his keen sense of humor in real life just as hard as he fights physically in the ring. He’s Indian-American. His widower father, precocious younger sister, and lawyer older sister duck all the stereotypes. Characters are extraordinarily well-voiced and as diverse as the true population of the well-evoked setting. Even their longer speeches are engaging and readable. The action is clear and cinematic without being “voicey”. It seems impossible that Shiva could win until shortly before the last-minute climax, which is delivered as a memorable high-stakes nail-biter. The denouement will leave audiences smiling through tears.
[UPPERCUT] is the kind of cinematic, subtle, powerful film that breaks marketing departments because it's so many things. Audiences ranging from art movie fans who hate sports movies to action addicts of all genders who roll their eyes at indie dramas and comedies will enjoy it equally and it's a strong candidate for theatrical stardom. It’s hard to compare it to existing boxing movies because it knocks them all out cold. However, it has the groundbreaking underdog-hero power of the original ROCKY or MILLION DOLLAR BABY mixed with the multi-cultural authenticity of BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM or the teen series NEVER HAVE I EVER (more for the comedy than the cultural setting). While the street and crowd scenes and action make it a medium-budget rather than a low-budget project, the potential audience reach makes it viable. The brilliantly-written supporting parts could attract A-list talent, while the role of Shiva is the perfect breakout role for an up-and-coming Indian star. The writer is gifted; a new star.
This has a way with delightful banter, knowing well how people relate to each other. "Can a love of boxing be cultivated?" is a fascinating question and the foundation for a complex hero whose desires and goals are manifold instead of narrow and unsurprising. This is a valuable representation of an Indian-American character, not just because it is so bold and individualistic, but because he is well aware of his ethnicity and how that colors his life and involvement in a tapestry of institutions. There is a pride and importance put in Shiva and his relationship with his two sisters, and is actually even prioritized in the last moments. It is very interesting how this juggles its various concerns while still providing the "Rocky" format sports tale. This is thanks to Shiva being a strong anchor, whose curiosities and willfulness extends beyond boxing and into analyzing the various aspects of his life. Jen is a very shrewd characterization, adding momentarily a romantic rival without villainizing her or overusing her. The various love subplots are actually a good distraction due to their surprising complexity. This has a non-formulaic view of human relationships and knows it can excel most as a film by surprising us.
The writer is smart and observant ... This is smart and edgy ... this is a charming and ambitious character study that aims to hybridize with classic sports/underdog story. This is essentially ROCKY but with a modern, socially conscious protagonist at its forefront, resulting in a combo of ROCKY with social issue drama and socially-specific cultural family drama. It feels like a winning indie film formula ...
This combination of sports and crime has strong narrative potential. The Billy Bass storyline keeps this from feeling like a ROCKY ripoff and adds some much-appreciated thematic complexity. The script courageously tries to cover a lot of territory, also fitting in a romance (with Kerianne) and some family drama (with Ram and Sunny). This all-encompassing approach is ambitious. That's the big takeaway from this script. It's brave for a writer to take this kind of swing and cover so much territory. It's a feat that's hard to pull off ... The setting - the New York boxing milieu and how it intersects with law enforcement and the criminal world - is ripe for exploration. The script's most intriguing choice is giving Shiva, the protagonist, a different cultural background than viewers usually get in this kind of movie. That, too, gives the writer fertile ground to till.
There's commercial potential in sports movies and crime dramas ... Shiva could eventually attract an A-list actor ... If a director shoots this with a stylish, vivid eye, it could justify a theatrical release. This script straddles two genres. A draft that hits its target on both fronts (sports and crime) would be more intriguing to studios and producers.
Part of what sets the script’s premise apart is its focus on an Indian-American boxer, which certainly offers a perspective unique from most boxing flicks. The screenplay does well when it comes to evoking a well-sketched and specific sense of place: the New York City that forms the story’s backdrop here is portrayed in a way that feels vibrant and expansive, capturing the city’s diversity and breadth of life. One really notable strength is the dialogue, which pops with a strong sense of wit and well-developed voice. The scene work can actually be quite funny at times, and there are plenty of colorfully penned asides that speak to the writer’s ability to inject humor into a dramatic story ... The script’s thematic substance is complex and varied. At times, the story almost feels as if it bursts at the seams because of the wide span of subject matter the screenplay aims to explore here, from guilt to patriotism to responsibility to family to racial identity.
Right now, the script feels as if it features a foundation of sound and interesting subject matter — its focus on an Indian-American boxer, a well-drawn sense of place, etc. ... Conceptually speaking, the project indicates sound potential; in the same way the press in the story is drawn to Shiva’s unique background, it stands to reason that prospective audiences might be galvanized the same way.
[Uppercut] is a complex and unpredictable sports drama about a lot more than boxing. The social commentary is pointed and provocative, and it resonates for the intelligent characters speaking it and their interesting perspectives. Sunny sees the world as a dirty petri dish, but she wants her baby to clean it up, and the way she articulates it is powerful and intriguing. Shiva is a talented and tenacious boxer, and he has some memorable opinions as well. His insight into South Asian and East Asian restaurants is both funny and thought-provoking. Most memorable of all is what Shiva has to say about those miniature Indian flags being waved. He knows all about them, where they are from, and what they represent, and he makes a convincing case that the entire world is in them. The fight scenes are exciting and intense. We're all the more invested for Shiva himself, a character we're engaged in from start to finish. Damascus is a charismatic and disturbing villain, and he makes a strong impression.
[Uppercut] is an intense and engaging sports drama with deep social themes. The Indian-American boxer lead is unique and offers welcome representation for the genre ... Shiva himself is the biggest draw, an intelligent and intense character with some interesting conflict within and without. This could be a breakout role for the right actor.
This is an empathetic boxing movie, examining the familial and friendship relationships of an Indian-American man in Queens. The relationships are impressive, with revelations and arcs that make this story feel rich. The dialogue is the stand-out element in this script. The voices feel distinct from each other, and the rhythm is often charming. There's a nuance to the lines that make them memorable, but not artificial. The fake-out about Kwan's betrayal is fun, making Shiva's win feel earned. It's satisfying when Shiva turns Jen down. The plot point of the article works well, growing Shiva's reputation beyond the neighborhood. The Indian-American specificity feels earned here. Damascus is so forceful that the audience does fear that he'll go after more of Shiva's family. The details of the fights work well, with strategies that the audience can watch for, making them feel engaged. The reveal of Rich's relationship with Kitty is unexpected. Watching Shiva's relationship with violence outside of the sport is really interesting, making his place in the community engaging.
The idea of an Indian-American boxing movie is charming, and this story is executed with wit and empathy. With sharp attachments, this hook could appeal to a commercial audience. The main characters are dynamic enough to attract bankable talent. The budget fits the genre, it's a relatively low-risk project to produce. This script has great prospects for both critical and commercial success. It showcases a great point of view, and could connect to audiences on a wide range of platforms.
Obviously, that was nice to read. Again, however, the manuscript is better than the screenplay. The book is better than the script.