Unintended Extras

NRI filmmakers reflect on the quirks and eccentricities of producing a film in India


A dam in a village 100 kms. from Mumbai was the location for the climax of Rakesh Chaudhary’s film The Eclipse of Taregna. On reaching there early one morning, when a shoot was scheduled with some 50 villagers, his heart sank to find no one.

When Joseph Mathew began shooting Bombay Summer in Mumbai, he wanted to work with a small crew. He hired the key people and thought that would be it. But when he turned up on the set the first day, there were more than 100 people.

Making a film in India comes with its quirks and eccentricities. One runs the risk of being force-fed in Indian homes, dealing with extraneous crowds on the sets, and perpetually running behind schedule. Yet both these NRI filmmakers went back to India to shoot their projects, and have returned with success stories, a bagful of anecdotes, and, most importantly, lessons that they will remember for future projects.

“Working in India comes with its own set of rules. In India everyone brings their own ‘people.’ I’ll keep that in mind the next time,” says Mathew whose 2009 film Bombay Summer won awards for best film, best director and best actress at the MIAAC New York 2009 Film Festival.

Chaudhary decided to proceed with the shoot at the dam with his assistants doubling up as extras. “It was a funny incident. I found out from the location manager later that the reason no women or children turned up was because there was a big religious event in town, and all the women had to attend that,” he says.

“Making a film in India has taught us patience. We had no choice but to produce on an Indian schedule, not ours,” says Priya Giri Desai, who won a documentary program grant from Sundance Institute recently for her film Match + : Love in the Time of HIV, with Ann S. Kim. She believes that even if it takes longer, it will prove to be valuable for the film in the long run.

So, what set these filmmakers on a quest across the shores leaving behind their work and convenient settings in America: curiosity for their homeland, an assuaging sense of familiarity, or a little bit of both?

The Indian connection

Giri Desai, whose documentary is about a matchmaker for HIV+ couples, is constantly reading stories from India. She is attracted by stories that are multi-layered and complex and even look contradictory or hypocritical in their details.

She came across the story for her movie on the BBC and pointed it out to her associate Ann Kim when they both worked at public television together. She thought it would make a good film years before she actually shot it in India.

The San Francisco based filmmaker was born and raised in the United States and grew up visiting her extended family in India every other summer.

“Indian culture is so rich, so vast, so old, and so new all at once, that I find myself drawn to them again and again,” she says.

Chaudhary, a computer engineer who migrated to the United States in search of a job in 1997, on the other hand, never set out to make anything Indian. His starting point is a theme or a character, and when it comes to providing a setting for it, familiarity brought him to India.

His parents lived in Mumbai and he had a strong social network there. “It is a very real possibility that I’ll move back to India at some point. So I wanted to test the waters there.” Chaudhary’s short film is the story of a man and his grandson woven around a solar eclipse in a small town called Taregna.

But Joseph Mathew, who considered the very idea of filmmaking preposterous while he was growing up in India, was convinced about setting his debut feature in India.

Bombay Summer is the exploration of the friendship between three young people in contemporary Mumbai. “I was fixated about setting it in Bombay. From the time I was a kid, the city has had a mythic hold on my imagination,”Mathew says.

But there is much more to a film than just setting it in an Indian city. One dabbles in the milieu of the place and feels a compelling need to capture it fittingly on celluloid.

Across cultures

New York-based Mathew says that filmmakers can only approach their subjects with artistic and personal integrity and give it everything they have got. And then viewers decide if justice has been done to the place. He was very comfortable setting his film in contemporary Mumbai even though he settled in the USA in 1994. However, he admits that the city is no longer what he knew it to be as a child.

The closed, quasi-socialist country of the 1980s has given way to a different nation. “Whenever I went back over the last 10 years, I was blown away by how quickly the country is changing.” It was not just about new cars, highways and buildings, but the rearrangement of a whole social order. All this was happening in a society that is still fiercely conservative and class and caste conscious, says Mathew.

Chaudhary too felt the pinch of a changing India. Things had changed so dramatically in a short span of time that it felt to him like a generational difference. He was astonished at the fact that the average age of his crew was below 30.

“But on a macro level, things are deteriorating. People are too busy trying to make it for themselves, and nobody has the time to notice how bad our cities have gotten,” he laments.

Giri Desai, unlike Mathew and Chaudhary who have spent considerable parts of their lives in India, had a different set of concerns altogether. She was worried about staying true to the Indian culture without employing stereotypes. She was very conscious of not being a parachute film-maker. “I think curiosity and respect go a long way in ensuring that you don’t just drop into a country and extract a story and leave,” she says.

However, all three of them vouch for how difficult and capricious India can be for filmmaking.

Incredible India!

Giri Desai admits that the pace at which India works is different from America, and one has to respect that. Personal relationships are important in India and it is nearly impossible to work on sensitive stories without spending enough time getting to know people. “It is inherent in Indians to invite you in, feed you, chat with you and ask you questions about your life. We have to be as open as we are asking our subjects to be in some ways,” she says.

It took three years for her subjects to open up to her. In several instances, she and her associate brought the camera into a scene and never turned it on, or waited hours before they got the go-ahead. She spent her first three visits to India getting to know people over several cups of South Indian filter coffee.

Chaudhary opted for a different path. He moved in with his parents in India to make his film. He had a hard time knocking at producers’ doors to secure financing for his short film and eventually had to produce it himself. However, he maintains that it wouldn’t have been any easier for him in America.

Mathew arrived in Mumbai not knowing anyone. From his hotel room, he contacted people who could make the film happen. And when it did, Mathew enumerated the challenges he faced: “Two things happen when you shoot on the streets of Bombay — a crowd forms instantaneously followed by cops who have an uncanny knack for sniffing out a five hundred rupee bill. No getting away from either.”

When he rented a camera, it was accompanied by two guys who took care of it. They even had veto power over certain shots they considered “too risky,” he adds.

On the other hand, Chaudhary and his crew were adopted quickly by the residents of a chawl they were shooting in, who invited them into their homes and helped them with everything, including providing them with an unlimited supply of extras. The Eclipse of Taregna won the Grand Jury prize for Best Short Film at the International Film Festival of Los Angeles 2011. 

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