The afternoon of May 18, 2015, was a significant one for me. For a myriad of reasons.
My first film as a Producer was being critiqued by the Press of Mumbai, but more importantly for me (and there should not have been a “more importantly,” but human emotions don’t always have a logical sequence), the venue was Famous Studios in Mahalaxmi.
For precisely the first 5 minutes I had some nervous energy before the screening started. But after 5 minutes, a sudden sense of emotion overcame me. I rushed to the loo and started to cry.
This had nothing to do with my film and everything to do with Mahalaxmi. Memories of a life gone by came rushing through that door of outward nonchalance; a door that I had built to prevent this- just this- happening.
Close to Mahalaxmi is the NSCI club in Worli and the Mumbai Racecourse.
Both these places hold a special memory.
When my late father moved to Mumbai, as a Manager in a Multinational, we stayed for the first 6 months at NSCI, before being provided a company flat in Altamount Road. My father passed away on the tennis courts of NSCI.
I grew up spending almost every day, either in the swimming pool or the tennis courts of NSCI and then jogging in the Mumbai Racecourse. My sister passed away in 1984, my father in 1986 and my mother started suffering from intense schizophrenia in 1981. All would spend at least once a week in the NSCI club.
It was because I was unable to handle looking after my mother, and doing my Chartered Accountancy, along with the fact that the flat was being taken back by the Company, that I left Mumbai as an emotional and financial wreck in 1991, relocated my mother to Delhi (very much against her wishes) and swore never to come back to this city, which had just gotten me one bad break after another.
Coincidently, my first day as an articled clerk doing my Chartered Accountancy was in Roche in Tardeo, a stone’s throw from this very Famous Studios.
Memories of that time in a place so near Famous Studios came rushing back to me on the 18th of May, 2015. It became too much for me to handle, and hence the tears.
This was the first time since 1991 that I had been to Mahalaxmi and the second time to that area. I had visited NSCI for a game of tennis with the director of SURKHAAB on a hot summer day of 2012, when staying at Yari Road.
Growing up in Mumbai, I had little to do with films, yet was surrounded by creative people. In hindsight, perhaps there was no escaping this destiny.
Milan Luthria and Uday Benegal (Rock Machine/Indus Creed) were not only classmates, but we would walk from home to school daily. We all lived in Altamount Road. Then in HR college, I was classmates with Kunal Kohli and Sanjay Gadhvi.
Our primary film connection–and how I hated the film world back then– though was the family of IK Behl, then the secretary of Hema Malini, whose wife and my mother were best friends from their early Delhi days.
So every summer, we would be invited to Hotel Sun N Sand to celebrate the birthday of their elder son, Bunty, who was a famous child actor and now is the CEO of Carving Dreams, the talent management agency.
But yet, life was about tennis, going to MSLTA, NSCI, and dreaming to going to the US, for a tennis scholarship in an IVY league.
Movies? You can’t be serious.
Although my double PhD dad did insist I watch movies like MacKenna’s Gold, Tora Tora, Gandhi– no, movies and me were not a wise career match; it was purely a regular audience connection.
The highlight of this “dark phase” from 1981 to 1991 was a tennis camp– obtained because I won the Inter College Tennis Team Tournament– to the US for 15 days at the Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, with famed tennis coach Dennis Van Der Meere. But as soon as I returned, I got a talking to from my boss where I was doing my CA article-ship. And finally, I was able to wrap up the CA degree in 1989.
I basically took a break from life until the summer of 1990, because for the first time since Dad passed away, I felt I could actually earn a living now that I had a CA degree. It was more a relief; although I still hated the fact that I had a desk job when the original life plan was to be on a tennis scholarship.
More than anything else, to escape coming home to a parent whose mind had left the land of the living, I left Delhi– after relocating my Mom there from Mumbai– to travel to Abu Dhabi and work for the consulting firm of Ernst and Young. This was 1991.
From 1990 to 1991, in Delhi, as a reluctant transplant from Mumbai, I switched 7 jobs, unable to cope with the Capital city and its people.
But Abu Dhabi was when the film flame kindled.
Most people go to the Middle East to earn money. Not that I had any to start with, but money was not on my mind in the UAE; escapism was.
And so, unlike many of my peers, within 24 hours of arriving in Abu Dhabi and earning a princely salary of Dhs 1000 and a furnished flat, I joined the Marina Sports Club. I played tennis and squash, and did something I never thought I would– buying a Video Cassette Player (VCP) along with my two flatmates. In fact it took them a while to convince me, since I was neither into movies nor television.
But the moment it arrived in our flat, post my tennis/squash, every late night was spent watching a Hindi movie.
I still can’t explain why I was doing this, but was in no mood to find reasons for my actions. Maybe because I missed Mumbai. Or perhaps because I missed India.
Two years and eleven months later, having a cup of coffee with my roommates on a Friday morning, I saw an Ad in the Gulf News which said something to the effect of, “Immigrate to Canada.”
11 days later I was on my way to Detroit, US, for an Immigration interview to Canada, based on the point system. I got the approval and moved to Toronto, not knowing a soul there, only equipped with a job interview with accounting firm Price Waterhouse (“PwC”) with C$6000 saved up from Abu Dhabi.
Those years were bad for the Canadian economy and I gave myself three months to last out, or else head back to Delhi.
I ended up getting the job in PwC in Toronto three days later and ended up staying in Toronto for three more years.
I did not have a driving license; so two out of those three years were spent walking and using public transport. This experience would come in handy when we were making SURKHAAB, also in Toronto.
One thing remained constant in Toronto though. As was the case in Abu Dhabi, it was work, squash/tennis and a movie, except this time twice on weekends, but nothing more.
Then in 1997, in a fit of “nationalism” and with a month to go for my citizenship, I decided to leave Canada and move back to India.
The flight was connecting in San Francisco. This was the dot com era and this was Silicon Valley. So during the 4 hour layover from Toronto to Delhi in SF, I visited a friend in KPMG and was offered a job. That was that.
To this date, I continue to be a Bay Area resident.
SF seemed more like India because of the constant influx of bright Indian programmers. But a part of me also missed the camaraderie of Toronto; my farewell party in Toronto was attended by most people ever in my company, I was told.
All along, I watched movies.
Then in 2000, something made me walk up to Berkeley and enrol in the Screenwriting class.
Why writing? Because I had written some movie reviews on the internet which were appreciated– people said I write OK. This came as a surprise, since in school, writing composition was never a strength. But then again, in school, nothing was. I dropped out of the class since it was clashing with my job.
But the damage had been done; some bug (‘keeda’, as they say) had been implanted. There was no logic in what I was doing, but then life– at least my life up till then– never had any logic.
Since 1990 it had been a day-to-day existence; unplanned, impulsive, yet things seemed to be going ok, so why question the flow now?
Two things happened in 2002.
I passed my CPA exam, meaning I could now get a better job.
And I got my Green Card, meaning now I was stuck in the US of A for sometime. I started a not for profit (NGO) called SAAFA with a friend.
SAAFA: South Asian American Films And Arts Association.
We were nothing more than a film discussion and event group. We did film screenings and q & a with Nagesh Kukunoor (Hyderabad Blues and Bollywood-bound), Piyush Pandya (American Desi) and Jag Mundhra (Bawandar). I also struck up a rapport with two “Karan Johar campsites” Shibani Bhatija (writer) and Sharmishtha Roy (art director) by hosting two events around them in Stanford University.
All this while holding on to my Accounting and Auditing job.
SAAFA got me my first “filmi” status– limited to a friendship with some filmis.
I enjoyed that.
At this time I also learned that my best friend in school, who I had lost contact with since 1990, Milan Luthria, was emerging as a force to reckon with back in Mumbai.
Having outgrown SAAFA, I enrolled in the two-year certificate program in Screenwriting at UCLA. This online and occasional on campus (weekends) program was an eye opener. The instructors were all real world, as one would expect in LA.
The fun was over; it was now serious business.
I topped my class with a A+ and then followed it up with a short program in film production by the maverick, Dov Simens, who challenges pretty much every notion of filmmaking, “lets not talk about making that $100K film, when you have $5K in your pocket, lets make a feature for that.”
But before I wrapped up my second graduation script at UCLA– you needed two feature length scripts to graduate– I hit a writers’ block. Ideas stopped coming into my head.
Around this time, I watched Ramgopal Varma’s BHOOT with a friend.
I did not realise (silly of me; the title was self-explanatory) that this was a horror movie. I usually don’t like horror, I get petrified easily. Then post-interval, as I looked up at the screen after spending most of the film looking down at the floor, I see the actual BHOOT, young Barkha Madan.
Sharmishtha Roy suggested I go back to Mumbai and actively “seek work.”
I stand frozen– how do I go back to the city I had left with such bad memories?
Anyway, in December 2006, during my winter break from work, I headed back to the city which had been home till 1990.
I felt immobile on alighting from the Thai airlines flight; too many memories associated with this city.
It is December 29th now, and all of Mumbai is out celebrating New Years. Checking in to hotel Ramee International, I make two calls: one to Barkha Madan– whose number I obtained from a friend– to inform her I have a script for her, and one to Sharmishtha’s friend, Rakesh Anand Bakshi, the son of the late Anand Bakshi.
Next day, I am told by Rakesh at the JW Marriott, “narrate it to me, your script.”
I have never done a ‘narration’. What is this narration?
Soon I realise that is Mumbai’s version of a “bound script.” I start, and he says, “stop! We are going somewhere.”
We stop in the office of a top star whose secretary likes the script and suggests I change the female oriented script to a male one, and he will present it to his “Boss.”
I politely decline and walk away.
Professional Suicide in Bollywood # 1!
The next day, my confidence now sky-high (because hey, Bollywood likes my script).
I send it to two corporates, and viola! Both call back.
But before I visit them, I visit Barkha. She likes my script.
I tell her we will call it BLOOD MONEY (don’t register with IMPAA– big mistake, although register with FWA) and also proudly narrate to her how I turned down a big actor’s proposal to make the “female” role into “male.”
She thinks I have lost it. “Nobody will fund a film with me in the lead, you should have taken his offer.”
I smile, “Then we won’t make the film. I will happily go back to corporate America and you go back to film and TV. But if this film gets made, it will be with you in the lead. She can’t believe it. I visit the two corporates, one which has now ceased to exist because the shareholders asked to shut it down, says “change the actors!”
The other one says, “no, we can’t go with these actors.”
They shot me down.
The next few years represent the struggle to get BLOOD MONEY off the ground.
Finally, we find investors. We sign Rajat Kapoor, Harsh Chaaya, Umesh Padalkar (director), Barkha Madan and Barry John, pay them signing amounts, then kaput.
As it turns out, the investors are funded by Lehman Bros, and we all know what happened to Lehman Bros.
So back to square one.
But I still have my job and Barkha has a solid TV career.
So we decide to jointly form a company and do a small film this time. And I will not buy a car and a house, but I will fund this film myself.
In April 2011, while having some amazing Belgian waffles at a restaurant called Shaky Alibi, Barkha and I decide, “enough is enough.”
My childhood tennis friend, Sanjay Talreja, who lives in Shanti Bldg on Peddar Road, although now based in Toronto, calls me that day. Sanjay has made documentaries funded by the National Film Board of Canada, Sundance Fund and Soros Fund. He has a PhD in film from Ohio and has taught filmmaking at the University of Windsor, scriptwriting at XIC Mumbai and Whistling Woods, Mumbai.
“I have a small script,” he says.
We read the first draft of SURKHAAB.
We decide this is the script we will green light.
I will not write the script of my debut production; I will loose objectivity and we don’t need that.
Things move at a frenetic pace. It all feels like a blur.
In 16 days, we wrap up the Toronto schedule that October, and in March 2012, we wrap up the India part. We go through many challenges, and as is often the case with small films, we hear “no” much than “yes”. We learn that Toronto is less expensive than Mumbai. I am funding this film, from my day job as an IT Auditor who keeps Public Company CEO’s and CFO’s out of jail.
I loose my job three times and get another one within a day- three times. We film in digital, we film in HD (not in Red or Cannon). There is a term that coach Brad Gilbert said in tennis, “I am not about grips.” I rephrase it, “we are not about names and cameras.”
Our Canadian DoP falls in love with Chandigarh. I spend the remainder 9 months of 2012 doing post production and settling accounts.
In 2013, we win 9 awards across 10 festivals.
We travel to Houston, Santa Monica, St Tropez, Perth, Madrid, London, Toronto, Navi Mumbai, Noida and Delhi.
Our energy level is high. It is now time to hit the real world.
In the summer of 2014, a random call to the largest theater chain AMC gets a response, Send us the DVD, they say.
And then a bigger surprise, “We like it, we will release it selectively under our Independent Program.”
Canada’s Landmark theater follows suit and we release theatrically against all odds in US and Canada. In Vancouver, it runs on and on, and finally has to be removed only because some Hollywood biggies are demanding screen time.
Then Barkha asks, “Ok, we have critical and the North America done, now what about Mumbai?”
It is always about Mumbai!
Our year-long struggle culminates with PVR Director’s Rare stepping forward and doing a very limited release in Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh and Amritsar. This, after being promised 10 cities, but we accept it; it has been a long struggle and this is 2015.
Many films don’t even hit theaters, and this is my “homecoming to the city that has given me the best and worst times.”
Critically, we do well in Mumbai. Given we have one show a day in a vague time slot, we do ‘average’ in theaters. In our own eyes, we are winners though.
The DVD deal, Satellite deal, Online deal have now consummated and SURKHAAB still has a lot of India and global life left, which the months ahead will reveal.
I see the hoarding on Juhu Beach that reads SURKHAAB and the name of Vivek Kumar, as Producer.
I look skywards and hope Dad, Sis and Mom– who passed away last Dec after being told that we have an India release confirmed– are looking down from up there.
I stand proud when Mumbai Mirror gives us 3 stars.
We are now on a one-way street, and we will continue to make movies like these.
I will continue to work my 9 to 5 in the US as an IT Auditor, keeping CEO’s and CFO’s out of jail, so that I can make one SURKHAAB every two years.
We announce our next film today.
It will be filmed in Vancouver and will have actor Ajay Gehi (Good Road, Maqbool, Not A Love Story) as the lead, along with an ensemble cast from India and Canada. It will have the same realism of SURKHAAB and a surprise director.
Some decisions in life have no logic. And as life comes a full circle and I stand that day on May 18th in Mumbai, the mind says, “wherever I am, whatever I do, Mumbai will always be home, and I am home.”
In 1990 when I left Mumbai, we had no house in Mumbai, no car and approx. Rs 5 lacs in the bank. Today, in 2015, as I start my second film, we have no house in Mumbai, (Delhi has one J), no car in India, and approx. Rs 5 lacs in the bank…and a SURKHAAB!
Nothing changes, then again, everything does.
Now need to rush to office. A movie has to be made.