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American tyros dig into Indian roots

Helming trio find you can go home

Like most American indie helmers, Bedabrata Pain, Musa Syeed and Prashant Bhargava struggled to shoot their films, find financing and get a slot on the festival circuit. But unlike other American independents, these three shot their films in India, and in local lingo.

The pics are also far removed from the dominant genre in India, the Bollywood film, which features extended musical numbers and dancing woven into a melodramatic storyline. In fact, the helmers say they were influenced by neo-realist films from Iran and helmers such as Spike Lee and Satyajit Ray.

Their pics have found success with critics and festivals. Roger Ebert picked Bhargava’s “Patang” for his festival of underappreciated films, calling the pic, about the Uttrayan kite festival in Ahmedabad, “joyous.”

First-time filmmaker Pain’s “Chittagong,” based on a true story about a town whose schoolboys rebelled against British colonial rule in the 1930s, bowed at the Los Angeles Indian Film Festival and screened at the New York Indian fest.

Syeed’s “In the Valley of Saints,” a love triangle set against the regional strife in Kashmir, was a co-winner of the Alfred P. Sloan prize, and preemed at Sundance, where it won the audience award in the World Dramatic category.

Former rocket scientist (at the Jet Propulsion Lab and NASA) Pain (pronounced “pine”), was one of the inventors of the digital camera, but had no previous filmmaking experience. He says that after 19 years in the lab, “I was growing tired of science, (I had) 87 patents, I could have retired but always wanted to do more than that, and explore my artistic side.”

When he wrote “Chittagong,” he got a lot of encouragement from potential backers, but when he was ready to shoot, the 2008 economic crisis hit and the financing dried up. He put in his own money and filmed mostly in West Bengal with non-pros and a few actors. With the backing of Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, who opened doors for him in India, his pic is finally set to release this fall.

Pain is proud of the production values he achieved with a small budget. (All three filmmakers were dealing with small budgets.)

“While location hunting, we found a place called Chittagong Kundli (where Chittagongers had settled after India was partitioned) … and wherever there was a 1920s building we took it over and converted it rather than make the whole thing from scratch.”

Aseem Chhabra, N.Y. Indian film fest director, says, ” ‘Chittagong’ narrates a story about India’s freedom struggle that very few us were aware of. It is lovingly shot, moving historical document with strong performances across the board. It’s rare to see a film of this scale by a first-time filmmaker who is trained as a scientist.”

He adds that Bhargava’s “Patang,” which played at Berlin and Tribeca in 2011, “is like a piece of poem — his homage to Ahmedabad, the Uttrayan kite festival and its healing quality. I loved the way he shot the film and worked with his actors and narrated the central story about a family, balancing traditions and modernity.”

The trio each spent a long time in pre-production polishing their scripts. Bhargava, who previously worked in promotions at HBO, says the two years he spent researching in Ahmedabad for “Patang” was especially useful.

“I was very conscious of coming in from the outside,” he says. “I would sit in a kite shop for hours, and I got to know the community very well,” which informed the story the way we shot the film.

The film follows a man who returns to his hometown during the city’s kite festival; Bhargava used three actors and 35 non-pros, using the city’s residents as players in the movie.

“We had 200 hours of footage, which is a lot, all handheld, very emotional and interpretive. I spent two years editing it in Chicago and New York.”

Although Syeed’s “Valley,” which centers on a love triangle, didn’t focus on the troubles in Kashmir, he didn’t ignore them either. “There is still life that plays out everyday,” he points out. “People have family, fall in love, have ambitions and all those things can be impacted by the conflict, but the conflict doesn’t take over everything.”

However, it did change his production plans. The script, once with English dialogue and an American crew, had to be changed to accommodate the situation on the ground, which had been calm during pre-production but changed by 2010 when he started to shoot.

“We had hired an actress from America to play the love interest. But we didn’t feel safe bringing (her)or crew to Kashmir,” he says. “We let all those people go, and cast it all locally so now it’s a Kashmir-language film.”

The change was for the better, he says, since he didn’t need to focus so much on the dialogue and could concentrate on visuals.

“This is my first feature, and my first narrative,” says the NYU grad, who had previously made documentary shorts. “A lot comes from documentary experience shooting in unpredictable places, with non-professionals.”

The time he spent researching in Kashmir’s scenic Dal Lake area was helpful to the process. “That’s how we connected, (got to) know the local colors and rhythms — trying to replicate that. They believed in me so much (and) felt sorry for this out-of-place Kashmiri kid.”

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