A film made by an all-woman crew led by actress Revathy explores the cultural and emotional trauma of Indian-Americans.
AS regular viewers of 'Bollywood' and other strains of Indian cinema know only too well, any film with box office pretensions must have at least half a dozen scenes in which the lead stars are shot against exotic foreign locales. However, after having gone to the expense of filming abroad at all the places frequented by the bold and the beautiful, what do they do besides cavorting around trees or riding flashy cars?
When film actress Revathy visited the United States a couple of years ago, several Indians there asked her precisely the same question. Why is it that nobody makes films about Indian Americans and the challenges they face as they adjust to an alien culture?Mitr
Back in Chennai, she raised this issue with her film producer-husband Suresh Menon, who suggested that they try and put together just such a product - for the small screen, if not the big. By happy chance, the Chennai-based Priya V. narrated an idea for a possible tele-film - a story about an Indian woman who has to transform herself into a Non-Resident Indian (NRI) wife and mother. Revathy was drawn into the discussion and so was Sudha Kongara, a screen-writer. Encouraged by the others, Revathy decided that this was just the project she had been looking for to try her hand at direction.
"At that point of time, I was not specifically looking for an all-woman crew," Revathy said. "But as the four of us came together to thrash out the details of Mitr, we began looking for other crew members whom we knew... Bhavatharini (Ilayaraja's daughter) agreed to do our musical score."
As chief cinematographer, Fowzia was chosen. One other person who came aboard was Bina Paul, the Thiruvananthapuram-based film editor. When designer Prabha Koda joined the group to create the costumes and sound engineer Geeta M. Gurappa took charge of audiography, the all-woman crew was in place.
To play the lead role of Lakshmi, the rural woman from Chidambaram who moves to the U.S. after marrying an Indian engineer, the film-makers invited Malayalam actress Shobana. "When I heard the story, I was convinced about the role and I do have some insight into the lives that Indians lead in the U.S.," she said. No doubt, her frequent trips abroad to give dance performances helped. In the film, her husband Prithvi is played by the Delhi-based model Nasir Abdullah. Their teenaged daughter Divya is played by San Francisco-based Preeti Vissa, a newcomer.
EVEN as the credits roll, Mitr fast-forwards 17 years to California where Prithvi and Lakshmi are now in their comfortable middle-age. But a growing up Divya, with her "all-American" values highlights the yawning cultural gap between mother and daughter, even as the workaholic husband and father is too busy to notice it. When Divya runs away from home, matters finally reach emotional boiling point.
In order to reflect accurately the Indian diaspora in the U.S., Revathy firmly rejected advice to play safe and shoot most of the film on Chennai-bound sets. The crew moved to the Californian coast, and shot non-stop for 26 days in Freemont, San Francisco and the heartland of Silicon Valley, centred on San Jose. Silicon Valley is home to 7,000 Information Technology companies and over one-third of its engineers are of Indian origin. To get the nuances straight, one just had to make the film right there, Revathy said.
For many members of the Indian crew, the American experience was their first in more ways than one. "The most important thing was that we were a team: no egos and no hassles," said Priya. She added: "And as for Revathy, the kind of enthusiasm she inspires is amazing."
From behind her camera, Fowzia observed more than just the scenes she was shooting. "Working with Americans is an eye-opener," she said. She came back with a healthy professional respect for the standards of safety and skill that they displayed.
As the story unfolds, at the height of her personal trauma, Lakshmi finds a friend in need - an anonymous 'buddy' in an Internet chat room. He is the online 'Mitr' of the title. Through him she re-discovers the strength she needs to bring her family together once again. It is a tale set in the Cyber Age that salutes the timeless values and strengths of Indian tradition. Says Revathy: "Many have a misconception that once you are an Indian and you settle abroad, you cannot avoid being influenced by foreign culture. We are the people of a great country with strong roots. If I am asked what the message of Mitr is, I can only say: communication is the key to any relationship and the basis, friendship".
Made in the brisk, no-nonsense style of Malayalam cinema in which tradition Revathi was nurtured, and cut to 100 minutes (something that impatient foreign audiences will appreciate), Mitr, opened its Indian run on February 14. It just happened to be Valentine's Day. The film has beenmade in English, Hindi and Tamil, with dubbed versions in other South Indian languages. It remains to be seen whether or not this film, which seeks to applaud traditional values in a distant Indian milieu, will click with Indian audiences that are used to frothier fare.