On the Genesis
I had always wanted to make movies ever since I was a young boy living in India. I remember making super 8 movies in high school in Toronto. With the encouragement of my parents, I became a medical doctor, but still harbored the desire to be involved in the film world. During med school in Toronto, I volunteered to be a production assistant on an Indian film which had huge stars from India. I was in awe when I first met Shashi Kapoor.
During my residency in Michigan, I heard that Kurt Luedtke (who wrote Out of Africa) lived in Michigan. Through him, I met Jim Burnstein, a budding writer, who, at the time was teaching Shakespeare to army recruits. Jim's own story later became "Renaissance Man". Jim has been a friend and mentor since then.
When I first started practicing medicine in USA, my first administrator told me that if I ordered tests on certain patients I would get a bonus and if ordered tests on certain other patients he would subtract from my bonus. So the treatment of a patient depended on his insurance and not on his disease!!! What a ridiculous system, I thought. This became the seed to tell the story of a doctor fighting the injustices of the American Health System. Initially I had the lead actor as a Caucasian male; however, Jim thought it would be interesting to see a Sikh as a lead. Who would want to see a Sikh in a movie? I never saw them in Hollywood or Bollywood movies. Jim persisted that Americans would want to see America though the eyes of someone else. He was right.
Over the next 2 decades, there were several world events such as 1984 crisis in India, Iran hostage standoff, and 9/11 that made the Sikhs feels as outcasts and terrorists. We were misunderstood in the world. These events only strengthened my desire to tell the world about who Sikhs really were--a peaceful people with a belief of One God, earning a truthful living and sharing with others less fortunate. Sikhs are expected to live this life without ego or self pride as practically demonstrated by our Gurus during their lifetime.
There were numerous hate crimes and waves of intolerance. At times we were scared to go outside. We were humiliated at airports, jobs, public places. At times I questioned myself as to why was I born a Sikh and why couldn't I be like everyone else. It is only with time and experience that you realize that just because you wear a turban doesn't make you a Sikh and just because you wear a white coat doesn't make you a doctor. So "Ocean of Pearls" became the story of a young Sikh doctor battling the injustices of the American Health System and ultimately his own identity.
To prepare for the challenges of directing, I did take many classes on all aspects of film making especially working with actors with Judy Weston. I didn't want the actors to feel that I wouldn't protect them. I took an acting class and now have an even greater respect for what they do.
On the Name
The words "Ocean of Pearls" come from the Sikh scripture where it says The Guru is an ocean filled with pearls. The pearls represent the wisdom, knowledge, lessons and love needed to find peace in our selves and to ultimately find God in ourselves. The deeper one goes into this ocean the more he/she finds. So the ending of the film is really the beginning.
I got lucky. Mali Finn introduced me to Emily Schweber, who put in an immense effort to find the perfect actor for the lead role. We knew that the film would live or die by our choice since he is in every scene. After looking at over 200 actors, Emily felt Omid Abtahi could pull it off. I also felt very comfortable with Omid. He was questioning who he was and the purpose of life just like Amrit. He reminded me of a younger me. We made the right choice.
I wrote a draft of a screenplay but it wasn't very good, so Jim brought in his talented former student V Prasad . Being Indian and brought up in USA helped Prasad understand Amrit's struggles. We worked on the script for three years, with help from Jim Burnstein and Jeff Dowd. Jeff was extremely passionate and brought our screenplay to a higher level with his suggestions. He is, after all, the Dude.
We can count our blessings. Our production offices were in a 7 million dollar building that we had all to ourselves. Most people could not believe this as it looked like a studio lot only nicer. The Sikh Foundation had purchased it just about a month before production began and graciously allowed us to use it. This became our new Gurudwara (temple) shortly after we vacated.
To sum the actual production, we started with a flood and ended with a flood! The generator truck got stuck on the first day with rain and mud, but thanks to a very experienced crew we pushed ahead. The actors were very gracious to continue working despite the cold weather of Michigan. We were shooting in October and November and many of our shots were summer!!!
We shot for 28 days with 6 day weeks, which was grueling for everyone, especially for our lead actor who was in all the scenes. We are extremely thankful to the Sikh community who really rallied around this project from bringing props to tying turban to organizing extra scenes, etc. We all took inspiration from these hard working people doing "seva" (selfless service) in the true sense, not wanting anything in return. The children and their parents braved cold weather until 3am for the camp scene!
One of the most difficult scenes was when Amrit cuts his hair on screen. I had struggled with this for a long time. It would be painful for me to watch. The Sikhs may not like it as well. Jeff felt the Sikh community will be extremely proud of what I did as Amrit becomes much stronger human being at the end having gone through this ordeal. Jeff felt I had to put the character in more difficult position and then see how he gets out of this. I reluctantly agreed being true to the character. I recognized that many Sikh youth today are going through this crisis in their life and someone needs to listen to their plight. The story is also about hope even if we have done wrong as it says in the scripture if you take one step towards the Guru, the Guru takes thousands of steps towards you.
My father's real life experience of 1947 (Partition of India and Pakistan) became a pivotal scene in our film. It was a real human tragedy during which my father's entire family was wiped out. The only survivors were my father and my grand-mother. Imagine a 10 year old boy witnessing the deaths of his family and then having to survive for days with no mother, clothes, food and safety. I am glad my father was there to watch the scene.
We were also very fortunate to have a working hospital give us permission to film inside from multimillion dollar operating rooms to fully functioning emergency rooms. We couldn't believe our eyes when on the last day there was a flood outside and inside the hospital. The administrators were rushing around thinking whether to evacuate the hospital. Meanwhile we had hundreds of extras in the auditorium and actors flew in from LA just for the shot. I could laugh and cry at the same time. I thought of the patients as they had no drinking water or working toilets. I told our production staff to get lots of bottled water for them. I guess it helped the patients and then luckily the administrator let us shoot which went on until 4 am. We were exhausted but happy to be finished.
Well, we thought we were finished until test audiences told us they wanted to see more relationship and less hospital scenes, so we came back for one more week of shooting. Finally another week of exteriors and aerials with me and the DP Lon Stratton and the production was finally done. I could go back to being a doctor to start paying off the loans. I had traded my stethoscope around my neck for "cans" and had learned a whole new lingo.
The first day back to the hospital after 2 months felt strange as though I didn't belong there anymore. For a while I felt like an outsider in the hospital. Strangely I missed the 16 hour days and the company of wonderful talented artists.
On Cultural Authenticity
I felt a lot of responsibility on my shoulders as I do not know of a single turban wearing Sikh film director in the world. I also don't know of a feature film from Hollywood where a young Sikh male is the lead. We were charting a new territory.
I wanted the turban on the characters to look good so we held auditions for turban tying. These turbans were wrapped with love by volunteers on the day of shooting so as to retain the unique style of Amrit and his father Ravinder and even Susan.
I also wanted to expose the world to a soulful Sikh music-Kirten. In the temple frequently one can see adults with tears in their eyes as the music and its message is so powerful it hits their soul. I was lucky to get Snatam Kaur Khalsa who makes this so effortless and pure.
Sarab S Neelam
Sarab Neelam has always had a vivid imagination thanks in part to his father who writes poetry and an uncle, who was a painter. For the first 10 years of his life he lived in India where he saw diversity of color, beauty and poverty. India is also the place where he fell in love with cinema which transported him to a whole new place; he was in awe of what he saw and felt.
With his family, he moved to Canada at 10 years of age. He enjoyed the many choices that Canada offered but also felt the challenges of being different. He had long hair and looked like a girl to most people. In high school he started wearing a turban without realizing its religious and historical significance. He was close to his grandmother who suffered a lot during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. She would tell him stories of Sikh history filled with bravery and sacrifices. As he settled into his new life in Toronto, he started playing around with super 8 camera in high school making home movies.
With the encouragement of his parents he became a medical doctor. The inequities of the health care system were obvious when he started practicing. It felt more like a business than medicine at times. But he also knew that the best in the world of medicine existed in America, with more opportunities than any other country. Despite being in the medical profession, he never lost his childhood desire to make movies.
Returning to his passion, he started taking classes in films. He desperately wanted to see Sikhs on screen. He made a documentary of his faith to educate others about Sikhism so that kids wouldn't get teased as he was while growing up.
Unfortunately political turmoil in India, the Middle East and 9/11 in America made the Sikhs feel as outcasts and terrorists. There were numerous episodes of hate crimes which continue to this day. Sikhs felt humiliated on screen, airports, jobs, schools and public places. So what started as a dream to make movies also became a desperate need and desire to be recognized as a human being with dignity.
His first film Ocean of Pearls is a labor of love of over 10 years. He felt it is needed to break down barriers just as great African Americans did for their community. Ocean of Pearls is the story of a young Sikh doctor struggling with the inequities of the American Health System and ultimately his own identity. It speaks to the universal challenge of how so many people (not just Sikhs) have to balance romance, family, ethics and spirituality in today's complex world. He hopes it will be an inspiration to all.