Ocean of Pearls: It is in the collision between the old and new that we find out who we are.

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Ocean of Pearls

There have been many films, serious and comic, about the culture clashes experienced by the young adult children of conservative, tradition-minded immigrants from India and Pakistan who have settled in Western Europe or North America.

Sarab Singh Neelam's intense and distinctive "Ocean of Pearls" is one of the very best and is said to be the first to reveal the special challenges facing Sikhs living in North America. That Neelam was a medical doctor before becoming a filmmaker gives his picture its exceptional impact and complexity.

Omid Abtahi's Amrit Singh is a handsome young Toronto transplant specialist, a visionary who is offered the position of surgeon at a Detroit hospital's new transplant center. Not long after he arrives he discovers that a second surgeon, Ryan Bristol (Todd Babcock), not only has been hired but also has been asked to present Singh's research to a potential donor. The board had decided that Bristol, son of a senator and a member of a powerful family, would be more likely to clinch the substantial donation than a turbaned and bearded Sikh.

Fearing that he is in danger of not being named chief of transplant surgery, Singh contemplates the unimaginable for a Sikh -- cutting off his hair and forsaking his turban.

Neelam raises tough issues of the slippery slope of compromise and probes life-endangering hospital politics and the horrors of U.S. healthcare as seen through the eyes of a Canadian. At the center of the swirl of conflicts engulfing Singh, which also involve the feelings and attitudes of his traditional-minded girlfriend (Navi Rawat) back in Toronto, is his increasingly confused sense of identity.

Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

Ocean of Pearls, may have been directed by a local doctor, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the work of an amateur.

A tender, thought-provoking story of faith, tradition and compromise, the film is the assured debut from Sterling Heights gastroenterologist Sarab Neelam. It’s the story of Amrit Singh (Omid Abtahi), a young surgeon who finds himself wrestling with his Sikh heritage when he takes a job at a Detroit hospital.

Neelam has stated that he originally envisioned the film with a Caucasian hero, but I cannot imagine the film without the cultural thread that runs through it. Not simply a niche film, “Ocean of Pearls” is not simply about being a Sikh, but about how that heritage and tradition affect Amrit’s thoughts and actions. Neelam explains pertinent information about the Sikh faith, but never in a way that feels condescending or stops the plot cold. He illustrates critical components of the faith - such as the cutting of one’s hair - by placing them in a plausible context and having Amrit wrestle with the implications of his decisions. The cultural context is refreshing, but Neelam also grounds the story in universal questions about tradition, chance and compromise, mixing in a story of medical ethics that resonates in a time when health care is being debated in every medium.

Neelam gets a solid performance from Abtahi, who captures the questions and struggles Amrit has while still giving him a natural joy and likability. The key to the film, never feeling preachy or false, rests on Abtahi’s shoulders; to his credit, he creates a character whose traditions are so much a part of his life and background that his dilemma is instantly relatable and sympathetic, not forced in over heavy-handed.

Neelam shows a strong eye for composition and I especially enjoyed his use of color. The hospital scenes, depicting Amrit’s compromise, take place in sterile, white environments. Scenes of faith, family and romance are more lushly lit and filled with warm colors. It’s a detail that many first-time directors wouldn’t think of, and yet it gives the film emotional resonance and depth.

There are some hiccups; a flirtation with a coworker comes off as awkward and I would have appreciated one additional scene with Amrit’s father before his big reveal in the third act. The dialogue in some places feels a tad stilted and I would have appreciated more fleshing out of a subplot involving an incompetent surgeon (Dennis Haskins, “Saved by the Bell”). But these are beginner’s stumbles; at least I hope they are - it would be a shame if Neelam didn’t take another turn behind the camera. “Ocean of Pearls” hints at a unique and skilled cinematic voice waiting to be discovered. “Ocean of Pearls” is currently showing at the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights.

Chris Williams, Detroit Film Critics Society member, The Source

"Ocean of Pearls," a Sikh "first" —and a movie you don't want to miss

Despite the tough financial times and anxious news from global hot spots—the truth is this: We're living in a remarkable era of cross-cultural inspiration.

In coming weeks, if you live in Michigan, the Bay Area in California—or Chicago in mid September—make time to go see a spiritual "first" in media. "Ocean of Pearls" is opening in a handful of theaters nationwide. It's the first major American-Sikh-produced feature film.

And this movie is gooood. It's moving. It's beautifully photographed. It's a great drama, partly because it's such uncharted territory in storytelling.

In taking us into these intimate places we've never been before—"Ocean of Pearls" becomes exceptionally rare.

We can tell we're headed into new realms from the moments the titles begin to flash on the screen. Beneath those titles, we watch a young Sikh doctor carefully preparing his religiously distinctive long hair—combing it and winding it to fit precisely beneath a Sikh turban.

The film tells a bittersweet—and ultimately an inspiring—tale. The story is fiction, but the truths on screen are real—and surprisingly universal.

In the opening sequence after the titles, the young doctor addresses us in a voice-over narration, welcoming us into his family's saga.

He asks us a series of spiritual questions we all can appreciate: "Did you ever think about how random life is? Of all the people—why were you born to your parents? Of all the places—why were you born in your country? In your city?

"My girlfriend and I—our parents came to Toronto in the 1960s—a new country, a new life. The one thing I never understood? Why would someone work so hard to come to a new world—just to keep living in an old one?"

Then, he talks about the turban that becomes such a crucial symbol throughout the movie. He says: "To my father, the turban is an article of faith. To me, it means I better make damned sure I'm not late for my flight."

Sure enough! The next scene is a harrowing experience in an airport security-check line, where ... Well, you probably can guess: The heroic young physician falls into a Kafkaesque nightmare of suspicion and delay, all because of his turban.

That's not the biggest problem he faces. As he moves further into his career as a top transplant surgeon, the turban becomes an even bigger barrier. I won't spoil the story with too many details.

But, I can tell you this: As a journalist who has covered cross-cultural issues in America for decades, I've seen many attempts by minority artists to create multimedia windows into their worlds. Sometimes, these "firsts" involve music festivals, documentary films, theatrical productions—even dance.

But, I can't recall a "first" feature film so stellar—so professionally polished and personally engaging—from start to finish.

If you live within driving distance of one of the early cities showing "Ocean of Pearls"—make the drive to go see it. This is a rare opportunity to enter a whole new world. How can you pass up such an opportunity?

David Crumm, readthespirit.com

Sarab S. Neelam's Ocean of Pearls

Culture clashes on macro and micro scales, occurring all at once, are what drive doctor-turned-filmmaker Sarab S. Neelam's overly earnest but engaging debut film Ocean of Pearls. The film opens with protagonist Amrit (Omid Abtahi) asking, "Why would someone work so hard to come to a new world, just to keep living in the old one?" He's speaking of his father's strict adherence to Sikh religious and cultural edicts, in which the turban is an article of faith for the older man and a burden for his son. Amrit is a brilliant young doctor based in Toronto, dutiful to family, adoring of his girlfriend, and stagnating in his career. When offered a high-profile gig in a Detroit hospital, he leaps at the chance and the film kicks into a gracefully executed, often nerve wracking foray into racism and dirty workplace politics whose radioactive fallout spills into every aspect of Amrit's life. Ocean, which often veers toward the programmatic, is elevated by Abtahi's taut performance. The handsome actor has a weary yet prickly quality that resonates even in tender moments between Amrit and his family or girlfriend, and that quality - more than any dialogue in the film - illustrates the toll of daily battles with bigotry.

Ernest Hardy, The Village Voice

Ocean of Pearls – Must See Movie…

I just finished watching a really great new movie called "Ocean of Pearls" which I highly recommend that you all see. This is one of the first professional western movie productions with a Sikh as a lead role in the story. Not only that, but the story of the movie deals with one of the issues that is so common for all of us in Western Countries; Living as a Sikh and standing out. It tells the story of a prominent Sikh Doctor who is struggling with his identity as a Sikh. He feels pressured to fit in and change, in order to "be successful" and achieve certain things with his career. In the end he learns a lesson the hard way and understands what this lifestyle is all about.

A few times in the movie I was very emotionally struck and found myself teary eyed as the story developed and I felt what "Amrit"  (Dr. Singh) was going through. Even though this is a fictitious story it shares a very valuable lesson about why we are Sikhs and wear this outside form. Sometimes we have to learn the hard way to fully understand. So while I don’t think it is necessary to cut your hair to learn this lesson, the good thing is that God gave us hair that grows back.

I have seen a lot of movies and it’s always a joy to see a movie that is not only enjoyable to watch, but is very meaningful.
Congratulations to Dr. Sarabjeet Neelam (The Film Producer) who I remember many years ago talking about his grand vision of making a Hollywood movie with a Sikh as a lead actor. You stuck with your goal in spite of all the challenges and made a great film! Bravo!

The music was so beautiful in the film, featuring original music by Snatam Kaur and Karsh Kale. I hope they release a movie soundtrack!

This was not your standard desi low budget film with mediocre acting. This was probably the first high quality Sikh related film I have seen so far. I hope that you all will watch it and support the film production so that we can have more films like this.

Gurumustuk Singh, mrsikhnet.com

One needn’t be Sikh to identify with the plight faced by Amrit Singh, the protagonist of writer V. Prasad and co-writer/director Sareb Neelam’s affecting tale of faith versus duty. Anyone who’s ever felt pressure to compromise their values for the sake of the “greater good” will no doubt find this honest and engaging drama an intelligent meditation on the importance of maintaining your beliefs at the very times when it matters most.

Amrit (Omid Abtahi) is a brilliant young surgeon from Toronto who is about to get the opportunity of a lifetime. A Sikh who views his obligatory turban as more of a hindrance than an article of faith (as his father would describe it), Amrit is offered the unique opportunity to head up a state-of-the-art organ transplant facility in Detroit that will allow doctors to save more lives than ever before. He knows that he has no choice but to accept, despite being involved in a serious relationship with photographer Smita (Navi Rawat) and devoting a good portion of his spare time to Seva (selfless service) around Toronto. But shortly after arriving in Detroit, Amrit discovers that Dr. Ballard (Ron Canada), the man who hired him, doesn’t actually have final say on the decision. The hospital board has brought in Dr. Ryan Bristol (Todd Babcock), a well-connected Caucasian from a prominent family, to fill what is essentially the same position. Both Amrit and Dr. Bristol are determined to become the official chief of the new facility, causing tensions to quickly heat up in the hospital. When the board begins to favor Dr. Bristol for the position, despite the fact that it was Amrit whose research will serve as the program’s foundation, the frustrated Sikh makes the extreme decision to cast his turban aside and cut his hair (an act generally forbidden in his religion) for the sake of getting the job and serving a higher purpose.

Dealing with issues of faith without slipping into melodrama is a tricky endeavor for any filmmaker, much less a first-time, independent duo like Prasad and Neelem. But their inexperience as filmmakers belies their skill as storytellers, and with a talented cast to give their story life, they ultimately come out on top. As Amrit, Abtahi proves a more than capable leading man, skillfully bringing his character’s deep-rooted crisis of faith to the surface and striking a believable chemistry with his co-stars. Prasad and Neelem’s richly detailed script could have easily faltered during production with the wrong cast, but the impressive acting talent ensures that issues of health care, cultural assimilation, and family are all handled with the kind of measured finesse that ensures the heart of the film doesn’t get lost in translation. Likewise, cinematographer Lon Stratton lends the film a polished look that keeps the viewer focused on the story and captures moments of transcendent beauty — such as a meditative shot of leaves floating on a lake — with a sense of style rare for low-budget independents like Ocean of Pearls. In a time when religious conflict is simmering around the world and misconceptions about faith fuel ignorance and intolerance, Ocean of Pearls is the kind of film that reminds us that regardless of the color of our skin or the god we worship, it’s essential that we retain our values, even - or perhaps especially - when living in a culture that doesn’t necessarily embrace them.

Jason Buchanan, allmovieblog.com

Ocean of Pearls

Gregg Rickman on Ocean of Pearls Amrit Singh (Omid Abtahi), one of the world's greatest surgeons, has developed a revolutionary new technique of liver transplants, lives at home with his parents, and sneaks kisses with his girlfriend while her parents aren't looking. His success in the wider world and the compromises it demands clash with his traditional Sikh upbringing in this admirable first feature by Sarab S. Neelam. Mishandled, this film would be very funny in a bad way, but Neelam skirts the very real perils of risibility. He makes Singh's dilemma believable and real by showing us the appeal of Toronto's close-knit Sikh community and explaining some of its history and customs. Good performances by a large cast, notably Ron Canada as a duplicitous hospital administrator, help as well but it really all comes down to Abtahi to make the piece work. His sincerity defeats our 21st-century skepticism, making Singh's unique situation seem universal.

Gregg Rickman, San Francisco Weekly

Smoothly directed by Sarab S. Neelam

Rachel Saltz, New York Times

Visual poetry... Dr. Sarab Singh Neelam's ambitious drama is one of the most sincere and purposeful movies I've seen.

Dann Gire, Chicago Daily Herald

The acting here is surprisingly even and Neelam rarely betrays himself as a newbie behind the camera. For a local indie film, this Ocean is smooth indeed.

Tom Long, Detroit News

It's the best Medical Drama and love story that I have seen in some time. It's all about self-discovery and a hard look at compromise. **** (4 Stars) Oscar calibre performances.

Lee Hartgrave, BeyondChron.org

A masterpiece strengthening identity issues...truly inspiring. A MUST SEE!

Tushar Unadkat, Mukta Advertising, Toronto

Our programming committee was absolutely floored by its spirit and vision

Abraham Ferrer, Visual Communications, Los Angeles


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