Luckily for film lovers, Sarba Das chose the world of cinema over her childhood dream of being a rap star. Her hit Karma Calling is a real eye opener to the American and Indian culture clashes. Get to know her take on Bollywood and other interesting tidbits.
Hometown: Randolph, New Jersey
Current Residence: Los Angeles, California
Areas of Focus: Writing/Producing/Directing
For those unfamiliar with Indian filmmaking, how would you describe it?
I’m born and raised in the states but my family is originally from India. So while I haven’t grown up in the industry there, I definitely have spent my career going back and forth between east and west. I am certainly not an authority on the Hindi film industry. In fact, I learned recently-on my last visit to Mumbai-that many folks there resent the term Bollywood. Who knew? I thought they themselves coined it! But I did spend time filming and doing all of the post production on Karma Calling there. While there are a growing number of independent films, big production dancing and singing musical films are definitely the majority of what drives the movie business in India. I’ve visited some of these sets. They are rich and incredible and the crew sizes are triple of what we see here-even on big budget films. I remember shooting some B-roll footage in a train station in Mumbai and hiring a 2K light and the light came with three people. One guy to set it up, another guy to operate it and yet another to watch over the other two to make sure they knew what they were doing. A small, 2nd unit shoot of what would be eight people here involved 30 people there. But perhaps what diverges most from our way of doing things stateside is that they don’t shoot any of their productions in sync sound. All of the films are dubbed and quite often the actors who played the roles don’t dub themselves. They hire professional voiceover artists instead. Ninety percent of the time, when you watch a so-called Bollywood film, you are listening to dialogue emoted by someone other than the actor who actually played the part. I often wonder how their actors feel about that!
Considering the sheer number of films Bollywood releases yearly, what makes the industry so exciting?
It’s teeming with energy. Mumbai alone churns out more films per year than all other national film industries combined. I sometimes question the story quality of the films themselves, since they are moving at such a fast and furious pace. Often you’ll find a celebrity shooting and starring in four to five movies at one time. But on the technical side, since they crank out so many films, they’re technical chops are at the highest level of proficiency. The crews I’ve worked with there are the best I’ve ever worked with…bar none. It always amazes me, because in general I see India as a pretty chaotic country. But their film industry is one of the best organized, well-oiled machines of efficiency I’ve ever seen. Whether it’s a camera operator or a mix engineer, these guys literally eat, sleep and breathe filmmaking.
Are there many female filmmakers in your culture? If not, why do you think that is and how did you overcome those obstacles?
It’s interesting because while men dominate the film business there, some of the most famous Indian filmmakers known outside of India are women—take Mira Nair (the Namesake) and Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) for example. Indians in America tend to dominate in fields like medicine, engineering and business, but there is definitely a serious dearth of those of us in entertainment. It hasn’t been an obstacle for me per se but I think people in my parents generation don’t really understand why I chose to be in this field…it took me four years to get my M.F.A. from NYU film school and my dad joked and said in four years I could have gotten an M.D. But in all seriousness, my family has been extremely supportive of my career choices and are heavily involved in the business because of me. My brother and I co-wrote and produced two of my films together, my mother is the star of Karma Calling along with two other cousins who play lead roles and my husband scored the film. My sweet aunties flew in from all over to cook delicious meals for the crew when we were filming. If you look at the movie credits you’ll see a lot of people with the last name “Das” on my crew – so many so that at one point I considered titling the movie “DASFUNCTIONAL.”
Your work highlights many cultural contrasts, was there anything that surprised you the most when researching Karma Calling?
In a way, my whole life has been research for Karma Calling. Native to India but growing up in New Jersey my life has been about being Hindu and hip hop, pizza and pakoras. I used to have a lot of Jewish friends and fantasized about having a Bat Mitzvah like the character of Jamuna in the film. I also used listen to Biggie Smalls and dream about transforming myself from a good little Indian girl into a gangsta rapper. So it’s always been a blend of cultures and I sort of combined my real life experiences with my wild imaginings to script Karma Calling. But the call center aspect to the story definitely revealed some surprises. When Sarthak and I were writing the script, we kept getting solicitation calls from India when call centers were little known. The guy’s name was really Rohit and he called himself Rob. He would tell us about how they watched episodes of the Simpsons to learn about American culture and study Macy’s catalogs to learn how we shopped here. The detailed extent to which “Americanization” was going on in some of these places was astounding.
You could tell us a little bit about the production i.e, how long was the shoot? What did you shoot on? Were there any disasters on set?
We shot Karma Calling on super 16mm film for 30 days in New York and New Jersey. We actually shot the USA for India by using a computer school in Jersey City and designing it to look like India. Then I went to India for another week and filmed all of the exteriors. There were no epic disasters on set as I remember it but we did have one very happy accident. We had scripted a scene to take place during a big festival called Holi where people throw brightly colored powders on each other. We needed a lot of art department work and a cast of at least two hundred extras to make it believable. It’s a key scene and we just didn’t have the money to plan for it to make it look good so we pushed it to the end of the schedule hoping for a miracle. Because we were in New Jersey where there is a huge Indian population a local journalist told us about an India Independence Day Parade in Edison about to take place while were in the middle of production and said we were welcome to film it. At first I was dismissive because I had no need for parade shots, but quickly realized that we could set our Holi scene at the parade instead and get a free cast of thousands of extras. Our silent plea for a miracle was answered and the scene worked beautifully.
Since Karma Calling, what has inspired you for your next film?
While filming Karma Calling and working closely with Jeremy Carmone our production designer I wanted to create the sense of a family living in the past. So while the story takes place in the 2000s I wanted the design elements to feel like the 1970s. I don’t know why but I’m obsessed with the 70s—the colors, the bold patterns, the music. While working with Herb Graham Jr. the composer, we also came up with a lot of music influenced by Bollywood films of the 70s. I also spent a lot of back and forth between India and the USA getting Karma Calling done and got into watching these campy old Bollywood gems from that time period. My next feature script Bollyhoods is inspired by this and is set in the Bollywood Underworld in the 1970s. It’s an action-comedy that I see as sort of a Get Shorty goes to India.
Have you had any heros that have impacted your work?
When I first saw the film Amelie, I thought to myself, “I wish I had directed that.” So I guess Jean Pierre Jeunet is kind of a hero of mine. I also love the films of Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, and Pedro Almodovar.