Namastey East Bay 

Muhammad Irfan wants to make Bollywood-style movies. His goal is not as far-fetched as it might once have seemed.

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Irfan doesn't know why that same phenomenon hasn't yet manifested itself in the Bay Area. "A lot of movies were shot in New York, so New York became a Bollywood hub," he observed. "Here, I don't know why, the Bay Area should be a hub but isn't yet. We have locations, crew, resources. We have everything here."

But California is slowly becoming a destination for Indian cinema, whatever the growing pains of the nascent local industry. Sylvester Stallone is currently shooting a role in Los Angeles in Kambhakt Ishq (Incredible Love), the largest-budget Indian film ever made, where he is costarring with Kareena Kapoor, from the fifth generation of the Kapoor film dynasty, and Akshay Kumar, now the highest-paid Indian actor. Karan Johar's highly anticipated next feature, My Name Is Khan, based on an actual event in which a Muslim man was detained on a US flight because of his name, is due to film in LA this fall. On the flip side, Walt Disney Studios has paired with Yash Raj Films to develop animated kids' films in India. Roadside Romeo is slated to be released this October as the first offering.

Director Kohli also featured California in his latest film, Thoda Pyaar, Thoda Magic (A Little Love, A Little Magic), which just played at the Naz8 Cinema. As he recalled, there were pluses and minuses to the experience. "What's nice about California is it is very scenic and picturesque. Because Hollywood is already there it is very shooting-friendly. It's very easy to get any kind of equipment there you want. But that also is a slight negative because the rates are a little high. So it is not cheap to shoot in California, it is very expensive to shoot in California. I think if California wants to attract film tourism, for lack of a better word, you have to give package deals. Like a lot of cities and countries do that. Singapore gives very good deals if you go and shoot there. You have a one-stop clearance shop and they give you discounted airline tickets and hotels."

Ami Zins of the Oakland Film Office knows firsthand some of the obstacles to bringing foreign filmmakers here and supporting independent local projects in the style of commercial Indian cinema. Her office is charged with promoting and marketing Oakland as a filmmaking location. As of yet Zins has not targeted the Indian cinema industry or local South Asian filmmakers, but she is keen to start soon. She's looking to increase her office's outreach to local ethnic-oriented filmmakers and to promote its concierge services.

Although there currently are no direct financial incentives offered for shooting in Oakland, Zins said that on a case-by-case basis she can arrange for discounts on the use of city-owned facilities. In October, a city council subcommittee will meet as a result of her lobbying to consider making permit and parking fees more filmmaker-friendly. With lower fees in place, she said, her office plans to launch a marketing plan to alert the international and local film communities. In addition to the already high quality of local crew members, she believes these factors would increase the odds that locals and foreign filmmakers can find a way to get their projects done.

Such changes bode well for helping people like Irfan support their creative goals. "The East Bay is ready if we can combine our efforts," he said. "There are people doing things on an individual basis, but any film is a team effort. If I want to do this film myself, I can't do it, regardless of my confidence. We can facilitate the producer/director coming from India because the East Bay will be a hub. People who are into this need to come together. I have met some people from India coming through for the shows, and they want to film here but they don't see a lot of good studios, and there are some in LA. Nobody's coordinating."

One of the things that got Irfan thinking beyond small-scale videography occurred when he ran into someone whose wedding he had videotaped five years prior. They told him "whenever we watch it, it's still fresh. It looks like a TV drama." The endorsement made Irfan wonder whether he had the chops to make a film.

He wanted to go to the New York Film Academy, but personal circumstances tied him to the East Bay. So he attended Ohlone College in Fremont, where he was mentored by Lawrence Iriarte, whose technical credits include The Matrix and two Tim Burton features. Irfan did a short piece related to the stage shows at the Naz, a documentary on a transgender immigration attorney, and a piece based on a relationship he'd had.

Soon after he finished his studies, a photographer friend introduced Irfan to Indian cinema star Javed Jaffrey, who has a prestigious Indian Filmfare award under his belt for the film Salaam Namaste, and is one of the stars of the highly anticipated Singh Is Kinng, which is coming to the Naz8 in August. After they became friends, Jaffrey helped Irfan break into the industry.

"I asked him if he ever comes to the States to, 'Help me out; get me into it. I can be a production assistant or anything!' And he was signed up for a movie. I was there to help out on the set. Mostly I was observing how they were shooting, how they were scheduling."

That film was 2007's Ta Ra Rum Pum, starring Indian film stars Rani Mukerji and Saif Ali Khan as husband and wife. He's a race-car driver who falls from success and makes an attempt to get everything back with one final race. A major production from the stables of Yash Raj Films, whose company is among the top 30 distribution houses in the world, this was a large-scale production shot in New England, with a second unit from the US film Talladega Nights. The experience supplemented Irfan's self-taught skills and his classroom studies with real-life film experience.


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