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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Then, earlier this year, after attending a cousin's wedding in Bangalore, Irfan visited Jaffrey in Mumbai, where he had just started work as a featured actor in Shaurya, a film about a Muslim army member accused of terrorism. Irfan ended up part of the crew.

"I bought this camera because I was trying to learn still photography and become a cinematographer," he said. "I was clicking all these photos on the set." When the director saw a picture of him and Jaffrey that Irfan had snapped, he was surprised to learn that the photographer was not just an unskilled bystander. Irfan said the director showed the photo to his camera crew as inspiration for how to shoot a scene, and soon he was asked to come on board as a crew member. "Next thing I knew, I was assisting the direction team!" he said. In the end, Irfan composed shots for the film and served as an actor when a crucial scene involving the Pakistani army was undercast.

Like Irfan, Rashmi Rustagi is looking for her break in film. Originally from Lucknow in northeast India, she has participated in theater, radio plays, TV, and film since the age of nine. But after she married and came to the United States in the mid-'80s, she found there were no theater outlets for brown people in her first homes of Buffalo and Birmingham. "You had to be either black or white to get into theater," she said. "There were no plays written for our color or ethnicity. So I didn't even attempt it." To keep a foot in the game, she would emcee music and dance shows aimed at the Indian community when they came into town.

When her husband's job finally moved the family to the Bay Area in 1997, she found Naatak, a thirteen-year-old Sunnyvale theater group that produces plays and films in Indian languages and English, and began taking acting classes. Rustagi discovered the huge theater community here. These experiences help her when she is auditioning for film roles, which she's been pursuing for several years. "When directors see your theater background, they are impressed," she said.

Three years ago, she appeared in Khanda, a movie set in Oakland and aimed at an Indian audience. But so far such acting is a passion, not a profession; she said the director made it clear that he was not going to pay her whether or not the film ever made any money. "In fact I paid out of my pocket for the makeup and the wig and everything." she recalled. "We end up spending our own money to be in an independent film." The film's Berkeley-based director wants to release it in London, Hollywood, and Mumbai, but as far as Rustagi knows nothing has yet come of those plans.

Earlier this summer, Rustagi auditioned for a yet untitled major Indian film that started shooting in the Bay Area on July 25. It is to be directed by Imtiaz Ali, whose 2007 hit Jab We Met (When We Met) garnered seven nominations and two trophies at each of the Filmfare and International Indian Film Academy awards. The story follows a professional who moves from India to the US, and sees a counselor for cultural adjustment and love problems. Rustagi vied for the counselor role, and last week got a second callback to meet the director, who impressed her by graciously offering tea. Ali told her he's here because the lead character builds bridges, and the Bay Area has nice bridges. Rustagi's casting agent said it's good that Ali saw so much local talent.

Rustagi said such opportunities seem to be growing. "There is some stuff beginning to happen in the Bay Area," she said. "It has its charm as a location. There's a whole generation in the East Bay of emerging Indian theater that are intellectuals and people who want their voice to be heard."

These productions are usually small-scale. "There is an independent Indian film scene in the Bay Area," Rustagi said. "More and more people are doing it, more and more engineers who came with eight dollars in their pockets from India, and have had companies go public and are very comfortable in their financial life, started doing cinema or creative arts that they always had a passion for but never had the time or the money. More and more people are trying to do that. They're doing it and then the second- and third-generation Indians that have families here, that have grown up here, are also doing stuff. It's definitely an emerging scene and I would say that ten years from now, there would be a big scene, maybe just in the Bay Area, or between LA and all of California."

However, it's still tough for films to be made and distributed in the East Bay. In 2006, Rustagi was cast locally in a Bollywood-style film with songs and dancing called It's a Mismatch. The film featured two ubiquitous Indian actors, Anupam Kher (the father in Bend It Like Beckham) and Boman Irani (a popular comedic actor in India). It was received well at US festivals, but didn't get a distribution deal. "People are making Bollywood films here, just not as much," Rustagi said. "It comes to big budget. Those films are big-budget films in Bollywood. The singing and dancing and choreography and music just puts an extra layer of financial strain on them."

It was probably a letdown for Irfan to come back in 2007 and resume his tax business after a taste of the creative world of Indian filmmaking. So he started musing about writing a script based on his own ups and downs. Ideally, he'll mix comedy and light entertainment. His film will be masala, but with an underlying moral he'd like the audience to remember. "When I see all these Indian movies today, it's like they are lacking the social subject," he said. "Even in Hollywood they are lacking the social subject. Nowadays it's all like special effects and some weird stuff like the Earth is falling apart."

Irfan's message is a personal one. "Everyone seems to have this fake happiness shell around them," he said in explanation. "But when they're alone it's like they aren't happy with themselves. Most people are lying to themselves." He wants to convey that it's important to be honest with yourself and others in relationships. "When you start lecturing, people don't want to listen, but when you start joking around, people will laugh, but the message leaves some impact."


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