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's screenplay will be set in the East Bay, in English, with what he describes as an "American mentality and background." But since he expects to shop it to Indian producers, he's hoping to adjust it to include dialogue in Hindi. "It depends on the opportunity. Now people in India are used to English. Films like The Namesake, more arty films, tend to be shown in English there." The catch is that he's planning to pitch his movie as a commercial production rather than an art film. "Commercial has more exposure," he notes.

Toward that end, Irfan knows he needs some musical interludes. "In a Bollywood movie you have to have music," he said. "If a guy and a girl aren't dancing, it's not a Bollywood movie."

While he is working on the screenplay for next year, Irfan will be busy coordinating another Indian film, this time a low-budget feature that's set in the East Bay and is expected to begin shooting this fall. After being recruited by an old friend he ran into recently, Irfan has been the director's local point of contact. "I'm doing whatever's required," he said. "I was assisting the line producer. They are expecting me to assist the direction and pull some resources in terms of finding a crew and locations. If this goes well, I'll be ready for my movie, but at this point my weddings are piling up on me."

As far as Irfan knows, this will be the first project from India shot from start to finish in the East Bay. And the director is talking about using the East Bay in the future for other ventures once the production team is established here.

Mumbai-based producer Anubhav Anand cast his 2006 film It's a Mismatch in the East Bay. But he shot it in Riverside because that's where the investors were and because he felt that area had a lot to offer as a locale. "For an independent movie it's always good to have access to a lot of resources. The University of Riverside was very nice to provide us with a lot of their facilities."

Finding the talent was another story. "You don't have a lot of databases out there in America where you can get these Indian actors," Anand noted. "When we started casting for certain characters, we sent out casting notices all over America and fortunately there were some organizations, some theater groups in the Bay Area, and they suggested that they would have quite a few people who would fit the bill. We were fortunate that two very good artists came from the Naatak theater group, and one person who moved from Northern California to LA was also cast. In the process I found out that Northern California does have a good concentration of people involved in arts and entertainment and theater specifically."

Local resources are a key draw, especially for independent filmmakers on a budget. Ex-Berkeley resident Leena Pendharkar was in Oakland a couple weeks ago scouting locations for her first feature film, Raspberry Magic. While lamenting that California cut its financial incentives to filmmaking, she is still excited to film here. "We're poised right on the cusp of Silicon Valley and this is a great location to shoot because it's really beautiful and it's really film-friendly," she said. "There's an overlap between the Bollywood and South Asian indie film community. We're tapping into the Indian/South Asian network of professionals who wanna see the kinds of movies we're making get made. We've done meetings with investors here."

As Indian awareness of US resources grows, and local communities look to India for their films and finances, these types of cross-fertilizations are beginning to bear fruit.

At February's Berlinale film festival, Shah Rukh Khan, widely considered the world's biggest film star, was asked if he plans to work in Hollywood. "I'm not trying to be modest, but I'm 42 years old, I'm a little brown, I don't have any specialty as an actor," he replied. "I don't know kung fu; I don't dance the Latin salsa. I'm not tall enough. There is no space for me; there is no place for me. It's not my choice. It's not like I land at the LA airport and Steven Spielberg's waiting for me there. He is not."

Yet Khan may have spoken too soon. In June, just four months later, San Leandro's India-West newspaper reported that Spielberg himself is negotiating with Mumbai-based Reliance ADA for funding to start a new company that will generate about six films a year. In exchange, Reliance will own half of the enterprise, and also is funding production houses for Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, and Nicolas Cage, among others.

The underlying message is that the two film worlds are orbiting more closely. For example, in one of the California scenes from Kohli's Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, the angel Geeta uses her magic powers to make the HOLLYWOOD sign read BOLLYWOOD. "It won't be long before an Indian studio might just buy into a Hollywood studio," Kohli opines. "And you know, we do make more films than Hollywood. It is not an overtly aggressive message, but why not? We'd love to see a Bollywood sign like that. I think what I did — which appeared to be a joke — is not really a joke. I did it as a fun thing but, yes, you never know."


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