APA talks to director Harry Kim in San Francisco, where his debut film Dirty Hands: the Life and Crimes of David Choe won a special jury prize.
Director Sarba Das talks about growing up with feet in two cultures, translating that biculturalism into a transnational call-center comedy, and then finding an audience in India.
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Director Sarba Das talks about growing up with feet in two cultures, translating that biculturalism into a transnational call-center comedy, and then finding an audience in India.
Sarba Das's 2000 short film Mausi premiered at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, played dozens of festivals worldwide, and even found a distributor online at Jaman. And everywhere, audiences would ask, "This is a cute little film, but when are you going to make the big version?"
"This into a feature?" she'd wonder.
Her NYU thesis film about literally killing off India from an Indian American family thus expanded into something more dynamic and resonant with the absurdities of Indian-American flows today. With brother Sarthak, Sarba Das found comedy in the call centers, one of globalization's more unusual manifestations. Their script won the Richard Vague Production Award, a $100,000 prize given to NYU alum for their first feature. And Karma Calling was born.
"The traditional way to make a first feature is to get hooked up with a producer and hopefully they get the money and do it," says Das. "We got $100,000 so I figured I'd just greenlight myself, raise a little more, and make it." Das recruited some of the top Indian American actors and even found a part for Sopranos star Tony Sirico in an unlikely role as Lord Ganesh. The project took Das from her hometown in New Jersey, to Los Angeles, to India, where some of the shooting, animation, and post-production work was done.
There are other call center movies like The Other End of the Line with Jesse Metcalfe. What sets Karma Calling apart is its insistence on seeing and hearing the phenomenon from the perspective of both India and America -- specifically from the experience of growing up Indian American.
Interview with Sarba Das
March 14, 2009
San Francisco, California
Interview by Brian Hu
Photos of Das by Ada Tseng
Asia Pacific Arts: How were you able to make connections in the Hindi film industry?
Sarba Das: A lot of it was family. Family in that my mother's college friend happens to work in the Hindi film industry. She actually dubs movies like Casino Royale and other American films into Hindi for release theatrically there. She runs a bunch of sound studios. It was all about being cost effective: how much is it going to cost to do sound design here? Can I hook up with a good sound designer? The movie has parts in India so I knew I'd have to go out there.
But I probably should rewind a little bit. My first real short film in college, I made in India in my parents' hometown of Orissa. I didn't know that sound and film were even different. I didn't know that you recorded the picture and you recorded sound. So I just showed up in India and said I wanted to shoot a movie. I ended up hooking with some film students in the Pune Film Institute and they sort of took me under their wings: Sound and picture: different. You need to make a shot list. They schooled me as I was doing it. The product of it was a 15 minute short film called Passage, which was a day in the life of a one rupee coin and how it exchanges hands as it moves through this one town. That planted the seed of my wanting to do filmmaking in India. I worked with a lot of the same people when I went back [for Karma Calling].
My childhood was definitely split between East and West. Even though I was born and raised here [in the United States], I did Indian classical dance as a child. I used to spend every summer in India. So I had that in my circle, where I spent a lot of time in India, a lot of time here. It just seemed natural that anything I did film-wise would have that same turn, and that in the making of it we would go back and forth and have the best of both worlds in many ways. The film industry there is incredible: the skill, the level of technicians. I know it's not all quality films, but they're making three times the number of films than any other film industry combined, so their chops are tight. They are very very good at what they do. And I found that to be absolutely true in the process of doing Karma Calling. Crews work differently, the style and how their workday goes, just their approach to things -- they're very fast and on it. Growing up between East and West, it was natural that the movie would be about East and West.
APA: What I liked about Karma Calling was that it's not just a hybrid of East and West, which we've seen so many times. It's about characters discovering each other's hybridity.
SD: Exactly. I see this movie as the Indianization of American things and the Americanization of Indian things. Which is kind of something I found going back and forth. I'd go to Mumbai and they would be into things about American culture because they were into it, and they'd say [to me], "You're so Indian. You know about all the Hindu gods. We don't even know our own mythology, but we can tell you about Gwen Stefani and No Doubt." I feel like the call center is the perfect paradigm because that's a world unto itself where they're living on American time, they are up all night and sleeping in the day. In many of the call centers, from the minute you walk in you're not allowed to speak your native tongue at all. You're only allowed to speak in English. They watch Simpsons and Friends and learn about American culture. They go through catalogs to see how Americans shop. They do all of this training. That is the perfect paradigm of these two worlds meeting.
The film is also about immigrants struggling and coming over. But my experience is growing up with hip-hop beats and eating Indian food, Indian classical music and eating pizza. So I feel like our film is not about the new immigrants, but the ones who have been here, where the Indian families are trying to Americanize as quickly as possible. And then you see the aunties come over from India and want them to stay where they are. But they're actually more Indian than the people in the call center who live very American lives. I feel like a lot of people look at immigrant stories and see the stories of struggle and acclimation to a culture. I find this to be a very serious take. But I feel like it's not that simple in my experience, and there's so much comedy in it. So that's what I really wanted to focus on: the funny parts that happen. At the screening at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, my mom said, "You didn't really write a movie; you just took everything I said and put it in." Which is kind of true. My mom will look at a Blackberry and call it a blueberry, or she'll look at an ipod and call it a tripod. She just naturally does these things. She has her own terminology and her own take on stuff. So that found its way in.
Also, I found that when my father's generation came to America in the 1960s, it was the brain drain generation. But now it's really varied. You have a lot more working class people who are coming from India -- it's not just the computer software engineers. And I felt like that was a story that Indians in America generally don't know as much about it. So I felt that going with a cabbie working class family from New Jersey reflects something I'm seeing more and more. It's not exactly how I grew up, but it's what I was exposed to, more so than the generation before.
APA: It seems that people in India too are surprised to see this going on in America. There's that great scene in which the grandmother imagines what their lives must be like in the United States and it looks like a Bollywood movie about NRIs. But when she arrives, it's the complete opposite.
SD: Right. She gets there and thinks, "Where am I? Are these my family?" She gets out, and she's in a limo and wonders, "I thought he was a cabbie," because they're trying to show off to her. But when she gets out, she asks, "Why is the limo so big but the house so small?" Also, in India it's a culture of saving, and in America it's a culture of spending. But you can see that now spending is touching into India as well. Credit cards, all of that. But a character like Mausi wouldn't understand not paying your rent on time and borrowing and swiping cards. As opposed to saving your pennies. But India's doing well in the global economy. Before, I'd never see credit cards and people taking loans to open up businesses.
APA: So how do you think an audience member in India would react to your film? I don't know if you've shown it there yet.
SD: I was in Mumbai last year for a month, and I was meeting with sales agents and distribution companies there. We did some small screenings, and it was really interesting to see. One of the things I was nervous about was that they would think that my take on it as an American wouldn't be right. And there were a few things, like the accent of Mausi. They said, "She sounds like she might have a slight American twang to her voice. Has [the actress] lived in America a long time?" Well yes, she's lived there for 35 years. "We can tell. She's not 'true' Indian." Some small things like that. But overall -- like 90% -- felt like, "Yeah this is how it goes down." Something that Indians like to see there is how Indians are living in other countries and cultures, and how they're living in America. For them it was very interesting to see this family. The family in our movie is not a very traditional family obviously. For instance, there's the kid who's into the hip-hop stuff and that's what he wants to do. One thing that completely went over everybody's head was the bat mitzvah.
What was really funny was that they picked up on Tony Sirico because they do get The Sopranos there. But I didn't know. I thought they might react negatively -- that I'm taking a Hindu god and disrespecting it. The mood of the movie is light and if you're coming in to laugh, and you see the Ganesha doing all this crazy stuff, he may as well as have an Italian accent from New Jersey. Their interest in it was really to see how Indians live abroad. Even though it's not a realistic picture, it's based in some level of reality, growing up in New Jersey.
I had cousins who worked in call centers. When we were expanding Mausi, a cousin of ours called on the phone. I said, "Calls from India are really expensive." And he said, "I'm working at a call center. Do you know what that is?" This was three or four years ago and people weren't as in touch with it as we are right now. He started telling us these stories like "My name is not Rohit, it's Rob," or "It's not Krishna, it's Chris," and all this sort of stuff. He was the one who said he watched The Simpsons for an hour a day to get schooled in American culture. He watched Friends. And we thought this was really funny stuff. Going to work at night. Getting paid great money. Drinking American coffee, not chai. That element was really interesting, so we wanted to make that part of the movie. We asked how we could get these worlds together: the call center and the Indian family. How about if the call center calls the Indian family? So that's how that idea started.
APA: The casting of Rob (Samrat Chakrabarti from Kissing Cousins) worked perfectly because he and the other call center workers were all Asian Americans.
SD: They were all Asian Americans, and that was my big fear showing it in India. In casting his part, it was very difficult to find somebody who could play the accents and interchange them perfectly because the whole movie has to ride on the fact that he is convincingly American and convincingly Indian. And believe it or not, not everybody could. I auditioned out of India, but I couldn't find anybody who could do the American accent. But you could find Asian Americans here who could get away with accents better, and Samrat really had it down. He is the charismatic master of accents. He would work it back and forth. Our Mumbai sales agent felt that Indians would like this, and he loved Samrat in it.
The question now is when we go into distribution there. They normally dub films in India, but with our film, it's going to be a special situation because our entire film is based on American accents. If you dub the entire movie, you're not going to get that he's going between two worlds. So now they're going to subtitle the movie in Hindi, which they never do. Or just release it in English, and not do anything with it. But it's going to pose an issue: the language and the dubbing. Because his part was really complex in that way. I searched high and low for an actor to play that part and was lucky to find him. He's actually in Calcutta right now filming, but he'll be in L.A. for the Asian Pacific Film Festival [in May].
APA: He's filming a local production in Calcutta?
SD: It's an American independent production with Radha Mitchell, [The Waiting City].
APA: Now that Hollywood wants to be in Asia, it looks like Asian Americans will be the ones to make this realizable.
SD: I think so. We have our foot in both worlds. I could easily live in India, and I could (and do) live here. With the crossing of cultures, the world is becoming a smaller place. Samrat's been working a lot. The guy who plays Peter Patnick, [Parvesh Cheena], is booking gigs front, left, and center. Kavi Ladnier is up for a Chris Kattan movie that's about going to Bollywood. It's Chris Kattan going to Bollywood to make a movie. This is opening a great opportunity, because they are casting these movies out of here [in the U.S.] and taking Asian American actors to India and working there. I think we're going to see a lot, lot more of it. Which I think is exciting.
APA: It seems that most of my Indian American friends despise Bollywood, or at least have a conflicted relationship to it.
SD: Yes! [laughs] We have a love-hate relationship.
APA: Forced to watch it, but can't get it out of their heads. Like there's that great scene where the hip-hop obsessed son who hates Indian culture is in the shower singing a DDLJ song.
SD: Yup. It's funny because an American friend told me that it's not right that he should be singing a Hindi song in the shower. We did a take where he did a hip-hop song instead, but when I put it together, I felt like that's not him. He's the guy who deep down inside is cheesy Bollywood, because he knows all the songs and grew up around it. We all have this weird self-inflected kind of relationship. Growing up, I would see my parents watch these Bollywood films, and I'd think, "Great, I can't watch the TV now for three and a half hours. Now it's another song. These movies are so fake." I detested them, but they did seep into the makeup of how I see the world in a lot of ways.
My next script is actually about an American who goes to Bollywood in the 1970s. It's an action-comedy. It's kind of like Get Shorty goes to Bollywood. It's called Bollyhoods. It's very much about this obsession. Why Bollywood movies became Bollywood movies. Why people are singing on hilltops with snow. Well, people want to see snow. They want everything: they want to laugh, they want to cry, they want to do it all in one movie. Every film needs to be this dramatic epic thing. As a kid, I really didn't like it. But then about six years ago, Bollywood became cool in American culture, and all of a sudden these things we pushed down became okay because other people liked it [laughs]. And we look at it in a different way now and can have fun with it and not be in it so much. My thing was that I just couldn't get over how unrealistic it was. Which I love now. People would play double roles, where they'd die and come back as their son. In our film Bollyhoods, the actor will play a quadruple role. I love the 70s because the movies were run by the underworld, and the themes of the movies were what they were because the underworld bosses wanted movies that were kind of movies about them: movies like Don.
It's love-hate, love-hate. And I like older movies probably because though I grew up not liking them, I can look back. In Karma Calling, we've got Don in it. I wanted to use a lot of the music. I had [composer] Herb Graham Jr. listen to a lot of Bollywood scores from the 70s with those funky guitarists. There is something about it that defines the family because it's the sort of movie they'd probably have on in the house.
APA: Going back to this idea of loving and hating Bollywood. Doesn't this play into the same criticisms that some people have lodged against Bollywood? Where by the end of the film, the NRI figures need to discover their "true selves," which is that their hearts belongs to India. Do you feel that your film is more complicated than that? Or do you think it's playing to similar desires that deep down inside, they're Indian?
SD: For me, the focus was not on identity as being Indian, but identity as being about family. The movie was about learning to live together and learning to be family, and the problem is the Indian vs. American thing. Everyone needs to live together. I didn't think so much about it being "Am I Indian at heart, or an American at heart?" I think we played the banter back and forth, but we never tried to define them. When Mausi is about to leave, she says to Ram that she wants to leave for India because she doesn't want to be a burden. He says, "You're talking like an American." And she flips back and says, "Well you are an American." The question keeps getting raised in the film, but I don't think I've answered it, because I myself have not answered it as an Indian American. Am I Indian or American? It truly is both. I think we raise a lot of questions, but don't answer them. I mean, do you feel like this is something they discover in the film?
APA: I think for certain characters yes, but I think it's more about how in the love stories, it's about, for instance: the hip-hop producer discovering he's more Indian than he thought, and that she's more American than she thought. It's more about surprise.
SD: It's about trying to find the harmony even though there are the differences. I think Shyam and Radha's story is the perfect example of that. It's a little more difficult with Sonal and Rohit because they're never together and they're talking on the phone. Their relationship is a little more intellectual. But with this relationship, you really see them butt up against each other. She wants to be friendly but doesn't understand his world, while he's trying to cast off that world but she represents things he likes about that. It's through the character that the country comes. And she comes to love America more because of him, and he finds the Indian part of himself because it comes through her. It's more character-specific.
APA: Can you talk about the production design of the film? It was fascinating to me because it didn't feel like the kind of house I'd seen in either an Indian or an American film about Indian Americans. I'm not sure if it's a house I would see in real life. There's something very natural about it, at the same time it's very hokey.
SD: It's funny because we got an abandoned house, and we could build our set within the existing structure. We painted the walls and I picked out wallpaper. Our production designer was super attentive to details on this. He basically got in a car and said to me, "Take me to all of your aunties and uncles. I want to see what they have." So you're going to find plastic silk flowers, and hokey stuff that Indian people have. He just started tagging everything and pulled things from people's homes and from my own parents' home. I sort of have this obsession with 70s-ish looking things, so that's where we get the wavy wallpaper. I feel like this family is living in now, but there's something about the parents that's a little a bit lost in that world. Their idea of romance is going to Atlantic City. It's very cheesy 1970s. I gave him that to work with. Cheesy Indian people. Sort of tacky. And bright -- lots of bright colors. You'd see them in a wall in India, but not in America usually.
Karma Calling premiered at the 2009 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and will play at the Los Angeles Asian American Film Festival in April. For more information, go to the film's official website here.
Date Posted: 4/17/2009