The Films of Little India
by Lavina Melwani
Don't make the mistake of asking Harish Saluja that ubiquitous icebreaker, "What do you do?"
You'll find yourself launched into tales of half a dozen professions, for this gregarious Pittsburgh-based Punjabi from India seems to have his hand in just about every pie there is. He is engineer / publisher of technical books / artist / scriptwriter / movie producer / director / actor /radio host / a homespun philosopher and exponent of Urdu poetry.
Saluja came to the United States in 1971, a 25-year-old with an engineering degree and a head full of creative ideas. Instead of pursuing a career in art or theater or films, he turned to the bread and butter of engineering.
As he likes to say, "life gets in the way of art." Making a living became his primary concern. Saluja is the chief executive officer and co-owner of two technical magazines, Measurements and Control and Medical Electronics.
Saluja may be an engineer by day but there's the artist, the director and the dreamer inside of him. His abstract paintings have been exhibited in the United States and Europe to critical acclaim. Saluja's mother was a classical singer and he himself is passionate about music, serving as long term host of an Indian music program on National Public Radio.
His paintings are visual music, inspired by the colors, emotions and textures of the wondrous ragas. Wrote Harry Schwalb in ARTnews, Saluja sees the music's endless patterns -which evolve simultaneously in repetitively strummed layers of tone and rhythm -as like colored threads, woven by the performer into a musical carpet. If at first glance a Saluja painting seems unstructured, eventually (like a raga, which at first hearing may be outright monotonous) it is found to express an emotion or evoke a season, a time of day, even a specific landscape, with surprising accuracy."
Saluja has always been interested in the world of film, but once again life got in the way of art. Although he established his film company New Ray Films, named in honor of Satyajit Ray, years ago, he has just completed his first film, The Journey. In the intervening years he was associate producer of Tony Buba's No Pets, a feature film that was shown in the London Film Festival. He acted in the Walt Disney film Money for Nothing and was executive producer of the feature film Dog Eat Dog. He also attended the "Directing the Actor" workshop at the Sundance Institute in Utah, and has acted in various commercials and industrials.
What's attracting a lot of attention is the fact that he has managed to land two of the top Indian actors living outside India - Roshan Seth and Saeed Jaffrey -for his debut film. Seth has starred in Gandhi, A Passage to India, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Stalin. Saeed Jaffrey has acted in a vast variety of films from Satyajit Ray's The Chessplayers to The Man Who Would be King to The Deceivers and Gandhi. Both actors have had distinguished careers in British theater and television, and Jaffrey was awarded the O.B.E. on the Queen's Birthday Honors list for his services to drama, the first Asian to be given this award.
Seth and Jaffrey acted together in the epic Gandhi as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel respectively, and ten years later they worked together again in My Beautiful Launderette.
How did he pull off this coup? Saluja chuckles: "Yes, it was difficult. They are big stars and very busy, and I'm a first time director. After all, who wants to take the risk of coming all the way from London or Delhi, go to a small place like Pittsburgh where some bald little Punjabi is going to make a movie?"
He maintains that the script of The Journey which he has penned, won the stars over. The story is a comedy/drama where not only cultural but generational clashes take place when Kishan Singh, a retired school headmaster, comes to live in America with his son Raj, an Indian physician who is married to an American woman, Laura. There is humor and angst as two lifestyles clash and yet find common ground.
Roshan Seth stars as Kishan Singh. Saeed Jaffrey plays Ashok, his friend from college, who has lived in America for many years and provides a cynical counterfoil to his innocent enthusiasm. The role of Kishan's son Raj, the physician, is acted by Antony Zaki, a young South Asian actor from Britain who has extensive film, television and theater credits. Laura, Raj's American wife, is played by Carrie Preston who just finished shooting My Best Friend's Wedding with Julia Roberts.
"The moment the heroine wears a white saree in a Hindi film, you know it's going to rain. There are no Bollywood-type fat women in wet sarees singing and dancing around trees in my film," says Saluja ruefully. The message of this thoughtful, cross-cultural film, is that "We shouldn't get bogged down with superficial exteriors in life but look into a person's heart and judge them that way."
He has made the film for under $3 million, and raised part of the funds from the Indian community in Pittsburgh. Most of the would-be investors, however, preferred to give him free advice on how to make the movie rather than money. He says, "First they tell you they are not going to give you the money -then they tell you how to shoot the movie. I don't know about the rest of the country but in Punjab at least, I think most of the medical schools teach film direction on the side!"
He shot the film in three weeks. "The production was on budget and on time. Even the weather gods smiled. Every outdoor location was sunny." The Journey will be entered in various film festivals, and Saluja is confident that this emotional film will find a market in many countries including Europe and will be of special interest in countries with large Indian populations.
Saluja has 25 years of immigrant tales within him. He believes that Indian Americans have many stories to tell and they cannot afford to wait for the mainstream film-makers to do it for them. "Nobody is lying awake at night, worrying about telling stories of our people. This is our job -we are the generation who have been here 15-20 years. We have beautiful stories unique to our culture. It is up to us not to propagate the cliches of Indians either as rich, accented doctors in the suburbs with the Mercedes, or as the millions lying in the streets in India. There is a huge spectrum of beautiful reality in-between."
Saluja hopes to attract a group of like-minded Indian Americans who are successful and are willing to invest in producing these movies.