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Harish Saluja's "Journey" -- A Lesson in Selling, The Hard Way the Hard Way

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire August 18, 1998 at 2:0AM

the Hard Way
0

the Hard Way

by Anthony Kaufman




"I never wanted to be an engineer," says Harish Saluja. "I wanted to be
a filmmaker." While many independent filmmakers are fresh out of film
school, eager beavers with a big credit line and the youth and naivety
it takes to make movies, it took Saluja "45 years to do what he really
wanted to do with his life." An accomplished painter, poet, engineer,
technical magazine publisher, and radio show host in his new home of
Pittsburgh, the Indian producer, director and writer has seemingly done
it all -- except make movies. And although he finally realized his
passion by making "The Journey" last year -- it recently finished off
its extensive festival circuit life at New York's Asian American
International Film Festival -- Saluja has found getting his movie into the
marketplace an even more challenging task.


Saluja made "The Journey" with the same amount of technical precision
and careful planning of his engineering past. He read books, took
seminars, worked on a few film crews, studied Kurosawa, Bergman, and his
hero Satyajit Ray (after whom he named his company, New Ray Films) and
took their advice in preparing as much as he could. He created what he
called an "actor-proof" and "crew-proof" set, with two of the most
esteemed Indian actors in the English language world of film, Roshan
Seth ("My Beautiful Laundrette") who stars as a traditional Indian
father who moves in with his son and Waspy wife, and Saeed Jaffrey ("The
Man Who Would Be King
"), as his more assimilated best friend. Saluja
also had a proficient film crew made up of Pittsburgh professionals,
waiting in-between big budget gigs (like "Silence of the Lambs") or high
paying commercial shoots. But what Saluja had not prepared for was the
machinations of producer's reps and selling his film in today's
competitive and cutthroat market.


After an industry screening in September of last year, Saluja was
pursued by what became his first producer's rep, with high hopes of
foreign and domestic sales. After almost a year went by and there was
not a single sale for the movie which Variety critic Emanuel Levy said
was a "nicely executed, cross-cultural, cross-generational, serio-comedy
[which] deserves to be seen on the big screen, particularly in cities
with large Indian (and other immigrant) communities," Saluja began to
worry. "I should give seminars," he says over his own frustrations with
his first producer's rep.


"It seems what you desired most in your life is ultimately your
undoing," Saluja quotes a line from his own film, explaining, "So it is
not your enemies who come and screw you, it's not circumstances so much;
it is our own passion and obsessions which generally messes up our
lives." Saluja, who was going into the market inexperienced and alone,
admits his mistake is his own. "Wherever there is a chance to even get
$5 for your film, you go and do dumb things. You want it so badly, you
tend to go with whoever promises you the moon." Concluding cynically, he
says, "There are people out there in this industry, who know what you
want to hear and they will push all the right buttons."


In response to his unfortunate experience, Saluja suggests making a
shorter term deal with reps, where they have a certain deadline or
cut-off point, like up until Cannes or Berlin or the next market.
Saluja advises, hire them under "graduated performance evaluations as
opposed to a generic three-year deal."


Learning from his mistakes, Saluja further admits, "My best advice,
which I did not follow, is not to make the film unless you have some
distribution pipeline." But Saluja quickly realizes this advice is
impossible to follow as most films would never get made if filmmakers
waited for distributor's greenlights. Not to mention, what aspiring,
eager director would just sit and wait on their masterpiece? Saluja
did, in fact, try to take his own best advice. Before shooting, he
talked to distributors like Fine Line and Overseas Film Group, but all
ultimately passed, saying in Saluja's words, "it's not cutting edge
enough" and that he should "go make the film" and then bring it back to
them.


Now that the film is shot and finished, has screened successfully to
numerous festivals (winning an Audience Award at the Florida Film Festival)
and the first rep's option has expired, domestic rights are back in Saluja's
hands and he is now on the hunt for distribution. At this point, he is quite
realistic. "It is unreasonable to expect a mass theatrical release," he
says. "On the other hand, there are urban centers with strong ethnic
populations, especially Indian populations, where it has played in full
houses, so there is some chance to make a little money there." Saluja
hopes that distributors will see these opportunities and pick up the
film for a limited release.


Also, unique to Saluja's distribution possibilities is the extensive
network of "Indian theaters" which usually play big budget Bollywood
films (Indian musicals) to packed houses in many large cities across the
U.S.. Saluja maintains that there are around 130 theaters that belong
to this "subterranean" network of Indian exhibition, also adding,
"Indians are fanatic about films...It's part of our culture."
(India's movie industry rivals the U.S. and France in its production
output.)


"What I've been trying to do is to sit down and tell these people
[Indian distributors like Eros], "Look, you have shown shlock so far and
you can make money, but if you want to expand your horizons, here is a
film which is a 'quality' film as opposed to a frivolous film, and it's
an English film as opposed to a Hindi film and you'll get to do
distribution all over the country, and you'll get a higher profile."
Saluja sees the possibilities not only for his film, but for the whole
Indian network: "You'll get reviewed in major newspapers and get
established as a distribution channel. You don't have to limit yourself
only to Masala films."


As an English-language Indian film, Saluja and his film are really
between a rock and a hard place; Saluja must convince Indian exhibitors
that his film has Indian appeal and American distributors that his film
has American appeal. Whether Saluja joins the ranks of Mira Nair ("Kama
Sutra"), perhaps the only other consistently working independent Indian
filmmaker, remains to be seen. But Saluja is busy working on his next
script, a sort of "It's a Wonderful Life" in reverse, tentatively
titled "Chasing Windmills" about a man who realizes his utmost ideal and
then commits suicide in order to savor his success. "But that's only
the first five minutes," laughs Saluja, who despite the many pitfalls
he's experienced, appears to be likewise realizing his dreams.