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“Ocean of Pearls” Director Neelam: “A Ten Year Labor of Love”

"Ocean of Pearls" Director Neelam: "A Ten Year Labor of Love"

Real life medical doctor turned filmmaker Sarab S. Neelam’s debut feature film “Ocean of Pearls” is a semi-autobiographical tale of a Canadian transplant specialist, played by 24’s Omid Abtahi, struggling with his Sikh heritage while he is offered the once in a lifetime position as surgeon at a Detroit hospital. By accepting the position, he also welcomes a variety of relationship challenges with hospital staff, played by Dennis Haskins, Ron Canada, Heather McComb and Todd Babock. What follows is an affecting story of “faith versus duty” that examines personal compromise, hospital politics and U.S. healthcare.

“Ocean of Pearls” won the Audience prize at Toronto Reel World, the Grand Jury Critics award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Festival and the Best Feature Film award at the Detroit-Windsor International Festival. It opens in limited theatrical release this Friday.

Director Sarab S. Neelam on where his interest in film and filmmaking came from…

I have always been interested in films since I was a young boy growing up in India. I have vivid memories of going to see Indian films and getting lost in my own dreams and thinking it would be so cool to make a film. My parents immigrated to Canada when I was 10 years old. As an immigrant I was an outsider trying to fit in to a new way of life. I assimilated as best as I could to life in North America, but I looked different from most Canadians and felt like a misfit caught between two worlds. My parents wanted me to become a doctor so this was the path I set out on, becoming a gastroenterologist. But the desire to be involved in the film process and to express and find myself through art never left me. I had played around with a Super 8 camera in high school, and was a production assistant on a feature film during med school. I also took classes in acting and directing in Toronto and Hollywood. Later, I surrounded myself with talented and passionate filmmakers. I read a lot of books and have been influenced by such classics as “On the Waterfront,” “Casablanca,” “East of Eden” and “West Side Story” as well as Indian films like the musical-drama “Dosti.”

On how the idea for “Ocean of Pearls” evolved…

I wrote the initial screenplay for “Ocean of Pearls” in the late 90’s. It’s about the injustice of the American health care system and based on my own experiences as a doctor. In the initial draft the doctor protagonist was Caucasian as I thought mainstream audiences would not want to see a Sikh in the lead. But after 9/11 happened, there was a wave of crimes against the Sikh community and there was a constant barrage of negative imagery associated with people wearing turbans. We hardly ever saw ourselves portrayed as people with dignity. In addition, there were no Sikh directors working in either Hollywood, or even Bollywood for that matter. There had never been a Hollywood film with a lead character as a Sikh and millions of us were dying to see that. So “Ocean of Pearls” became the story of a young Sikh doctor who battles against the injustices of the American health system and ultimately his own identity. It speaks to the universal challenges so many people(not just Sikhs) to balance romance, family, ethics and spirituality in today’s complex world.

On his approach to making the film and the challenges he faced…

“Ocean of Pearls” was a 10-year labor of love. It wasn’t easy raising money and we maxed out on loans and went over budget. But I persevered, and for every door that was shut, another door opened. Through it all we never gave up on our dream, and clung tight to our belief that we were breaking new ground and charting a new course for Sikhs in the film industry. I had a lot of help from superb people like Jeff Dowd who was very passionate in his ideas and is clearly The Dude. From the poetic writing of Jim Burnstein and his former student V. Prasad, to the wonderful casting by Emily Schweber, and the collaborative effort of film editor Jason Stewart, everything came together in the end and it was a great ride. We knew we would live or die by the performance of the lead actor, and we were thrilled to have Omid Abtahi in the film, along with a great supporting cast.

On the film’s distribution and audience reactions…

The film has received numerous awards from festivals around the world. Unfortunately American indie film distributors thought the film would appeal only to Indians and we didn’t get the kind of distribution deal we were hoping for. We did get offers to show the film in the Indian film circuit but we believed in the universal mainstream appeal of the movie. I went with my gut instinct and we did the distribution in the indie do-it-yourself way. And we have proven the distributors wrong as the film has had a successful run in numerous cities. In Detroit alone it ran for nearly two months with 90% of the audience made up of non Indians. The reaction of audiences in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Mumbai, Florence and London was very similar and we are hoping for a similar reaction when the film opens in NYC this weekend.

On his upcoming projects…

I have several projects in the works. My next film is a unique twist on the teen genre, centering on a group of average American kids who find themselves on a strange adventure that starts on a train. I’m also a huge fan of musicals, and have an idea for a West Side Story-esque music-influenced love story set in the Caribbean islands. There is magic in the world of cinema.

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