Viral Lakhia

Chemical Engineer , Script-writer

and Film-maker

"One of the inspirations for Namaste was the thought of making a film along the lines of ABCD. " says chemical engineer-turned-scriptwriter and rookie filmmaker Viral Lakhia.

"But our interpretation of that is American Born 'Cool Desi', instead of 'Confused desi and this comes across through the film, he adds."Namaste is about the confidence and the faith, the elders have in the younger generation."

Namaste, a cool desi flick released in the US on March 15 and Lakhia hopes that his maiden effort will soon also release on native shores.

Vivek Fernandes spoke with the young director, who despite career jumps -- from engineering to production hand in Bollywood to director -- has always landed on his feet. Excerpts:

Tell us about yourself and about Namaste.

I was a resident of Chicago for eight years from 1985 to 1993. I even graduated from University of Illinois at Chicago as a chemical engineer in 1993. During college, I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker but was burdened with career and family responsibility.

But I told myself, soon after I had graduated that I needed to give my dreams a shot before I embarked on my career as a chemical engineer.

So three days after my graduation, I left for Mumbai. I was headed for Bollywood and worked with my uncle, Robin Bhat -- the well-known script writer and producer. We made a film called Chaahat with Shah Rukh Khan, Naseeruddin Shah, Pooja Bhatt which was directed by Mahesh Bhatt. That took about 3 years to make.

After that, it became difficult to survive in the star-obsessed Bollywood system so I decided to make a film of my own. One thing was sure, I couldn't and wouldn't make my films in Bollywood style.

Then I returned to the US, two years ago and the observations of the Indian ex pat community and its mannerism inspired Namaste.

The entire film is based on one quote - 'They know how to make a house but forgot to build a home'. The screenplay is a take off from this theme.

How long did this entire project take?

The screenplay took me seven months to complete and I kept modifying it till the first day of shooting.

We managed to get the cast and crew together by July 2001 and shot from July 31 to August 14. We completed the film in 15 days. This was mainly because of budget constraints and working with an American film crew for the Chicago based film .

Preproduction in terms of casting took around a month and the post production was wrapped up in Mumbai in 3 months. The rest of the time was spent on marketing, trying to find distributors and exhibitors -- locating the right people to release the film.

Working with so many first timers must have been a task considering that you were debuting as director too. What sort of planning, research and coordination did this whole project involve?

Working with first timers was a scary thought at the beginning. Acting is a craft in itself and even the great ones fumble so work with first timers was a daunting challenge.

But one thought always haunted me, even while I was writing Namaste. I didn't want film or theatrical histrionics to be a pert of the film. Namaste is a simple film about everyday events, everyday people... I wanted normal people who would relate to the characters and the situations they were in.

And if I have, as a director, succeed in tapping the honesty of my actors then Namaste will be winner.

I had to be mindful of other things too. I didn't expect professional acting from my cast, that would be taxing them too much. I had to make sure the atmosphere during the shooting stayed healthy. I wanted them to feel that they were here not to act or work but rather to have fun. We were successful in that aspect; the camaraderie we shared was contagious and even working upto 16 hours a day, the cast came in and left with a smile. At least I hope they did. *smiles*

With the spirit of teamwork we have been able to make a great family entertainer. And 90% of the people, in front and behind the camera, were all first-timers including myself. To be able to give platform to people's creative voices felt great.

How did you zero in on the cast for the film?

The casting was a difficult aspect. The lead pair -- Amit Mistry and Perizaad Zorabian are from Mumbai. They were recommended by a friend and a local model coordinator.

They were finalised at the the first meeting. They fit the roles to the tee.

Amit plays Raj, a young chap from Mumbai who comes to Chicago for his cousin Asha's (Asha Patel) wedding. Asha tells him that her Dad (Kul Anand) and her uncle Vijay (Kirit Patel) have parted ways a few years ago and her only wish is to see the two unite.

Raj promises Asha to reunite the brothers and enlists the help of her best friend Ria (Perizaad Zorbian). Using his Indian charm, Raj fulfills his promise and in doing so falls head over heels with Ria.

The local cast was all family, friends and neighbours. I called up everyone I knew and asked if they knew of anyone who was interested in acting and I was surprised by the response. The local talent came from all over the US -- from New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Houston, even Toronto.

Why isn't the film releasing in India? Will it shortly? Are you planning on showing it at film festivals?

The film is a maiden venture. So, everyone in the business wants to gauge its performance before getting involved. We will release Namaste in the US on March 15 first and then in the UK. I'm praying that eventually we will be able to open in India too.

The film festival circuit is a definite yes. But that may take a while; we are processing applications but it could take as long as a year. With outside funding our first priority would be to see that the film is released in Indian circuit properly.

What other projects are you also working on?

I have completed my second script, a love story revolving around a couple who drive from New York to Los Angeles. We plan to begin working on it soon, by early June.

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