The making of “A place in the Sun”: a movie on the US diaspora

The making of “A place in the Sun”: a movie on the US diaspora

January 30, 2015 | Author: Siddhartha Kak, Filmmaker, writer, idealist, foodie, lover of India in all its hues and flavours... technologically challenged but creatively challenging

It was exciting to get a commission for a major series of films on the Indian Diaspora across the world, from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA). And there was remarkable and comprehensive research available in the epic `Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora’ edited by Brij V. Lal that set us off on an amazing journey of discovery.


However, we postponed making the film on the US Diaspora for two years, because it was the most challenging film of the series. Not only was it complex but even the geography was vast. So we travelled first to Singapore, Mauritius and the countries of the Caribbean which were the first and traditional homes of the Indian Diaspora through migration of indentured labour. There was a lot of literature on the subject and it was easier to understand and film. In Mauritius it seemed as if we were back in India, in UP or Bihar, the extent of the Indian origin population there and its influence were so strong! Canada gave an interesting glimpse of how the Sikh community had reached this virgin land and began its life with hard work and labour. The diaspora of the Middle East had a different flavour, since settlement was not possible, but it was easier to capture because the physical area was smaller. The UK again had many streams of Diaspora migration both professional and from the colonies, but all bound together by strong historical ties. The US Diaspora was more contemporary, more diverse and professional and spread over a huge continent. Where were we to start?


I reached New York on a summer day for a whirlwind recce that took me all over the continent in two weeks. I stayed in a hotel and walked the streets of New York for some amazing appointments at the University of Columbia, and highly successful doctors in New Jersey, like Sudhir Parikh, TV Channels for the Diaspora like HR Shah of TV Asia, Dynaneshwar Mulay, CG of India in New York and Ashook Ramsaran the President of GOPIO, the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin which represents the concerns of people of Indian origin in the US… I was also able to have an exclusive chat and delicious meal with Chef Floyd Cardoz, who had won a Master Chef competition earlier and was then with the Northend Grill in New York.


Then a bus ride to Washington to meet the then Ambassador from India to the USA, Ms.Nirupama Rao who was a fountainhead of the most unique information about successful Indian origin people in the US including a student genius likeRitankar Das and musical prodigies like Rudresh Mahanthappa Jazz Saxophonist, Vijay Iyer Classical Pianist and Laveen Naidu – head of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. These people gave a completely different and unexpected twist to the flavour we had of the Indian diaspora in the US beyond the academic or bureaucratic list one may expect from a government source. And by the way I was able to meet Congressman Ami Bera who happened to be in Washington at that time. Later we filmed with him in his constituency in Sacramento!


One disappointment though was that I could not coincide the dates to meet with Indra Nooyi the head of Pepsico who stayed near New York, despite the Ambassadors intervention. Sadly we were not able to include her in the film for the same reason. On the other hand we were fortunate to connect with Ajay Banga who was the head of MasterCard in New York who turned out to be someone who was a colleague at college with me!


A week had flown by and I was on a plane for a five-hour journey to Los Angeles. Here, thanks to Inder Singh the Chairman of GOPIO who gave me a place to stay at his home and meet his wonderful family. Through him I met outstanding members of the Diaspora like Mani Bhaumik the great scientist, co-inventor of the Lasik corrective eye surgery and author of the thought provoking novel `Code Name God’. Mani by the way is still a dapper bachelor accompanied by some ravishing ladies! He lives the Hollywood dream full of fabulous mansions, cars and parties! I also had a very insightful meeting with Deepak Chopra and his son Gotham, cracking the Cosmic Code over coffee!Thanks to Inder we were able to recruit and find volunteers in the US who could drive us around the country. Mini Guleria who was herself planning a feature film on the Gaddar movement in the United States and young Srinivasa Kanchadapu who took leave from his IT job and took on the project out of his love for the media. We would never have been able to film our documentary if it were not for these two persons who stayed with our team for more than a month of filming and drove the crew around, not only in Los Angeles and San Francisco but also New York and Washington. Bhupinder Mac, another friend of Inder and owner of Gas stations for Chevron helped with gas coupons.


Inder Singh also organised a special evening at a hotel were I was able to meet a

number of prominent members of the Indian Diaspora. Very interesting Gaddar songs were sung in Punjabi which was quite a revelation…it was at this gathering that I met Jeevan Zutshi a fellow Kashmiri and a prominent member of the Indian Diaspora who organizes the prestigious Annual Unity Dinner for the members of the Indian Diaspora in and around Fremont in the Bay Area.


Jeevan, along with his charming wife Usha not only gave me a place to stay in their lovely home in Fremont but also hotel accommodation for our filming crew later, through his friend and hotelier Harish Panchal. Jeevan also drove me all the way to the Indian Consul GeneralN. Parthasarathi’s house for dinner in San Francisco the night I was returning to India. And thereby hangs another story. But more of that later.

San Francisco or the Silicon Valley is a sort of dream land that showcases India’s success to the world. It was wonderful to have Jeevan with me who could guide me so easily to every place with the GPRS in his car! Thanks to him I could in two days visit Romesh Wadhwani in his grand palatial home, Venk Shukla President of TiE in his office and MR Rangaswami of Indiaspora both of whom connected me to some of the finest examples of Indian origin enterprise in the US and Silicon Valley. Without their introductions, `A Place in the Sun’ would not have justified its name!


The visit to the Indian Consul Gen’s home in San Francisco was the culmination of this hectic and inspiring visit that brought me face to face with some of the best minds and hearts of the Indian diaspora in the United States. We were so busy exchanging ideas over a delicious South Indian dinner that I forgot I had a flight to catch that night from San Francisco airport that connected to a flight from Los Angeles to New York and then onwards to Mumbai. If I missed the first I would miss the entire chain and reach India 2 days late! We had two hours to make it and 100 miles on the expressway. Jeevan drove like the wind with a prayer on his lips. His beautiful Mercedes car swallowed the miles, and miracle of miracles there was no traffic jam on the expressway. Jeevan ran up with me helping my bags through to the departure gate. I reached the aircraft with 20 min to spare! I can never forget that ride which in a way symbolised the speed at which we had to work and the hand of God which favoured our intentions. Of course with the help of many good friends of Indian origin in the United States.


Two months later, my filming team headed by Director Priyanka Kuriakose reached the US for more than a month of continuous filming. And that was another adventure by itself!