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August 3, 1999
Karma And Nirvana In New York
Aseem Chhabra in New York
Darshan Bhagat arrived drenched from the hot July afternoon thundershower, looking like the character Bali he plays in the new delightful film Karma Local.
Bali -- perhaps the first ever desi-slacker to be portrayed on the screen -- works at his uncle's downtown Manhattan subway station newsstand, where he gets mixed up with small time criminals operating out of the city's Fulton Street fish market.
However unlike Bali, Bhagat is no slacker. He has spent the last five years breathing life into his film, writing the screenplay, raising money, and directing it. And now he is promoting it through the festival circuits -- and looking for a distributor.
"I didn't realize it would take so long," Bhagat said, settling down with coffee. "I thought it would take about three years. But here we are, five years from the time I started writing the script and I am still at it full time."
So far, this 36-year-old New York University's film school graduate's efforts have paid off well. Karma Local has been shown at several international film festivals -- Filmfest Hamburg (Germany), Festival du Film Belfort (France), Cairo International Film Festival (Egypt) and the Kerala International Film Festival (organized by the Chalchitra Academy). Here in the US, the film has been shown at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, and at Asian American film events in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
Along the way Karma Local has received a lot of positive press. The San Francisco Bay Guardian said: 'Bhagat's first feature film is amusing and engaging... One of the best attributes of the film is the spacey quirkiness Bhagat brings to his portrayal of Bali.'
The Sun Sentinel from Florida compared Karma Local with two other classic first-time independent features films -- Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing and Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi. The newspaper added that Bhagat's work 'is (a) promising first feature of an inventive creator.'
The Chicago Reader said: 'Emory Van Cleve's (also the film's co-producer) gritty detailed cinematography pays homage to (Martin) Scorsese's Mean Streets, 'adding that "Bhagat is thoroughly believable as the befuddled, harassed innocent trying to cope with the big bad city.'
Bhagat said he wrote the screenplay with his friend, Vijay Balakrishnan, as an expression of his appreciation for New York City.
"When Vijay and I started working together, we made a conscious decision not to make a so-called Indian film," he said. "I was more interested in New York as a multi-cultural place. We also decided that we did not want to harp on the same issues that everybody (other new South Asian film-makers) are harping on."
Besides Bhagat, the other significant Indian role in the film -- Bali's uncle at the newsstand -- is played by a first time actor, Balraj Uppal. Another first time actor, Mariusz Szczech from Poland, plays the role of a Russian immigrant and Bali's beer drinking buddy -- Sergei.
American actor Josh Pais (Raphael in the 1990 hit film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) plays Charlie, a small-time gangster who leaves a bag of $ 7,000 in custody with Bali. The money is stolen, leading the two through the city's subway systems (to the beat of Bally Sagoo and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), Belmont racetrack and Fulton Street fish market where the low life gangsters are heard quoting from the Bhagvad Gita.
A true independent film, Karma Local cost less than half a million dollars -- money that Bhagat and his co-producer Cleve (another NYU film school graduate) raised from mostly friends and family. The film was shot over a period of six months.
While the final film is presented in the 35mm format, a large portion of it was shot with a 16mm camera and with the available light in subway stations.
"It was done primarily for the ease of the shooting," Bhagat said. "I wanted to shoot crowd scenes, be down there in the subway stations and it was much easier to shoot with a smaller camera and a smaller unit."
He said that conceptually shooting with a 16mm camera worked well with him. "I knew that while it will give the film a different look, it was fine for the subway scenes to be more grittier and grainier," he said.
Bhagat emphasized that due to his background in design (prior to coming to the US he attended National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad) he is more interested in film making as a craft. Often during the film-making process, he and Cleve would walk around and shoot scenes with a silent camera, later interlacing it with sound.
Compared to most films, Karma Local has very little dialogue. There are only five or six major scenes in the film where the characters actually hold conversations.
"Partly it is so, because the characters really have nothing to say to each other. But also it was a conscious decision to keep the dialogue to a minimal level," and to capture the mood of New York City on film, he added.
All this is not to say that Bhagat's work is inaccessible to the audience.
"I don't want to make movies that are hard to get or are obscure," Bhagat, who describes himself as a populist, said. "I have seen Karma Local playing to a small audience in a small theater, and also playing to packed houses at film festivals. And it plays much better to a large audience."
"As I grow older, I realize that there are issues that matter to me, a lot of things I want to talk about, things that are wrong and things that are right," he said, adding that all of that would impact the future films he would want to direct. "But primarily, I have to be able to communicate with the audience."
Karma Local will show at the Asian American Film Festival on August 8, at 5 pm at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, 70 Henry Street, Brooklyn, NY. For Tickets Call: Asian CineVision, (212) 925-6014, Brooklyn Heights Cinema (718) 596-7070/ 7124.
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