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May 17, 1999


Rebel Without A Crew

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

Shani Grewal In the mid-1990s, Shani Grewal, a South Asian film-maker in Britain, was struggling after the failure of his first two feature films. The two films -- After Midnight (1991), starring Saeed Jaffrey as a night watchman in a Dublin hotel and Double X (1992), a horror/mystery movie -- were panned by critics and failed at the box office. In his late 30s, Grewal suddenly found himself without work.

Then, in 1995, Grewal read a book, Rebel Without a Crew, written by Robert Rodriguez, a 23-year-old American film-maker. Earlier Rodriguez had made history by completing a feature-length film, El Mariachi, for a mere $ 7,000. The film and the subsequent book made Rodriguez a mythical figure that inspired several other young independent film-makers.

"Inspiration or what?" Grewal said recently in an interview in New York. "Here [Rodriguez's book] was a lesson in making a feature film on the lowest of low budgets [with] no interference, no producers or distributors to contend with."

Grewal's subsequent film Guru in Seven, a poignant sex comedy featuring Asian-Indian actors, opened in England last summer to mostly positive reviews. Empire Online a British movie review web site remarked that Grewal's low-budget venture 'packs more energy and honest-to-goodness spunk than many of the other more lavish products currently clogging the multiplexes.' But The Daily Telegraph, commenting on the film's low-budget look, said it was 'technically inferior.'

Recently, the film was shown in New York by the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of a nine-city tour programme titled: Changing the Guard -- The Festival of New British Cinema. The British Council-sponsored festival presented new and emerging elements in current British cinema, as a counterpoint to the hugely successful recent films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Full Monty and Shakespeare in Love. The programme is travelling through November to several American cities.

Grewal said though he used El Mariachi as a model, he already had a certain reputation as a film-maker. His first two films cost approximately $ 500,000 each, with backing from Channel Four and other independent production houses in England.

"Rodriguez did El Mariachi when he was 23," he said. "I made my first short film when I finished film school in the mid-Eighties. I knew I couldn't do a film this time for nine or ten thousand dollars. The film I was set to make had to have a certain production quality."

Guru in Seven cost Grewal approximately $ 50,000, still a paltry sum as compared to most studio and independent films made now. A typical independent British film without stars or special effects costs about $ 3 million. My Son the Fanatic, the Udayan Prasad-directed film starring Om Puri and Rachel Griffith, was made for about $ 1.5 million.

Grewal raised the money by issuing 100 (British) pound shares to family and friends. He got the support of Saeed Jaffrey, who plays a small role in the film. Jaffrey's wife Jennifer was Grewal's casting director. The actors worked for no money. In addition to writing and directing, Grewal who shot the film using a hand-held camera (a la Rodriguez) also edited it. Besides being an inexpensive method of shooting the film ("We had no tripod," he said), Grewal used the hand-held camera since he admired American television producer Steven Bochco and the camera style that is associated with his hit show, NYPD Blues.

In Guru in Seven a thirty-something Asian-Indian artist on welfare, Sanjay -- played by a charming young actor, Nitin Chandra Gantra, is going through a mess of a time. He refuses to commit to marriage and his black girlfriend walks out on him. His father wants him to settle down in an arranged marriage set-up and join the family business. Concerned about his state of mind, Sanjay's partying friends, played by a mixture of Asian and white actors, propose a bet: if he can sleep with seven different women in seven days, he will forget his girlfriend and become what they describe as "the guru".

Grewal said he was concerned about the sexist tones in his movie.

"Write about what you know, and then come back to us, I was told," he said, referring to producers and film financiers who refused to back his projects following the failure of his first two works. "And so I wrote about what I know," he added, at the same denying that Guru in Seven is an autobiographical work.

The film works because Grewal's writing is fresh, laced with a brilliant sense of humour. Moreover, the lead actor, Gantra, gives a thoroughly natural performance. Throughout the movie Grewal makes his lead talk straight at the camera, making the audience his confidante.

"While what Sanjay does [attempting to sleep with seven different women in seven days] is not very nice," Grewal said, "by making him talk to the camera, I wanted the audience to empathise with him."

In Guru in Seven, Grewal's characters, especially the Asians, are well assimilated into British culture. "They don't feel rootless," he said, "in fact they have the best of the two worlds."

The Empire Online review said: "Ultimately, Guru's greatest strength is its heartfelt refusal to pander to a [white] audience's expectations of cornershop-owning Asian Britain... [Y]es, young Indians also swear, smoke, drink and screw."

In making Guru in Seven, the Ludhiana, Punjab-born Grewal learnt a valuable lesson about Asians in Britain and their commitment to the arts. Other than his immediate family, hardly any Asian bought the 100-pound shares he was selling to fund the film.

"There are so many Asians now who have access to money, who have access to power and who can do things for the arts -- not only film, and they don't do it," he said. "I don't know why, but it is an anathema to them. You still need a British [as in "white"] producer to make an Asian movie."

He said businessman Swraj Paul's son Angad Paul, a producer of the recent hit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is one of the few Asians in Britain who has shown commitment to the arts. All of the other British films with Asian themes, including My Beautiful Launderette, Sammy & Rosie Get Laid and Bhaji on the Beach," were produced by non-Asians.

The epilogue in Guru in Seven is set in India. Grewal said he would love to have his film shown in India. He is all the more keen, since he has heard that pirated video copies of his film were available in Bombay even before the film had been released in Britain.

Venues through November:

June: Bing Theatre, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90036; Tel: 323 857 6177; Fax: 323 857 6125

July Cleveland Cinematheque, Cleveland Institute of Art, 11141 East Blvd, Cleveland, Ohio 44106;Tel 216 421 7450, Fax 216 421 7438.

August: The Film Center Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus Drive at Jackson Blvd, Chicago IL 60603; Tel: 312 443 3608, Fax: 312 332 5859.

Walker Art Center: Vineland Place, Minneapolis MN 55403: Tel: 612 375 7612; Fax 612 375 7618 (Note: Walker Art date may move to January/February 2000).

September: Northwest Film Center, 1219 Southwest Park Avenue, Portland OR 97205; Tel: 503 221 1156; Fax: 503 226 4842.

October: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston TX 77005; Tel: 713 639 7530; Fax: 713 639 7399.

November: Cornell Cinema, 104 Willard Straight Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853; Tel: 607 255 3883; Fax: 607 255 9910.

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