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October 11, 1999


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How Holy Smoke Became Reality

E-Mail this feature to a friend Aseem Chhabra in New York

Holy Smoke A few years ago, film-maker Jane Campion was mid-air flying back after a trip to India.

Among other things, she had in mind a screen version of My Guru and His Disciple, an autobiographical work by poet and writer Christopher Isherwood, which also involved his spiritual instructor, Swami Prabhavananda, who guided Isherwood for 30 years. The 1966 book is at once profound, hilarious and is filled with stories of spiritual quest, sexual sprees, drinking bouts, a car ride with Greta Garbo and lively debates with the Leftist playwright, Bertolt Brecht.

Apparently, Campion has put the Isherwood project on hold. Instead, she took up a movie project that began forming during her flight.

A young Australian girl travels to India, Campion began conjuring the story, and her search for the exotic leads her to an Indian guru. Fearing that their daughter was under the influence of an Indian cult, her family hires a middle-aged American ''exit counselor'' or deprogrammer to talk her back to "normality". The young girl and the older man set out for the Australian outback, where the roles will reverse and they both will end up impacting each other's lives.

"I am not fascinated with cults," Campion said last week in New York, where she was promoting her new film, Holy Smoke.

"I am really interested in trying to approach a spiritual life today in the 90s, or trying to understand it," the 45-year-old New Zealand-born writer and film-maker added. "I am more interested in faith, knowledge, love."

Campion, whose 1993 film The Piano (starring Holly Hunter) received several international awards and three Oscars (including one to her for best screenplay), also directed The Portrait of the Lady -- the 1996 adaptation of Henry James' novel staring Nicole Kidman.

Holy Smoke, the result of Campion's fascination with spirituality, and relationships between older men and younger women, had its world premiere last month at the 56th Venice Film Festival. This weekend, the film's US premiere was held at the 37th New York Film Festival. Miramax, the leading art film distribution and production company plans to release the film in the US in early December, a marketing tactic that will keep the film fresh in the minds of voters for the 1999 Academy Awards.

Holy Smoke stars English actress Kate Winslet (Titanic and Sense and Sensibility) as Ruth Barron, the young Australian girl who travels to India for a spiritual experience. Harvey Keitel (Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and Campion's The Piano ) plays P J Waters, the deprogrammer. Campion wrote the script of the film with older sister Anna, who has directed one film -- the 1994 independent British production, Loaded.

To research for the film, the Campion sisters traveled to Rishikesh in Uttar Pradesh to interview to young foreigners in ashrams.

"Surprisingly, there were a lot of young Israelis in India after having served in the army in Israel," Jane said, adding that she also talked to several Hare Krishna followers in Sidney.

The film's press notes list over 70 names of the Indian film crew, including that of a well-known casting director, Uma da Cunha. Though there are no Indian-speaking roles in the film, one name stands out in the list of the cast of players. Dhritiman Chaterjee, who acted in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi, (1970), and in Mrinal Sen's Padatik (1973) and Akaler Sandhaney (1980), plays the small role of Chidaatma Baba. Ruth joins Baba's sect and then shocks her conventional Australian family by announcing that she plans to "marry" him.

For the Indian sequences, Campion and her producer Jan Chapman took the film's crew to Delhi and later to Pushkar in Rajasthan. Chapman described the shoot in India as "absurdly difficult" especially due to the excessive heat.

"The crew had to shoot in 40 degree (Celsius) heat day after day," he said. "I went on set at lunch time one day and asked Jane something. Jane just said, 'Look, just don't talk. It's too hot. It's too unbearable. We're going to do the best we can."

In Old Delhi the film's production crew shot scenes in the crowded streets of Chandni Chowk, where Ruth's mother Miriam Barron (played by Australian actress Julie Hamilton) meets up with her daughter and tries to convince her to return to Australia.

Chapman said that keeping the crowds of onlookers away from the shoot was a difficult task.

"They ([the film's production team] had been trying to shoot with 6,000 onlookers," he said. "Yet the crew would come back each day almost euphoric from the experience of having succeeded despite the crowds and the difficult physical conditions."

The problems with the crowds in Delhi and in Rajasthan and the solution that the crew devised was also emphasized by the film's director of photography, Dion Beebe.

"As hundreds of people would gather within minutes of our arriving at a location, we shot from a lot of moving vehicles; from taxis and buses and from auto rickshaws, with actors placed on street corners, cued by unseen ADs [assistant directors]," he said. "There's an endless richness to India. The challenge was to capture that without drawing attention to ourselves and the shooting process."

Last year, while Holy Smoke was being shot in Pushkar, there were reports in the Indian press as well as abroad that the film's crew had violated Hindu rituals by entering the santum santorum of the Baiji temple -- a place of worship dedicated to Lord Krishna. Reports quoted a group of priests -- the Purohit Sangh -- as saying that a sacrilege had been committed since foreigners were forbidden from entering the temple.

Mr Showbiz, a web site dedicated to films and entertainment, even suggested that the bad publicity was the effect of a curse that had been placed on Holy Smoke by some Australian aborigines, who themselves were unhappy with the movie.

The ruckus was denied by a spokesperson for the film. Mr Showbiz quoted the spokesperson as saying:

"We have had the highest regard for all religions and Hindu temples, customs, and their values, and there is no question of hurting sentiments of devotees."

Jan Chapman said he and Jane Campion were equally concerned about showing respect to the religious practices of India.

"I wanted to be sure that this would not be a film that made fun of eastern spiritual practices which I actually have an interest in myself," Chapman said.

"Jane shares this interest," he added, "but she also taught me that nothing is beyond analysis. A degree of comic investigation, a certain irreverence, while also retaining a sense of dignity around the young girl Ruth's spiritual search was an essential part of the script."

Jane Campion said in casting the film's female lead she was drawn to Kate Winslet's youth and intelligence, the same traits that Ruth possesses. However she wanted to be sure that an unknown Australian actress would not be more appropriate for the role, given the fact that Winslet's performance in Titanic had given her a larger than life star persona. So Campion considered several hundred Australian actors and non-actors.

In the end, Winslet gave a "sensational" screen test with Keitel (the 60-year-old actor was always the first choice for the role of P J Waters).

About the 24-year-old Winslet, Campion said: "Kate had an emotional intelligence that went beyond her years. Kate has a gift that even she doesn't know what she can do with it. She was and Harvey were equals in the kind of energy they create."

With the two strong actors in the lead, the two Campion sisters were able to build a strong element to their story line -- the conflicts between a younger girl and an older man. Anna Campion said despite the enormous changes during our times, there is still a lot of misogyny out there in the world.

"That's something we wanted to address," she said. "We wanted Ruth to be bold and not care for PJ's good opinion."

Her sister Jane added that Ruth's character is defined by her youth.

"I believe youth tends to make people -- it made me anyway, very dogmatic, and very brave," Jane Campion said. "Young people keep us honest, they are so intolerant of anything hypocritical. PJ's character is so sure of himself that he is in deep need for challenge, that his empowered position in life denies him."

"In Ruth he meets his match, and Ruth too meets with one of her own in PJ: an explorer but one who has been wounded by the experience," she added. "I am attracted to people that are explorers."

Arthur J Pais contributed to the feature.

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