May 18, 2001
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The Rediff US Special/ Aseem Chhabra

'I Didn't Want to Be Invisible'

In the late 1960s, Sugith Varughese, an 11-year-old in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, saw his first Indian film.

The film -- Satyajit Ray's Apu's World (Apur Sansar) -- was screened by the University of Saskatchewan's film society.

"I remember thinking 'Oh my God, there are Indian people in a movie'," recalls Varughese, the Cochin-born son of an Indian neurosurgeon.

"I would go to see Roy Rogers's films with my friends at the Broadway Theatre every Saturday afternoon. And in that moment I realized that my friends didn't have to do the work that I had to do when I watched those movies. They could easily project themselves into the Roy Rogers movies, but I had to make this leap of imagination because there were no Indian actors in those films."

Watching that movie was a major experience for Varughese, the only non-white child in his school in Saskatoon.

"It was the visceral experience of seeing Indian people on the screen for the first time," says the writer, actor and director. "And that's when I realized I didn't want to be invisible and I guess that's what motivated me to join this business."

Toronto-based Varughese, now 43, has been in the business of writing, acting and directing for films and television since 1979. He wrote and starred in the first Indian film made in Canada, a television drama for CBC titled Best of Both Worlds (1985).

As a director, he has been nominated for and won several Canadian film and television and international film festival awards.

And, by his own count, he has acted -- often as a day player (couple of days work), in over 60 films in Canada and the US, including supporting roles in director Brian De Palma's science fiction thriller Mission to Mars (2000), and The Spreading Ground (2000) starring Dennis Hopper.

He has also done over 15 doctor roles for stars like John Ritter, Garry Busey and Kim Basinger -- "telling them why their spouse has cancer, or whatever".

Last month an IMAX film that he co-wrote with a science writer Amanda McConnell -- Lost Worlds: Life in the Balance -- opened at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Narrated by Hollywood star Harrison Ford, the film explores the mysteries of our planet's biological diversity.

The film is also showing at the New Mexico Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Discovery IMAX in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina. Over the next several months it will be released in practically every major city in North America.

Varughese was approached to work on the project by Jeffrey Marvin -- his film school friend (the two attended York University in Toronto) and a producer of Lost Worlds. Although Varughese had not worked on a non-fiction project before, Marvin valued his story-telling abilities. Sugith Varughese and Armin Mueller-Stahl in Brian De Palma's 'Mission to Mars'. "Discovery Channel, PBS do all kinds of science documentaries, but when you are making an IMAX film, you have to transcend that particular genre and get something that people want to see," says Varughese. "Since my background is more dramatic, they were looking for a dramatic structure that would embrace the science and make it into a story, rather than a set of material you study in a classroom. It pushes the envelope from the conventional science documentaries."

The subject matter -- bio-diversity -- can be quite daunting, he says. So he tried to tell the story of a group of scientists who go to the top of the Angel Falls in Venezuela (the world's highest waterfall) and to Mount Roraima -- the flat-topped plateau in Venezuela which inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World.

The falls and the plateau have been inaccessible until now and have remained relatively untouched by anything other than nature. In telling the story of the scientists, the film then expands on the theme of bio-diversity.

A drama major at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Varughese was one of the first students in Canada to receive an MFA in film studies from York University. Prior to that, a Canadian who wished to attend film school would have to attend a programme in the US.

But his parents did not quite realize what a graduate degree in film studies meant in terms of a career. "They were content when I was just in school, it was something I was studying," he says. "I think had they known how difficult this career could be, they might have been discouraging. For Indian families it's all about schooling. I graduated summa cum laude. But all that stuff does not matter in show business."

The road has not been all that difficult for Varughese, especially since he switches between acting, writing and directing. He was actually writing for television two months after he started the graduate programme.

"I go for auditions and people who hire me as an actor do not know me as a writer," he says, adding that casting procedures and policies in the US are very different from those in Canada.

"Americans are more open to casting brown-skinned people in non-Indian parts than the Canadians are," he says. "They feel it enhances the marketing of a movie. Canadians tend to cast Indian actors only if a part specifically calls for an Indian. They are more politically correct."

Harrison Ford with Bayley Silleck, director of 'Lost Worlds: Life in the Balance' Recently he played the role of New York City councilman in a Disney Channel film, Get a Clue, where he was cast as a sleazy politician called Gary Eikare.

"The name of the character is not Indian at all; in fact there is nothing Indian about him," he says. "His ethnicity would be me, whatever that would be."

And since the murder trial of O J Simpson, he has been doing a lot more criminologist and coroner roles. After seeing Asian faces, including that of Dr Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, chief medical examiner of Los Angeles county, and Dennis Fung, a criminologist with the Los Angeles police department, Hollywood producers are very keen to reflect that reality in their films, Varughese says.

Every so often, the director of the film suggests to Varughese that he put on an Indian accent to bring more authenticity to the character. He says he can understand when some Indian actors in North America get offended when they are asked to put on an accent.

"My feeling is that this business is about working," he says. "I consider the accent issue an acting issue. I have turned down parts because they offended me. The accent didn't offend me, the character did. In portraying the Asian experience in North America, well, some of us have accents. And as an actor playing the part, I want to respect the reality. I have been in cabs and some of the drivers have accents. So if I am playing a cab driver, well, I am going to given him the accent, if it is appropriate."

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