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June 15, 2000

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Blending spice and celluloid

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Firdaus Ali

When he's not spicing up a gourmet meal -- he's adding colour to celluloid reels. Chef by day, filmmaker by night, Vipin Sharma is a unique blend of cuisine king and dream merchant rolled in one.

"I love cooking, so when I found my creativity taking a backseat, I took to the kitchen instead. And, you know the best part? I even got paid for it," says Sharma, who lives in Toronto.

An Indo-Canadian film-maker-cum-chef of haute cuisine, Sharma is loving every bit of attention he is getting in Canada for his unique feat and claims he loves his "dual role".

He has his roots in theatre and nurtures a passion for the arts.

"But coming to Toronto from the conventional settings of New Delhi was a culture shock at first. I took to learning more about film editing and made a few small films along the way," says Sharma modestly. His job as chef in a local Toronto restaurant brought in the much-needed money to produce small-budget films, one of which has even won him an award. An independent filmmaker he comes up with brilliant one-liners like, "Anything that is not Hollywood is an independent film."

In the seven years, that he has been here, Sharma has made around seven documentaries and short films. His film Chemical Weekend won him the best film award at the Image Film Festival held in Toronto last year.

The film juxtaposes beauty against destruction and is a take-off from the Bhopal gas tragedy in India.

"It's about nuclear warfare, but has a larger than life humane element. Like you have nuclear holocaust and masks on one hand and singing birds on the other. It's good contrasted against evil and the film belongs to the 'Beauty and the Beast' genre,'' says Sharma.

Besides Chemical Weekend, he's also made City of Dreams, a film based on a poem he wrote about images, myths and reality of city life.

Another short film, Me, is about 'cows, candles and a Rolex'. This is a unique film and Sharma hoped to add to the novelty by relying on some live music during the showing.

It took him a while to do filmmaking, his first love, after he came to Canada. A graduate from the National School of Drama, he acted in plays like Ah-Q back in Delhi, and. He graduated in 1983 and counts among his friends actors Raja Bundela and Sushmita Mukherjee.

"NSD training definitely helped me in the kind of work I am doing today, giving me direction, self-discipline and filtering my thought process," says Sharma.

"I have acted in few tele-serials and plays too," he says. These included Yatra and Shyam Benegal's Discovery of India.

In Yatra, he played a railway worker who stops a derailment; in Discovery of India he played Ramkrishna Paramhans, whose journey of spiritualism inspired many.

When the acting bug wore out, Sharma took refuge behind the camera, assisting Ketan Mehta and Shyam Bengal for a while.

"Ketan was my guru, playing a pivotal role in my encounter with cinema. I assisted him in the making of Hero Heeralal and got to be production assistant in the colourful film, Mirch Masala," he says.

He describes Benegal a director par excellence.

"His brilliance lies in letting his actors be and the results are extraordinary," says Sharma.

If assisting big names in Bollywood is some people's idea of a claim to fame, it wasn't Sharma. He preferred to opt out of the rat race, and to graduate from the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India instead.

He made four diploma films, meanwhile becoming fascinated by the works of Ritwick Ghatak, considered by some to be India's "best" filmmaker.

This period also saw Sharma travel a lot. Confused about his career objective, he visited many film schools -- in Berlin, Moscow and Paris.

"I was kind of lost and exploring all there was to films. I knew it had to be cinema; I only didn't know which aspect of it was for me," he says.

In 1991, he left for Canada and found an excellent opportunity there for experimental cinema. Independent filmmakers found Toronto to be a haven of sorts. Sharma remained in the fringes for a year and ran a cafe in Toronto called Art Space, which screened plays and performances and which played live music for guests. It was here that he learnt to play the guitar.

"I was missing my creativity, but, thanks to Art Space, today I can edit my own soundtrack,'' says Sharma.

After a while, he met Canadian filmmaker Phil Hopman and did a few film workshops with him. The initial struggle period was tough, but Sharma waxes philosophical: "You can achieve success at any place. The answers sometimes may be hard, but you just have to explore..."

So he enrolled at the International Academy of Design to study non-linear film and video editing.

Now he is considering making a short film on cafes and restaurants, since he's worked in one for several years. And if that reminds one of George Orwell's experiences leading to 'Down and Out in Paris and London', it is mere coincidence.

Sharma says the film will "peek into the lives of the men who make and serve you your meals." He says the idea came to him while working at the restaurant one day. He is also considering a feature film that explores the relationship between actors, real life and acting. And there's more.

"I'd like to make a feature film on the Partition. There haven't been any major films made on the subject. There is a novel by Saddat Hussain Manto, I'd like to work on the script and come up with a film on the Partition that has never been made before..." he says.

That may sound familiar but, hey, give him a chance. For how often is it that you find a chap who cuts film also hacking at the veggies.

Next: Celebrating south Asian subcultures

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