A motley group of Indians in Melbourne united by a common passion produce Umeed, a short film on dowry.
When Gurmeet Sran left New Zealand, his home of ten years, for Melbourne he did it only to nurture his creative skills in a city that prides itself as the art capital of Australia. The city’s ever growing Indian population also meant he had an audience to showcase his work. An IT graduate, Gurmeet’s love for filmmaking saw him through a degree in the field from South Seas Films and Television School, Auckland. He went on to produce and direct a few short films. After a year in Melbourne, as his familiarity with the city grew, a chance role in a Punjabi play titled The Goddess of Hindustan last year brought him to a few like-minded people. The result: a short film called Umeed which deals with the perennial problem of dowry. But like every art, this film has its own laws on beauty. Short and succinct, it is to the point.
Only 20 minutes in length, Umeed tugs at the heart strings as producer and director Gurmeet dwells on a subject that has been the bane of Indian society. It also comes at a time when the Indian community in Melbourne is facing its own problems of domestic violence and dowry issues. The film centres around a young and bubbly girl who is of a marriageable age girl but as days go by, her parents face the intense pressure of arranging dowry and the frustration of the parents takes its toll on her mental make-up.
Umeed was Gurmeet’s idea and a nagging memory he could not erase from mind. He saw his own friend’s sister in Punjab going through the problems of marriage and dowry and wrote the script. “The way this true story is presented will mark its category as a separate one amongst documentaries and movies made on this topic,” he says. Generally, dowry is an issue that comes to the surface post marriage when the new bride is harassed to get more money or material gifts to satisfy her new family. But our concept is different, he says. The point his movie makes is therefore this: that dowry exists very much before marriage as well.
The film was visibly made with few facilities but using Point Cook as its location, the story goes back to Punjab and some of the scenes are also shot in India.
For the team of Umeed who met on the sets of The Goddess of Hindustan, a play by Alex Singh, which was staged at Northcote last year to a full audience, it was birth of a friendship that made them commit to the project. “The team that worked together in this movie was impressed by the simplicity and reality of this story as it relates to a common man in our society and it is not an exaggeration or dramatization of a topic,” says Gurmeet.
“This is a social not commercial project. Before we even started we knew there were no monetary gains,” says Sonia Singh who plays the central character of the young girl, adding, “The starting point was the friendship we had formed, then we started throwing ideas and later we decided we should go ahead and that’s how it happened. We had to make it happen.”
Karan Battan, who plays the 60-year old father of the central character the heroine, reveals how he was at first surprised when he was asked to play the role. “But once I wore the make-up, it was easy to get into the skin of the character,” says Karan, who has just completed an acting course from the Victorian College of Arts. “When I come before the camera I forget everything and it was not that hard for me.”
Similarly when Gurmeet offered Sonia, who is head of Al Sirat College in Epping, the role of the victim or the main character, the answer was an immediate yes. He knew she was the right person to play that role. For Sonia saying an immediate yes was not giving in to a moment’s impulse. Back in Chandigarh, where she comes from, she has always been into a lot of extracurricular activities participating in youth forums, festivals and stage shows. In Melbourne too which has been home for almost nine years now, she has been a part of many activities. Interestingly Karan and she met during the Mr India and Miss India Melbourne show in 2013, where he won the best actor for a performance during the show. She went on to represent Australia at the Global United Beauty Pageant in America. “So working for Gurmeet was a chain reaction,” she says.
Sunita Sethi, who plays Sonia’s mother in the movie, says it was a wonderful experience working with the whole team. “I really enjoyed myself working in the film,” says Sunita who has done three movies in Sydney prior to this, one of which was a Hollywood movie Shadows of the Cobra and two locally produced feature films – Jhoomkar and Vishwas. Also a Masters of classical music and a kathak dancer, her passion for the arts is evident.
With all the actors having full time career/jobs, the film was short over the weekends and completed in a couple of weeks’ time. “Earlier, time was an issue with me but this time I could dedicate myself over the weekends and it was great,” says Sunita.
In fact, the rest of the cast talk about the great team spirit. “We had such a good team that it brought out the best from all of us,” says Sonia. She talks about the emotional experience as well. “Being a girl I could feel the direct connection to the story as it is such a common story.” Sonia recalls the shooting of one scene where she sat outside when Gurmeet came to her and asked her if she was ready. The scene involved a lot of crying as the daughter tries to explain to her mother that she does not want to get married. “Give your best shot” is what he told her. But the moment the lights were on and cameras started rolling, the tears came naturally. “Sunita started crying, Karan was emotional, the camera man was and the whole room was crying at the end,” she says. Of course, looking back at that day’s shooting they still have a good laugh about emptions got the better of each one of them. In a way it has been a spiritual journey of sorts, says Sonia. “We shared lots of laughter and fun, we shot for 14 hours on end at times but we were properly catered and taken care of.”
Gurmeet says that when he was studying film direction, there is a clause on how to give freedom to actors to get their best performance. So though he wrote the script he gave the team freedom to thrive in their own space. “I was taught in my school in new Zealand that you need to give the freedom to actors for maximum impact. I am also able to achieve natural expression of dialogue with freedom.” Perhaps that explains the emotional spontaneity the team witnessed.
Karan agrees there is a difference when freedom is given. “If you ask me to recite a few lines from a page I would do it mechanically but if you ask me to say something I will do with expression, intent, and depth.”
Sonia gives Gurmeet 10 out of 10 for his directorial skills. “He is not just a director but also a good friend. He knows how to take the best out of us by making us feel comfortable, he doesn’t say this is it do it now, he says when you are ready. We were being given space and freedom and I work best when space is given.”
Gurmeet has also co-directed two short films prior to Umeed. One was called Determination and was based on the story of a girl passionate about Indian dancing. Brought up in an English country she found no encouragement but in the end through sheer determination she mastered it. In the Unknown Poison, a film based on AIDS he explored yet another social issue.
The beauty of short films, says Gurmeet is that it carries a message. Even if his film does not thrive on the festival circuits as of now, he is optimistic that it will be popular in the coming times. Produced by Redhill Production, Umeed will be screed at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) on August 31. The other casts of the film include Vikramjeet Dhunna, Mona Jindal, Jitender Kumar, Shubham Dhamija and Navdeep.
Gurmeet says he is already working on a script for Umeed II combining dowry and domestic violence. “Movies are mirror of society and more than that, movies are a strong way of propagating the right rational ideas. With the current libertarian approach of Indian movies and arts where the art forms with their fictional attributes are depicting the things as they might be and ought to be, one may say that Indian society is progressively improving and is set to accept and evolve as a free society looking for further establishing individual freedom and happiness.” On his part, he following his dreams.
By Indira Laisram