Sunday, August 9, 2009

Medical Drama

Originally published in the 8/9/09 edition of The Source

by Chris Williams

In the summer of 2006, Sarab Neelam headed to the set of his debut film “Ocean of Pearls,” ready to roll cameras for the first time.

Investors had put down money, actors had been flown in from Los Angeles and equipment had been rented.

Then came the first twist.

“It was the first day of shooting and it was supposed to be a nice, outdoor summer scene and it was pouring rain,” Neelam, 48, recalled in a recent phone conversation. “Our generator truck got stuck in mud. It was really a rough way to start.”

Neelam and his crew persevered and, three years later, the finished version of “Ocean of Pearls” is ready for release. After an exclusive engagement at the Landmark Maple Art Theater in West Bloomfield, the film will expand to two others in metro-Detroit on Aug. 14, including the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights.

It’s a hometown premiere of sorts for Neelam, a gastroenterologist who has worked out of Troy, Macomb Township and Sterling Heights for several years. While his practice is his full-time job, what Neelam has always really wanted to do is direct. Ever since his childhood in India, Neelam has been drawn to the big screen.

“I loved going to the movies. I loved the colors and I felt really happy watching them; it was connecting with something larger,” Neelam said. “I said, ‘I really want to do that when I grow up.”

Years later, as a medical student in Toronto, the movie bug still had its teeth in the young man, who lobbied hard to work as a production assistant on an Indian film shot in the city. Upon moving to Michigan and starting his residency Neelam formed a connection with Kurt Luedtke, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Out of Africa,” and Jim Burnstein, a screenwriting professor at the University of Michigan and the writer of films such as “Renaissance Man.”

Encouraged by his mentors, Neelam decided to get serious about pursuing his life-long passion. Like many budding filmmakers, he was bursting with ideas and readily admits that some were too daunting for a first-time director.

“We started talking and I started telling him some of the ideas I had. And some of them were just really grandiose, $100 million ideas,” Neelam said. “Jim stopped me and said, ‘why don’t you write about what you know?’”

What Neelam knew was medicine and he decided to tackle an ethical dilemma he had faced upon starting his residency.

“When I first started practicing medicine in the States my administrator told me that if I ordered tests on certain patients I would get a bonus, and if I ordered tests on certain other patients, he would subtract from my bonus,” Neelam said. “That was really the seed for the story.”

Neelam initially wrote the script with his hero written as a Caucasian doctor. It was Burnstein who suggested that Neelam incorporate his Sikh faith into the story, giving the medical drama a layer of cultural and religious conflict.

Neelam admits he was initially hesitant to bring his cultural background into the film. However, as events in the worldbegan to foster misunderstanding about the Sikh religion he found that the addition brought a fresh perspective on a heritage that few people know much about.

“I really began to think that Jim was right because then we could show people who Sikhs really are; we’re a really peaceful group of people, but there was such a misunderstanding. The first person killed in a hate crime after the Sept. 11 attacks was not a Muslim, but a Sikh. People didn’t know the difference,” Neelam said. “There have been so many attacks on Sikhs just because we wear turbans.”

“At times I questioned myself as to why I was born a Sikh and why I couldn’t just be like everyone else,” Neelam said in the film’s production notes. “It is only with time and experience that you realize that just because you wear a turban doesn’t make you a Sikh and just because you wear a white coat doesn’t make you a doctor.”

Although his hero’s cultural background adds an extra dimension to the story, Neelam said his intent was to make sure the drama was not lost amidst political statements or messages.

“We didn’t want to make it a preachy movie. We wanted to make it a medical drama that entertained people and people could relate to,” he said. “We wanted to make it about anyone; you forget after awhile that the hero is a Sikh because anyone can relate to his problem. Most of us compromise in life; most of us don’t always think about the things we do. That’s what we wanted to address.”

The script finished, Neelam began to put himself through film school, taking classes in California and Michigan. He then began assembling a crew and a cast that includes Omid Abtahi (“24”), Heather McComb (“Party of Five”), Ron Canada (“Boston Legal”), Navi Rawat (“Numb3rs”), Dennis Haskins (“Saved by the Bell”) and Brenda Strong (“Desperate Housewives”). Abtahi, in the lead role of Amrit, was the most crucial casting choice; Neelam said he was pleased to find a man who reminded him of himself. Neelam’s contacts in the medical community allowed him access to portions of hospitals and medical centers off-limits to most people and, although his film was shot before tax incentives made Michigan one of the most affordable places to make movies, he said it was important to film in Detroit to give the film a certain look and character.

A self-described perfectionist, Neelam admits to going over budget and chipping his own money in to get scenes just right. That dedication came in handy on the final day of shooting when, incredibly, the crew found themselves waterlogged once more; a pipe had broken in the basement of the hospital where a pivotal scene was to be shot. No one was allowed into the hospital and there was talk of evacuating all of the patients.

“I was going, ‘we’re done. We’re cooked,’” Neelam said. “We were going to have to bring all these people back to film, which we couldn’t afford to do.”

Neelam and his crew decided to hang around the set awhile longer and ultimately fought water with water to get drinks to the hospital’s patience; the administration then allowed the crew in for one final, long night of shooting.

“We didn’t finish until 5 a.m. and some of the extras were getting really tired; some of them even joked and said ‘forget the money, just send us home,” he laughed. “I was exhausted, but it was really fun.”

The film has made the rounds at film festivals throughout the world and collected several prizes. In addition to opening in Detroit, it will also s open in selected cities around the country this month. Neelam said many have remarked that the film presents a rare positive message in a sea of loud blockbusters and nihilistic thrillers.

“We don’t see a lot of movies out there that don’t abuse or debase people,” he said. “This is one movie where you can make something clean that says something positive about life. I think sometimes the movies go so far in the opposite direction sometimes.”

Currently back to practicing medicine, Neelam said he has a few ideas for future films in his head—including a comedy, musical and children’s adventure. Even if he doesn’t get the chance to pursue those films, he said he is grateful for the time he spent diving into “Ocean.”

“I think it turned out really well. I’m very thankful that I was given this opportunity and support,” he said. “It’s like you’re creating something that’s going to be around forever.”

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.