“Ocean of Pearls,” opening this week at the AMC Forum 30, may have been directed by a local doctor, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the work of an amateur.
A tender, thought-provoking story of faith, tradition and compromise, the film is the assured debut from Sterling Heights gastroenterologist Sarab Neelam. It’s the story of Amrit Singh (Omid Abtahi), a young surgeon who finds himself wrestling with his Sikh heritage when he takes a job at a Detroit hospital.
Neelam has stated that he originally envisioned the film with a Caucasian hero, but I cannot imagine the film without the cultural thread that runs through it. Not simply a niche film, “Ocean of Pearls” is not simply about being a Sikh, but about how that heritage and tradition affect Amrit’s thoughts and actions. Neelam explains pertinent information about the Sikh faith, but never in a way that feels condescending or stops the plot cold. He illustrates critical components of the faith - such as the cutting of one’s hair - by placing them in a plausible context and having Amrit wrestle with the implications of his decisions. The cultural context is refreshing, but Neelam also grounds the story in universal questions about tradition, chance and compromise, mixing in a story of medical ethics that resonates in a time when health care is being debated in every medium.
Neelam gets a solid performance from Abtahi, who captures the questions and struggles Amrit has while still giving him a natural joy and likability. The key to the film, never feeling preachy or false, rests on Abtahi’s shoulders; to his credit, he creates a character whose traditions are so much a part of his life and background that his dilemma is instantly relatable and sympathetic, not forced in over heavy-handed.
Neelam shows a strong eye for composition and I especially enjoyed his use of color. The hospital scenes, depicting Amrit’s compromise, take place in sterile, white environments. Scenes of faith, family and romance are more lushly lit and filled with warm colors. It’s a detail that many first-time directors wouldn’t think of, and yet it gives the film emotional resonance and depth.
There are some hiccups; a flirtation with a coworker comes off as awkward and I would have appreciated one additional scene with Amrit’s father before his big reveal in the third act. The dialogue in some places feels a tad stilted and I would have appreciated more fleshing out of a subplot involving an incompetent surgeon (Dennis Haskins, “Saved by the Bell”). But these are beginner’s stumbles; at least I hope they are - it would be a shame if Neelam didn’t take another turn behind the camera. “Ocean of Pearls” hints at a unique and skilled cinematic voice waiting to be discovered. “Ocean of Pearls” is currently showing at the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights.
Originally published in the Aug 16, 2009 edition of The Source.