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The Making Of A Film - On The Sets Of Voodoo Dancer

Chitra Parayath

Popular imagination would have it that making a student film is like having a party. Friends mill about enjoying refreshments and banter and the director happily shoots the whole film in a day or over a weekend.

Maybe some films do get made like so but Harbal Singh’s venture involves careful planning, sustained effort and determination. Harbal’s thesis film ‘The Voodoo Dancer’ runs a full 29 minutes and was shot in 16 mm at various locations around town.

The story
Says Harbal “The Voodoo dancer is a super natural thriller about a teenager boy whose body is captivated by a ghost of a female classical Indian dancer.”
The story, including Asian-Indian characters and a pivotal Caucasian role, tests the lengths to which one will go to protect one’s family—no matter what the cost. The film portrays a person, who must make a decision that will either result in shame or honor for the family.
The original screenplay is by Darshan Thakkar, lawyer, journalist, PR man, screen writer, clearly a man of many talents. Said Darshan “ It is good to see my screenplay bear fruition. I wrote the first draft at midninght…so that I could get the mood right, considering the film is about the supernatural. I wrote the first two drafts after which Harbal worked on it. He incorporated his ideas and brought the perspective of a director to the script. I am very pleased at how it has turned out."

The players
Director/Writer Harbal Singh, an engineer by training moved to the US about seven years ago. His passion, he says has always been the entertainment industry and the media. Having worked as a software professional for ten years, and after completing his diploma in film making from BFVF (Boston Film and Video Foundation), Harbal took the giant leap by changing gears and launching a TV show “What’s Up" in early 2003. By August he decided to pursue his first dream and enroll in the New York Film Academy. Harbal has written, acted in and directed various plays that have been featured in community shows in the area and he has also played the lead role in a locally produced English film, Perceive. He was also the assistant cinematographer for the Independent film "Comedy of Shadows" that was shot in Boston.

Assistant director Labid Aziz is an energetic young man a film maker with ten complete films to his credit talked to us in between getting a scene ready “ Film making is the ultimate collaborative effort; every one, right from the driver of the equipment truck to the director, the producer is a part of the process. We all work in tandem to produce the result that ends up on the big screen. And I am having a good time with this crew.” Aziz has produced films for NBC, WGBH, MTV and VH1. A Brandies graduate, Aziz is currently working on a documentary about bread making in America.

Director of Photography, Maria Gambale is an area cinematographer and videographer based in Massachusetts. She has worked as a camera assistant on over 30 features, narrative shorts, music videos and commercials in the past ten years.
She also teaches cinematography and videography to adults and teenagers at the Boston Film/Video Foundation and is an occasional Assistant Instructor at the International Film & Video Workshops at Rockport, Maine.

Production Manager, Billerica based Christine Andacic makes sure that things run smoothly—from obtaining proper insurance for the equipment to making sure food is on time and is in charge of the budget.

Poonam Ray, a bridal makeup and wardrobe designer from Sondarya helps the actors look their part.

The Actors
A professional film crew is shooting the Eyedea Productions film, casting actors from New England and New York area. Kunal Sharma, 16, of Andover, MA plays the boy whose body is possessed by a ghost. This is Kunal’s second film. He is also the recipient of several acting and dancing awards and has been spotted by Hollywood talent agents. Sanjay Kaul of Andover, MA plays his father. Catherine Overfelt of New York plays the boy’s mother. Catherine has appeared in Sex in the City, Last First Kiss, and in the remake of 1940’s Detour. Arsh Mehrotra of North Andover plays the pivotal role of the boy’s grandmother. Arsh is a television producer and host since the early 1990s. Radha Rani Ray, who is famous for Indian classical dancing in New England, plays the ghost.

The Scene
When I visit the crew at the Andover Middle School, shooting is just about to begin. Executive Producer and cinematographer Maria Gambale and her assistants are busy getting the cameras and lights ready. The shot requires actor Arsh Mehrotra to advance towards the camera and pause to reflect on something her grandson has said to her. Arsh, host of popular TV show ‘ Aap Ka Manoranjan’ is at ease before the camera, she has acted in plays and films when she lived in India.

There is tremendous good will and support between the cast and crew of the film, everyone pitches in, running around to fetch props, help with make-up or holding the lights.
After practicing rigorously for two weeks, the actors are impatient to begin shooting. “I can’t wait” says a highly enthusiastic Kumal Sharma who plays the protagonist in the film. “ My feet are tapping already, I want to dance!”
His screen parents, played by Sanjay Kaul and Catherine Overfelt look on bemusedly as the young man’s enthusiasm shows no sign of abating. “This is professionalism. My excitement, my energrgy, it is all my professionalism,” he says, “ I want to give my all to this project and every project that I am involved in. This is my training; this will be and has been an extraordinarily learning experience for me “ concludes the young thespian.

For Sanjay Kaul too the experience has been nothing short of magical. “ We are learning so much. Acting in front of a camera is so different from being on stage,” suggesting that these images are caught on film forever while moments on stage are fleeting.

Katherine, a native of New York confesses that this is her first exposure to the Indian American community “ It is fascinating and I learn something new everyday. I think that Harbal is doing a great job, bringing out the best in all of us.”

Radha Rani Ray who plays the Bharathanatyam dancer is equally enthusiastic about the project “ I have never done anything quite like it before. “ A stage actor and teacher, she is also a trained classical dancer. “ It feels good, though, to be playing this role as this story is so unique.”
Arsh Mehrotra is happy to be acting again, “I’m donning grease paint after about 25 years! It is exciting and invigorating to be in front of the film camera again. Harbal has the makings of a good director, he is open to suggestions and gives his actors enough room to explore their ideas too. We are all like a big family now. Since Harbal has instructed us to address one another only as character of the film, it has drawn us closer together. It is a challenge to play a character older than my age but I am having fun,” she laughed.

Harbal looks peaked but excited, “ Look around at this amazing group of people,” he says, they are all working around the clock as one, they are all as committed to this film as I am. There is no monetary compensation or awards promised to them but their dedication and support means the world to me. Actually, the whole community has joined in to help us. Mr. Gill of Bollywood Grill is provising free food for the crew, eminent dance teacher Ranjani Saigal helped us choreograph a dance sequence and folks are just opening their hearts out to us. Directing this film is easily the best thing that I have experienced in a long long time. I am learning something new everyday as is everyone else here.”

“The Voodoo Dancer” is due out in Fall 2004 and is expected to make a festival run.
For Harbal Singh, this venture is both a culmination and a beginning.

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