Back in the late 1980s in the Detroit area, a young, Indian-born Sikh doctor named Sarab Neelam contacted fresh-faced screenwriter Jim Burnstein about a desire to make movies. Neelam had a lot of different ideas for films, and pitched everything from children’s stories to Middle East epics.
“I wasn’t interested in any of them,” Burnstein recalled (writer of “Renaissance Man”), who currently heads the University’s screenwriting program in the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures. “But I was interested in him.”
Namely, Burnstein was interested in Neelam’s own story, having never met a Sikh before. And as the two got to know each other, more details emerged: Neelam’s family had moved from India to Toronto when he was 10 years old. He went to med school in Toronto before coming to Michigan to work at Detroit Receiving Hospital, where he quickly became frustrated with how patients’ insurance plans determined whether or not they could be treated. Not only that, but Neelam’s own cultural identity was (and still is) creating problems for him.
“To this day, when I stand up in a plane, a lot of eyes will look at me, you know, in a negative way,” Neelam said, referring to his long beard and turban.
In Sikh tradition, uncut hair is kept as an article of faith, and men (and some women) wear their turbans as important spiritual symbols. Yet much of the U.S. public remains unaware of their significance, and in the wake of 9/11, people have often mistakenly equated a turban-wearing Sikh with a radical Islamist.
It was Neelam’s desire to educate audiences about his own culture, combined with his wish to tell a story about a doctor navigating the U.S. health care system that led him to develop and direct “Ocean of Pearls.” The feature-length narrative film was shot entirely in Michigan and will tour several local theaters during the next few weeks.
“Ocean of Pearls” tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young Sikh doctor named Amrit Singh (Omid Abtahi, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”) who takes a job in Detroit and immediately starts fighting to save non-insured transplant patients. At the same time, he struggles with compromising the traditions of his family for the sake of getting further ahead in his career. He alienates his girlfriend (Navi Rawat, TV’s “Numb3rs”) and father (Ajay Mehta, “Americanizing Shelley”) in the process. It’s an emotional journey, and one told with surprising grace and subtlety for a first-timer.
But to make the film a reality, Neelam spent ten years learning filmmaking from the ground up. He took classes on directing and acting while continuing to work at the hospital. And though he had a script prepared, Burnstein was unsatisfied with it because the main character was an American doctor, leaving the Sikh character as a secondary.
“I’m like, ‘No, no, no, it should be about the Sikh,’” Burnstein remembered. “It’s so much richer when you’re telling the story of the guy coming to America. It’s a universal story.”
He hired one of his former students, a (non-Sikh) Indian named V. Prasad, to tailor the story around the Sikh.
The guys also managed to reel in Hollywood legend Jeff Dowd as the film’s executive producer. Dowd, who was the inspiration for the “Dude” character in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Big Lebowski,” gave advice to Neelam over the phone and even came into Detroit to help out with reshoots.
Referencing Dowd’s famously laid-back persona, Burnstein added, “he is that guy, but even more so.”
Burnstein refused any offer of money from Neelam in exchange for producing the film. Finally, Neelam, who plans to continue working as a doctor even as he pursues a filmmaking career, promised payment in the form of free lifetime medical advice for Burnstein and his family.
“I said, ‘Oh, you just made a terrible deal,’” remembered Burnstein. “We’re hypochondriacs.”
The film’s message has struck a chord with audiences across the country. Neelam remarked that Sikhs everywhere have thanked him for telling their story. Although the director took some heat for a scene in the film’s trailer where Singh sheds his turban and cuts off his hair, Neelam noted that the only complaints have come from those who hadn’t seen the actual film and therefore weren’t aware of the rationale behind the powerful scene. In fact, after “Ocean of Pearls” premiered in New York, Neelam received an e-mail from a Sikh boy who decided not to cut his hair after seeing the movie.
For his part, Neelam is very aware of the pressure on “Pearls” to succeed. “This is the first time there’s been a lead character that’s been a Sikh,” he said. “From Hollywood there’s never been one character like this.” He added that neither Hollywood nor Bollywood have any prominent turban-wearing Sikh directors.
But if “Pearls” finds the success it deserves, there will be at least one.
“Ocean of Pearls” is currently playing a one-week engagement at the Maple Art Theater in Bloomfield Hills through Thursday. It will then screen at the Emagine Canton and the AMC Forum in Sterling Heights from August 14-20 before traveling to San Francisco. In June 2008, the movie won Best Feature Film at the Detroit Windsor International Film Festival. Check www.oceanofpearls.com for future screenings.