June 22, 2002 
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Nisha Pahuja
Bollywood calling
Indo-Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja profiles desis trying their luck in Hindi Cinema

Firdaus Ali in Toronto

Bollywood, India's vast filmmaking centre, produces over 300 films annually, which is far ahead of Hollywood. Every day many descend on the city of Mumbai with Bollywood dreams in their eyes. They come from the fields of Punjab, the plains of Gujarat, of Rajasthan and, more recently, from the suburbs of Canada.

No one knows more about their dreams than Indo-Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja.

The 34-year-old followed four fellow Indo-Canadians on a trip from Canada to India, the country with the largest film industry in the world. As they crossed the seven seas with stars in their eyes, Nisha was there, camera ready to roll.

The result is the film Bollywood Bound, where she captured their every hope, tear and frustration through her lens. The film, which marks Nisha's directorial debut, won her rave reviews at Toronto's recent Hot Docs Film Festival.

Says Nisha, "I grew up on a staple diet of Hindi films and was always awed by what Indian films had to offer to girls growing up in the West. I saw young Indo-Canadians making a beeline for pageants and film shows, claiming their stakes in the game of fame. Fame, that they could find only in the bright arc lights and beneath the greasepaint of Bollywood. I decided to track four such aspiring stars on a journey that was very enriching."

The film was shot at one go, while the filmmaker was in Mumbai between 2000 and 2001. Bollywood Bound is the latest feature-length documentary from the National Film Board of Canada and features Neeru Bajwa, Ruby Bhatia, Vekeana Dhillon and Vikram Dhillon.

The film moves between India and Canada using innovative cinematography, and has a remarkable mixture of documentary reality and stylish surreal video techniques to meld action and emotion.

The film has some actual shooting sequences from a few films (Mela, Asoka) and comes interspersed with song and dance. Nisha also tries tracing the history of Indian cinema along the way. The song from Silsila, Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum fills the background as the aspiring stars land in Mumbai.

These are their stories:

Neeru Neeru: She leaves behind her native Vancouver to travel to Mumbai on the slim promise of a screen test. Now, if only the producer would return her call.

She is very candid on camera and believes she can one day become a star. But a rude awakening makes her hate the city.

The metro that looked flawless and beautiful in the movies is full of chaos, beggars, splashing rain, heat and dejection. Neeru returns home without becoming a star.

Ruby Ruby: : Miss India-Canada 1993, she rose to fame as a Channel V veejay and a host on Star TV. She is perhaps the only Indo-Canadian to have tasted a good measure of success.

There are flashbacks of her winning the Miss India Canada pageant, but others are real-life shots, like Ruby doing her makeup for her various television shows and chatting with Nisha in between.

The other side of Ruby, the one that is seeking spiritual fulfillment, has also been touched upon.

Vikram Vikram: His parents sold their fish 'n' chips shop to send him to India. He dreams of being an action hero. "He reminds me of the Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan, strong, big shouldered. Hard on the outside and soft on the inside. For him, there is no other career besides Indian films and he believes he will strike gold one day,".

Vekeana Vekeana: This is Vikram's sister who lambasts casting couch producers and feels that her talent and good looks will be recognised one day. Vikram and she finally land coveted roles as veejays on Channel V.

Success in Indian cinema does not seem such a distant dream to these young actors. On their Canadian home ground, they would consider themselves lucky to land small ethnic roles in television or movies, but feel they can hit gold in Mumbai.

Bollywood Bound examines the ways in which these four very different young people experience both rejection and exhilaration; their childhood dreams sometimes close at hand, sometimes tantalisingly out of reach.

The film has been shown at the Artwallah Film Festival in Los Angeles; the Calgary International Film Festival; St. John's International Film Festival and La Femmes Festival in Paris.

For filmmaker Nisha, the film is one of self-appraisal and recognition of the South Asian identity. "We need our stories to be told. We need to be more visible through art, literature." says Nisha.

Bollywood Bound also allowed her to escape her own skin. "In the West, one always lives with the shame of being Indian or brown. You always try to hide your identity and your culture. But the film helped me discover myself. It taught me to get over the shame of not being white and that being Indian could be very beautiful and very heroic, just like the movies," she adds.

The issue of 'belonging' also comes through well in the film. The aspiring stars are 'too Indian' in the Canadian mosaic and 'too Western' in the Indian ambience. Nisha's own journey to Mumbai was filled with incredible heartache and sadness. "It was like homecoming. I went to Bombay for the first time after a gap of almost 20 years. I was shocked to see the satellite-influenced city. Rich kids emulating the western culture on the streets of the city were not NRIs but Indians, and this shocked me no end at first."

By the end of the film, Nisha started feeling for the actors. She had started to share their dreams and each rejection came as a personal blow to her. "I started to hope for them and I badly wanted for them to succeed. For, somewhere in their success, lay my own personal victory," says Nisha.

A student of English Literature, Nisha worked in the social services before moving into writing and researching for documentaries. She co-edited Bolo! Bolo!, an anthology of writing by second generation South Asian Canadians. She worked with Canadian filmmakers like John Walker and Shelly Saywell and and noted Indo-Canadian filmmaker Ali Kazmi before Bollywood Bound happened.

Future ventures include a personal film which deals with Nisha's relationship with Indian cinema. It is for all those who live in the two worlds of movies and reality, she says. The second film is based on an opera singer and that is all she will reveal right now.

As for Bollywood Bound, it is likely to be India-bound soon, where it will be shown to smaller theatre audiences.

India News Feature Service


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