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August 11, 1999


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Now, they've shot themselves!
India's Silicon Valley engineers put their lives on 82 min of 16mm celluloid. M D Riti

A dhoti clad young man is engrossed in his morning pooja on the front lawn of his all-American home until his pager goes off with a discordant bleep. He promptly undoes his dhoti to reveal a cell phone and a pager around the waist!

Email this story to a friend. That's how Bugaboo begins...

It is the first film made in Silicon Valley by Indian software engineers there, about themselves, their daily lives. Bugaboo premiers at the Spangenberg Theatre on Arastradero Road in Palo Alto, California, tomorrow, Thursday, August 12.

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Bugaboo refers to the bugs in the minds of these engineers that makes even a life full of achievements seem uninteresting.

"We don't want to give away too much of the storyline," pleads Sanjay Rajagopalan of the San Francisco based theatre group Naatak. He has co-scripted and co-produced the film besides acting in it.

"Let me stop with just saying that it's about three friends who work together as software engineers and reflect on the ordinariness of their very successful lives. The protagonist, Bapu, is particularly affected by the one sided nature of his existence. Always living life as he is expected to live it; never indulging in irrational or risky behaviour," explains Rajagopalan.

Bugaboo is essentially a Silicon Valley film. The engineers who have produced it work for companies like Netscape, Cisco, Intel, HP and NASA. All of these India professionals live and work in Silicon Valley.

This amorphous group of prosperous young men seem to have it all: money, access to the world's best technology and a high-flying lifestyle. At the same time, they continue to live inside cocooned, secure Indian communities that are quite divorced from anything that is American.

However, the film's Web site is careful to state upfront that Bugaboo does not belittle or ridicule the achievements of Indian professionals in Silicon Valley. But it certainly raises questions about their worth. It wonders aloud if utopia is really quite dull.

Saraf plays Bapu. Sanjay is cast as another character Murali.

Naatak is a theatre group founded by Sanjay and Sujit Saraf, both of whom were PhD students in engineering at Stanford in 1995. Saraf has since returned to India as an Assistant Professor at IIT-Delhi.

Saraf explains, "We were tired of watching American movies, English plays, and laugh-a-minute Hindi skits. We thought there would be an audience for heavyweight, full-length Indian drama. And we were right. We did six Hindi plays in three years and most of the performances were sold out. After this, we felt we should try another medium."

Saraf seems to be very honest about their migration from theatre to cinema: "Film has a much wider appeal and the idea of reaching a wider audience excited us. I am sure we were also excited by the glamour of films and perhaps we thought this would take us one step closer to stepping from limousines in dark glasses and waving to screaming fans. I don't know exactly, but we just looked at each other one day and said: Let's do a film. Most of our productions have been spur-of-the-moment endeavours that have been sparked by a single coffee shop discussion, a chance reading of a great script or an extended period of inactivity."

The Bugaboo poster Saraf explains, "We wanted to make an Indian movie that was not about good-looking people falling in love despite steep social and economic pressures, as is the usual Bollywood fare. We wanted to tell a story that captured the essence of our lives (that of the majority of ordinary professional Indians in the US) but with a twist that made it compelling enough to be made into a film. We wanted to steer clear of laugh-a-minute comedy, but still make a funny, deep, thought-provoking film. Our intentions were to make a funny, intelligent film aimed primarily at funny, intelligent people."

Not surprisingly, they decided that to choose the lifestyle of the Indian software engineer as their theme.

"We felt it was the only story we were really qualified to tell with any semblance of credibility," continues Sanjay. "Luckily, it was also topical, given the recent Bay Area boom. I doubt we would have evinced interest anywhere close to this level if we were telling a story about Indian accountants from Jamaica."

So they approached Pygmy Mammoth Productions, which was formed by Tony Sehgal while he was a graduate student at Stanford. "I produce documentaries and corporate videos, but was approached by Naatak to see if I would be interested in collaborating with them to produce a feature film," Sehgal told Rediff. He became photography director for Bugaboo, which became a collaborative effort between Tony and Naatak.

It was the first full-length feature film for both organisations. Most people in Naatak have an engineering or software background.

Saraf and Sanjay jointly developed the original concept and storyline. "It took us about $21,000 to complete it," says Saraf. "We shot the film over about six weekends. We rented the camera from Film Arts Foundation. It took me three months to edit the film." All the dialogue was scripted by Saraf, and revised jointly. The running time is 82 minutes, and it has been shot in 16mm colour. It was shot entirely in the San Francisco Bay Area and its vicinity: Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Mountainview, Cupertino, Los Altos Hills, and, of course, San Francisco, the heart of the Silicon Valley.

They originally tried to find some outside investors but being engineers and not salespeople they soon found that they lacked the skills to do it. So, they eventually ended up funding it themselves, with some support from friends and family.

"It worked because we were not very ambitious in our needs," admits Saraf. "We were willing to sacrifice expensive equipment, sets and celebrity talent for quick turnaround and low stress. We are still not sure if that was the right decision. Only time will tell!"

The group is now waiting anxiously to see how its first audiences receive the film: there are three shows, to start with, on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

"We just hope that it strikes a chord and opens doors for screening to a wider audience," confesses Sanjay. "We are currently soliciting distributors who would pick up the film, blow it up to 35mm, market it widely and screen it in the US, in India and elsewhere. We also want to try to do the film festival circuit. We would definitely like to release the film in India if we can find the distribution channels and financial support to do it."

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