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Epic movie on Sikhs planned

By George Joseph in New York
December 06, 2005 01:16 IST
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Dr Chirinjeev Kathuria, who created history when his Mir Corporation sent the first ever tourist into space, has now joined with director Babu Subramaniam and entertainment attorney and model Punit Sabharwal to make Passage Against the Tides -- an epic narrative of the arrival of the Sikh community on American shores, and its struggle for survival.

"It will tell the epic story of a people to survive in an inhospitable land," Kathuria told rediff-India Abroad. "We expect it to be a huge success in its cross cultural appeal as well as at the box office."

The film is structured as a multi-generational portrait of the Johar family who settled, a century ago, in Southern California's Imperial Valley. It tells the touching and inspirational story of the two middle sons, Gurmeet and Harbance, who learn to co-exist out of a struggle for economic survival in the face of prejudice.

Transcript of the Chirinjeev Kathuria Chat

Kathuria said he has planned it as an independent film, on the lines of Bend it Like Beckham and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Work on the screenplay is currently in progress, and shooting is expected to start in August of 2006.

It will be a multi-million dollar project, Kathuria -- who with Subramaniam and Sabharwal has formed a company named Passage Productions solely for making the film -- said.

"We are working with a great team of people, and the feedback is tremendous. We are looking to have a fusion of Bollywood actors and Hollywood actors," Kathuria said. "The actors will be drawn from several countries; filming will also be done in several countries."

Subramaniam has been working on the theme for some time. The director initially planned it as a TV series, but found the prospect of converting it to a feature film more appealing.

Kathuria said he had known Subramaniam for several years. "The story attracted me very much," Kathuria, a Sikh himself, said. Sabharwal is a descendant of the early Sikh settlers.

"Passage Against the Tides will generate the same kind of excitement and interest as some of the other projects that I have worked on. This film will appeal to all audiences -- it will have South Asian, Japanese, British, American, European, Hispanic and African American characters and will be identifiable to a domestic US and a global audience," Subramaniam said.

The director pointed out that by 1910, close to 5,000 men from Punjab had found jobs in America. They had traveled across the ocean not to settle here, but to earn money enough to return to India. However, poor wages and working conditions forced them to pool their resources, lease land and grow their own crops.

A number of them settled in

the Imperial Valley, just north of the Mexico border, where they used water from the Colorado River to irrigate the desert, a way of farming familiar to them from their homeland.

As they prospered, they sought to marry and settle down, though immigration laws forbade importing brides from India. So they turned to the Mexican women working in the fields who, much like the women back home, covered their heads and bodies from the blazing sun.

The American journey of 21-year-old Gurmeet and 19-year-old Harbance began in Vancouver, in Canada. But no jobs were open to 'Hindoos.' So they traveled to Washington state, in the US, found employment, and faced attacks by the white settlers in the region.

The brothers then found work with railroad companies, a very dangerous job back then. Gradually, they reached Yuba City in California, where other Sikhs had by then settled. From there, the journey was to Imperial Valley, a land no whites wanted, and which the Sikhs made their own.

 'I Just Came Back From Paradise'

Their success here bred enmity; laws took away their rights for land; the struggle for survival intensified. Meanwhile, Harbance became attracted to the Gadar (revolution) movement and moved to Canada.

In 1914, 370 Sikhs were brought to Vancouver in a ship named the Komagata Maru. Canadian officials refused entry to the 'brown devils', and they were forced back to Calcutta, where some of them were shot dead by the British police.

The story of these struggles is, in the film, interwoven with love affairs, marriages, births and deaths; it ends with the passing of the Luce-Cellar Act of 1946, that allows Indians to become citizens of the US.

Subramaniam has impressive credentials, having been involved with the hit television series ER since its inception. He has directed multiple episodes of the show, and received awards for his work from the Director's Guild of America West.

He has been a first assistant director for over 25 years, working on such hit films and TV serials as Star Trek - The Next Generation, Untamed Heart, Hill Street Blues, and The Paper Chase.

 'We Are Going To Colonise Space'

Kathuria, who earned a medical degree from Brown University and an MBA from Stanford, was the founder of X-Stream Networks, Inc., which he sold for $75 million. He was instrumental in helping build the MirCorp BV company, which created history in 2000 when the company launched space programs for civilians.

More recently, he co-founded PlanetSpace, Inc., which seeks to build a commercial suborbital space vehicle.


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George Joseph in New York