The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tradition, turmoil and a personal journey

“Cheeseburger dipped in sambar” is how Somnath Sen describes the expat Indian reality. To portray this cultural confusion (on both sides of the globe), he has brought together on celluloid an “achingly beautiful” veteran, a minister and a talented fresh face.

The probasi Bangali who grew up in Delhi is now based in Los Angeles, but Calcutta can’t be left out of the promotional tour for Leela, a Dimple Kapadia-Vinod Khanna starrer, set largely in California. After an anjali at his south Calcutta barir pujo, he settles down to talk about his maiden feature film, set for release on November 1.

This is not art-house stuff destined for film festivals, nor is it your standard commercial flick. In English, and in parts Hindustani with subtitles, Leela has Bollywood stars, song and dance in good measure. But with a primary target of NRIs, the handling is obviously different. “Leela is structurally western, but the form is Indian,” says Sen.

Dimple, playing the title role, is a middle-aged woman, grounded in Indian tradition, who travels to America to teach. There she meets Kris, an 18-year-old ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), played by Amol Mhatre. Both facing personal turmoil, they are drawn together, forcing a re-examination of their ways of thought and life.

Sen wrote the screenplay with Dimple in mind. “Older women in Bollywood usually claim that there are no meaningful roles written for them, and that they are sick of playing the mother-in-law and sister-in-law. I think that is why Dimple agreed to do this film so readily,” says the director, in his late 30s.

Vinod Khanna plays Dimple’s poet-husband, who is a “bit of a philanderer”, though he has his wife convinced she is his only muse. “When I heard that Vinodji was doing films again, I had to send him the script… We wanted talented actors who could also draw in the crowds,” he adds.

The film was born out of a personal journey. Sen himself has studied film at the University of Southern California after growing up away from Bengal, and has married an American-born Indian, Kavita Munjal, with whom he has started Lemon Tree Films.

“There are a lot of diaspora films being made nowadays, but the difference is that I have grown up on Indian films,” explains Sen, who has worked behind the scenes on Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Kareeb, besides Raja Hindustani, Kachhe Dhage and Jaanam Samjha Karo. After finishing film school, he had packed his bags to settle down in Mumbai. Lemon Tree, floated in 1996, has so far, produced ad and corporate films and documentaries. The film, made with “under $2 million” and shot in 25 days, including one day in Mumbai, is the company’s first feature. A few films, including a US-UK and a UK-India co-production are lined up for the company, though for the time being they are sticking to the “urban-international” genre.

There are two more Bengalis involved with the project, funded by US-based South Asians. Shantanu Moitra, who has “made a splash in Mumbai singing ad jingles”, has sung a couple of songs for the soundtrack, scored by Jagjit Singh, with lyrics by Gulzar. Actor Partha Sarathy Dey also comes in with “a small but very meaningful role”.

Calcutta is an “important” audience for the 97-minute film, currently screening at a Cairo film festival. “Calcutta fits the target profile. Most film-goers understand English and enjoy slightly serious films,” says the man raised in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park. A release at Globe and Priya, though still tentative, is currently being planned.

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