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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > How these young Indian origin artistess talents help them live the Hollywood dream

How these young Indian-origin artistes's talents help them live the Hollywood dream

Updated on: 02 April,2023 09:21 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Jane Borges |

Young Indian-origin artistes in love with the business of making movies and music tell us how they are realising their big Hollywood dream

How these young Indian-origin artistes's talents help them live the Hollywood dream

Harsimmar Singh, who works as a senior compositor with visual effects company Weta FX, contributed to James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water; Mayanka Goel recently won the $10,000 writing award from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, an American nonprofit that has previously supported Academy Award-winning films like The Imitation Game and Rafiq Bhatia is one part of the Son Lux trio, which bagged an Oscar nomination for the soundtrack in the film, Everything, Everywhere All At Once. Pic Courtesy/John Klukas

Apart from the “total banger” of a live performance of Naatu Naatu, the Oscars 2023 also had a more dreamy and mysterious display of music by American experimental band Son Lux that along with singers David Byrne and Stephanie Hsu, performed This Is A Life from Everything, Everywhere All At Once. Rafiq Bhatia, who was on the guitars at the performance, and is one part of the Son Lux trio, which bagged a nomination for their soundtrack in the film, is among the Indian origin artistes we almost forgot to celebrate. “The Oscars performance was definitely the largest scale production we’ve ever been part of. We really have to hand it to choreographer Ryan Heffington, who served as a kind of creative director, for bringing so much of the silliness of the film to the stage, while also keeping the simple and poignant message of the song in focus,” Bhatia tells us in an email interview. The performance had David Byrne show off the prosthetic hot dog hands from the film. “It was fun seeing the look of pure joy on his [Byrne’s] face when we told him that we had heard someone who had been working at the Academy for the past 20-something years say that ours was the weirdest performance they had ever seen at the Oscars,” adds Bhatia. 

While Son Lux may not have taken home the Oscar, Bhatia says he is delighted to have worked on a film “that not only puts forward Asian actors, but also truly centres and speaks to a version of the Asian immigrant experience”. “As a kid, I almost never saw films with actors from Asia in Hollywood, and certainly not ones that told our stories without being reductive or stereotypical.”

The 35-year-old composer-guitarist who is a first generation American of East African Indian descent, admits that his roots informed his musical sensibilities. His grandfather spent the first 11 years of his life in Gujarat, before he moved to Africa. “He used to sing Ginans, which are the devotional hymns of the Ismaili Muslim community. It was part of how he got through the day: he’d sing while walking, while working. The way he sang was, to my ear, very particular—his voice had this reedy sort of sound, almost like a shehnai, and he would demarcate the rhythm of the music by pulsing his voice, like a very slow and rhythmic vibrato,” he remembers, adding, “the only time I’ve ever heard anyone else sing the way he did was when I visited Khakharda, the village where he grew up.”

Bhatia recalls almost instantly latching on to this unique voice. “When I was little, Bapaji used to sing to me at night; I couldn’t fall asleep without it. There was this one time when he was in hospital for a few days, and I called him to ask if he would sing to me over the phone! I think his voice was a big part of what made me fall in love with music, and it had a lot of the ingredients that I still strive for today—personal, honest, unique, spiritual, humble, powerful. It embodied generosity, community, therapy.”

And then there was Bollywood, which Bhatia says his mother and sister loved. “So we’d always be listening to soundtracks at home—Lagaan, Taal, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. It occurred to me recently how much of my general conception about form and structure in music was informed by those scores and songs. In particular, there’s this kind of embrace of what we in Son Lux call an ‘ecstatic moment’—where a song can just turn on a dime and go in a totally different direction for a moment before returning back to where it left off,” says Bhatia, who also draws inspiration from classical and devotional music of South Asia, especially artistes like Ustad Zakir Hussain, Ustad Bismillah Khan, and Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Where the Oscars gave a nod to the cinematic brilliance of India this year, it also shined a light on the vast pool of young Indian talent in Hollywood that’s leaving a significant imprint on its movies. And we are not talking about Priyanka Chopra. These names are usually hidden in the credit rolls. Mumbai-born Aashish D’Mello was assistant editor on Everything Everywhere All At Once. Harsimmar Singh, a senior compositor with visual effects company Wētā FX, contributed to James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, which took home the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects “My grandfather and my uncles were involved in movie distributions, which kept me exposed to the production/on-set side of the industry,” says Vancouver-based Singh, who started his career in Mumbai at a small studio, before joining Reliance Media Works, where he worked on Hollywood movies, such as John Carter, and Superman-Man of Steel. After a stint in Stereo-D Pune (now known as SDFX), he moved to Canada, in the hope of becoming fully invested in the business of creating movies. “Visual effects has several departments and compositing is one of the last ones, where everything is finalised in terms of look and feel, and overall integration to make it look realistic.”

Working on Avatar: The Way of Water, he says, was a dream opportunity, especially with Cameron and Eric Saindon, who was senior VFX Supervisor. “The work and feedback were on point regarding what Jim [James Cameron] was looking for and how much he cared about the project. Even before joining, I asked some seniors where they saw this project going, and the answer I got from everyone was that they were aiming for the Oscars. The artists I worked with were the most talented people and the results speak for themselves.”

Another former Mumbai resident who has set her sights on winning big is Mayanka Goel, a writer who graduated from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2022 with an MFA in Dramatic Writing. Currently working for Nickelodeon in LA, California, Goel recently won the grand $10,000 (R8 lakh plus) writing award from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, an American nonprofit that has previously supported Academy Award-winning films like The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Goel who graduated from St Xavier’s College and SCM Sophia, says her exposure to media made her want to take up writing more seriously. The scholarship to NYU in 2020 allowed her to pursue that dream. “Towards the end of my course, I applied for the writing award. The foundation supports original works related to science, technology, and economics,” she says over a telephonic chat. Goel submitted a feature screenplay, It’s At the Heart of Everything, set in the 1990s, and which, she says, came from a personal space. “I lost my mum and brother around 10 years ago. My story was about two estranged siblings who deal with their scientist mother’s death through science.” She was assigned a science advisor who handheld her through the screenplay writing process, she recalls. Goel received the prize early last month, and is currently speaking to a production house in the hope of developing it into a feature film. Her script has been featured in the Museum of Moving Image. “The  NYU Production Lab has asked me to apply for their fellowship using this script... if that works out, they will also provide a crew,” says Goel, who is currently a showrunner’s assistant on a new American show, Erin & Aaron. “Right now, because of my job, I am learning everything there is to learn... one of the things that made me want to come here is my interest in writing young adult stories, which hasn’t picked up in India in a big way yet. I am hoping to bring that to Mumbai some day... perhaps I can work between the two countries.”

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