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Namastey East Bay

Muhammad Irfan wants to make Bollywood-style movies. His goal is not as far-fetched as it might once have seemed.

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It's 2:30 in the afternoon and Muhammad Irfan is napping on one of the leather couches in the atrium of the Santa Clara Hyatt. There's a Gujarati wedding scheduled here today, and as the videographer, he was the first member of the entourage to arrive this morning. He'll also be among the last to leave when the dancing ends after midnight. Irfan shoots many of the Bay Area's high-end Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh weddings, and his business is growing beyond his ability to take on clients. But while many entrepreneurs would delight in such a problem, Irfan can't wait to leave the field.

By this time next year, he plans to have no weddings booked. Instead, he hopes to be directing his first feature film, from a script that he penned, written to the conventions of commercial Indian cinema. His debut will be low-budget, but that doesn't mean there will be no song-and-dance numbers. Since Irfan aspires to commercial success, he's scripting four.

The Pakistani native didn't set out to be a filmmaker. He trained as a mechanical engineer, and then studied marine engineering in London before joining the merchant marines. But that didn't suit his gregarious personality and he left after four years. In 1995, he followed family to the United States. "I landed here because my family was here," he said. "I've gotten used to it."

His path to filmmaking began, appropriately enough, at a movie theater. In 1995, he lived by the Fremont's Naz Cinema, which shows Indian films in Hindi with English subtitles. Theater owner Shiraz Jivani was bringing in Indian and Pakistani musical tours, and few locals had sound-mixing experience. Enter Irfan. "I was the one, freshly came from Pakistan, and I knew how and what they required," he recalled. When Jivani found out that Irfan sang, he eventually also asked him to perform.

By 2000, Irfan had decided to record his own album and a music video. A cameraman and friend filmed it locally and Irfan took the footage to Pakistan for editing. When he didn't like the end result, he decided to learn the software and edit it himself. As a result, his friend started hiring him to edit wedding footage. Soon his friend was asking him to film a wedding. Feeling obliged, Irfan rented a camera and got some tips. "Just shoot shoot shoot shoot," he recalls his friend advising. "Whatever's up on stage, just keep shooting. Try to put the camera on a tripod." In the end, Irfan's editing skills and the quantity of footage made the video work. And he began filming an increasing number of weddings.

For the past six years, he has divided his year between wedding videos and tax preparation. But he has long hungered to get into filmmaking. "It's like I was meant to be a filmmaker," Irfan said.

His goal is not as farfetched as it might once have seemed. In many ways, Irfan is a harbinger of changes afoot throughout the East Bay's Indian film scene. Due to increased immigration, continuing interest from children of South Asian immigrants, and increasing attention from other Americans, the audience for Indian films is growing, especially in the East Bay and Silicon Valley. And the Indian cinema industry and South Asian film community are increasingly using the East Bay as a resource to make films that share more with Bollywood than Hollywood.

A vibrant community of people is working to realize such dreams. For stalwart and emerging filmmakers from India; second- and third-generation Indian Americans; and immigrants brought here by currents of migration, some of whom made their cash in Silicon Valley before turning to artistic pursuits, the East Bay has much to offer — including talent and locations. Optimism pervades the scene. But hopes are tempered with an awareness of the issues that will have to be overcome before dreams like Irfan's can reach fruition.


According to the International Indian Film Academy, India produces more films than any other country in the world. In 2002, BusinessWeek estimated the audience for Indian cinema at 3.6 billion people, one billion more than the audience for US films. And early this year, India's Information and Broadcasting Minister announced an official government scheme to promote the export of Indian films.

Four years ago, the contemporary Indian director Karan Johar asked Amitabh Bachchan, one of the most influential Indian film stars of all time, what he would say to Western critics who deride all Indian cinema as inconsequential masala films that, like the spice mixture of the same name, have multiple ingredients including drama, romance, comedy, stunts, and dance. "In five years, they will eat their words," Bachchan replied. And he was right: Indian films of all varieties are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Commercial Indian cinema's first forays into the United States, such as Karan Johar's 2003 Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow Might Not Be), focused mostly on the East Coast, particularly New York and Pittsburgh. "Unfortunately, in India we have sort of a herd mentality," said Kunal Kohli, a popular Indian director whose films have enjoyed wide success. "When one person goes to New York to shoot, everyone goes shooting in the same places, stays in the same hotel, and uses the same caterer. I'm, like, 'God, please run away!' Because with the same location managers, everything is exactly the same. And they all go and shoot in Times Square. People living in New York don't go to Times Square. They walk around Times Square, but they will not go through Times Square. They do everything to avoid Times Square and the tourists."

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