June 7, 2001


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Wednesday morning. The sun shines happily down on the campus of the University of Southern California. An accompanying breeze has palm trees swishing lazily.

It is a good day for sunbathers, for lovers, for joggers in Los Angeles. But for the crew shooting the film Leela, the sun is not their friend.

Amol Mhatre in LeelaMike Gonzales takes a small lens hanging around his neck, puts it to his left eye and stares directly at the sun, squinting the other eye. The lens is shaded, protecting him from the sun's UV rays. A minute's worth of a glance, like a golfer judging his shot, then he turns away, with a slight grimace.

"Okay, let's move those boards over there," he says, motioning with his hands.

Apparently, the sun's glare is too bright for the scene. The crew is shooting under the arches of a campus walkway, which throw shadows on to the set. On film, it is supposed to appear as if it were afternoon, not morning. So, bulky foil-covered boards and their metal poles are hoisted to a spot to reflect the correct lighting.

It is not the last act of trickery on the part of the crew in this scene, where a female activist asks Krishna, one of the film's central figures played by Amol Mhatre, to take part in a rally against nuclear arms.

As the actors assemble before the camera, it becomes apparent that the actress, flanked by Mhatre and another actor, is too short to properly fit into the camera angle. She needs another two inches. Before they begin rehearsing their lines, part of an apple box is put on the ground, and she stands atop it. Like that she'll be able to look into Mhatre's eyes as she defiantly says her lines.

"As you can see, everything is an illusion," R J Olivier, Leela's first assistant director, remarks dryly.

This is filmmaking, where real life is frozen and manipulated to help produce the ideas and visions of producers and directors -- the art of creating an imaginary life that is captured on a film reel, played out on a screen.

Shooting in progress for LeelaThe man responsible for this endeavour sits behind the film camera, silent and still. With his hat turned back, Somnath Sen stares at the setting through the black and white images on a small monitor. Leela is his first baby, and he dotes on its production like any proud parent.

The story revolves around Kris and Leela, a visiting professor from India played by Dimple Kapadia. The two meet when Leela teaches Kris's class in college, and they fall in love. Despite the age difference, it is a meaningful relationship for the two: Kris learns to appreciate his heritage, and Leela discovers herself in a way not possible back in India.

Right now, Sen is getting plenty of opportunities to discover the virtues of patience. Filming was supposed to have begun half an hour ago, but delays have pushed back the day's schedule.

The actors have had enough time to rehearse, his eyes say. It's time for the cameras to roll.

"Picture's up, quiet everyone!" Olivier yells into his bullhorn. Like the gears in a machine, everybody silently moves to their positions.

The soundman leans over with a long metal pole. At one end are wires, some running to the ground, some to his belt. On the other end is a microphone with a fuzzy cover, like a skinned sheep. He lifts it up directly above the actor's heads, making a perfect 90 angle.

"Rolling... here we go... settle in please," Olivier continues.

The actors are rooted to their spots, marked on the ground by coloured pieces of electrical tape. Each actor has their own colour: blue strip, red strip, green.

"Take a baby step forward," Sen tells Mhatre, "take a baby step back... okay."

"Sound speed?" a cameraman asks, and a woman comes into the frame with the familiar black and white clapboard. A little black display speeds through red LED numbers, until the cameraman says "Mark" and the clapboard's arm comes down with a clack.

Dimple Kapadia and Amol Mhatre in Leela"Settle... annnnd... action!"

"It's a shame that my white bread friends are more interested in South Asia than you are!" the actress nearly spits into Mhatre's face, pushing a pamphlet into his chest.

It's a good take. The camera crew will take the shot from the opposite angle. They begin to move the camera across the floor, and the boards, people, are all repositioned.

"I wish I had the money to do that," remarks Dale Lee, a member of the film's transportation crew. He's staring at a plaque for the man to whose name the building is dedicated: Walter Annenberg, "Entrepreneur, Statesman and Patron of the Arts."

"With that kind of cash, I'd buy myself a bloody castle," he says with a heavy Australian accent and a laugh.

The mirth, however, slowly melts as the sun rises higher into the sky, shining brighter, throwing potential shoots into disarray. The sweat forms under Olivier's brow, as flies begin to buzz around the crew.

"Where are the clouds, I want clouds," Gonzales says, taking the lens again to peer at the sky.

Much as they try, the crew cannot freeze everything on the set. The soundman stops a take while a plane flies overhead. It is so high you can barely see it, but the sensitive microphone picks it up.

"Sounds like a goddamn B-1 bomber," he grumbles.

Another take is again stopped because of the sun. Clouds passing by subdue the lighting.

On the third take, the actress fumbles her lines. "I'm so sorry," she apologizes.

A fourth take is shot, but Sen decides that another needs to be taken. "Okay everyone, let's do a final wrap," he says.

Dimple Kapadia in LeelaAgain, the actress fumbles her lines. "You should be the last to talk," she says to Kris's African-American friend. "Martin Luther got his ideas of non-violence..."


Sen comes over. "Martin Luther formed the Protestant Church in the 1500s," he says. "The person we're talking about here is Martin Luther King!"

"Damn it!" she says, brushing her hair. "Try to add a pause," Sen suggests, wearily.

Another take is ruined by the changing sunlight, and another by an actor fumbling his lines.

"If the sun comes out, then slowly come in," a camera crewman suggests.

"There's one big black cloud up there," Gonzales says, peering through his lens. Standing in the sunlight, he looks like a farmer hoping for rain.

"What take is this?" someone asks. "Does anyone know?"

"Guys, pay attention here," Sen finally says in a frustrated voice. "We're making a movie, and movies cost money to make. We have no time for this bullshit."

The actress arches her eyebrows in surprise, and the trio go through their lines again.

Again, a shot is halted because of a plane buzzing overhead. Everyone is stressed. Just one more shot.

Finally, the lighting is good, the sound is good. The actors go through their lines.

"It's a wrap!" Sen yells. At last! A smile breaks on his face as a cloud covers the sun.

"Everybody, take five."

Also read:
'I've got more than my share in life'
'India had changed, their parents hadn't'
'Leela is a Hollywood production with the soul of a Hindi film'

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