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Ocean of Pearls is the feature film debut of writer-director Sarab Neelam, who also happens to be a practicing physician in the Detroit-area with a very full schedule. The film tells a somewhat biographical story of a young Sikh doctor struggling with staying true to his religious traditions in the highly competitive secular world. The story's set in Detroit, and was shot in various locations around town. The film is wowed audiences on the festival circuit and took home the Grand Jury Prize at the 24th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. We caught up with Dr. Neelam between patients.
Metro Times: What led you to moviemaking?
Serab Neelam: I have been interested in films since I was growing up in India. I was in awe of what I saw and felt on screen. We migrated to Canada at the age of 10 and pursued medicine on the advice of my parents. However, I never lost my desire to be involved in the film process. I made Super 8 movies in high school. I was a production assistant on an Indian feature film during my medical school in Toronto. During my residency in Wayne State University, I made a documentary about Sikhs, as we were so misunderstood.
MT What was your experience of shooting in the Detroit area, were communities receptive and helpful?
Neelam: I think there was difficulty in getting locations at times. The weather also didn't always co-operate. But the communities were super nice and friendly.
MT Why do you think there aren't more Sikh actors, and will this help change that going forward?
Neelam: As a Sikh community, we are desperate to tell our stories. This is the first film from Hollywood to feature a Sikh lead. Sadly, even in India there are hardly any films with a Sikh lead. We don't cut our hair or smoke so it would be a challenge if the character's role demanded that, and most Sikh actors would not do that. Even in Ocean of Pearls, I could not cast a real Sikh actor and ask him to cut his hair.
I think there is beauty in diversity. Can we imagine today not seeing an African-American in a movie? That would be unheard of. I hope in 30 years from now we would be saying the same for Sikhs or other visible minorities as well. I have heard this movie is inspiring some Sikhs to look into films as a profession.
MT What's more difficult: medical school or teaching yourself filmmaking?
Neelam: I guess in self-film school no one is giving me a grade during the process. However, "grades" do occur when you send a film or short and see it not get accepted. It feels like a failure then. At least in medicine, after you graduate there is a paying job waiting. You can spend thousands on film and not make a dime.