This month Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand features the award-winning drama “Ocean of Pearls” directed by Sarab S. Neelam. Set in Toronto and Detroit, “Ocean” tells the moving story of Amrit Singh, a Sikh doctor living between two cities – and two lives – as he struggles to reconcile his faith and his profession. When following the traditions of his Sikh faith clashes with his advancement as a surgeon and as he adjusts to a new life in a new city, Amrit must make a life changing decision to bridge these two worlds.
The conflict between faith and profession, which your lead character Amrit undergoes is looked at through the lens of being a Sikh man in America, but at the same time, you also draw out many universal themes in his struggle. Tell us what drew you to this story, and what you hoped to do through telling it.
SN: No matter who we are regardless of our race, religion or background, we are on a journey. We are searching for that elusive inner peace. “Ocean of Pearls” on a superficial level is about doing the right thing but on a much deeper level it is the journey of our soul. What our body needs and our soul needs are very different. What the character realizes is just because you wear a white coat doesn’t make you a doctor and just because you wear a turban doesn’t make you a Sikh. It is the inner qualities and the outer appearance that makes a doctor or a Sikh. Therefore the ending of the film is really a new beginning for the character.
I was drawn to Amrit as I was also struggling to answer the same questions growing up in Toronto. What is the meaning of life? Why was I not made to fit in? I looked different being a Sikh and especially after 9/11 there have been so many hate crimes against our community because of misperceptions which continue to this day. I wanted in some way to help with that and the arts is a great way to unite us in the shared values of humanity.
There is a short scene where Amrit is walking the corridor of the hospital and outside he sees an American flag and behind it a church. It is a symbolic gesture of the conflict of faith and profession, ie: if someone does not have the money, they will not be listed for liver transplant in USA, but faith would tell us to treat everyone the same as god’s light resides in all of us.
To get more inside Amrit’s head, we shot the film using Amrit’s point-of-view. We felt it would get the audience more involved in his struggles and dilemmas which are universal. We also used water and mirrors as metaphors for reflection and seeing within ourselves. We used saffron color as a symbol for spirituality and this color was sprinkled on different people throughout the film. Finally we used seasons in the background to show the change in Amrit.
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Ocean of Pearls is set both in Toronto and Detroit and the idea of crossing borders, whether geographic, personal or social is central to the film. Tell us about the choice of the film’s locations but also the larger theme of how one navigates between two worlds that are so close, but also so vastly different.
SN: It’s ironic we all want to fit in and yet we spend a great deal of money trying to be different and to stand out in terms of clothes, hair style, mannerism etc.
Amrit desperately wants to fit in on more than one level (social and professional). He begins to compromise on his values in Detroit and enters the slippery slope of leading a double life with his family in Toronto. Parts of the film is taken from my own life as I grew up in Toronto and moved to Michigan for residency and fellowship. It works well in the film as it is not so far away that his girlfriend can visit and he can go to Toronto and yet it is far enough away to hide the compromises he is making. By putting him in this situation, it is interesting to see how he gets out of it.
The practice of medicine is very different in Canada and USA and the fact Amrit went to medical school in Toronto and knows that system very well and moves to Michigan and learns a different way is also very important to the film. There is good and bad in both systems and a physician with a heart and soul is likely to be a strong patient advocate in either but many physicians tend to stray away from their ideals and thus another reason to weave this part of the story in “Ocean of Pearls”.
There are also the two worlds that Sikh kids growing up in the western world feel. Amrit is at an uneasy cross-roads between east and west and is rebelling against it. The scenes at the childrend’s camp he works at gives us a glimpse in this life and also provides contrasts with the sterile colors of the hospital world.
The two worlds being so close and so vastly different is also the larger theme of the film. The scene with Amrit’s father talking about his Partition memories and recalling a voice “I don’t fear death, I fear the death of my conscience” is a crucial moment of self reflection for Amrit and what his life has meant for him thus far and where he must go to find peace within himself.
You yourself are a physician, and this is your first film, which was made alongside maintaining your medical practice. What inspired you to move into filmmaking?
SN:I was probably around seven sitting in a crowded cinema hall in India being lost in my dreams and transported to a different world with the playback singing of Mohammed Rafi and watching the actors on screen. I knew at that time that someday I would make a film. That love never left me and when I was in high school in Toronto, I used to make short films using a Chinon film camera. Usually Indian parents want their kids to be doctors so I became one, but after residency I started getting more serious and took classes in acting, directing and film studies in Hollywood. I was blessed to work with very talented people and had the support of my family and colleagues in medicine which made it possible, as it is certainly very, very difficult to do both professions full time.
For me medicine is not really work, it is fun and film making is not work and fun as well. I have been very lucky to be part of two great professions where you touch the lives of so many people. I am grateful for all the awards “Ocean of Pearls” has received and humbled by the letters and emails of how the film has changed many lives for the better. There is truly magic in cinema.
What are you working on now?
SN: My next project will likely be a children’s adventure film.
See more interviews with Cinema Asian America filmmakers here.