By Maya Bell
Professor Ed Talavera, director of photography, shares his vision for a scene.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 19, 2016) — As the title of producer Sanjeev Chatterjee’s latest movie implies, Mi Amor is a Miami-based love story, but not exactly the kind most people might imagine. With his first feature film, the University of Miami’s award-winning documentarian set out on “an unusual experiment” to revitalize the global appeal of Indian Bengali films on “a micro budget.”
Written and directed by the critically acclaimed Bengali filmmaker Suman Ghosh and starring two of Calcutta’s top actors, Mi Amor was shot mostly in English, partly in Bengali, and entirely in Miami during two grueling weeks in May with a small crew largely comprised of faculty, staff, and students from the School of Communication’s Department of Cinema and Interactive Media.
“It was awesome taking all the steps from script to screen,” said Russell Darrow, a graduate student in the M.F.A. in motion pictures program who, as line producer, was responsible for the jam-packed day-to-day logistics. “You see movies with extreme budgets like $150 million that don’t recoup their expenses. But it all comes down to great storytelling and engaging your audience. If you have a good story, it will resonate.”
That and, as Chatterjee notes, the kind of technological tools and platforms he never dreamed of when he joined the School of Communication faculty 22 years ago.
“Instead of helicopters we use drones, instead of expensive Steadycam rigs we use hand-held cameras like the Osmo,” Chatterjee said. “On the distribution side, the online world offers immense possibilities.”
Chatterjee, who is known for his award-winning environmental documentaries, including One Water, came upon the idea for a Bengali feature film set in Miami through a series of fortuitous happenstances that began with his friendship with internet entrepreneur and fellow Indian-American Oney Seal.
A Fort Lauderdale resident, Seal is the founder of Bongflix.com, and he and Chatterjee often discussed his desire to premier original content on the subscription-based portal for Bengali-language content. In turn, Chatterjee often expressed his hope for renewed international attention to Bengali films. In Chatterjee’s opinion, they had lost the global allure that the late Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers, had created.
Then, in late 2015, Seal mentioned to Chatterjee that a Florida Atlantic University economics professor they knew was working on a script about a Bengali couple searching for love in Miami. “He had holed himself up in some undisclosed location in the Keys and was busy writing,’’ Chatterjee recalled. “In my mind this immediately signaled a level of seriousness that merited gearing up for action.”
The economics professor was, of course, none other than Suman Ghosh, who took filmmaking classes at Cornell while pursuing his Ph.D. in economics there. Though Ghosh still teaches economics—his specialty is game theory—his debut film, Footsteps, won Best Feature Film in Bengali at India’s National Film Awards in 2008. Now with five more well-received Calcutta feature films among his credits, Ghosh was interested in collaborating with Chatterjee and others at UM in Miami.
With the blessings of School of Communication Dean Gregory Shepherd and Christina Lane, chair of the Department of Cinema and Interactive Media, Chatterjee and Ghosh embarked on their “unusual experiment” to produce a feature-length film in Miami with an Indian director, two major Indian stars, and a small, local crew, all of whom basically donated their talents. And they did it at breakneck speed.
In January, they enlisted Pradip Churiwal, a producer in India, to underwrite the production. Consequently, two Florida-based entrepreneurs of Indian origin, Anjan Ghosal and UM business alumnus Souren Sarkar, and his brother Soumen Sarkar, who still lives in India, came aboard as executive producers. By late March, they had secured two Bollywood stars, Parambrata Chattopadhyay and Raima Sen, to play the parts of a 30-something Indian couple who moved to Miami for their jobs and embark on an unusual journey to spice up their lonely life in the diaspora.
Soon after, Chatterjee’s long-time collaborator, associate professor Ed Talavera, signed on as director of photography and recruited the crew of M.F.A. students, alumni, and two professionals. Additional actors were cast from South Florida.
Today, the hours of footage shot at such familiar locales as the Rusty Pelican, South Beach, Wynwood, and Biscayne Bay sits with editor Dia Kontaxis, associate professor of Cinema and Interactive Media, who recently edited another faculty-produced film, Jim Virga’s Sweet Dillard. She worked closely with Ghosh to bring Mi Amor to life—and, Chatterjee hopes, to an international audience—after facing her own international challenges.
“During much of the editing process I was in Greece, the director was in India, and the producer was in the States, so we were working in three different time zones,” Kontaxis said.
They are making the final cuts this month, with the first screening, a sneak preview at the Washington, D.C. South Asian Film Festival, scheduled on September 9. Then in October Mi Amor heads to the Busan International Film Festival in Korea.
“What a great time for us to be involved in the world of moviemaking beyond borders,” Chatterjee said. “This is more exciting than any time before to be teaching and learning filmmaking by doing.”